"Yossi," "James," and "Broken Wings": Next Generation Israeli Cinema Strikes a Chord Without Politics
by Anthony Kaufman
For a small, isolated country, beset by war, and in some of the worst economic shape in its history, Israel has churned out some widely successful little movies in the last year or two. This week, the country's runaway 2002 hit "Yossi & Jagger," directed by Eytan Fox, opens in the United States from Strand Releasing (at New York's Film Forum), and in the spring of next year, two other acclaimed local productions, "Broken Wings" and "James' Journey to Jerusalem" will also receive North American theatrical runs, via, respectively, Sony Classics and Zeitgeist Films. And back in Israel, Savi Gabizon's third feature "Nina's Tragedies (A Very Sad Comedy)" is set to be the next big thing, most likely to capture Israeli's submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar category (announced today).
This mini-wave follows the 2002 release of Israeli-Georgian filmmaker Dover Kosashvili's critically lauded "Late Marriage," and the recent distribution of the Jerusalem-set indie "The Holy Land" as well as a general period of growth in the Israeli film industry over the past three years. Thanks in part to the country's New Cinema Law established in 2000 and a budget boost for the Israeli Film Fund (to $7 million annually, up from $2.5 million in 2000), about 12-14 new features are getting roughly two-thirds of their budgets funded, ranging from $500-$900,000. Foreign investments are reportedly on the rise, and local box-office share jumped from 140,000 in 2000 to 450,000 in 2002.
And yet, there is virtually no private equity available. "There is money coming from the funds and the TV channels -- right now basically the only real money available," notes Israeli critic Dan Fainaru. "The only problem being that no one knows exactly when that money is available." Adds Gal Uchovsky, one of the producers of "Yossi & Jagger," "It's never enough, it enables you to finish the movie, but you must make your movie very cheaply and you don't take anything home." And then, of course, there's the instability of the region. Last year, in the midst of renewed violence, ticket sales at Israeli movie theaters reportedly dropped 35 percent and the Tel Aviv Film Festival was canceled.
The films themselves, however, don't reflect this instability directly. Made before the most recent Intifada, this latest batch of Israeli fare engages with the politics of the region in a very curious, metaphorical way -- and this ambiguity is perhaps the very reason for the films' successes, both at home and abroad.
"I'd say 90 percent of the Israeli filmmakers are pro a Palestinian country, as the only way for peace," says Nir Bergman, the first-time feature filmmaker who made "Broken Wings," which chronicles the unraveling of an Israeli family over a 24-hour period, still reeling from the death of their father. But Bergman adds that a drama specifically reflecting these pro-Palestinian views would likely not get funded, and even if it did, it wouldn't draw in audiences. (Documentaries, however, continue to be made about the occupation). "We live in the conflict, we suffer from it, and we are too pessimistic to think that a film will change something," Bergman says. "Of course, making a film about the conflict will help my guilty feelings about living in this country, but it won't help the Palestinians."
"Yossi & Jagger" -- shot on DV, running just over 60 minutes, and made for Israeli television -- was never meant to be released in theaters, but its apolitical story about the ill-fated love affair between two gay Israeli soldiers touched a chord with local ticket-buyers, turning it into the must-see movie of 2002. In Israel's Ha-Aretz newspaper, Ari Shavit wrote, "The film has no message and no politics. It makes no history statement and has no philosophical profundity. Not even one Jewish or Zionist statement is made...'Yossi & Jagger' is an honest story about the life and death of young Israeli soldiers."
By focusing on personal -- not national -- politics, the film won over the country. "This was the first time that people could cry over a young man who died unnecessarily," echoes producer Uchovsky. "Since it was not political in any way, it enabled Israelis to cry out, and this is something that we need to do." If the film had a decidedly political stance, Uchovsky argues, the audience would immediately take sides (anti-Israel or pro-Israel) -- and turn off.
For the same reason, the absent father in "Broken Wings" died not because of the war, but of a bee sting, says Nir Bergman, in order to illustrate "an atmosphere of fear" and that "grief is hard in any case, not just for war heroes."
While the young, hip, music-savvy military kids and taboo gay romance of "Yossi & Jagger" lead the Israeli press to pick up on the film's ultimately left-wing bias, U.S. reactions may not be so kind. In the Village Voice earlier this year, Ed Halter wrote of the film in an article surveying the Tribeca Film Festival (where "Yossi & Jagger"'s Ohad Knoller received the award for best actor), "The 'enemy' is unseen -- a pure, nonhuman force. The idea that the viewer is freethinking enough to swallow the pandering closet-case romance but unable to face political reality bespeaks the bad-faith hallmarks of the age of liberal empire."
Uchovsky claims that it's not so easy to bridge liberal politics with left-wing views of the conflict. "Israelis love to see a movie like 'Broken Wings,' and feel how dysfunctional Israel has become, but if it's about Arabs and Israelis, they won't take it." ("Nina's Tragedies" also eschews politics to pointedly depict a dysfunctional Israeli family.)
Israel's industry is known for making a slew of unabashedly political films in the 1980s, but Uchovsky claims the movies simply didn't work. "Film students hated them," he says, "Now we're experiencing a backlash from the '80s, so when the new generation arrived, we didn't want to have a film with an Jew and an Arab fighting in the heat. "
Ra'naan Alexandrowicz, the director of "James' Journey to Jerusalem", agrees. His film, about an idealistic young African man who gets sidetracked on his way to the Holy Land, is also more of a parable: about Israel's obsession with not getting the bad end of a deal (political or economic). "I think fiction filmmaking has come to a crisis in trying to represent the conflict. The realistic films are quite pathetic," he says. "I feel that films that communicate hard-hitting and complicated ideas best are those that do it in a more metaphoric, detached way." Alexandrowicz offers as example, Danis Tanovic's Bosnian War satire "No Man's Land" and Rafi Bukaee's award-winning 1986 feature "Avanti Popolo," which he deems maybe "the best Israeli film ever made." About two Egyptian solders stranded in the Sinai Desert during the 1967 Six Day War, the film follows their delirious journey through the arid expanse, coming across Israeli soldiers along the way and performing Shakespeare.
All three directors plan to continue this fable-like trend, reminiscent of "Avanti Popolo," rather than tackle the conflict head-on. Eytan Fox and Gal Uchovsky have already finished shooting "To Walk on Water," a thriller about an Israeli Mossad agent, the son of holocaust survivors, and his relationship with a brother and sister from Germany who are grandchildren of a famous Nazi -- to be produced by Ami Harel (who also produced "James' Journey") and starring Lior Ashkenazi ("Late Marriage"); Bergman says his next film will be another family drama set in 1982 during the war with Lebanon, and Alexandrowicz says his next script is "a metaphorical look at the conflict."
While Bergman notes that it's a challenge to release a film outside of Israeli that does not directly engage the conflict, he adds, "On the other hand, a lot of people out of Israel see the film and say: 'At last, a film from Israel that deals with people'."