Exporting Homegrown Culture: Can Israeli Cinema Go Global?

By Daphne Merkin

Published August 08, 2003, issue of August 08, 2003.

The first and – but can this be? – last truly memorable Israeli film I saw was “Sallah Shabbati.” That was way back in my impressionable, Zionism-infused youth, somewhere in the middle of the giddy 1960s, when Israel still shimmered before the eyes of Jewish day-school children like a biblical fable come true, an as-yet untarnished land of milk and honey and happy kibbutznik families. The movie itself, based as it was on a screenplay by the humorist Ephraim Kishon and starring Chaim Topol as a wily new immigrant who comes up with ever more far-fetched money-making schemes, unfolded like a picturesque tale told by a reproving but essentially benign omniscient narrator (which was, neatly enough, how I thought of God). I remember it struck me as wholly satisfying in its mixture of droll laughs and teary touches, and because my mother composed a ditty for my older brother’s bar mitzvah that was set to the movie’s title tune, I can still give a passable rendition of its hearty opening song at a moment’s notice.

In the intervening years, my Zionism has continued to flourish and Israel has continued to crank out movies. As someone who has a more than personal interest in film, having put in two stints as a regular film critic (at The New Leader and The New Yorker) as well as having written magazine profiles of a number of actors and directors, including Martin Scorsese and Liv Ullman, and, moreover, as someone who has a deeply personal interest in the creative uses of Jewish experience, I have watched the emergence — or, to put it more bluntly, nonemergence — of an indigenous Israeli cinema with great interest. Not to mention a degree of puzzlement.

There is no competing with our homegrown product, to be sure, or with French and Italian (and, increasingly, Chinese) imports. Sweden has Bergman and Japan had Kurosawa. But why should New Zealand, for instance, have managed to carve out an ascertainable spot for itself on the cinematic landscape, and Iranian films such as “The Wind Will Carry Us” open to wild praise and linger in theaters for months at a time? Oh, one can choose to be generous and point to a couple of documentaries and some small, stirring films like “Three Days and a Child,” based on A.B. Yehoshua’s disquieting short story of the same title, and last year’s “Late Marriage,” as well as “Kaddish.” But it is hard to imagine these films ever acquired an audience much beyond the hard-core, infinitely receptive Jewish constituency in urban centers like New York, Boston and Los Angeles, which hardly suggests a broad exposure, much less influence.

And I suppose the country has produced a quasivisible movie star or two — there was auburn-haired, green-eyed Senta Berger, who lit up the drab settings of “The Ipcress File” (although I can find no mention of her in the film’s credits), and Assaf Dayan has always been capable of holding a viewer’s attention, indicating a potentially larger presence than the mostly provincial vehicles he appears in — but Israeli film can hardly be said to have established a stronghold outside its own tiny borders. Certainly Israel’s leading actress of stage and film, Gila Almagor (who is also a talented director), is an unknown name to any American producer other than Menachem Golan, and I feel safe in saying that he has no intention of casting her in any of his bottom-line commercial projects.

The question of why this should be so has long intrigued me, as one Israel Film Festival after another has come and gone with nary a ripple of response from mainstream critics or, for that matter, a flicker of interest from mainstream distributors. Is it that Israel is too embattled and unrepresentative in its national concerns to speak to the general consciousness? Or is it, perhaps, that its artistic perspective is too closely modeled on an American model, its vision too imitative of its powerful ally in the West, with its garish Dunkin’ Donuts and mall-going aesthetic, despite its Middle Eastern, falafel-eating locale?

I hope I won’t be misconstrued as a petty media hack if I propose that at least part of the answer lies with, believe it or not, the incontestably tragic-comic state of Israel’s public relations machinery, be it in its choice of heavily-accented spokesmen to appear on Charlie Rose’s show or its choice of press liaisons. The last time — admittedly some years ago — I attended the Israel Film Festival in the hope of convincing The New Yorker that the evolution of Israeli cinema was worth a piece, I was dumbstruck by the inept, brusque style of the publicists — not that much different from the “get it yourself” approach of El Al stewardesses. Is it too far-fetched to suggest that as long as Israel remains a country without a viable service industry — without the foggiest notion of how to entice a noncaptive audience — it will, sad to say, remain a country without a cinematic presence? Perhaps.

There are a few hopeful signs that change is in the air. The annual heavily-attended Jerusalem Film Festival, at which “James’ Journey to Jerusalem” and “Islands on the Shore” were especially well-received, is proof that Israelis themselves remain passionate about movies — more so than we are. For them movies remain a way into the larger world outside their embattled borders and raging internecine conflicts.

In the meantime, you can rent “Cast a Giant Shadow,” starring Kirk Douglas’s cleft chin. And, of course, there is always “Exodus,” with Paul Newman’s blazing un-Semitic blue eyes and Eve Marie Saint’s delicate blonde responses — a universe away from Israel’s characteristically aggressive citizens. Here, in its depiction of fearless, resolute pioneers and unstoppable heroics, you can find the newly-minted, proverbial Palestine of your adolescent dreams — prickly on the outside and tender within, fragrant with hope and the scent of orange trees.



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