Can Pro-Israel Films Reach Wide Audiences?

Can Pro-Israel Films Reach Wide Audiences?

Two new films deserve viewers, but Israel is a hard sell these days.

Editor & Publisher of The NY Jewish Week.

After recently screening two new, first-rate documentary films about Israel, my first thought was that they should each be made mandatory viewing for Jewish youth in the diaspora, and maybe Israel, too.

Their compelling narratives, expertly told, explore the lives of Israel’s military defenders more than six decades apart. One is the little-known story of the creation of the Israeli Air Force in 1948. The other offers a rare inside look at what it’s like to go through basic training in the IDF today. They should appeal to a wide audience because each one is an inspiring film of heroic dimensions, told by humanizing the protagonists.

But I worry whether, in fact, the films — and a number of others with similar goals — will be seen beyond the core pro-Israel community, in part because Israel is a hard sell these days, a problem exacerbated by the reluctance of those in the film industry to book movies that portray the Jewish state in a positive light.

Nancy Spielberg is the New York-based producer of “Above and Beyond,” which tells the story of the small group of American Jewish pilots, young veterans of World War II, who risked their lives and volunteered to help create the fledgling Israeli Air Force in 1948. She says she encountered great resistance in seeking to have her full-length, highly polished film accepted at international film festivals.

Theatrical distribution and the Spielberg name (Steven is her brother) will help “Above and Beyond” get attention — it opens commercially in New York on Jan. 30 at the Village East Cinema and is being shown widely in the Jewish community — but she has realistic objectives.

“Our main goal is to get this out to college campuses and try to connect with those [Jews] who may be disconnected from their history,” she said. “Ultimately, we want the world to look at Israel with fresh eyes,” though she added that the focus of the film is on “the human spirit.”

Directed by Roberta Grossman (“Hava Nagila: The Movie” and “Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh”), the film is anchored by interviews with a handful of the surviving pilots, now in their 90s, who helped create the rag-tag Israeli effort to defend against approaching Arab armies. As the former pilots note in their colorful comments, the air force initially consisted of four small, patched together planes smuggled in from Europe, that managed to stave off a major Egyptian assault in May 1948. Many historians believe that effort, and subsequent forays against enemy positions, saved the Jewish state from being wiped out in its infancy.

Leon Frankel, one of those pilots, told me that “if not for Nancy Spielberg [and her perseverance in making the film] we wouldn’t even be a footnote in the history books.”

“There was no interest” in or awareness of the contribution of the volunteer pilots over the years, he said. “I was never invited to speak about it until about 15 years ago,” when a local group of Christian Evangelists in Minneapolis, where he lives, invited him to share his experiences. Only now, with the film’s opening, is he being sought after by Jewish groups as well.

Frankel, whose memory is still sharp at 91, said he grew up with little awareness of Zionism. He volunteered to help fight for Israel in 1948 because he had been a victim of “virulent anti-Semitism” as a youngster and had seen the depths of the Nazi destruction of European Jewry when he served overseas in the U.S. Air Force. “I feel privileged to have been there at Israel’s birth,” he said.

Advocacy Through Film

The five Israelis at the heart of “Beneath The Helmet: From High School to the Home Front” are shown making the difficult transition from a relatively carefree 18-year-olds to combat soldiers training to protect their country, under constant threat of war.

Given unusual access by the IDF, the film, two years in the making, was produced by Jerusalem U, a non-profit organization dedicated to strengthening the bonds of young Jews to Judaism and Israel, chiefly through documentaries.

Rebecca Shore, who produced the film with her husband, Jerusalem U founder Raphael Shore, explained that it tells the story of what almost every Jewish teen goes through in Israel. “It’s a human interest story, a drama of their hopes and fears,” she said, noting that “no one in the film is over 30.”

“Beneath The Helmet” tracks a female commander; an Ethiopian young man conflicted by his army service because he is unable to fill his role as the family breadwinner; a young Lone Soldier from Switzerland; and a 24-year-old officer in the paratroopers who trains 800 soldiers over the eight months of basic training. The footage includes the arduous 16-hour, 40-mile group trek, with each soldier carrying up to 60 pounds of gear, leading up to their emotional graduation ceremony the following day.

Jerusalem U officials say the film is an apolitical attempt to personalize the story beneath every helmet in the IDF, and they hope to show it at some 200 campuses across the U.S. So far it has been screened at more than a dozen, drawing large crowds, helped by the support of a variety of campus co-sponsoring groups, Jewish and non-Jewish, from black student unions to environmental advocates.

Jacob Baime, executive director of the Israel Campus Coalition, a national network of students, faculty and communal professionals bolstering pro-Israel activities, credits Jerusalem U for helping audiences “see Israel through the eyes of Israelis,” one of the ICC’s main goals. He said Jerusalem U’s strategy of producing pro-Israel films is consistent with research that finds students far more willing to see a film than read a book.

But Isaac Zablocki, director of the JCC Manhattan’s Israel Film Center, worries that both “Beneath The Helmet” and “Above And Beyond,” for all their artistic talents, essentially will “preach to the choir,” reaching limited audiences due to the nature of their subjects. He wonders how many college students, neutral or uninformed on the Mideast conflict, would choose to see a film about Israel’s military, especially one made by an organization called “Jerusalem U.”

Both films, he said, are well produced and “are able to humanize soldiers,” but “they are almost insider films where the emphasis is the message, not the story.”

His advice to pro-Israel filmmakers is to “create change by making movies that others [besides like-minded advocates] would want to see.” And that is best accomplished, he believes, by presenting criticism, not just praise, of the Israeli policies or institutions examined. “A film that criticizes the IDF humanizes it,” Zablocki said, noting the irony of the situation.

He and others in the field praise the approach of a college residency program sponsored by the Schusterman Family Foundation that brings 10 noted Israeli writers, artists, musicians, choreographers or filmmakers to American campuses each year for a semester. They offer courses and speak to student and communal groups about their work. It’s a deeper and more nuanced approach, according to Marge Goldwater, director of arts and cultural programs at the Schusterman Visiting Israeli Arts Program, part of its Israel Institute.

“We’re not about advocacy, we’re Israel education,” she said.

With the anti-Israel BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement on campus gaining momentum, and increasing international dissatisfaction with Jerusalem’s actions, it is important to recognize that Zionist supporters are employing a variety of methods and strategies to boost Israel’s image. And even films aimed primarily at young Jews serve a purpose in educating and inspiring them, not taking their support for granted.

The more the world sees Israel’s reality, with all its complexities, the better — from its fight for survival against all odds in 1948 to its unwavering pledge to protect and serve society with integrity today.

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