Guest Column by Bob Bahr and Matthew Bernstein
If you are looking for evidence of Israel’s rapid rise as an entertainment powerhouse, just shuffle through the pages of the program guide for the 2016 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, which is arriving in our mailboxes.
Included in the 51 feature-length films offered at the 16th festival are some of the most provocative and compelling Israeli narrative films and documentaries produced in recent years.
Among the standouts is “Rabin, the Last Day,” Amos Gitai’s searing indictment of the political environment 20 years ago that led to the assassination of the Jewish state’s prime minister by a Jewish religious extremist.
Also at the top of the list is “Censored Voices” by director Mor Loushy, which won an Ophir, the Israeli Academy Award, for best documentary film this year. It’s a frank and unsparing assessment of the dark underbelly of the Six-Day War of 1967, told through a series of interviews secretly made just days after the war ended.
The interviews, conducted by the prominent Israeli author Amos Oz, have been heavily censored over the years by the Israeli government. But in this powerful film, the reactions of the soldiers then and now provide a dramatic counterpoint to the way the war has been remembered in the popular imagination.
The maturity and undeniable power of these offerings from Israel are testimony to how far the Israeli film industry has come in recent years. That’s partly the result of a renewed commitment to film production in the 21st century by the Israeli government.
A reworked Israeli Cinema Law was passed in 2011 to insulate government film funding from political pressure, although that separation was called into question this year when the newly appointed minister of culture forced the Jerusalem Film Festival to cancel the showing of a controversial documentary.
The minister, Miri Regev, later said the government would no longer support works that “defame Israel (and undermine) the image of the state of Israel.” Regev, a brigadier general and one-time chief censor of the Israel Defense Forces, has developed a reputation for controversy.
After a dispute this year with Palestinian filmmakers supported by the Israel Film Fund, she proposed that all filmmakers supported by the fund identify themselves as Israeli.
Despite the political ups and downs, the publicly supported Israel Film Fund the past seven years has helped to finance more than 230 films, including many that are sure to stimulate considerable discussion in Atlanta.
The fund has about $16.5 million each year to encourage filmmaking.
It is a drop in the bucket by Hollywood standards. But in a country where the average film budget is only about $1 million and projects often take three years to get funded, the public Israel Film Fund and the private Yehoshua Rabinovich Foundation for the Arts, founded in 1988, are important pools of money.
Smaller budgets mean productions can’t be built around expensive digital effects or the proverbial cast of thousands; they must depend on a more intimate style of storytelling and character development.
An example at the 2016 festival is “Mountain,” a stark tale of the sexually frustrated wife of a Talmudic scholar who rebels against her unhappy life in a single, tragic act that transforms the film during its final five minutes.
It’s an important first film by one of the new crop of female directors who are challenging the largely masculine world of Israeli filmmakers.
Another notable feature film is “Tikkun,” which was the big winner at this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival. It took home the prizes for best Israeli film, best actor, best screenplay and best cinematography.
It’s a complex and disturbing story of life and death in Jerusalem’s Hasidic community and the slow unraveling of a young man and his deeply religious family.
The increasingly complex international market for films and the technological changes that have created opportunities for distribution have also meant that a new generation of Israel’s filmmakers are producing more marketable productions.
The Atlanta festival includes “Jeruzalem,” which won the audience award at the Jerusalem Film Festival. The film is the work of two young brothers, Doran and Yoav Paz, and it’s aimed at the lucrative international market for zombie thrillers and supernatural terror.
We’ll also be seeing Dror Shaul’s “Atomic Falafel,” a comedy about the planning for a pre-emptive attack on Iran that’s a hilarious and commercial blend of “Dr. Strangelove” and Mad Magazine.
That kind of creative self-confidence has made it easier for Israel’s film industry, despite the country’s difficult diplomatic situation, to team up with a great number of foreign funding sources.
Israel has doubled the number of films it produces by negotiating 18 co-production treaties with countries around the world, most importantly with France and Germany. Thus, the money that comes directly from Israel for an Israeli film makes up only about 25 percent of the budget.
The long list of funding sources that plays out during the opening credits of Gitai’s “Rabin, the Last Day” is one indication of how important co-production agreements have become.
That is perhaps part of the reason Gitai, arguably Israel’s most important filmmaker, has chosen to live not in Tel Aviv, but in Paris.
But sitting through long opening credits of funding sources is a small price to pay for such a rewarding lineup. So get ready for three weeks of entertaining and exciting offerings beginning Jan. 26.
The 2016 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival is a significant point of entry into the culture, the values and the beliefs of our people.
Matthew Bernstein and Bob Bahr will discuss their best bets for documentaries at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival at 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 3, at Temple Sinai. Reserve your place at www.templesinaiatlanta.org. Ticket sales for the festival begin Jan. 10.