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September 29, 2009
Israeli cinema: Growing up

The Worldfocus signature story “Israeli films explore realities of warfare, faith” explores the themes of Israeli cinema. Amy Kronish is an author living in Jerusalem. She lectures on a variety of subjects dealing with film and has written two books on Israeli cinema. She blogs at Israeli Film and Filmmakers.

Israeli films and filmmakers have been enjoying a tremendous amount of recognition all over the world during these last 10-15 years. A government increase in funding for filmmaking combined with the establishment of commercial TV have encouraged the growth and development of the industry, leading to a dramatic change in the quantity and quality of the feature films being produced. The aesthetics of these high-quality, self-critical films, which are characterized by multifaceted and complex scripts, reflecting a wide diversity of style and substance, are what makes Israeli film so interesting today.

Like Israeli literature, and Israel itself, the country’s cinema has been moving away from the overriding political and ideological issues of existence such as war, heroism and ideology, which were part and parcel of the state-in-the-making of the past 60 years. Instead, during the last 10-15 years, Israeli filmmakers have turned their cameras to personal, humanistic stories — of love, loss and relationships — and social issues, such as feminism and homosexuality, ethnic assimilation and social alienation. These new themes can be seen not in opposition to the political, but rather in adding complexity and humanity to the political. In addition, the camera has become focused on a new subject — the Palestinian Arab minority within the State of Israel – the relationship to this minority, their issues and culture, and their historical narrative. From decades of stereotypical heroic images to more complex yet individualistic ones, Israeli cinema continues to evolve, confronting both the critical collective and personal existential dilemmas which are in the consciousness of the people of Israel today.

Not surprisingly, however, Israelis flock to see Hollywood films, as do filmgoers everywhere. How do we reconcile these two, but very different, forms of popular cinema? We go to see Hollywood films out of a desire for good entertainment mixed with a need for escapism, and we go to see locally produced films that help us grapple with contemporary issues, relive historical trauma, and consider societal trends in a self-critical manner.

Take for example two award-winning films produced in 2009 – Ajami, directed by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, deals with contemporary issues and Lebanon, directed by Shmuel Maoz, brings the viewer to almost experience the horror of wartime. Ajami, which won special mention at Cannes and recently won the Israeli Ophir Award for best feature film of 2009, is about issues of identity, crime, drugs, and the violence and desperation of life in the Israeli Arab neighborhood of Jaffa. Constructed in the style of Pulp Fiction, the narrative moves back and forth in time, until all the plot lines intertwine.

During the last few years, we have seen major award-winning films about the war in Lebanon which lasted from 1982 to 2000 – Beaufort (Joseph Cedar), Waltz with Bashir (Ori Folman), and a few earlier films. All of these films illustrate a move in Israeli society from the heroism of the earlier periods to a new understanding of the complexity and futility of war. This year’s big prize winner at the Venice Film Festival, Lebanon, takes place completely within the claustrophobic confines of a tank and the viewer cringes each time he hears the clanking as the turret turns and as soldiers slam closed the opening.

Israeli society has matured and the recent films are a reflection of this new maturity. The films have become complex and the images portrayed are diverse and multifaceted. No longer are women marginalized, nor are ethnic characters portrayed as stereotypes or Arab characters seen as one-dimensional figures. On the contrary, the films portray quirky, in-depth and varied characters, all grappling with issues of contemporary society. Although the films still deal with existential issues of war and peace, Jews and Arabs, and are panoramic in their scope, they are emotional and intimate in their glimpse at real and everyday life in contemporary Israel.

These films deal with issues in a more complex and humanistic way, integrating elements of gender, societal alienation, and social issues. Creating films that are both particularistic and universal at the same time, these films are still uniquely Israeli yet also speak to an international audience.

Watch a trailer of Ajami, a film made by an Israeli and Palestinian.

Watch a trailer of Waltzing with Bashir, the Israeli film nominated for an Academy Award.


1 comment


Always happy to see a positive segment about ISrael. It’s very brave of you to do so. Israel’s cinema has been improving steadily over the last few years in particular. It’s unfortunate that most of the ones that are found acceptable by the international community are the antiwar ones. And so that’s what Israeli producers have to make in order to get exports. Of course, most are low budget films as the domestic audience is so small. But the quality is greatly improving nonetheless. I recently saw a very good Israeli movie called the “Yellow Asphalt” which had nothing to do with the conflict directly. It actually had to do with the Bedouin community, and, of course an Israeli bad boss gets a Bedouin woman into trouble. Very good flic. Netflix subscribers can find some of them in the instant play foreign film area.
Oh, another country that makes EXCELLENT films is Iran. I like Iranian films very much. I learned a lot from them, particularly that Iranians are very sensitive and intelligent people. It’s a shame where their present leadership appears to be leading them. Israel and Iran are natural allies, not enemies. I hope war between them can be avoided, but I am not optimistic.

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