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Los Angeles-tel Aviv Tie Aids Budding Israeli Film Directors

June 12, 2002
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Hollywood producer Zvi Howard Rosenman does not suffer fools easily — particularly when they’re artsy Israeli film directors, dressed in black, who won’t give practical advice about moviemaking to a group of film students.

At a Tel Aviv workshop for budding filmmakers, sponsored by the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, Amos Gitai, an Israeli director and producer known for his controversial films, wouldn’t answer Rosenman’s questions about how he produced his movie “Kadosh.”

So Rosenman picked up his rangy, jean-clad frame and walked out of Tel Aviv’s Cinematheque theater.

“Amos Gitai is a pretentious blowhard,” said Rosenman, who has produced “Father of the Bride,” “Family Man” and other movies during his 20 years in the film business. “His movies are anti-Zionist, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. And I’ve heard ‘Kedma’ is even worse.”

Kedma is Gitai’s newest film and, like many of his movies, it is controversial. It chronicles how Polish Holocaust survivors who made their way to Palestine found themselves caught in the middle of the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948.

The film was presented at the Cannes Film Festival, but being loved in France, which has seen an explosion of anti- Semitic attacks in the past year, isn’t exactly a recommendation in Rosenman’s book.

The point of the two-week Tel Aviv workshop is to teach “the kids” how to function in the international world of moviemaking.

The workshop is sponsored by the Jewish federation of Los Angeles, under the auspices of the culture committee of its Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership. Now in its fourth year, the Master Class program has five students from the United States and 15 from Israel.

The program’s first workshop focused on writing screenplays, the second concentrated on direction, and the third and fourth workshops on production.

This year, four Israelis also will be sponsored for a six-week course at the USC School of Cinema in Los Angeles, with tuition donated by the school.

“We want to produce a new generation of American filmmakers who have an appreciation for Israel,” said Marty Karp, the partnership’s representative in Israel.

The Hollywood element is an important part of the program, but so is creating connections between filmmakers in Israel and the United States. The program includes travel throughout Israel, movie screenings and discussions, sessions where students pitch their ideas to the producers, writing workshops and lectures about funding and producing.

Each night, the group spent time playing pool, having drinks and getting to know each other better.

“It’s important to be a ‘chavurah’ ” — the Hebrew word for a group of friends — “in this industry,” said Jean Friedman, the co-chair of the partnership’s culture committee, who also works in film research at USC. “It’s not only about helping with the talent, but creating relationships and friendships.”

Nir Shmueloff, 26, graduated from the USC School of Cinema four weeks ago, but decided to join the workshop because of the easy access it offers to well-known Hollywood executives.

“These guys are really in the business,” said Shmueloff, looking like a typical Californian student in his cargo shorts and striped T-shirt. “Howard is a big macher in Hollywood. I wouldn’t get him to share his stories and experiences back in Los Angeles.”

Shmueloff is Israeli, the son of an American mother and Israeli father who grew up in Israel and went to USC after his Israeli army service. With his perfect English and Hebrew, he acted as a bridge between the Israeli and American participants, something the organizers encouraged.

Shmueloff wants to write and direct films, and is planning to return to California to find a job in “the industry.” Ultimately he plans to return to Israel and work in the local film market.

The Israeli movie industry currently is small, though Rosenman and his workshop partner, Lynn Roth, also a producer, want to change that.

They’re thinking about different kinds of cooperative ventures between Israelis and Americans, ranging from a Sundance Institute-style fund for independent movies in Hebrew, to big-budget, Hollywood style movies in English that would have Israeli elements.

“We always need physical locations, and we end up going to Morocco and Tunisia because it’s cheap,” explained Roth, who produces television shows and features, including the popular series “The Paper Chase.” “This is a region that should be utilized because of the physical nature of the country. We should be able to come here and shoot productions.”

Rosenman envisions independent Israeli feature films along the lines of “Cinema Paradiso” or “Il Postino.”

Roth sees no reason why there couldn’t be an outlet for Hebrew films subtitled in English, as some French and Italian movies are.

Rosenman’s grand plan is to develop the moviemaking culture in Israel and the infrastructure that goes with it — from screenwriters, directors and producers to entertainment lawyers, managers and agents.

“I think it’s doable,” he said. “Give me seven years, I’ll train 150 students. If 10 of them make five movies a year, then we’ll have 50 movies out of Israel every year.”

Rosenman first got involved in the project last year, when he taught a workshop on creative producing. At the end, he realized that Israel doesn’t have a culture of entrepreneurial production.

“Israeli filmmakers get money from the government. It’s like being on the dole,” he said. “It takes away the incentive, because they’re standing on line begging for an allowance.”

Roth was approached by the partnership while attending the Israeli film festival in Los Angeles in April, and it took her “about ten seconds to decide.”

“I had spent all those weeks watching what was happening here” — the 21-month-old Palestinian intifada — “and I hated being so far away with nothing that I could do,” she said. “When they made the offer, I said, ‘This is what I can do.’ “

What she found was a potentially valuable pool of talent in Tel Aviv. During the last week of workshops, pitch meetings, discussions and conversations, “great things are starting to happen,” Roth said. “Everyone’s very stimulated and inspired, and I am too. The effects of this are yet to be seen.”

Part of the brainstorming and idea-swapping is derived from the inherent risks and tensions in Israeli society, where life is not taken for granted. Art always reflects life’s tensions in a creative manner, Roth said, and the tension has to be let out somewhere — so why not in movies?

“People here don’t have enough opportunities, because there aren’t enough outlets for them,” Roth said. “It’s gotta go someplace.”

For the students, Rosenman’s and Roth’s enthusiasm was infectious.

Dani Menkin was glad he didn’t have to pay for his own airline ticket to Los Angeles, but also was grateful for the one-on-one time with successful, experienced producers.

“It’s been an amazing experience,” said Dani Menkin, a wiry documentary filmmaker who couldn’t believe his luck at spending 10 straight days with Hollywood producers. “They’re actually listening to our pitches and helping us out.”

“What I learned in Hebrew school doesn’t match what I learned in the last few days,” added David Japka, who recently moved to Los Angeles from New Jersey to pursue a lifelong dream of movie writing and direction.

He conscientiously took notes during the Gitai session. “It has been simply amazing,” he said.

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