Israel’s Class of 2014

A new wave of Israeli cinema is emerging that is edgy, brave, witty and singular. Not bad for an industry that’s still in its baby years. Here are the films that grabbed the Israeli Oscars (Ophir awards), some of which are now vying for contender as Best Foreign Oscar.

Director Talya Lavie on Zero Motivation (image above):

During my mandatory military service as a secretary, I dreamed of making an army movie with the pathos and epic proportions of classic war- films, but about the gray, mundane experiences that my office mates and I had, hardly ever getting up from our chairs. Like most girls during their two years of service, we didn‘t risk our lives. But we were definitely in danger of dying of boredom.

I was inspired and amused by the idea of using envelopes, coffee cups, office intrigues, staple guns, and Solitaire to create a female response to the male-dominated army films genre. Israeli women may of course serve in more glamorous roles, like pilots or tank crew instructors. But I wanted to focus on us office girls, the unseen and mostly-ignored majority whose contribution is lacking any social or symbolic value.

Zero Motivation describes the everyday drama in the private lives of young women. It is about love and disappointment, dreams and fears, friendship and loneliness and finding out who you are under an absurd set of rules. I intended to use the mandatory military service – a very local aspect of the Israeli culture – as a platform to tell a universal coming of age story.

Cinematically, I wished to keep the mono- chromatic palette of the army base, its grey structures, crowded offices and rundown living quarters, set against the beautiful desert scenery of the south of Israel, with its warm colors, constantly changing weather and sense of freedom.

Director Shira Geffen on Self Made:

When JELLYFISH, the first feature I wrote and co-directed with my husband Etgar Keret was recognized with the Caméra d‘Or Prize in Cannes, I thought that developing and producing the next film would be a simpler process. But it was actually not an easy path. From the beginning of the writing process to the completed film – it took six years. Filmmaking always has its hardships, especially when it comes to a film like this one, which includes a fantastical element.

Jerusalem is the perfect location for this tale. Like our protagonists it is divided by walls, it is more of a symbol than a city. It has seventy names, yet it is one city, just as Nadine and Michael are two different sides of the same woman. The border checkpoint that plays a central role in SELF MADE works as a metaphor for the characters’ blocked psychological state, each in its own way. Michal and Nadine penetrate each other‘s lives because of the separation between them, but as long as they keep to their basic social functions no one notices that the two women have switched places. This gap between what society wants us to be and what we truly are is the territory the film attempts to explore.

Director Tom Shoval on Youth:

This film focuses on the story of two teenage brothers, and many elements in the film are borrowed from the deep bond I have with my brother – the sense that one can talk to the other without words, or that togetherness creates a singular identity, another, intimate world.

It’s also about the broadening gaps between social classes in Israel, the slow erosion of the middle class. Up until two years ago, the middle class seemed to be like a lamb led to the slaughter, accepting its fate or perhaps unaware of it. But its awakening during the social protest movement has changed the rules of the game a bit, and the people of the middle class have become more aware of their situation. “Youth” tries to tell the story of this awakening, as well as its consequences.

The film ask its audience not to judge its characters. They are often horrible and dangerous, often infantile and often good, helpless boys. This shifting between cinematic moods, which resembles the shift between the underground shelter and the third floor apartment, the evil in the shelter versus the tender warmth of the Cooper family, creates a duality that is the film’s beating heart.

Director Nadav Schirman on The Green Prince:

I always have Billy Wilder’s adage in mind “grab the audience by the throat and don’t let go until the end.” More than a film about this character or that one, The Green Prince is a story of a relationship – how the best of enemies become the best of friends.

It was very challenging to put together such a griping narrative with only two characters. Visually, it was clear from the start that we would have two points-of-view: the system, seen through the drones and the surveillance cameras, perceiving humans as functions, blips on a map; and the human, who is fragile and emotional.

It was also very challenging to find rare footage that would give a sense of the here and now. We were very fortunate to be able to unearth some real gems, such as footage of Mosab in Ramallah in the years he was still operating undercover.

Director Yuval Adler on Bethlehem:

The research and writing of “Bethlehem” took years. My co-writer, Ali Waked, and I came from very different backgrounds. I’m an Israeli Jew who served in the army intelligence. Ali is a Muslim journalist and activist who worked for many years in Ramallah and Gaza. It wasn’t easy getting Palestinian militants from al- Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades and Hamas to open up. And it was even harder to get a handle on the tradecraft of Shabak, the Israeli secret service. But eventually we did, and the process formed our screenplay in ways that exceeded our expectations.

The three main roles in the film are played by non-professional actors whom we discovered during the casting process. We looked for people whose lives somehow relate to the characters they’re playing. Tsahi Halevy (Razi) served in the Israeli Army in an elite unit – most of his service was in the West Bank. Hitham Omari (Bitam) is a Palestinian living in the contested Kfar Aqab area between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Shadi Mar’i (Sanfur), a 17 year-old from Nazareth, is nothing short of a boy genius, and brought the most difficult role in the film to life: a fragile, confused, and violent youth, trapped in an impossible situation.

An Israeli secret service agent once told me: “the key to recruiting and running informants is not violence, or intimidation, or money; the key is to develop an intimate relationship with the informant, on a very human level. It’s not just the informant who is confused about his identity and loyalties. The agent, too – and especially the good ones – often experience a blurring of the lines.”

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