Israeli cinema is no stranger to violence. In this part of the world, ravaged with wars and terror, it is only natural that real-life atrocities will be mirrored in films coming out of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and the West Bank. This is the VIP ticket that got Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort, Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir, and Scandar Copti’s Ajami Oscars nominations in the last decade, as well as Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon a Golden Lion award in 2009’s Venice festival: high-stakes political drama with realistic tensions and violence and urgent moral dilemmas on top.
But violence has other faces—the darker, creepier, mysterious, unreal, and sometimes supernatural kind favored in the commercial horror films of the United States, Mexico, South Africa, Europe, and East Asia. In the last two years Israel’s filmmakers have joined the global horror-movie trend with a surprising new local breed of violent movies—not overtly political, but just local horror flicks that aim to entertain, create some hype, and possibly make money. None of these movies are likely to win the Golden Lion or become fodder for long, agonized think-pieces about the moral dilemmas inherent in occupying another people or fighting terror. Nor are they likely to define Jewish identity for a new generation struggling with age-old questions of community and faith. But they sure are becoming more popular among young Israelis.
It seems fair to suggest that a generation of escapists in Israel have made their way from the devastations of terror in real life to the comforting fictions of films whose lack of realism is at least part of their appeal. Even Israeli director Ari Folman admitted that he wanted to escape from the personal war traumas that made Waltz With Bashir an international hit to the imaginary psychedelic animated world of The Congress—his latest acclaimed international co-production (based on the work of sci-fi novelist Stanislaw Lem and starring Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Jon Hamm, and others). The budget for The Congress was $6 million—making it a mega production in Israeli terms.
Younger Israeli filmmakers cannot count on the same backing for their escapism. With little or zero support from the Israeli cinema establishment that sees genre movies as a lower form of entertainment, they are forced to do it all by themselves: financing, producing, filming, and distributing. Yet somehow in the last couple of years DIY seems to be enough—not to make money (a goal that very few Israeli films ever achieve), but to spark a new crowd-pleasing cinematic wave that has reached Hollywood.
Nirvana, for Israeli film-makers, is to make it to Los Angeles, where the American movie industry loves to re-make cheap original foreign material. (The Ring from Japan, We Are What We Are from Mexico, and Oldboy from Korea to name a very few.) Cheap Israeli genre pictures, like Big Bad Wolves, by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado—out this week in the United States—now appear to be next in line.
The Big Bad Wolves premiere took place at the Tribeca film festival last spring, and since then the movie was screened in genre festivals around the world, from South Korea to Spain; London; Los Angeles; and Austin, Texas. It was also picked up in Israeli multiplexes. The film tells the story of a teacher accused of kidnapping and murdering young girls. After being detained and released while claiming his innocence, an avenging father and a gone-wild detective join forces to capture him and start their own commissioned alternative interrogation that includes joint-smashing, nail-chopping, and flesh-burning. The question of whether this torture-fest will push the suspect to admit his crime or just expose the sadistic insanity of his accusers, echoes throughout the story, without ever being resolved.
Keshales and Papushado are considered to be a success story within the bitter, discriminated-against community of genre filmmakers in the Israeli film scene. After creating a lot of buzz (mostly bad) in 2010 with their first cheap slasher flick Kalevet (Rabies) (wrongly publicized as the first ever Israeli horror movie), the co-directors caught the eye of mainstream European distributors and were awarded a hefty budget to create Big Bad Wolves—money that in turn might explain the success of the movie, which is very well-made.
Other filmmakers are motivated by a love for horror, sci-fi, and thrillers to make low-budget films guerrilla style. That’s the case of Goldberg & Eisenberg—an urban dark thriller by Oren Carmi. Set in Tel Aviv, the extremely low-budget film follows a love-hate relationship between two men—your everyday city guy, and his creepy human parasite. The movie is now getting significant pick-up at genre festivals worldwide.
Another film that is making a splash in Israel, and lately at international festivals, is the zombie movie Cannon Fodder, by Eitan Gafny; it’s being billed as a homemade World War Z. As in the Brad Pitt blockbuster, Gafny uses geopolitics and national identity—all rendered senseless, of course, when herds of zombies from both sides of the Israeli-Lebanese border become unified in their desire for living flesh.
Like Didi Lubetzky’s 2011 short Poisoned before it, Cannon Fodder conflates the tough military discipline, uniforms, and mass psychology of soldiers with zombies. Fences and guns can’t stop the zombies, and Gafny makes the unsurprising point that violence and war hurts everyone, from the IDF to Hezbollah and radical Islamists, from Jewish nationalists to secular peaceniks.
If Big Bad Wolves, Goldberg & Eisenberg, and Cannon Fodder are leading the second wave of Israeli horror and sci-fi, their predecessors—Rabies, Poisoned, and Yuval Mendelson and Nadav Holander’s comical Cats on a Pedal Boat(2011)—are also receiving renewed attention, now that they can be identified as part of a potentially commercial trend. Still forthcoming are Freak Out, by Boaz Armoni, a slasher film that takes place in a remote IDF post; The Last Shepherd, by Daniel Dar (funded by a Kickstarter campaign), a Jewish ancient-mythology fantasy adventure; and Another World, by Eitan Reuven, an ambitious sci-fi post-apocalypse movie, that was tabbed by its creators as the first-ever Israeli movie in 3D, an ambition that might predict its demise.
Whatever the likelihood that any of these movies are picked up by Hollywood, Israel’s new wave of genre filmmakers are showing that violence, gore, and horror can also be fun—and maybe even profitable. The ambitious filmmakers might not get rich overnight or even accepted by Israel’s traditional film establishment. But with a growing global fan community—and the continuous lack of commercial interest in art-house dramas—genre schlock might be the way to stitch up the gruesome rupture that has formed between Israeli cinema and its largely disinterested audience. For Israeli movie buffs, this is the true horror story.
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Amir Bogen is a film journalist.
Amir Bogen is a film journalist.