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Arts & Culture As Israeli Film Industry Slumps, Movies Make the Festival Rounds

April 26, 2002
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During the past four months, ticket sales at Israeli movie theaters have plummeted 35 percent, and the reason is brutally simple.

Given the number of deadly Palestinian suicide bombings, there is a pervasive fear among Israelis of gathering in public places such as theaters, restaurants and night clubs.

“In the cities most cinemas are in malls, and they are practically empty. Parents are afraid to send out their kids,” Israeli director Dan Wolman says.

The intifada has dominated the reality of the Middle East for the past 19 months, yet it is hardly reflected in the lineup of 31 feature films, documentaries and television specials at the festival.

One reason for the paucity of pictures reflecting the current situation is the time lag between the conception of a movie and its completion, which can take one to two years in Israel. To transmute the raw material of a powerful historic event into cinematic veracity may require the perspective of a decade, at the very least.

But more telling than the time constraints are the psychological barriers, Wolman believes.

“When such a traumatic thing” as suicide bombings happen, “it is hard to relate to them right away. It’s like survivors of the Holocaust, who couldn’t speak about their experiences for decades,” he says.

Some of the festival films do focus on underlying Arab-Jewish tensions and perceptions, however.

This approach is more noticeable among the documentaries. “Ramleh” explores the religious, cultural and national barriers separating Arab and Jewish women. “Whose Land Is It?” centers on an Arab policeman and artist who tries to organize an exhibit by both Arab and Jewish painters.

Currently, documentary filmmaker Ronit Kertsner is facing one unusual problem.

“I can’t line up any film crews and cameras, because they’ve all been hired by foreign news producers covering the intifada,” she complains.

Wolman’s own feature film, “Foreign Sister,” examines the relationship between a foreign worker in Israel — an Ethiopian Christian woman — and her employer. The theme is indirectly linked to the Palestinian-Israeli tensions, Wolman says, because it was Israelis’ growing distrust of Palestinian workers over the past 15 years that contributed to the large-scale importation of foreign men from the Far East and Romania.

“My film has to do with racialism and our attitude toward the Arabs,” he says. “I think it is my job to break stereotypes and to show Arabs as human beings.”

One groundbreaking documentary, well received by Israelis, was apparently deemed too hot for a Los Angeles audience. “The Inner Tour,” an Israeli-Palestinian co-production actually finished after the outbreak of the intifada, presents a none-too-flattering picture of Israeli life, as seen through the eyes of a group of Palestinian tourists.

The film was a hit at the Sundance and Berlin festivals, but was not chosen for the current Israel Film Festival by its founder and executive director, Meir Fenigstein.

Fenigstein, who has presented controversial subjects and artists in the past, said, “Under present circumstances, I decided to take a step away from too much controversy.”

Similar to most of their Hollywood brethren, Israeli filmmakers are perceived to be on the liberal side of the political spectrum, and some of their ideas for future films dealing with the intifada may raise the hackles of more conservative Israelis.

Eli Cohen, a leading Israeli director being honored with a retrospective of his works at the festival, is writing the screenplay for a comedy about the intifada.

“The most powerful weapon against fanaticism is humor,” says Cohen, who is thinking in terms of a M*A*S*H.-like approach, “but a bit more politically oriented.”

He would like to collaborate on the project with a Palestinian director, he says, although “I’m afraid he can’t make fun of his own people as I’m willing to do of mine.”

But even Cohen thinks that the subject is too touchy and immediate to set the film in the current intifada, and he will probably transfer the era to the less bloody first intifada of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Wolman has an idea for a film about an extended family living in an apartment, dominated by a mother who won’t allow anyone to go out in the street.

All the filmmakers interviewed agreed that there was no pressure by the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to produce “patriotic” films, or otherwise dictate the subject or views. This is rather remarkable, since 70 percent of the cost of Israeli feature films, from script development and production to distribution and marketing, is borne by the Israeli government.

The money is administered by an independent agency, the Israel Film Fund. Fund director Katriel Schory says that without such government assistance, the small Israeli film industry, with a limited domestic market and a negligible foreign one, could not survive.

There is a smaller fund for documentaries, which has supported several projects by Israeli Arab filmmakers.

Schory’s budget peaked last year, during the intifada, at $9 million, which was twice as much as the previous year. Currently, he disposes over $6.5 million to invest in the dozen or so feature films annually produced by the Israeli movie industry.

The average cost of an Israeli feature film is $900,000, which might barely cover expenses for a decent post-Oscar party in Hollywood.

In any case, local productions are overwhelmed by foreign imports.

“Of the 170 titles we imported last year, 150 came from America and the rest from Europe and Asia,” Schory says.

Over the years, Schory has seen a succession of “waves” in domestic movie output, initially consisting of broad public or social issues, such as the Holocaust, Israeli relations with Arabs and the chasm between religious and secular Jews.

After the Oslo accords of the early 1990s, with their short-lived promise of peace, directors came out with pictures centering on more personal hopes and problems.

“Recently, we have seen a wave of pictures located in the countryside, in small villages and towns, often dealing with the lives of disparate immigrant groups,” Schory says.

“That’s a reflection that the vision of our founding fathers of Israel as a melting pot society didn’t work and that what we are getting is a multicultural society.”

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