Sam Speigel Film and Television School Celebrates 20 Years

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Renen Schorr, Director of the Sam Speigel Film and Television School, opened the conference celebrating the school’s 20th anniversary on Wednesday, November 11, by noting that Israeli cinema is not one entity – this diversity of perspectives, styles and opinions was reflected in the day’s events as the invited filmmakers and scholars each expressed his or her vision for Israeli cinema.

Ilan de Vries, one of the school’s founders and Director of the Jerusalem Cinematheque, said that the school was founded in Jerusalem “out of a love of art as a way of life. In Jerusalem – a city of many languages , a heavy city in which its hard to be young and audacious, in which the past and future are more important than the present. When founding the school we didn’t know that in 20 years we find ourselves in a world that is digital, a world of globalization, dominated by the pixel. It is impossible to know where it will lead.”

De Vries reflected on the past 20 years of Israeli history saying, “20 years ago we hoped that we would not be an occupying people. Our choices are not perfect, the occupation has made us less moral,” and concluded by noting that “Palestinian filmmakers are creating an alternative cinema – what is on the other side of the mirror? We need to have the courage to create art without compromises.”

Uri Klein, Haaretz film critic said, “When I began writing about films in the 70s I wrote about HaBalash HaAmitz Schwartz (The Brave Detective Schwartz) by Ami Artzi (1973)…In the past few weeks I’ve written about Ajami, Lebanon and Five Hours from Paris – and the difference is tremendous…Not all the movies made now are good and important and some of the movies made then – Moshe Mizrahi The House on Chelouche Street and Metzizim of Uri Zohar among others were very good films.”

Klein evoked one of Israeli cinema’s respected figures, the late David Perlov, saying, “One of the most important statements was made by David Perlov in his diaries: to film through the window of your home as if it were the aperture of a tank. He created this instruction due to personal hardship – he was a great artist who could not make films.
The connection between the window and the tank is like that of the personal and the collective, between what happens to me as an individual and to this place, this society, culture, history. The film Lebanon realizes this statement in the opposite way – a movie that, for me, closes a certain historical circle. David’s diary was begun in 1973, at the time of the Yom Kippur war, Shmulik Maoz is dealing with a different war, in the early 80s, when David had stopped filming his diaries…My wish for the future is that Israeli film will continue as it is today – fascinating, interesting, reflecting Israeli society.”

Klein referred to an interview published in Haaretz with filmmaker Dover Kosashvili, saying, and “I agree with Kosashvili that we should not become euphoric.” Klein expressed his concern over the effect of co-productions on Israeli cinema that filmmakers will have “one eye looking here and the other eye looking outward,” becoming, as he termed it, “culturally cross-eyed.” Klein urged filmmakers, “now is the time to be daring, audacious, irreverent, dangerous, brave – not to be indifferent and complacent,” saying, “I do believe that films have the power to change thinking and consciousness.”

Filmmaker Ori Sivan, who created Saint Clara with Ari Folman in 1996 and later turned to television with the successful series:  Florentine (1997), Saturdays and Holidays (2001), and In Treatment (2005), said that he feels that “We are now at the crest of the wave of realism in Israeli cinema, perhaps approaching the next thing.” He expressed his perspective on realism in film saying, “You can use reality as a playground for film, you can tell a story that is not disconnected from reality, and yet not confined by it.” Sivan punctuated his remarks by showing a short segment of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 film Zabriskie Point, saying, “Its ok to create cinema that is a little more open.”

Yael Abecassis/Photo: Yossi Zwecker
Yael Abecassis/Photo: Yossi Zwecker

Actor and producer Yael Abecassis spoke of her enthusiasm for creating films in Israel telling the students that she is available for student films and when asked by an audience member, even gave them her phone number.

Joseph Cedar, maker of Beaufort (2007) said, “Israeli cinema is healthy and dynamic but I fear that it is unstable.” Cedar cautioned that when filmmakers become too set in their ways it can lead to a decline. He focused on the specific conditions of creating cinema in a country such as Israel, asking, “How many films are too many for a small country?” In terms of the development of Israeli cinema, Cedar placed an emphasis on creating an environment which allows filmmakers to mature and develop their craft, and the freedom to make mistakes, stressing the importance of continuity. Cedar expressed concern in terms of the “tension between the local and the universal” talking about the kind of film that tends to have “a father in Germany, a brother in France and the drama somehow leads the main character to NY” in the quest for international approval, saying: “Filmmakers imagine their acceptance speech at Cannes, they are dreaming in French, but how many Israeli filmmakers are dreaming of the line at the box office at Cinema City (a large theatre complex in Ramat HaSharon)?

Tawfik Abu Wael, creator of Atash (2004), said, “It’s hard for me to say that I feel connected, I am not part of Israeli cinema, I have a connection to private individuals. Where I come from making films is a crazy dream, there is no culture of art and cinema. Arabs don’t see movies. I make movies for Israelis so that they will see them.”

Wael said that he feels that filmmaking in Israel seems to cater to a particular taste, commenting, “It’s not possible that all the heroes are so moral, left-wing…I want to see a movie about two settlers in love on a mountaintop, fighting everyone.” On a more pragmatic note he added, “I’d like to see 70% of the money allocated to filmmaking go to student films or people creating their first feature, I think it would bring about a revolution. Give 50% of the budget to student films and see what will happen in five years time.”

Poet and scholar Zeli Gurevitch approached the topic from an entirely different direction, discussing the Hebrew language as it appears in film: “There is a struggle to achieve a natural quality to speech in Israeli film. It’s a matter of having confidence in the language, which is something that, apparently takes time…Hebrew is an impossible language, it cannot be spoken correctly. You need to know which mistakes to make. I would like to suggest that filmmakers think of the poetics of speech in film…Israeli cinema should relate to poetry and not only to literature.”

Dr. Raya Morag, Assistant Professor of film in the Communications Department of the Hebrew University expressed her dismay at the under-representation of women in the conference. Indeed, there were only three women participating. Dr. Morag spoke of the trauma of the Intifada, with which Israeli film has not yet come to terms, comparing it to the Vietnam War in the US, which did not find its expression in film until many years after the war had ended.

Shemi Zarhin, Ram Levi, Judd Ne'eman/Photo: Yossi Zwecker
Shemi Zarhin, Ram Levi, Judd Ne'eman/Photo: Yossi Zwecker

Judd Neeman, filmmaker and researcher, who followed Morag, continued this theme, noting that it is 20 years to the Intifada as well as 20 years to Sam Speigel. Neeman said that at a certain point in his career, “I stopped making films and started looking at them.” Speaking of Israeli films of the 60s and 70s he said “the chill they exude seems to say – we don’t want to feel anything…what is this thing that we do not want to feel? He spoke of his childhood memories of wartime in Israel as “the kind of memory that creates trauma.”

Neeman told the audience, “What we do or do not do in our daily lives is far more important than film, film is just a reflection.” Commenting on the changes that took place in his own filmmaking from Stretcher Drill (Masa Alunkot 1977) to Nuzhat (2006) he said, “I opened up to my feminine side. I am not the same person I was in the 60s. As the sole representative of the lost generation of Israeli film – make artistic films!”

Dover Kosashvili/Photo: Yossi Zwecker
Dover Kosashvili/Photo: Yossi Zwecker

The prize for “most controversial” goes to Dover Kosashvili, creator of  Late Marriage (2001), who said, “The success of Israeli films does not testify to its quality.” Kosashvili’s remarks generated quite a stir among the audience. Yael Abecassis challenged his claim asking, “What about Waltz with Bashir, Ajami, Lebanon, Late Marriage?” When asked about his approach to his own films, Kosashvili replied, “I make films from a desire to create a masterpiece.” His advice to Israeli film: “Let’s calm down, be a bit more modest, examine ourselves and think about how to make better movies.” In a comment made after the session Kosashvili provided a more precise definition of what constitutes a good movie: “Until we have a Fellini we will not have a masterpiece.”

Reno Tzror, journalist and director, was more optimistic, saying, “We have great cinema, Dover,” mentioning the movies Lebanon and Ajami as examples. Tzror expressed a wish that someone would make a film with an “Ethiopian Israeli as a high-tech tycoon and an Arab will be the most intellectual person in the area – let’s try to think of changing things, to confront [the current reality/stereotypes] through the use of images, and a different perspective. It is my great hope that one day roles will be changed, that an Ethiopian will not just play an Ethiopian…when people see it once on the screen – the picture will change.”

Actor/singer Shuli Rand (Ushpizin 2004) called for the industry to pay more attention to actors who are “the most exposed and vulnerable on the set.” Rand spoke of cinema from his personal perspective saying, “I see a symbolism in the proximity of this place to the Western Wall…why do you care? [in response to murmurs from the audience] I’m a doss (Israeli slang for Orthodox Jew), I’ll talk about whatever interests me.” Rand continued in a more serious vein, “Our trauma is our lack of connection with the Holy One, Blessed Be He, we have unsolved questions. We are missing the Holy One, Blessed Be He, in the frame. He will enter, He won’t give up, and He’s known to be fond of the media. We have a treasure here that has remained untouched. …I have taken upon myself the Torah of Israel, I’m like a tightrope walker [when making films], I’m limited in what I can do, but that limitation can bring about creative solutions…things on the level of Fellini.”

Ari Folman, Shemi Zarhin/Photo: Yossi Zwecker
Ari Folman, Shemi Zarhin/Photo: Yossi Zwecker

Ari Folman, who wrote and directed Waltz With Bashir (2008) spoke of a futuristic vision of cinema saying, “We are in an age of silicon graphics, computers, saying ‘Bye Bye’ to an old world. [In the future] Movie makers will use image banks rather than actors. It sounds like science fiction, but that is what will happen.”

Renen Schorr, Director of the Sam Speigel School, said that “A generous place has been devoted to the “other” in Israeli cinema, but it still does not make full use of the Israeli multi-location.” Schorr called for filmmakers to create movies based on research, citing as examples Eran Riklis’ The Syrian Bride (1999), the trilogy of movies on Lebanon, and Ajami. Schorr’s own most recent film The Loners, is an example of this approach to filmmaking, a dramatic film based on an incident that took place in the Israeli military involving two soldiers who had immigrated to Israel on their own – hence the name “loners.” 

Schorr advocated “Cinema that is connected to the Israeli reality; influences and changes it.” Speaking in favor of de-centralization, he recommended creating local film foundations and cinematheques, and stressed the importance of showing Israeli films in theatres and not only in festivals.

Renen Schorr/Photo: Yossi Zwecker
Renen Schorr/Photo: Yossi Zwecker

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