March 11, 2004
Israeli Movies Break in With Self-Criticism
The news that three Israeli movies are about to open at local commercial theaters may not shake the foundations of Hollywood, but for the small Israeli film industry, it's a big breakthrough.
For years, Israeli producers have been trying to show their wares to American audiences, beyond the limited Jewish film festivals. With few exceptions, American distributors, the crucial middlemen, have not been willing to risk their time and money on Hebrew-language pictures.
Distributors usually cite the alleged American public aversion to subtitled movies and, truth be told, the production values and storylines of most Israeli films haven't been all that great.
The opening of "Broken Wings" on March 12, "James' Journey to Jerusalem" on March 26 and "Alila" in April may not yet herald a new era, but surely it is an encouraging sign for the younger Israeli directors coming to the fore.
One aspect is common to all three films. They focus on family, neighborhood or domestic social problems, with only the most tangential references to terrorism, suicide bombers and other events that define the image of Israel for most of the world. The films are also, at least in Diaspora eyes, unsparing in the criticism of their own society.
"Broken Wings," which won awards at international festivals in Berlin, Tokyo and Jerusalem, is being released by the prestigious Sony Pictures Classics.
A first feature by 34-year-old director-writer Nir Bergman, it chronicles the dissentions and, ultimately, loves of the Ullman family of Haifa, whose father died recently after a prosaic bee sting.
The tragedy leaves it up to the 43-year-old mother Dafna, superbly played by Orli Zilbershatz-Banai, to keep her family afloat by working nightshifts as a hospital midwife. During the day, she deals with her two teenagers and two younger kids, who have all been traumatized, in one way or the other, by the father's death.
Much of the responsibility for looking after her siblings falls on 17-year-old Maya, who is torn between a budding career as a singer-composer and her unwelcome home duties.
Frequently agonizing, in the end the film finds the family healing and coming together.
"James' Journey to Jerusalem," which might be subtitled "An Innocent Abroad" or "Candide Meets the Israelis," is likely to be enjoyed most by American audiences.
The title character is a young black from a remote and devoutly Christian village in Africa, who is chosen by his tribe to journey to the heavenly Jerusalem of the Bible and report back on the wonders he has seen.
Starry-eyed and wild-haired, James arrives in the Holy Land only to be clapped into jail as an illegal immigrant. He is bailed out by the boss of a house-cleaning service for wealthy Tel Avivians, but as a fast learner, James quickly organizes his fellow Africans into his own service crew.
Despite the film's humor, Diaspora Jews are bound to wince as James makes his way in an Israel where everybody cheats a little and the greatest fear is to be played for a frayer, or sucker.
"Alila" is by veteran filmmaker Amos Gitai, who has been getting under the skin of his countrymen for 20 years with movies that dissect their warts, prejudices and insecurities.
Set in a shabby apartment building in a rundown Tel Aviv neighborhood, "Alila" is populated by a dozen characters who battle each other and their surroundings for survival and a small share of happiness.
As Israelis of many backgrounds, they fight and stick their noses in each other's businesses, but when the chips are down they come together and lend a hand.
Why are Israeli films beginning to enjoy greater exposure in the United States? Why do they seem to focus on personal problems, in contrast to such recent political Palestinian movies as "Divine Intervention" or "Rana's Wedding," which deal, quite cleverly, with life under the occupation?
We put the question to director Bergman of "Broken Wings," during his visit to Los Angeles last week; Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, the young director of "James' Journey"; and Dan Fainaru, a veteran Israeli movie critic and editor of the magazine Cinematech.
Bergman believes that Israeli films are getting better, thanks largely to directors who trained in Israel's many university film schools and who cut their teeth on television productions.
A second factor is money. Practically all Israeli producers draw their budgets from national, municipal or private support funds, and despite the harsh economic conditions, the subsidies have been going up.
As a result, more feature films are being made -- close to 20 this year compared to half that number a few years back -- increasing the chances that a few will be first rate.
The second question, on the personal focus of Israeli films, is harder to answer.
"In the 1980s, we had a lot of movies on Jewish-Arab relations, usually from a left liberal perspective, and Israeli audiences stayed away," Fainaru said.
"We see news about terrorism and politics on television every hour on the hour, while our documentaries deal with the same subjects," he added. "We don't need any more of that when we pay a babysitter to go to the movie theaters."
When Israelis really want to get away from it all for two hours, they go to see foreign films, overwhelmingly American, which account for a staggering 95 percent of attendance and box-office receipts, Fainaru said.
Alexandrowicz doesn't think that Israeli pictures are too self-critical. "It's my country and I love it," he said. "But I think it's healthy to put a mirror in front of your own society."
Bergman defends his own focus on family life. "Since Rabin's assassination, Israel has become a different country," he said. "Now every family is a country of its own."
From a Los Angeles perspective, Paul Fagen, the chief programmer for the upcoming Israel Film Festival, sees a quality improvement in the pictures he is checking out now.
"There have been a few lean years," Fagen said. "But now the stories are more universally human and we have a very strong lineup."
"Broken Wings" opens March 12 at Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills and the Town Center in Encino. "James' Journey to Jerusalem" opens March 26 at the same venues and the Playhouse in Pasadena. The exact April date and location for "Alila" will be announced soon. For more information, visit www.laemmle.com .