Mirror Images: Israeli Film and Society

By Georgina Kolber, Curator of Exhibits, Collection & Programs

For the past several weeks I’ve been watching brand new Israeli films to consider for our third annual New Israeli Cinema series, co-produced and hosted every July by the Denver Film Society at the Sie FilmCenter. We won’t be considering Oscar-nominated 5 Broken Cameras or The Gatekeepers for this year’s series, yet I’ve continued to observe the attention these films have drawn within Israel and, most interestingly, outside of Israel. The controversial content of the films directly reflects social and political topics; the impassioned and diverse responses to these films exactly mirror Israel’s ever intense and pluralistic society.

As in any democracy, individuals and groups will have different opinions, and it is important that these opinions be expressed in the public discourse—in cultural expression, in textbooks, in classrooms. Because of its accessible and realistic nature, film is capable of communicating poignantly and somewhat unforgettably—to sometimes it is impossible to remove powerful film scenes from one’s memory. So it is understandable that as controversial Israeli films increasingly attract international attention, sensitivity rises about how Israel presents itself to the global community.

5 Broken Cameras (Emad Burnat , Guy Davidi, 2012)

5 Broken Cameras (Emad Burnat , Guy Davidi, 2012)

Viewers inside and outside of Israel who have praised The Gatekeepers and 5 Broken Cameras, both of which raise ethical questions about Israel’s settlement policies and activity, feel that ultimately, Israel’s art, in all of its forms, must be free to incite pluralistic debate, and that it should be exported abroad. Some viewers don’t agree with the content of these films, yet respect the freedom and bravery the filmmakers employed in creating them. Other supporters of these kinds of films tend to question and criticize Israel’s settlement policies in general, so such films only add fuel to their dissatisfaction.

In direct contrast, critics of the film, including Israeli Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat and Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, denounce the filmmakers for releasing films that, in Livnat’s words, “libel Israel throughout the world” and “compromise Israel’s public relations efforts.” These accusations beg the question: does being patriotic to Israel mean silencing political and social dissent? That depends on who you ask, of course, but one thing is certain: filmmakers will undoubtedly continue to explore the past, present and future, and will continue to serve up diverse perspectives and messages, as long as Israel remains a democratic society.

The tendency for Israeli film to so closely reflect and focus on internal developments began with early Zionist films of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. As Zionism gained momentum, films about the figure and traits of the “New Jew” in Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) dominated. The prevalent pioneering spirit was palpable in the air and unmistakable on screen.

In 1967, the Six-Day War changed Israel’s view of itself. Israelis became slightly less worried about imminent destruction, and developments in cinema ran parallel to that sentiment. Films like Three Days and a Child (Uri Zohar), Hole in the Moon (Uri Zohar) and Evrinka (Ephraim Kishon), expressed a relaxed, often comic sentiment.

Festival at the Poolroom (Chagiga B'snuker, 1975)

Festival at the Poolroom (Chagiga B’snuker, 1975)

The late 1960s and 70s saw the ascendancy of the so-called Bourekas films, named after the flaky Middle Eastern pastry. The main subject in most of these films is the conflict between various classes, denominations and ethnic groups, particularly due to romantic intentions, a theme that once again accurately mirrored societal issues of the time. Known for its comic melodramas and tear-jerking plots, Bourekas films were incredibly popular as Israeli society became more and more culturally and ethnically colorful.

You can continue to indulge yourself in a full history of Israeli cinema in award-winning filmmaker Raphaël Nadjar’s two-part, 208-minute film, A History of Israeli Cinema (2009). And stay tuned for the full schedule of this July’s New Israeli Cinema series.

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