Every summer since 1984, Israel’s filmmakers have ascended to the capital from the humid coastal plain to show off their latest wares—and to sample the best of this year’s international cinema—at the Jerusalem Film Festival. Very little about the festival, which kicked off its 36th season last night, or indeed about the local filmmaking scene, would be recognizable to the attendees of the festival’s first editions. Much has been made of the renaissance in Israeli cinema, which began in the early aughts. The world has certainly taken notice: If Israel’s leading directors would have once killed for a world premiere in Jerusalem, these days the festivals of Toronto, Berlin, and Venice usually get first dibs. But as has been the case in the past, the Israeli directors, actors, and producers who attended last night’s gala opening worry that politics may get in the way of their art. And unlike in previous years, they may soon find themselves on the losing side.
The latest fracas erupted this past May, at Tel Aviv’s immensely popular Docaviv festival, which showcases documentaries from Israel and abroad. The festival’s jury granted the award for best Israeli film to a feature called Advocate, by Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche, which received its world premiere at Sundance this year. The film follows a veteran Israeli lawyer named Lea Tsemel, who specializes in taking on clients highly unpalatable to the average Israeli: Palestinians, oftentimes those accused of planning or carrying out extreme acts of violence, and their families. What makes Tsemel a fascinating subject for a documentary is precisely what made the decision so controversial. The award carries a NIS 70,000 cash prize (roughly $20,000), courtesy of its sponsor, the Howard Gilman Israel Culture Foundation, a philanthropic organization. But it also comes with a NIS 150,000 grant (roughly $42,000) earmarked for supporting the film’s push for an Academy Award, courtesy of Israel’s state lottery, Mifal Hapais. Public funds—the hard-earned shekels of Israel’s gamblers, no less—were going to support the international publicity efforts of a film with one of the country’s most reviled activists as its sympathetic heroine.
“You have to understand that this isn’t about freedom of speech, it’s about public funding,” Alon Schvartzer told me. Schvartzer is director of policy at Im Tirtzu, a right-wing NGO known for the aggressive tactics it employs against whomever it deems to be the enemies of Zionism. The organization’s critics accuse it of leading the delegitimization of the left in Israel (case in point: Know Your Professor, a handy database where students can find out whether their professors have signed left-wing petitions). “Whoever wants to make a film about Lea Tsemel and her life’s work, that is, defending terrorists in court, that’s their right,” Schvartzer said. “But once public funds are used to promote anti-Israel propaganda, that’s where we get involved.”
Im Tirtzu partnered with bereaved families of terror victims for a protest outside the lottery’s Tel Aviv headquarters. They spilled buckets of red paint on the building’s steps, and hoisted placards bemoaning the lottery’s granting a “prize to terror.” The demonstration was remarkably effective. The lottery soon announced it was discontinuing its funding of the Docaviv award going forward (though, crucially, it was unclear whether the move actually affected Advocate’s prize money).
I asked Schvartzer who he thought should call the shots on public funding for art. “The public,” he said. “And its representatives. Not committees made up of artists. The people demonstrating against the lottery’s decision to defund Docaviv were all artists. Why should they get to decide?”
I wondered aloud whether Im Tirtzu was pining for a future where all Israeli films would sing the praises of the government and the IDF. Schvartzer chuckled. “Name one recent Israeli film that received public funds and is a work of propaganda, like the old Operation Entebbe movie. There are none,” he said. “If anything, the opposite is true. Films can’t get funds if they don’t criticize militarism, racism, and chauvinism in Israeli society. I say, only films that aren’t harmful and don’t constitute anti-Israel propaganda should be funded. The other side won’t even say what its red lines are. If you don’t put down red lines, you end up in vertigo.”
Most of Advocate’s viewers don’t seem to consider it anti-Israel propaganda, though there is little in it that Tsemel’s haters will appreciate. Tsemel herself has very few wholehearted fans. When the liberal op-ed columnist Ravit Hecht profiled Tsemel—“the closest thing to a Palestinian 911”—for Haaretz, she wrote that “what Tsemel says grates on a Jewish Israeli’s ears. When I talk with her about her more notorious clients—including cases that left wingers, too, find hard to swallow—she maintains equanimity. It’s hard to get her to say anything critical about any form of what she perceives to be resistance to the occupation.”
The five jury members who picked Advocate for the award were all industry professionals, though only two of them were Israeli, and there was clearly no politruk on hand to keep them in line. Schvartzer said that reading the text that accompanied the jury’s decision, he felt that the award was as much for Tsemel as it was for the film. “It’s a work of politics,” he said, “not a documentary.” (The jury wrote the following: “The Best Israeli Documentary Film is a thought-provoking project that combines an important issue with high quality cinematic skills, particularly an innovative and clever use of animation. Just as importantly, the film profiles an unforgettable, powerful, and inspiring woman of deep conviction in all her complexity. For their ability to capture this exceptional figure, who sees hope where others find only futility, the Best Israeli Documentary Film Award goes to the film Advocate by Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Ballaiche.”)
Were public funds not the lifeblood of the still-fragile Israeli film industry, much of this debate would be moot. Producers could turn to philanthropists—or even to ticket sales—to support their riskier efforts, just as Schvartzer suggests. But the beginning of Israel’s cinematic renaissance coincides almost perfectly with the government’s decision in the late 1990s to support local filmmaking by funneling cash through a series of semi-independent funds (even Advocate received production monies from one of the funds). Without public support, artists fear a return to the bad old days. Last year, the country’s ever-bellicose minister of culture, Miri Regev, unveiled her Regev cinema reform, which would have reworked the funds to encourage what she said would be more pluralistic and crowd-pleasing storytelling (filmmakers, of course, suspected that Regev had designs on their freedom of speech). By year’s end, the reform was enshrined in law, but without many of the elements that the industry found objectionable, and with an added NIS 20 million in additional annual funding, bringing the total amount of government funds invested in films to about NIS 100 million NIS per year (just shy of $30 million).
Avi Dabach, whose magisterial film The Lost Crown tells the story of the Aleppo Codex, has been a beneficiary of the lottery’s film fund. When we spoke, he was adamant that, Im Tirtzu’s protestations notwithstanding, the debate is ultimately about freedom of speech, with repercussions far beyond the fate of any one film. “If an organization like the lottery wants to be apolitical, then it just shouldn’t support the arts,” he said. “There’s always a political element to culture, and it will always make someone mad. Supporting one film and not supporting another is a political act. Every lector is influenced by her own worldview. If an organization takes it upon itself to support culture, then it carries the responsibility to support freedom of speech. Aside from speech that is expressly illegal, it has the responsibility to broaden that freedom as much as it can.”
Dabach made one film without the support of public funds and allows that that feat was very difficult to pull off. “The audience in Israel is limited. If we didn’t have public funds, maybe we’d make movies in English,” he said. “It would certainly change things. If Israeli society wants to support the local culture—a small country with a language that no one else speaks—then that comes with a price. But you either support local culture or you don’t. You can’t pick and choose.”
This is almost surely Miri Regev’s final summer as culture minister. Though deeply unpopular with the country’s artists, her legacy is mostly bark and very little bite. Her much-hyped Cultural Loyalty Bill, which would have given her office the leeway to defund works it found objectionable, never even saw the light of day. But all that barking may yet turn out to have a long half-life. It is difficult to imagine the lottery, which is not within Regev’s purview, defunding Docaviv without four years of Regev criticizing insufficiently patriotic works of art (she is not the first to do so, though her predecessor, Limor Livnat’s, introduction of a prize to encourage Zionist art seems positively quaint in comparison).
Whatever the future holds for Israeli culture, this latest reminder of its inherent financial precarity has brought out a great deal of solidarity among the country’s artists. Earlier this month, 30 Israeli novelists signed a petition saying that if they made it to the final rounds of the Sapir Book Prize this year, they’d share their prize money with the Docaviv festival. The Sapir Prize also happens to be supported by the state lottery, but at least in this case, Israel’s artists are adamant that the final word on the funding of the arts will be their own.
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Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.