Contemporary Israeli Film

Filmmakers find a uniquely Israeli voice.

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An Aversion to Politics?

What these films generally avoided, however, was the most dramatic, most all-encompassing aspect of Israeli life from the early 1990s forward: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the abortive Oslo peace process. “Palestinian” was a word rarely heard in Israeli film, with most top-flight Israeli films concerning themselves with internal housekeeping rather than matters of diplomacy.

Instead, narrative filmmakers left the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to documentarians, who took up the reins with aplomb. In films like Yoav Shamir’s Checkpoint (2003) and Avi Mograbi’s How I Learned to Overcome My Fear and Love Arik Sharon (1997) and Avenge But One of My Two Eyes (2005), Israeli filmmakers wrestled with the moral complexities of occupation and endless conflict. Best of all was David Ofek’s haunting No. 17 (2003), which sought the identity of the mysterious seventeenth victim of a Tel Aviv suicide bombing, finding in one lost soul a key that unlocked a world of loneliness, suffering, and solitude buried at the heart of Israeli life, made only more unreachable by violent death. The current conflict was not the only subject of interest to Israeli documentarians, of course; films like Nitzan Giladi’s In Satmar Custody (2003), Yaron Zilberman’s Watermarks (2005), and Dani Menkin’s 39 Pounds of Love (2006) investigated the lives of Satmar Hasidim, a Viennese women’s swim team from the 1930s, and a courageous survivor of muscular dystrophy.

New Themes and Styles

Even taking into account their political hesitancy, it was the narrative filmmakers, though, who contributed the bulk of the exciting new films emerging from Israel. Young Israeli filmmakers adapted freely from European and American film technique while retaining a uniquely Israeli perspective. Among the younger set, Eytan Fox staked out ground for himself as one of the few narrative directors interested in depicting that most central of Israeli institutions: the military. In both Yossi & Jagger (2002) and Walk on Water (2004), Fox set his story among soldiers, torn between duty and desire. Groundbreaking for his depictions of gay eroticism (a major taboo in conservative Israeli society), Fox managed to use his films’ risqué sexuality as a cover for their stinging critiques of Israeli militarism.

Keren Yedaya, who won the Camera d’Or for best first film at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival for Or, was more concerned with women than men, and the lives of Israelis far removed from the elite units of the military. Yedaya’s technique owes a great deal to auteurs like Michelangelo Antonioni and Tsai Ming-liang, with Or’s rigid framing and deliberate lack of camera movement harbingers of a more austere, spartan style than had previously been utilized by Israeli filmmakers. Or’s innovative style was matched by its interest in the forgotten members of Israeli society, those who slip through the cracks. Yedaya was interested in the travails--and traumas--of women burdened with the weight of the world.

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.