Israeli cinema is flourishing. Israel now has about 20 film schools, a remarkable number for a population of 6 million people. The reason for this is that twelve years ago a new law in Israel, the Cinema Law, put $15-20 million into filmmaking. DOX met Israeli documentary director Ido Haar during his master class on Israeli social and political documentaries.
– It doesn’t sound like a lot of money but in Israel it only costs half a million or $1 million to make a fiction film, $100,000 for a documentary. So suddenly many films are being done on very different subjects.
Last year the filmmaker was an artist-in-residence at the San Francisco Film Society, where he spoke to several high school and college classes and attended a public screening of his film Nine Star Hotel, about Palestinian men working illegally in Israel. In the masterclass he also showed clips from recent Israeli documentaries, such as Pizza in Auschwitz by Moshe Zimerman and Loving Sophia by Ohad Itach.
CHULEENAN SVETVILAS: What kind of trends do you see in Israeli documentaries?
IDO HARR: Over the years, the main themes in Israeli documentaries are dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and with the Holocaust and religion. There were great films that had been done about those subjects but I felt that there was a little fatigue from those kinds of issues around the world and also in Israel. The films that had been done in the last five years give a different angle.
– I did my film Nine Star Hotel almost five years ago. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was still all over the News. I really was struggling and trying to find out what to say about this conflict that has not already been said. I grew up in that area of Nine Star Hotel and one of the first things I saw was those men running across the highway and disappearing into the forest and the hills. I find myself walking around this forest, and discovering this huge terminal where thousands of Palestinians are trying to sneak into Israel and find work.
– Usually we were exposed to things very much connected to suicide bombings or violent encounters between soldiers and Palestinians. I would rather tell the stories of thousands of young Palestinian workers. Very small stories, not the big dramas, but something more deep, or behind the drama.
– When it comes to portraying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it seems that some of the sharpest criticism is coming from Israeli filmmakers. Are Israeli filmmakers more critical now than in the past?
– Yes, I was travelling a little bit with this film and a lot of people were surprised that this voice of criticism was coming from Israel. We were not sure we could do this kind of film in our country. But my film is funded by the Israeli government and the Israeli fund.
– There is a lot of criticism in my film about the Israeli policy with illegal workers but I was never told what to put in or what to [take] out. There was never someone who tried to prevent me from filming something or doing something. This is the way I’m used to working.
– It’s kind of a cliché but you want to change something. Part of making change is sometimes to be critical As a filmmaker, this is why we make films. You are disturbed by something that’s very much connected to the place that you are living in and you want to make people do something.
– How do you think filmmakers in Israel can change attitudes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
– I thi’nk these films can reveal sides that are not exposed in the media, internationally and in Israel. To bring some different angles, another layer, another depth, another background to the things that happen in the news. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a big live wound in our lives and in a way we are trying to heal this wound. We are trying to confront the things that we would prefer not to and try to work with it and do something about it. Documentaries are part of it.
– Are people trying to move away from a historical approach to focus on more current affairs, relationships between people now?
– There are many films that are dealing with what is happening now and a kind of dialogue with the past. For example Avi Mugrabi is doing the most challenging films for me as an Israeli filmmaker and an Israeli citizen. His films are very strong and challenging. He made a film called Z32 (2008), and Avenge But One of My Two Eyes (2005), which was in Cannes a few years ago. For many Israelis they are hard to watch in terms of the issues that they raise.
– Another film is Checkpoint (2003) by Yoav Shamir that deals with the current issues of the Israeli conflict. It did something for me. There is also a critical film about the military service of women in the Israeli army, it’s called To See If I’m Smiling by Tamar Yarom. There are many films about military service in Israel and soldiers. This one looks from a different angle – young girls serving in the military – confronting many issues. It’s a wonderful film. Another film is the Bridge Over the Wadi (2006) directed by Tomer Heymann and Barak Heymann, about a little school with Palestinian kids and Israeli kids raised in terms of the wide picture.
– Do you think there’s more interest in Israel these days in showing the Palestinian side of the conflict?
– No, unfortunately in Israel from my experience with Nine Star Hotel, it was hard to get wide distribution. It took Israeli television almost three years until they broadcast this film and when they broadcast it they broadcast it almost at midnight. I still can say that we are really open to those kinds of films. But we sometimes need to push them a little more than other films.
– Why do you think the government funds the work but then doesn’t really seem to care that much about distribution?
– I think when it comes to distribution, there are also commercial elements. Films about the Israeli conflicts aren’t bringing a big audience. All those commercial issues are really hard. Cinemas want to screen the films but then no one is coming – so they prefer to screen other films. It’s the same for television. They need the ratings. So I think this is the main problem when it comes to distribution. Today things are changing. I’m not sure I could have done Nine Star Hotel with Israeli funds. Today it seems to be a little harder. I can still say those funds are very open for any voices, even if it’s not serving an Israeli Zionist theme.