Just as Charlize Theron had her "Monster," Ayelet July Zurer has "Nina's Tragedies," the opening night film of this year's Israel Film Festival.
A year and a half ago, Zurer, like Theron, was a 20-something actress who had done some modeling -- in her case, in TV commercials -- seeking a splashy role to showcase her talents. Then she read Savi Gabizon's tragicomic screenplay, "Nina's Tragedies," revolving around an impetuous widow. "I immediately felt she had to be mine," Zurer told The Journal by phone from Tel Aviv.
"Nina is someone who needs to be filled by love; if she is empty, she needs to be filled again, immediately," Zurer said. "I connected, because I had just found love in my life -- I got married during a break in the film's rehearsal process -- and I knew what made her tick. I imagined that Nina was like water: very emotional, never thinking too much."
For her standout performance, Zurer earned best actress awards from the Jerusalem Film Festival and the Israeli Film Academy, her country's Oscar. She's now one of Israel's most recognizable actresses, although she will continue earning paychecks in the thousands of dollars, not millions like Oscar-winner Theron. Not that she's complaining.
Although the Israeli industry is small, churning out only about a dozen movies a year, the films often feature strong roles for women, she said. It's a far cry from Hollywood, where emphasis is placed on macho action and effects flicks that appeal to the youth market.
"In a way, Israeli actresses are lucky that our industry is so poor and that most films are made for well under a million dollars," Zurer said. "We can't afford thrillers, car chases, fancy effects, so films must focus on human stories, which usually involve women. There are roles written for the kind of movies you in America call 'chick flicks.'"
Yael Abecassis, who stars in Amos Gitai's "Alila" and Michal Bat-Adam's "Life Is Life," agreed.
"It's a good moment for Israeli actresses," she said.
The trend is evident in other movies playing at the 20th annual Israel Film Festival April 29-May 13, many of which feature complex heroines. In 2003's "Life Is Life," Abecassis plays an unstable, 30ish woman embroiled in an affair with an older, self-absorbed writer. In Yuval Granot's charming "Pretty Yardena," Zurer portrays a 28-year-old dancer who returns home to take a college entrance exam -- on her old flame's wedding day. In 1994's "Aya, An Imagined Autobiography," actress-director Michal Bat-Adam essentially plays herself, a filmmaker directing a movie about her troubled childhood.
Actresses have come a long way since the 1980s, according to Katriel Schory of the Israel Film Fund. Around 1985, Schory recalled, famed Columbia executive David Putman visited the Jewish state and observed that movies were "a man's domain."
Because the directors were male, "the stories they wanted to tell dealt a lot with the army, with the soldier's life and where the allegiance of soldiers should lie," he said.
Actress Gila Almagor ("Fortuna," "El Dorado"), considered the grande dame of Israeli cinema, described the consequence for actresses: "In the early years, most of us were relegated to playing soldiers' girlfriends or mothers," she said.
Along with Bat-Adam ("I Love You, Rosa"), Almagor was one of a few actresses to regularly land weightier roles, although her phone stopped ringing during the heyday of 1980s military cinema. After six years of virtual unemployment, she fell into a deep depression.
"For five days, I didn't stop crying, I didn't comb my hair and I stayed under the blankets," she said.
It was only when she feared she was turning into her mother, a Holocaust survivor who had suffered acute mental illness, that she came out of her funk. In a 10-day white heat, she wrote an autobiographical novel, "The Summer of Avia," about her childhood relationship with her mother. The book became an acclaimed 1988 film that starred Almagor and resuscitated her career.
But for most actresses, the change didn't come until the 1990s, when movies became more personal than political, said Dan Fainaru of Israel's Cinemateque magazine.
In the past five years, even more female roles have emerged as filmmakers have explored their ethnic roots, courtesy of the new Israeli focus on multiculturalism.
"These films often revolve around families, which require actresses," Schory said, citing Georgian director Dover Kosashvili's 2002 hit, "Late Marriage," as an example.
Almagor, for her part, sees another reason for the good news: the emergence of female writer-directors such as Bat-Adam, Tzipi Trope and Julie Shles ("Afula Express"). While only Bat-Adam and Trope have made more than four features apiece, the filmmakers have made an impact.
"When women started to become immersed in moviemaking, they brought their problems, their world to Israeli cinema," Almagor said.
Bat-Adam explained it this way: "Because I'm a woman, the stories I tell involve women," she said. "Even in 'Life Is Life,' which [ostensibly] centers upon a male author, you feel his lover is equally important; that it's her story as well as his."
In the current cinema, actresses earn as much as actors and roles are available for women in their 50s, as well as their 20s, Schory said.
"It's not like America, where actresses are finished at 40," he said. "We don't have a Meryl Streep-Jessica Lange problem here."
Because Israeli cinema isn't focused on the youth market, he added, not all ingenues have to be gorgeous, although they do need to possess solid acting skills. "Most actresses are alumni of the best Israeli drama schools," he said.
Yet Almagor, 64, believes she did encounter an ageist glass ceiling. "Now that I'm over 60, they don't write good movie roles for women my age," she said. She intends to remedy the problem by writing a new part for herself, just as she did with "Summer of Avia" in the 1980s. "I won't sit home and wait," she said.
Despite Zurer's success with "Nina's Tragedies," she plans to follow Almagor's example.
"If at a certain age acting becomes more of a problem, we women need to create projects for ourselves," she said.
For tickets and information about festival screenings of "Nina's Tragedies," "Alila," "Life Is Life," "Pretty Yardena" and "Aya, An Imagined Autobiography," call (877) 966-5566.
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