How have film-makers from a country as tiny as Israel come to command such a huge presence on the international arthouse scene? Dan Fainaru gives a personal account of the support structure Israeli film-makers enjoy at home as well as the challenges they face to sustain it.

Ten years ago, the Israeli Knesseth approved the country’s first Cinema Law. Now the entire local film industry is basking in the glory of what has turned out to be a success story in every respect.

The performance of Israeli films in 2011 illustrates this perfectly. In what has been a comparatively weak year for Israeli films at the local box office — only Joseph Cedar’s Footnote made a mark, notching up more than 300,000 admissions — Israeli film-making has been a major artistic force at all the big international film festivals.

The highlights included Jonathan Sagall’s Lipstikka at Berlin, Footnote at Cannes and Eran Kolirin’s The Exchange in Venice. Footnote picked up Cannes’ best screenplay award, Yossi Madmoni’s Restoration won the best film prize at Karlovy Vary, Nadav Lapid’s Policeman scored the special jury prize in Locarno and Guy Nattiv’s The Flood went home with the audience award and the best artistic contribution prize from the recent Thessaloniki International Film Festival in Greece.

Countries with much richer film histories and traditions and with more well-established film industries have not fared nearly as well. So where did it all go so right for Israeli film-makers?

The Cinema Law is the driving force behind this radical change. To begin with, it allotted $18.8m (isr71m) annually to film activities in Israel (the figure is now $17.7m [isr67m] a year). Though it barely made a dent in the national budget, it was a major breakthrough for the industry, opening the door for more productions and new film-makers. Adding a second financial source, the Cinema Project, to the existing Israeli Film Fund, it not only offered aspiring film-makers more options — if one fund turned them down they could always apply to the other — but also generated an undeclared but evident competition for the most attractive projects.

There has also been a distinct change in the mood of the country, which has left an imprint on the films made in the last decade. For a compact nation, generally sticking together on every basic issue through the first 50 years of its existence, Israel had started to relax and feel more secure economically and politically.

However the eruption of the Intifadas (the Palestinian uprising), the first one in 1987, the second in 2000, abruptly shook off this complacent self-confidence. The established answers to all the problems facing the country, certainly on major issues, lost their appeal.

With no clear-cut statements to trumpet in their films, Israeli film-makers looked inwards, like the French New Wave, to more intimate portraits.

When Nir Bergman, in his 2002 film Broken Wings, had the head of the family killed by a bee instead of a terrorist attack, it was a conscious decision to avoid any political subtext and to deal purely with personal drama. Broken Wings turned into an international success because it was simple, true and authentic. Watching it, the audience was not asked to take sides in the Middle East conflict, which, by 2002, looked more intractable than ever.

More introspective films came along. My Treasure (Or), Keren Yedaya’s heartbreaking 2004 portrait of the relationship between a student and her prostitute mother; Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz’s searing family drama To Take A Wife, in which a rebellious woman refuses to accept the authority of old-fashioned family customs; and Tawfik Abu Wael’s Thirst (Atash), a drama about a generational power struggle inside a Palestinian family under Israeli occupation, structured as a classic Greek tragedy. The Israeli presence, though clearly mentioned, hardly affected it.

Indeed, when they are incorporated, political issues are kept in the background; whether it was the Mossad agent facing his own guilt and sexuality in Eytan Fox’s 2004 drama Walk On Water, or the Druze family shaken to its foundations by modernity in Eran Riklis’ The Syrian Bride the same year. In 2007, Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit, was a fantasy that took place in an unclear future which could just as well be the present. It took the Middle East conflict to another level, suggesting that once we drop our flags and identities and accept the fact we are all human beings, the world would be a much better place.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Yaron Shani and Scandar Copti’s grim Ajami in 2009 was a masterfully edited portrait of the violent clashes between Muslims, Christians and Jews on the streets of a disreputable Jaffa slum. While clearly referencing an unbearable political climate, it concludes that in this struggle there are no heroes and no villains, just victims.

Even Israel’s war movies, which could easily serve as militant soapboxes, have managed to say very little about politics. Instead they have focused on the tragedy of their protagonists without actually discussing the causes.

Joseph Cedar’s 2007 film Beaufort played like an Anthony Mann movie, replacing the Second World War with Israel’s war with Lebanon. The claustrophobic Lebanon, Samuel Maoz’s 2008 record of his experiences of the conflict, kept the camera inside a tank at all times, a fortified hell on wheels. The vibrant truth of the characters was indelible but the reasons for the protagonists’ situation were never explored.

As for Ari Folman’s 2008 title Waltz With Bashir, with its innovative concept of an animated documentary that plays like fiction, the film delivered such an emotional wallop that politics became secondary, a man-made disaster in which the film’s hero (the director himself) and with him an entire nation, had unwittingly been implicated. He learns this once he retrieves his subconsciously obliterated memory.

Foreign funds dry up

But glory has its price. European public funds, mostly German and French, whose participation in Israeli productions has been generous and crucial over the past decade, are now facing their own financial problems. And they are beginning to wonder why Israeli participation in their own films is so modest.

At home, Israel’s two film funds simply do not have the resources to fully support all the projects that are submitted. Some projects are put into what the funds call a ‘guerrilla course’, in which they are given a small amount of money in the hope that they will find solutions of their own for the rest. Of the projects that are rejected, those that do get made with independent funding can always return to the funds for completion finance — which they are often granted.

Interestingly, the young ‘independents’ are embracing classic genres, with titles including horror films Rabies directed by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, and Cats On A Pedal Boat by Nadav Hollander and Yuval Mendelson. So far, they have made more of a splash with the media than with audiences, but if there is a future for Israeli cinema, it will probably come from this direction.

The last decade has not been an unqualified success. No bankable actors have emerged, there are no guaranteed formulas for success and scriptwriters often have to turn director to see their work on screen.

And there is the risk the film funds will start bowing to populist pressures and increasingly use their limited resources to subsidise more low-brow ventures with little chance of travelling outside Israel. They have already backed Adam Sanderson, Muli Segev and Assaf Shalmon’s This Is Sodom, a take on the Asterix formula, and Little Simico’s Great Fantasy from Arik Lubetzki. They are both films which fared well at the local box office but could have been financed by private investors without the state film funds.

2012 festival hopefuls

If the international career of Israeli films has been enviable this year, 2012 looks just as enticing.

Rotterdam has already invited Sharon Bar-Ziv’s debut picture Room 514, a micro-budget production shot in one room, in which a female military investigator tries to uncover the truth about an officer accused of unethical conduct in the occupied territories. Hoping for a slot in Berlin are Sharkyia, another first film, dealing with the Bedouin situation in Israel and directed by Ami Livne.

The Berlinale Generation section has already confirmed Maya Kenig’s Off-White Lies, again a first film, portraying an uneasy meeting, sometimes funny and sometimes grating, between an eccentric homeless father and his estranged daughter.

Further titles certain to pique the interest of 2012 festival directors include Beni Torati’s musical fairytale The Weeping Springtime Ballad; Rama Burstein’s Filling The Void, described by the film-maker as “a Jane Austen story in a Jewish Orthodox society”; Dover Kosashvili’s romantic comedy Single Plus; Amir Manor’s Epilogue, a chamber piece about old age; Menny Yaish’s Israel-France co-production God’s Neighbours, a comic drama about new-born Jews; Matan Guggenheim’s The Unforgettables, a political drama; and The Inheritance, the directorial debut of Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, about an inheritance which divides an Arab-Israeli family.