Despite its small size Israel has produced a string of international breakouts in recent years. Edna Fainaru tracks the rise of Israel’s film-makers — and profiles the talent and financiers keeping the momentum going. Editor Mike Goodridge introduces.
Israel’s film industry is experiencing an explosion of talent and films unprecedented in its history. Last year alone, between Ajami, Lebanon, Eyes Wide Open, Noodle and A Matter Of Size, the country’s films were generating worldwide acclaim, winning an Oscar nomination and the Golden Lion at Venice among many other prizes.
While the Israeli government has incurred the wrath of many in the artistic community, few could argue with the probingly self-analytical, sometimes self-critical, portraits of life and war emerging from the film industry. The film funds remain resolutely and controversially independent from government intervention despite criticism that the films they fund often go against the official policies of the government.
Screen’s territory focus on Israel explores the next wave of talent and films on offer from the territory, many of which will be on hand at this month’s Jerusalem Film Festival. Our Israel correspondent Edna Fainaru - a veteran journalist who has worked with Screen for many years - paints a portrait of a vibrant talent community, a powerful draw for international funding and a base for world-class film-makers. What film festival isn’t already drooling at the prospect of new films from Ari Folman (Waltz With Bashir), Eran Kolirin (The Band¹s Visit) and Eran Riklis (Lemon Tree)?
On a final note, Edna and her husband Dan Fainaru, a longtime Screen film critic, will receive an award during the Jerusalem Film Festival to honour their lifetime devotion to and support of cinema. Many congratulations to them both from all at Screen. — Mike Goodridge, Editor
Breaking Out All Over
Browsing the latest titles on the Israeli stand at a recent international film market, the director of a leading European film festival was direct in his assessment of the territory. “Frankly, I’m not a great fan of your country these days,” the festival director told Katriel Schory, head of the Israel Film Fund. “But no-one in my position can afford to ignore the new Israeli cinema.”
Schory was not surprised. “They don’t always like us,” he says, “but they can’t deny our films are reaching large audiences all around the world.”
Ten years ago, Israeli cinema was a specialty item. But after successes such as The Band’s Visit, Waltz With Bashir, Ajami, the Venice Golden Lion-winning Lebanon and A Matter Of Size, Israeli cinema has gone international. In the course of 2009-10, Israeli films picked up a third consecutive foreign Oscar nomination (Ajami), won a Golden Globe and a best foreign film Cesar (Waltz With Bashir), collected a Camera d’Or special mention in Cannes (Ajami again), an audience award in Berlin (Lemon Tree) and another in Karlovy Vary (A Matter Of Size).
“They have amazing actors and great stories,” says Telluride Film Festival co-founder and co-director Tom Luddy.
“They make films that are courageous and unconventional, interesting for both professionals and a general audience,” adds Eva Hubert of the Hamburg Film Fund, who helped finance Haim Tabakman’s Eyes Wide Open, shown in Un Certain Regard at Cannes last year.
While Israel’s politics can take a bashing, its pictures are eagerly sought after by festivals, sales agents and European funds and broadcasters, who are working on new projects with film-makers such as Ari Folman (Waltz With Bashir), Eran Kolirin (The Band’s Visit) and Eran Riklis (The Syrian Bride, Lemon Tree), and producers such as Marek Rozenbaum, Eilon Ratzkovsky, Eitan Evan, Amir Harel, David Silber and Assaf Amir. And the international interest extends beyond projects which deal with sensitive political questions.
Michel Reilhac of ARTE France, probably the most important buyer and co-producer of Israeli films internationally, points out the territory’s films “have the quality of reaching the universal through their local stories”, adding that, “Israeli films are the one exception to our rule of not financing films.” ARTE France has been involved in most of Amos Gitai’s films, and co-financed Waltz With Bashir, Lebanon, Keren Yedaya’s Jaffa and the upcoming Hanna M by Hadar Friedlich.
Israeli films can be good business too. “Of course, the economic success depends on the cost of the movie,” says Karl Baumgartner of Germany’s Pandora Film, who is currently working on Eran Kolirin’s The Exchange — a story about a man facing a midlife crisis, backed by the Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, now in post-production — as well as co-producing Ari Folman’s Bashir follow-up The Congress, an adaptation of a Stanislaw Lem sci-fi story about an actress who sells her image for a high price in exchange for never appearing on screen again.
“Israeli film-makers are extremely professional and do incredible things with limited budgets. And… practically all their films are produced withsoft money generated by state funds in Israel, who are the last to retrieve their investments, which means you don’t have to worry much about recouping your own,” says Baumgartner, who is associated with The Match Factory, one of several sales agencies with particular interest in Israeli cinema, handling such titles as Bashir and Ajami. Others include Celluloid Dreams (Lebanon), Bleiberg (The Band’s Visit), Menemsha (A Matter Of Size) and Bavaria (Beaufort).
Why does Israeli cinema travel so well?
“Three things,” says Schory. “First, powerful ideas and stories. Second, talented film-makers. Third, expert producers.” He also stresses that the film funds in Israel are independent non-profit organisations with their own management and board of directors. If the regime feels uncomfortable with the films for which it has been paying — and that has happened more thanonce, with Ajami for example — it is not in a position to intervene directly.
“I hear rumours the Israeli government is unhappy with public money being spent on films that criticise the official policies of the country,” says Reilhac, warning that if these politicians were able to influence production it would harm “the last means of generating sympathy and understanding for the complexity of Israel”.
Producer Marek Rozenbaum, who is co-producing Emir Kusturica’s forthcoming Cool Water and whose credits include Late Marriage and Dover Koshashvili’s Infiltration, has said Israeli cinema is riding a wave — “and like all waves and fashion in the world of cinema, it goes up and then has to come down”. He adds that he hopes “we still have a few more years to go”.
If the wave continues it will be thanks largely to policies adopted by Israel’s film funds, which are essential to local film-making (see box). The Israel Film Fund’s Schory aims to expand his fund’s activity beyond the $1m-plus production level, and to encourage small independent projects, offering help for the final stages of production. Such projects include Phobidilia, about an agoraphobic computer programmer, made by Doron and Yoav Paz which screened in the Berlin Panorama this year; and Avishai Sivan’s The Wanderer, a psychological coming-of-age drama selected for Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes this year, the only official Israeli entry in the festival.
Responding to a growing trend in Israeli cinema for literary adaptations — leading film-makers such as Avi Nesher, Nir Bergman, Riklis and Koshashvili have all picked their current projects from the bookshelves — Schory was instrumental in setting up a recent conference which brought together literary agents and film producers to explore adaptations.
Finally, the proliferation of film schools all over Israel has been of key significance in the growth, with the Tel Aviv University’s film and TV department and the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem, responsible for much of the talent hitting the market now.
FINANCING IN ISRAEL
Israel’s film funds are an incentive for foreign financiers.
State funds are essential for local film production in Israel. The Israel Film Fund and the Cinema Project are the two main sources, and there is also a fund for documentaries, the Gesher Film Fund for projects which bridge cultures, the Jerusalem Film Fund and several others. The overall budget for cinema activities is $13.5m (€11m) — most of it dedicated to production — which comes from the state and is disseminated to the funds by the Film Council, a body created by the Ministry of Culture.
The Israel Film Fund is managed by Katriel Schory and works exclusively with features. The more flexible Cinema Project also funds documentaries, TV dramas, shorts and experimental cinema. Financing can reach up to 50% of a budget and can go as high as 70%.
For the rest, projects often need to rely on foreign investors such as ARTE and StudioCanal in France, or German funds such as Nordrhein-Westfalen, Berlin-Brandenburg, Hesse or Hamburg. The funds’ participation is considered an investment but they are the last to recoup their money — a great incentive for attracting international investors.
Despite legal obligations to put money into feature films, Israeli broadcasters are turning a deaf ear to most pleas for participation. Figuresindicate how important foreign finance has become for local productions: the average over 2001-09 puts Israeli funds’ investment at 40% of total budgets, while the money coming from abroad counts for 30%. In 2009, however, the funds put in 37.5%, with 35% from foreign co-producers.
The only other significant financier in Israel is United King Films. The up-and-coming production, distribution and exhibition company has beenpatiently acquiring rights to a large portion of the Israeli film catalogue while increasing its investment in Israeli projects.
“Between one-third and one-half of all our films are co-productions, mainly with France and Germany but also Belgium and Australia and, for the first time, Spain,” says Marek Rozenbaum, one of the most experienced producers in Israel. “Despite high quality, the films are relatively inexpensive — $1.2m-$1.8m (€1m-€1.5m) — which makes it easy to find co-producers.”
Such tie-ups include the upcoming Israel-Canada-France co-production The Inheritance, directed by and starring Hiam Abbass.
|Top 10 International Israeli Films|
|Title (director, year) Admissions outside Israel|
1 The Band’s Visit (Eran Kolirin, 2007) 1.7m
2 Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008) 1.2m
3 Lemon Tree (Eran Riklis, 2008) 0.73m
4 Walk On Water (Eitan Fox, 2004) 0.7m
5 7 Days (Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz, 2008) 0.35m
6 My Father My Lord (David Volach, 2007) 0.3m
7 Eyes Wide Open (Haim Tabakman, 2009) 0.28m
8 The Syrian Bride (Eran Riklis, 2004) 0.16m
9 Promised Land (Amos Gitai, 2004) 0.1m
10 Alila (Amos Gitai, 2003) 0.1m
|Top 10 Israeli films 2007-10|
|Title (director, year) Local admissions|
1 Beaufort (Joseph Cedar, 2007) 0.3m
2 Lost Islands (Reshef Levy, 2008) 0.29m
3 A Matter Of Size (Erez Tadmor, Sharon Maymon, 2009) 0.25m
4 Noodle (Ayelet Menahemi, 2009) 0.25m
5 7 Days (Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz, 2008) 0.23m
6 The Band’s Visit (Eran Kolirin, 2007) 0.22m
7 The Secrets (Avi Nesher, 2007) 0.2m
8 Ajami (Scandar Copti, Yaron Shani, 2009) 0.18m*
9 Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008) 0.13m
10 Lebanon (Samuel Maoz, 2009) 0.08m
Source: Israel Film Fund and the Cinema Project *Still on release
JERUSALEM FILM FESTIVAL
Israel’s premier cinema event is known for putting local films on the international map.
Generally considered Israel’s leading cinema event, the Jerusalem Film Festival (July 8-17) has a reputation for introducing new Israeli films tointernational audiences.
But in the last couple of years the event has had to cope with several crises: festival founder Lia van Leer withdrew after the 25th edition to a largely honorary presidential position and her replacement, Ilan de Vries, left after one year in the job. And when Jack Wolgin, the US philanthropist whose contributions financed the festival’s main awards, passed away, the festival had to assume the responsibility for keeping its prizes alive.
Nevertheless, festival organisers are focused on keeping the event’s formula intact, albeit in a slightly streamlined version due to budget conditions.
Israeli films competing for the main awards will this year include Nir Bergman’s Intimate Grammar, Dover Koshashvili’s Infiltration, Dan Wolman’s Valley Of Fortitude (Gey Oni), Avishai Sivan’s Directors’ Fortnight entry The Wanderer (Ha’Meshotet) and the directorial debut of actor Moshe Ivgy, And On The Third Day.
Foreign titles include Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch, Jan Hrebejk’s Kawasaki’s Rose, Bahman Ghobadi’s No One Knows About Persian Cats, Claire Denis’ White Material and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.
A package of new Palestinian films has also been secured for the programme.
Attendees at the fifth pitching session organised by the festival will include ZDF/ARTE’s Meinolf Zurhorst, producer Cédomir Kolar, BadenWurttemberg Film Fund CEO Gabriele Rothemeyer and The Match Factory managing director Michael Weber. Screen editor Mike Goodridge will discuss the topic, ‘Is commercial a dirty word?’
INTERNATIONAL SUCCESS FOR TV REMAKES
Attracting some of the territory’s leading feature talent, Israel’s burgeoning TV drama sector is a rising exporter of projects and remakes.
Israel’s TV industry is bread and butter for local film-makers. With two commercial channels and countless cable services furiously churning outeverything from children’s programming, current-affairs documentaries, reality shows and an increasing number of drama series and serials, theindustry is a big employer of directors, actors and crews in between feature work.
Helped in turn by the involvement of such talent, Israel’s stock as an exporter of TV drama has been rising, particularly after the success of In Treatment. Devised by Hagai Levi, an erstwhile film critic turned directorand producer, and writer-director Ori Sivan, the original series (called BeTipul) told the story of the relationship between a shrink and his patients and his own therapist. Running for 83 episodes, the show had on itswriting roster Ari Folman, Nir Bergman (who also directed 22 episodes) and Eran Kolirin, to name but a few. They may not have all started their careers on the small screen, but Folman says television gave them a chance to hone their talents and experiment. Remade in the US by HBO with Gabriel Byrne in the lead, In Treatment is now a certified hit.
With its natural style of acting and dialogue, the quality of Israeli drama has reached the point where, according to agent Arik Kneller, “foreigncommissioners are closely following every new thing coming up here”. Tel Aviv-based Kneller is focusing his efforts on the US market and has already sold a number of projects there, including The Ran Quartet — a show about quadruplets with a remake now in pilot stage at CBS under the title The Quinn-tuplets — and another remake, Traffic Lights, being developed at Fox. Sales of Israeli programming generally were up at MIP this year.
The remake boom is not confined to TV. Samuel Maoz has already been approached to remake Lebanon in the US, and a remake of Israeli box-office hit A Matter of Size is also on the cards. Even local disappointments seem to have a future abroad: The Debt, a spy thriller written by Ido Rosenblum and Assaf Bernstein and directed by Bernstein, was released in Israel with little success but saw remake rights picked up by Miramax. The new version, directed by John Madden, is set for release this summer.