Jewish Journal

Is the heart of Israeli cinema in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv?

by Danielle Berrin

June 20, 2012 | 12:47 pm

Jerusalem and Tel Aviv

Call it sibling rivalry.

Although less than 40 miles apart, holy, historied Jerusalem and delightedly unholy Tel Aviv barely have anything in common.

Ask any inhabitant from one city for thoughts about the other and you’ll probably hear that those citizens live “in another universe” — a veiled insult often paired with an eye roll.

Like any real pair of sisters, Tel Aviv sees Jerusalem as mired in the past, beholden to the ultra-Orthodox right, an ancient religious promise perennially embroiled in conflict. Likewise, Jerusalem sees Tel Aviv as just another cosmo-soaked Cosmopolis, rootless and secular, fueled by capitalism and spiritually bereft.

As Ernest Becker pointed out in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Denial of Death,” family feuds are no joke: “We like to speak casually of ‘sibling rivalry,’ as though it were some kind of byproduct of growing up, a bit of competitiveness and selfishness of children who have been spoiled. ... But it is too all-absorbing and relentless to be an aberration, it expresses the heart of the creature: the desire to stand out, to be the one in creation.”

As Israel’s two bright stars, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are locked into a fight to define the ethos of modern Israel. With the world looking on, which culture will prevail: the New Town or the Old Ways?

On a recent visit there, as a guest of Tel Aviv University and the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, it became plain that these poles exist within Israel’s film industry. Jerusalem preserves the past; Tel Aviv seeks the future.

At the Jerusalem Cinematheque, a cultural mainstay that attracts nearly 65,000 to its annual Jerusalem Film Festival, what is old is golden.

Anchored on a cliff beneath the Old City, the beautiful movie palace of stone is a bastion of cinema’s glory days. Founded in 1973 by Lia Van Leer, Israel’s first lady of film, the cinematheque is a throwback to what is classic, traditional, authentic. Its walls are covered with movie posters and artsy stills; its archive stores more than 30,000 film prints, including 11,000 negatives of “pre-state material” (read: Zionist agitprop) and at least a single copy of every Israeli movie ever made. In that chilly storage room on the bottom floor, the smell of vinegar is strong, the scent of expiring celluloid in slow decay.

Talk at the cinematheque turns nostalgic and sad on the subject of its future. The old ways are fading in the light of a new world: Two elderly donors who have lent longtime support have just died, and luring young eyeballs from their personal screens to the silver screen seems a Sisyphean task.

Recently, the creative team had to swallow hard and install a second digital cinema projector, the common currency for screening movies these days. Although it felt self-negating: “To me, digital is just not the same, not as beautiful as film,” film curator Daniella Tourgeman said wistfully. Pointing to a small, 98-seat theater where independent, documentary and avant-garde movies are screened, she added: “We need the upstairs commercial hall in order for this room to exist, but this room is important because it is why we exist.”

To jazz things up, the cinematheque has added Friday night movie screenings (“We’re the only place in town open on Shabbat,” Tourgeman said) and operates a charming full-service cafe that stays open late for nightcaps. Next month, they expect nearly 8,000 people to attend the film festival’s snazzy opening night when Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love” screens beneath the stars in a former water basin called Sultan’s Pool. Annually one of the hottest tickets in town, it’s what you might say is the cooler cousin of the drive-in movie.

But over in Tel Aviv, they’re not only watching cinema, they’re creating it.

After the advent of commercial broadcasting in 1993, most of the country’s film and television artists fled to Tel Aviv, where there were jobs. Tel Aviv University’s film department, which the university hopes to parlay into a full-fledged film school someday, has emerged as one of the most promising film programs in the country (Israel has five). The department has graduated Oscar-nominated filmmakers Ari Folman (“Waltz With Bashir”) and Yaron Shani (“Ajami”), as well as TV writers Gideon Raff, creator of “Hatufim,” which inspired Showtime’s “Homeland,” and Hagai Levi, creator of “BeTipul,” which was later sold to HBO as “In Treatment.”

At the university’s International Student Film Festival earlier this month, an entire day was devoted to new strides in new media. Martin Sabag, CEO of HT Group, one of Israel’s most popular technology Web sites, made much ado about “the second screen” — the idea that a growing number of people who watch television are simultaneously multitasking on a smartphone, laptop or tablet. “There are more TVs in the U.S. than people,” Sabag said.

No longer will you just kick back and relax. Coming to a theater near you is technology that allows you to sync your smartphone with a streaming movie, allowing you to interact with the plot, like in the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. And at home, “Avatar Life” is a new social networking apparatus in which a camera tracks your every move and re-creates those gestures in your Avatar on screen. Even shopping will never be the same, as interactive storefronts will allow you to browse and shop even if a store is closed. And, ladies, you’ll never have to see a dressing room again: A new program can project your likeness onto a display screen while you select whatever retailer’s wares you’d like to try on.

All of which is stunning, and frankly, a little bit frightening.

“You won’t need to get up from your sofa to order things,” Sabag said.

Instead, cameras will watch you, trace you and mimic you. Screens will respond to motion, not just touch. If you thought the Wachowski brothers’ “The Matrix” was an outrageous idea, this conference proved it a prescient one. Soon, we will literally be inside the screens we watch.

“TV is becoming a more personal experience,” Sabag said about the way we’re now doubly plugged in while watching entertainment. No longer passive or pensive, it’s another excuse to tweet or tag. “It’s not about family anymore. It’s not about friends.”

It kinda makes me wish the world had more cinematheques.

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Danielle Berrin writes the award-winning Hollywood Jew blog, a cutting edge, values-based take on the entertainment industry for jewishjournal.com. A Los Angeles Times profile...

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