Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen filming 'Jellyfish'
Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen filming Jellyfish

To judge how greatly Israeli cinema has changed, and how greatly it needed to, consider that the Film Society of Lincoln Center recently showed a retrospective in honor of Israel’s sixtieth anniversary, comprised exclusively of pictures from the past seven years. I think this chronological limit is a little strict. As the people at the Film Society know, you could program a substantial Israeli series going back, perhaps, to 1992. But as most cinephiles would agree, stretching from there to 1948 lies a celluloid desert, where the good films seem as rare, and as wondrous, as rocks that give water.

This was the paradox of Israeli cinema: Jews had achieved so much in film industries elsewhere in the world, yet took so long to do much of anything within their own state. That the wait is now over seems unquestionable. At home, the commercial success of Israeli film is unprecedented. In 2000, almost nobody in Israel went to see Israeli cinema; out of a total of ten million movie tickets sold, 9,964,000 were for foreign films. Today, Israeli movies sell a million tickets a year. Abroad, the critical success of recent Israeli film is equally impressive, with Or (2004) and Jellyfish (2007) both winning the award for best first film at the Cannes festival, The Syrian Bride (2004) taking awards at Locarno and Montreal, and Beaufort (2007) winning the Silver Bear at Berlin. Now that Waltz with Bashir has gained strong reviews (and international distribution) at the most recent Cannes festival, it’s a good time to ask: Why was Israeli film so slow to develop? And what conditions had to be satisfied before it could flourish?

Film still from 'Beaufort'
Scene from Beaufort

The answer to the first question begins with a problem of scale. Whereas people talk about national cinemas, you don’t hear much about, say, the cinema of Chicago. It’s possible for Chicago to have a theater scene, but a city of three million, by itself, would struggle to sustain an art form that’s as labor and capital intensive as film. For the first dozen years of its existence, Israel had about half the population of Chicago—and a high percentage of those people were engaged in agriculture.

So Israeli film started out with a structural handicap, but it also was hobbled ideologically. From the earliest days of film production in the yishuv, Zionism regarded film primarily as a propaganda tool. There is nothing unusual about that—everywhere you look in the twentieth century, you find political movements and governments using film to promote their agendas. The first notable fiction film produced in Israel was solidly in this tradition: the military drama Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer (1955). Because Israel had so little resident filmmaking expertise, the producers had to import much of the talent for this picture, including a British director, Thorold Dickinson. Although he was a gentile, Dickinson was deeply committed to the State of Israel—a circumstance that makes his view of the production all the more telling: “These very right-wing people had written this script…. Highly nationalistic types, and I wouldn’t let any of their ideas into it.”

That’s how it went, during the long Age of Leon Uris. And even once Israeli filmmakers began to turn out a greater number of entertainments, they still liked retelling the national story, in a way that would lift the heart if not rouse the martial spirit. So, in 1964, Israeli cinema produced one of its early breakthroughs, Sallah Shabbati, a comedy by Ephraim Kishon about a North African Jewish family that had been brought to the safety of Israel. You could read the film as a clever inversion of the myth of heroic Israel, in which the charmingly shiftless Sephardim are made more sympathetic than the Ashkenazim who had rescued them. The twist, of course, is that the Sephardim finally learn to be Israeli heroes themselves.

Poster for 'Sallah Shabbati'
Poster for Sallah Shabbati

Out of Sallah Shabbati came a lineage of lesser Israeli films: comedies of misbehavior and reassurance, which often involved some form of reconciliation between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. And Sallah Shabbati was important in another way as well: It launched the career of the producer Menachem Golan, who with his partner Yoram Globus would go on to make, among other films, Kazablan, Lemon Popsicle, The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood, Death Wish II, Ninja III, Nine Deaths of the Ninja, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, Superman IV, Death Wish V, and, of course, Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear, starring Norman Mailer, Woody Allen, and Molly Ringwald. In the 1970s and ’80s, despite the occasional Beyond the Walls—a tough-minded prison drama, involving both Israelis and Palestinians—the world’s working definition of “Israeli cinema” was Golan-Globus Productions.

So how did Israel progress from this kind of filmmaking toward a cinema that is now respectable, and even admired?

I think it took a conjunction of three factors. First, Israel had to develop a film culture—one that was aware of international cinema and its artistic possibilities. Second, it needed filmmakers who were determined to be a part of this international cinema, not on a commercial but on an artistic plane. For short, we’ll call them auteurs. And third, it needed to create institutions that would support these filmmakers. In retrospect, we can see that all three of these factors coalesced in the years between 1979 and 1981—by coincidence, between the time of the Camp David agreement and the first Lebanon War.

The turning point for establishing a film culture came in 1981, when Lia van Leer founded the Jerusalem Cinematheque. For her, this was the culmination of a quarter-century of effort. Beginning in the early 1950s, when she and her husband Wim had started showing films in their home in Haifa, van Leer traveled to international festivals, bought prints, founded an Israel Film Archive, set up a Tel Aviv film club, and established the Haifa Cinematheque. At last came the decisive institutions: the Jerusalem Cinematheque, and in 1984 its offshoot, the Jerusalem Film Festival. The principal film and television school in Israel, named for the American producer Sam Spiegel, was founded in Jerusalem only a few years after the Festival. If you want to know how Israel became the only country in the world where Andrei Tarkovsky is a popular filmmaker, the answer comes down to Lia van Leer.

For the birth of the Israeli auteur, the key date was 1980. That was when a twenty-nine-year-old former architecture student from Haifa, Amos Gitai, persuaded Israeli television to let him make a film titled House. This was his first feature-length work: a documentary about the renovation of a private residence in Jerusalem for its new Jewish owner, starting with images of Palestinian construction workers coming in from the West Bank at dawn, and finishing with a visit to the house by the elderly Palestinian doctor who had lived in it until 1948. When the producers saw what they’d bought, they not only declined to broadcast the film, they confiscated it. However, the wily and determined Gitai had the foresight to have retained a videotape transfer of House, which he carried around to festivals in Europe.

Eran Riklis directing Clara Khoury in 'The Syrian Bride'
Eran Riklis directing Clara Khoury in The Syrian Bride

So an act of censorship launched the career of Israel’s first auteur—a filmmaker who wanted to be known both for a critical engagement with his world, and for an intelligent, self-aware approach to the formal problems of filmmaking. I can’t say that Gitai has always succeeded, but by being prolific and adventurous and intermittently brilliant, he gave Israel its first consistent presence on the international circuit, and provided an example that many others would follow.

For the third crucial element—institutional support—the key date is 1979, when the Israel Film Fund went into operation. Its progress was slow; from 1979 through 1992, the organization funded an average of only three to five films a year. But then, in the early 1990s, came a sudden expansion of activity, made all the more remarkable by the challenging nature of the movies the Fund was willing to support. In recent years, these have included, to mention just a few, Gitai’s harsh dramas of ultra-Orthodox life and military service, Kadosh and Kippur; Joseph Cedar’s troubling tale of a family drawn toward the settlers’ movement, Campfire; Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s sad and satirical fable of immigrant, non-Jewish labor, James’s Journey to Jerusalem; Eytan Fox’s breakthrough, gay-themed films, such as Walk on Water; Eran Riklis’s melancholy comedy of a Druze family divided by a border, The Syrian Bride; and even features by Elia Suleiman (Chronicle of a Disappearance) and Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now), extraordinary Palestinian filmmakers from Nazareth. The Age of Leon Uris clearly had ended. The fact that a government agency helped bring it to a close is a testament to the seriousness, intelligence, and democratic spirit that can be found, despite everything, in Israel.

I can give the same praise to the New Foundation for Cinema & TV, which the government established in 1993. Like the Fund, the Foundation has supported extraordinarily challenging films—in this case, almost all of them documentaries. But this funding has been useful to fiction film production, since many notable Israeli directors, such as David Ofek and Alexandrowicz, have jumped between the two modes.

The introduction of cable and commercial television in the 1990s provided another kind of subsidy for Israeli film artists: regular work. A director such as Nir Bergman can now go back and forth between film, with Broken Wings, and episodic television, with In Treatment. More recently, another important development has been the success of the Israel Film Fund in securing co-production money, especially from France, Germany, Canada, and Australia.

Scene from 'James's Journey to Jerusalem'
Scene from James’s Journey to Jerusalem

The cash is useful in itself. Perhaps even more useful is the overseas distribution that accompanies it.

So the old paradox of Israeli film has been laid to rest, and new paradoxes have taken its place. Israeli film has become more commercially viable by being more artistic. It has become truer to itself by being more international. It has become more self-assured by being more critical.

The strongest evidence of these changes is to be found not in the box-office reports or the lists of awards, but in the films themselves, such as Alexandrowicz’s James’s Journey to Jerusalem. In that movie, the character of the cynical, conniving old Sephardic father is named Sallah—in homage, the director has said, to Sallah Shabbati. Israeli film can now be self-referential—which means that Israeli film must now, at last, exist.