Here’s a fun thought experiment: If one were to make a short film that sums up Israel in all of its beauty and weirdness, what would the result look like?
That wasn’t quite the prompt that participants in the Ghetto Film School’s International Thesis Project were given last year: The 21st Century Fox, Warner Brothers, and HBO-supported program’s New York and LA-based high school-age participants merely had to make short films in Israel, with local actors, in a local language that wasn’t English, and within a week-long shooting schedule (although pre- and post- production took much longer). Summation of an entire contested and overwhelmingly strange country would be a nice thing for the movies to achieve, but it wasn’t a requirement. The films the students produced make one envious of the young, whose minds are still fresh and relatively liberated from doubt or self-awareness—a condition that sadly seems to reverse itself over time.
Take Be Free, the movie that the Ghetto Film School’s New York team produced. Given the subject matter and the setting, it’s a work of heady and almost superhuman self-confidence, and that’s before you get to the film’s portentous look and feel— “Obviously it’s very influenced by Terrence Malick,” said Jai Gil, the movie’s director of photography, during a panel discussion following a celebratory screening at an upscale cinema in New York on April 30th. The movie is set in Mandatory Palestine in 1937, making it the first period piece in the history of the School’s thesis project, which has filmed in 14 different countries since 2000.
In the space of ten minutes, it tells the story of Azriel, a meek yet spiritually restless yeshiva student in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter, who saves a young Arab girl from molestation at the hands of a British soldier, a courageous and selfless act that helps him discover a sense of moral purpose while also bringing him into contact with the girl’s father, who is a Palestinian militant. The British raid the father’s hideout, and most of the film’s main characters die side-by-side in a prison courtyard, Jewish and Arab bodies slumped next to one another. In the movie’s final shot, which takes up nearly an entire minute, the girl wanders through a low valley in an uneasy dawn light, away from the carnage but towards an uncertain and possibly even more tumultuous future.
“It feels the whole movie is built to make that shot,” panel moderator and Criterion Collection president Peter Becker observed. Becker noted that the camera usually isn’t trained on the most important event in a given scene—we don’t see the speaker, but the person the speaker is talking to. “Reaction is way better than delivery,” said film editor Jamar Da Costa, articulating something close to an aesthetic philosophy. Da Costa, who wore a broad grin and a glittering silver crucifix, said that filming was aided by the fact that Israel turned out to be a country of absorbing beauty. “The sun is the sky, is what I tell everybody,” said Da Costa—which is an elegant contrast to his native New York, where the sky is often concrete and glass.
The Ghetto Film School team displayed a refreshing ability to see Israel as something other than an obsession of metaphysical proportions. For the students, the country wasn’t an abstraction but part of a graduation requirement. Program participants commit to 30 months of training during after-school, weekend, and summer hours, and the thesis film is supposed to be the culmination of their work. “Ultimately, this is about kids voluntarily subjecting themselves to a very rigorous program that simulates the realities of the content creation business,” said Matthew Hiltzik, who is on the School’s board.
As Ghetto Film School Executive Director Stosh Mintek explained, the School decides on the location for its students’ thesis project based on a country’s difference from previous thesis settings. “We’d never been to the Middle East before, and for one of the youngest countries in the world Israel has an incredible storytelling tradition,” he told me. Students had to watch Israeli films, and read up on the country’s cinematic history and culture enough to be able to make a film there.
Tommy Espinal, Be Free’s writer and assistant cameraman, wore a sharp bow tie and vest to the screening. He’s a 17-year-old student at The Cinema School, a public high school of about 200 students near Ghetto Film School’s facilities in the South Bronx. He’s an admirer of Tarkovsky and Mallick, and had watched a number of Israeli films before traveling to the country. His favorites included the classic 1980s teen movie Late Summer Blues, and 2007’s Jellyfish— “It’s very poetic, and I’m really into poetry,” Espinal said of the wondrous Etgar Keret-directed dark comedy. He said that during his week of working in Israel, “It wasn’t about all these politics that you hear about…it was about people really wanting us to make this film.”
In Be Free’s longest scene, Azriel’s rosh Yeshiva lectures the students by candlelight, explaining the concept of Kiddush HaShem, or self-sacrifice for the sake of God. Azriel’s teacher is clearly a strict man, and berates his pupil for his seeming lack of belief and interest. But while there are some harsh portrayals of Hardei Jews on film—think of the monstrousness of nearly every single character in Kadosh, Amos Gitai’s bracing 1999 movie—this isn’t one of them. It’s a tough world out there, the rosh explains, and Azriel needs to decide what he really wants and believes.
“That character was the most difficult to write,” Espinal acknowledged. “How do you craft that character into what he needs to be without offending someone?” Espinal said he wasn’t trying to write a Jewish character necessarily so much as a true character—someone that captured “how people really feel.” It’s a hard feat to pull off with any unfamiliar country or people, and one hopes that Espinal and his colleagues will be reproducing their success for decades to come. They aced their first test—and it wasn’t an easy one at all.