Revolution by Intent

At the New York Israel Film Festival, Doron Tsabari Changes the Media - One Film at a Time

From the Nerds to the Boards: Tsabari’s reforming tendencies began with a nerd revolution at his school in Arad.
Courtesy of Ruth Diskin Films
From the Nerds to the Boards: Tsabari’s reforming tendencies began with a nerd revolution at his school in Arad.

By Jordana Horn

Published May 25, 2011, issue of June 03, 2011.
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The Israel Film Festival provides viewers with an opportunity to see the Israel of Israelis by showing the country through a different, more localized lens. These films often delve into issues and circumstances that are uniquely local and attempt to translate them for a universal audience. Last year’s festival showcased journalist Miki Rosenthal’s film “The Shakshuka System,” about the tangled and interwoven interests of big money and Israeli government. The movie focuses on the wealthy Ofer brothers’ purchase of privatized assets from the Israeli government in suspicious transactions. And this year’s offering, much in the same vein, is “Revolution 101” by filmmaker Doron Tsabari, about his crusade against the systemic nepotism in Israel’s public television system. While Tsabari’s film is interesting, Rosenthal’s was, for various reasons, a better example of instruction on how to fight institutionalized corruption.

Tsabari takes us into his world of filmmaking by way of autobiography, showing in re-enacted segments his childhood in Arad, in which he led a “revolution” of the nerdy kids and broke down the barriers to allow them to attend the cool kids’ parties. And now, as an adult, Tsabari wants to accomplish the same thing by breaking down the nepotistic structure of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, Israel’s public Broadcasting Network. As matters stand — and as Tsabari is keenly aware of, as a filmmaker — the head of the IBA reports directly to the prime minister, which certainly doesn’t put the IBA in favor of sound budget construction, penetrating news coverage or innovative programming. And those are all the things Tsabari wants to change. It’s cognitively dissonant to Americans to suggest that any form of public media could have to answer to the government — after all, even our NPR and Public Broadcasting Service television channels are determinedly independent. But public broadcasting in Israel is a different animal, and it’s that difference that gets under Tsabari’s skin. Tsabari struggles with not only political issues, but also personal ones. He may have earned three Israeli Academy Award-equivalents by the age of 36, but his mother still regards him as a failure. “You have no car,” she tells him on film dismissively. “I expected you to be prime minister. You could have made money with your talent, and you’re making stupid films.” With diplomacy like this, no wonder there’s no peace in the Middle East.

But Tsabari, while working for the IBA as a Channel 1 (the public television station) freelancer, notices that there are many tenured workers at the public channel who get salaries for doing nothing, and that corruption at the IBA “was old hat” — entrenched and with no reforms ever implemented. His goal? To get the CEO fired, with the hope that change at the top will trickle down to every level of the organization. And he aims to do this with the help of his fellow filmmaker, Ori Inbar.

Of course, once the initial CEO is fired, he’s replaced with the crony of the current prime minister, Ariel Sharon. So now what? Now, Tsabari has to introduce a bill to the Knesset to reform the legislation governing the terms of the IBA. Basically, he has to leave filmmaking and become a part-time politician, lobbying Knesset members, reading up on laws and budgets, and studying the workings of Israeli government, from plenaries to parliamentary votes.

Films that examine the intricacies of an esoteric problem and how to solve it can easily cross the line into being too much “insider baseball” — that is, that they will go into obsessive details that, while interesting to those whose lives are wrapped up in making the film, serve only to alienate people otherwise ill-informed about the circumstances.

Of course, there are numerous ways to combat the insider baseball phenomenon in documentary filmmaking, among them, graphics, subplots and entertaining interstitials. In “The Shakshuka System,” for example, Rosenthal deployed to great success Monopoly-like visualizations of the complicated permutations of corporate transactions being depicted in the film. Tsabari’s expository offerings are, in contrast, weak. He sets out his “rules of revolution,” as per his title, in Hebrew script accompanied by sketches of a bull charging at a matador, Don Quixote preparing to charge at windmills and other fairly pedestrian and obvious analogies. After a while, Tsabari isn’t directing the film; it seems he, like the viewer, has no idea how things will turn out in either the film or the Knesset. Perhaps all the focus on politicking took away his impetus to make the story of the struggle a compelling one, as well. One terrific scene in the film leads us to understand the emotional investment Tsabari has in the cause, as well as to appreciate his capacity to stage a scene. Unfortunately, that scene is the film’s last.

The problem with the film is that Tsabari makes a fundamental assumption that people will care about the issue of democratizing Israel’s public television station, but he makes no attempt to make sure his filmmaking is the reason they care. To Michael Moore’s great envy, Tsabari apparently got the result he hoped for in reality but did not achieve the same in the film.

Jordana Horn is a writer and lawyer at work on her first novel.

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