Politics Looms Over Israel Film Center Festival
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Politics Looms Over Israel Film Center Festival

Ongoing tug of war between filmmakers and culture ministry provides backdrop for event’s seventh installment here in N.Y.C.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

Israeli filmmaker Avi Nesher with his cameraman. Iris Nesher
Israeli filmmaker Avi Nesher with his cameraman. Iris Nesher

As the joke goes, being an Israeli requires a high tolerance for chaos. That is nowhere truer than in the Israeli film industry. Four years of stewardship by Culture Minister Miri Regev, a staunch ally of Benjamin Netanyahu, have produced a string of controversies about content and funding for the arts and more than a little ill will towards the recently re-elected government.

But artists frequently thrive on chaos and controversy, and the 7th Annual Israel Film Center Festival, opening June 3, is a cheering reminder that, whatever one may think of the Netanyahu-Regev agenda, the spirited fightback from filmmakers has resulted in some exemplary cinema.

With the recently concluded election on the books, it seemed like a good time to ask members of the Israeli film community how they view the future of the industry.

Avi Nesher has been making films since 1978. He directed several of the top-grossing films in Israeli history, including his latest, “The Other Story,” and is the subject of a mini-retrospective at this year’s festival. He likes to point out that an Israeli critic characterized his work for its “false happy endings,” so he admits that his seeming optimism may be more illusory than even he knows.

“I was chosen to be one of the 12 people who light a ceremonial flame on Israeli Independence Day this year,” he said in a telephone interview last week. “It’s the closest thing Israel has to being knighted, and it’s completely apolitical. This was the first time an Israeli filmmaker was chosen, which [surprised me] coming after several years of strife between the film industry and the government. I wrote a speech in which I played with the double meaning of ruach, both ‘spirit’ and ‘wind,’ and I said that celebrating the Israeli spirit has always meant going against the prevailing winds.”

A scene from “The Dive,” produced by Efrat Cohen. Courtesy of Israel Film Center Festival

Without meaning to, Nesher triggered a new furor, with representatives of the culture ministry accusing him of covertly attacking Regev, insisting that he change the line. Surprisingly, when he refused to make the requested emendation, it was Regev who approved the speech without any changes. After he delivered it, Nesher said, Regev embraced him and said, “In my own way, I also go against the wind.”

The American-educated Nesher insists his focus is on “civil discourse,” although he readily acknowledges that in the United States that ideal seems to be waning.

“The Israeli film industry has really clashed with her in a manner I found unacceptable,” he said. “Obviously I’m opposed to many of her policies. I’ve been quite critical of her and of the prime minister. But as long as dialogue continues we won’t stray into civil war.”

The mere mention of that possibility is a reminder of how polarized Israeli society has become. Isaac Zablocki, the director of the Israel Film Center and the Other Israel Film Festival, sees the evidence clearly when he is looking for films to show at his home base at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, and attributes the shifts to the policies of the current culture ministry.

“If you look at our films this year, we see the result of the previous [2015] election,” Zablocki said in a telephone interview last week. “It’s a continuing trend, with a preponderance of [new] films that relate to the Orthodox community. We have five films in the festival that highlight the Orthodox community. And that is part of Regev’s agenda, to diversify the content of Israeli films. But we are seeing significantly fewer films about the Arab community, so the diversity [is going mainly one way].”

One cause of this sea change is that filmmakers are engaging in more self-censorship, he asserted.

“The filmmakers want their films to be made and are not pitching the films that won’t get made,” Zablocki said. “There’s definitely self-censorship going on. Filmmakers who worked in the ‘fringe communities’ have a feeling of increased isolation over the past four years. Those who want to stay in the game have been changing their tunes or finding other ways to get funding.”

Finding money for filmmaking has always been a struggle in small nations, and Israel is no exception.

Efrat Cohen, a producer whose latest film, “The Dive,” is being shown in the festival, wrote in an e-mail interview last week, “Funding Israeli films was always a difficult thing. There are around 20 film schools in Israel, many graduates, many new filmmakers getting on board every year and the competition is high. In the past decades there were less film schools but also less money. Actually the cinema budget was enlarged over the years; in 2013 it was increased to 80 million shekels, and this year by Miri Regev, to 100 million.”

The problem isn’t so much a lack of money as it is the strings attached to the government purse.

“It started right from the beginning and became more and more radical,” she wrote. “During 2018 [Regev] had been pushing reforms which force film funds to hire their script readers from a body subordinate to Regev’s ministry. She tried to promote the ‘cultural loyalty bill’ that could allow the culture minister to revoke budgets from cultural institutions that harm or disrespect the symbols of the state. On many occasions she said she would axe government funds for filmmakers or artists who ‘defame’ Israel. … I would say Regev succeeded [in shaking] the whole industry, to create fear. But in actual fact, at least for now, the struggle of the media and the filmmakers was strong enough to prevent worse radical changes she tried to do.”

Regev has publicly expressed a desire to move up the political food chain from culture minister to a position of greater power. What will the future hold for Israeli filmmakers and other arts workers?

Cohen doesn’t share Nesher’s guarded optimism, describing herself as “having feelings of desperation, and yet I’m a believer.”

Zablocki has the perspective of someone who is both an insider and a distant observer. He notes that Regev “has already changed the laws and will remain in the government to see her agenda through.”

Those sympathetic to the needs of filmmakers, such as former head of the Jerusalem Film Fund Katriel Schory, have been forced out. “All funds are now at the mercy of whoever will sit in that office next,” Zablocki ruefully concluded.

Perhaps there is a principle of counterpoint at work here. The Eastern European film industries were never more vital or more radically oppositional than at the height of Stalinist repression. In the last 30 years, Israel has gradually erected a formidable pipeline of talented filmmakers. One hopes the Israel Film Center Festival will continue to be a source of artistic inspiration despite the seeming difficult times ahead.

The Israel Film Center Festival will take place June 3-12 at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan (76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue), opening with “Redemption,” by Joseph Madmony and Boaz Yehonatan Yacov. Among other selections will be three films by Avi Nesher, “Turn Left at the End of the World,”“Rage and Glory” and his newest work, “The Other Story.” For information, go to jccmanhattan.org/film/israel-film-center-festival.

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