Every spring, as Israel Independence Day nears, I receive many requests from institutions seeking to screen a film that celebrates Israel. They’re not looking for one with a complicated or progressive view of Israel; they’re looking for a new, good old-fashioned, unquestionably Zionist film. As director of the Israel Film Center at The JCC in Manhattan, I try to see all the quality Israeli films, and every year I have a hard time finding such films to celebrate Israel Independence Day.
In the old days of Zionism, there wasn’t much of a film industry in Israel, but the film that were made were strong on Zionism. Films like “Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer” told heroic stories of securing the Jewish homeland. American films were made to fill this niche as well, from “Exodus” to “Cast A Giant Shadow”; these films helped define Israel’s heroic narrative, one based on fighting for a Jewish state and military victory. They were celebrated and passed on from generation to generation, but for audiences today they do not hold up.
As Israeli society grew and developed, its film industry began to evolve as well. Suddenly, the military films that so defined the state followed the trend of American cinema; they went from being patriotic films to anti-war films. The 1980s and ’90s in Israel gave birth to films such as “Cup Final” — about an Israeli soldier who develops a friendship through the World Cup soccer games with the Palestinian holding him hostage in Lebanon — which offered, for the first time, critical visions of Israeli soldiers.
The young filmmakers in Israel have continued to make films that serve as a social critique, and today Israel has a highly developed film industry. It’s safe to say that most filmmakers in Israel lean to the liberal side, and most of the films are critical of Israel’s policies and seek to create change. The industry that emerged out of a very patriotic foundation is one that is highly subversive, and not necessarily representative of the entire country.
It is important to note, though, that most Israeli films are government-supported through film funds. These funds seek to diversify the positions and opinions presented in film, yet the industry remains powered by films that are critical and question Israel’s position in the Middle East conflict. Films that do try to push the old-school position come across as forced or dated and have not had traction cinematically. Films following the party line fail to stand up against an industry using cinema as a tool for social change.
Perhaps not surprisingly, films that are critical of Israeli policy are successful in Europe, which is less tolerant than America of Jerusalem’s point of view. But even in America, both the critically acclaimed Israeli films and those popular with the masses have a level of criticism of Israeli policy. A film like Academy Award-nominated “Waltz With Bashir,” by Ari Folman, was an international hit. It was critical of Israel’s first war in Lebanon (1982) and exposes the massacre in Sabra and Shatilla that Israel allowed to take place. Last year’s “The Gatekeepers,” by Dror Moreh, which shows Israel’s heads of the Secret Service criticizing Israeli policy, was the most popular Israeli documentary in American box office history. American society no longer wants a naive vision of Israel. Americans realize this is not the reality and prefer a more sophisticated presentation.
The JCC in Manhattan’s Other Israel Film Festival started as an outsider’s festival, sharing the stories of Arab citizens and other minority groups in Israel and exposing the complex society that makes up Israel. But very soon the festival became mainstream and was presenting some of Israel’s top films to a general audience (especially a young one). Similarly, Ari Shavit’s book, “My Promised Land,” which is both praiseworthy and critical of Israel, is a New York Times best seller and in line with the trend of a more sophisticated view of Israeli society.
I consider these critical works to be highly pro-Israel as they celebrate Israel as a democracy. The fact that the country is producing films through governmental funds that are critical of the very government that supports them is one of Israel’s virtues, and not something that should be taken for granted. Despite this freedom of speech, many left-leaning filmmakers feel the government is limiting their free expression. Still, every year, films that do not shine the best light on Israeli society are made and applauded. We must make sure these voices are never censored.
In my search for a fully pro-Israel film that I can truly get behind, I find many Israeli films that aren’t political at all. Most films are not about “the situation” or military; they are insular films that tell beautiful stories of day-to-day life and are of growing popularity within Israel, and sometimes (though more rarely) outside of it. These films, like the ones by Avi Nesher or Shemi Zarhin that are mega-hits in Israel, share normal life drama, which in many ways is extremely universal. But they are nuanced in the deep cinematic language of a society with a specific culture.
A fabulous example is “Zero Motivation” by Talya Lavie, which won two major awards at the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s a “dramedy” about women soldiers with desk jobs on an isolated base in the south of Israel. The details of the film, which is apolitical, are nuanced in Israeli army life that is familiar only to Israelis. But the film translates internationally because it ultimately tells a universal story of friendship and adolescence.
In some ways, these films are the most pro-Israel. Even though they are not about fighting for Zionism, they depict Israel as what it is for most Israelis — simply a home.
Isaac Zablocki is director of The Israel Film Center at The JCC in Manhattan.