Joshua Simon examines Israeli cinema and the Aesthetics of feature films sponsored by film funds, a growing European and International trend of Peripheral Mainstream.
"Taste is made up of a thousand of distastes"
In the preface to the Hebrew edition of Robert McKee's book Story, Israeli TV presenter and scriptwriter Yair Lapid writes about the importance of the script in the film's quality, and states: "The year 2004, for example, was the best year for Israeli cinema this decade, with Walk on Water, Turn Left at the End of the World, Columbian Love, Ha-Ushpizin and Campfire"
In this article I would like to draw attention to these films - or rather to the mechanism that led to their production. I intend to focus on "fund films" and the way the method of financing dictates the aesthetics of Israeli cinema.
In his opening words Lapid mentions those particular films also because of their box-office success in Israel and abroad (Walk on Water made around 2.7 M USD gross in the USA and Ha-Ushpizin made around 1.4 M USD in gross total) There is no denying that the claim for the superiority of the script, on which most of Lapid's preface is based, has become dominant among filmmakers and viewers.
The success of Israeli cinema in the past few years, regarding presentation and distribution opportunities, can be attributed to the activity of the film fund as well as to Israel's relative advantage of being a hot spot. It is preceded only by the United States and Russia in generating news. Israeli cinema will never lack topics, because this is quite an interesting place, as people say.
Israeli cinema gives great power to the script. The New Israeli Foundation for Cinema and TV called on filmmakers to direct stories by Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon, and it has also launched a project tying Israeli cinema with the Hebrew novel, in order to direct films from the catalogue of major publisher Keter.
Beyond the literary tendency seen in these projects initiated by the the New Israeli Foundation for Cinema and TV, the script criterion is central and significant in the film's production and has turned into the basis of public filmmaking and financing in Israel.
The website of the largest fund, the Israeli Film Fund, says that "Every year the fund receives around 120 scripts with a request for support. Of them, 6-8 scripts will be chosen this year as suitable for the fund's support [...] The fund invests in the development of some 20 scripts every year." Therefore, the central criterion is submittal of the script, and the fund decides whether to produce the film based on the lectors' opinion on it. Of course, there are other factors involved in the decision whether to support a film's production or not, but it is still accepted that the submitted script is the film not-filmed-yet.
I do not intend to claim that script-based films are less suitable than other films that choose to experiment and improvise on the set. The script's precedence as a structure inclined to another structure is an accepted tool like a recipe for a meal. If so, fund films are first and foremost script-submitting films.
Young François Truffaut's 1954 essay "A certain tendency in French cinema" enables an understanding of most of the trends in Israeli cinema today. Truffaut says about the directors of the "Tradition of Quality" in French cinema, who he attacks: "When they submit their scripts, the film is already ready; in their eyes the director is only a person carrying out the shooting [...] and sadly, it's true!" In Israel "they" are the funds and directors (who are, in most cases, the script writers too.)
The central esthetic characteristic of Israeli cinema is, by all opinions, "Dialogue Cinema". There is hardly any picture in the Israeli fund cinema - the dialogue inundates and rises, surrounds and rotates, comes and goes and it seems as if there is no place for a scene that doesn't contain any talking. It's as if no moment in the film has cinematic existence unless someone is speaking in it. Although a firm script base does not require constant dialogue, it seems that the origin of this trend is in determining the submitted script to be a founding criterion for the viability of the film. The trend is connected first and foremost to the type of scripts chosen, and not to the script as a structure in itself. In the screen test - on screen, Dialogue Cinema exists at the expense of other cinematic expression possibilities, including cinematography, directing, editing and the use of sound.
Yair Lapid, in his preface, ignores the films Or (Keren Yedaya, 2004) and Atash-Thirst (Tawfik Abu Wael, 2004) two remarkable films different than the Israeli fund films he mentioned (the two were supported by the much smaller fund, the Yehoshua Rabinowitz Foundation and foreign funding). However, despite their formalistic and thematic courage and the scarce dialogue (both state-of-the-art films, which have a lot of character, won prizes at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival : Or won the Golden Camera award and Atash-Thirst won the International Critics Award), the two films are also films that could have come under the definition of "fund films." Through both of these films, which are exceptions to the crop of Israeli films of recent years, the "fund films" rules can be identified - first of all regarding the framework of their family story and regarding the way they deal with death. The family is almost a basic framework for the cuckolded Israeli film (Turn Left at the End of the World; Broken Wings (Nir Bergman, 2002); Campfire; Ha-Ushpizin). Story-wise - it's all families. It will not be an exaggeration to say that the ten films produced in Israel every year tell the exact same story. Tone-wise they can be more or less aggressive - to pull toward the soft, Hugging Genre (Broken Wings) or a more sophisticated direction (Nina's Tragedies: Savi Gavison, 2003) - but they will almost always rotate around the "family".
Another issue that moves the film Atash-Thirst closer to fund films is the filmmaker's need to show at the end the father's murder allusively, despite the subdued drama between the father and the son. Death appears in Abu Wael's film as a fantasy or as an editing manipulation, and it is not dealt with directly. In this sense the film, which does not strive to be "hugging" in any way, and despite its impressive stylistic severity, still exists within the denial of death that surrounds fund films in which death is at the most a plot trigger, like in the case of Broken Wings.
The phenomenon currently experienced by Israeli cinema is not a new one. It has already managed to euthanize French and German cinema. The Israeli Film Law reform's first success was in the unification of bureaucracy - Israel is now at the same level of European cinema regarding bureaucratic structures and it can now communicate with it on different levels - through the funds, independent producers, conferences, co-productions etc. Bureaucratic unification is part of the aspiration for aesthetic unification and professionalism - for the camera to be stable, for the focus to be smooth and for the sound to be clearly heard. In all these fields Israeli cinema has made a good part of the way on the road to the longed for "professionalism" - and now the time has come to look at the films themselves.
After the question of public funding was answered, the Film Law was legislated, funds for supporting films were established and films were produced using these funds, Israeli cinema can be viewed within the global context. Changing the organizational structure of the funding institutes according to an international standard made co-productions possible. In the film Metallic Blues (Dan Verete, 2004) the joint production conditions determined not only the number of crew members from the different funding countries (Israel and Germany) but also the number of filming days and the ratio of screen minutes for each country.
In a co-production, the Israeli director's wet dream, the contract writes the script. Familiarity with the method of funding enables viewers to guess the end of the storyline - the film unfolding before our eyes is a series of contract clauses.
Consequently, what turns Israeli cinema into "European Cinema" is first and foremost the structure of the film support funds. The identical structures of the Israeli and foreign funds increase the potential for co-productions but at the same time create an identical aesthetic platform - more meticulous films, less coarse and even less adventurous in terms of their form and politics. The German film Martha's Kitchen (Sandra Nettelbeck, 2002) and Whale Rider (Niki Caro, 2002) from New Zealand, co-funded by Germany, successful or not - are not any different from the Israeli fund films and are characterized by the same "relaxed esthetics" similar to that of films such as Nina's Tragedies. The funds' package system and the way budgets are made dictate an almost identical form of fund cinema around the world: script, budget, casting, production, editing. Each stage exists as an almost separate unit without any relation to the other stages and without any room for creative mistakes. And thus we get the style common in art-house cinema - a kind of small-scale Hollywood convention, without any ideological tension. A more or less fixed standard of the way in which the story is told, ornamented in each country with the folklore unique to the location - this is "Peripheral Mainstream".
The first goal of every fund is the full utilization of its yearly budget with proper management of its dealings. Thus, fundamental cinematic questions are sometimes replaced by administrative needs. French cinema is a convenient example for this upheaval in European national cinema - in the transition from the post-WWII cinematic adventures to the depressing routine of the castrated crop of the past 10 years. Bureaucratic coordination enables creativity but at the same time affects its character until its final anesthetization.
In Israel, a country with six million citizens, there are 13 film schools. In comparison, Germany, with its 80 million people, rich cinematic past, grand tradition and achievements today in the field of short films, student films and commercial cinema, has only 6 film schools and they are talking there about the market being saturated and that film school graduates cannot find work in the field.
Presiding as the president of the Jury at the 2004 Cannes film festival, American director Quentin Tarantino stated that the thing that makes the world's three cinematic industries - Hong Kong, Bollywood and Hollywood - profitable is the fact that they are all star-based. All the rest is world cinema. A filmmaker, even if he claims and strongly believes that he has no interest in nationalism, will quickly find that nationalism has an interest in him. The inter-national scene is whatever exists outside Hollywood. There, the distribution system is based on the sentence: "Mr. So and So, the Belgian/Romanian/Chinese/Israeli etc. director" or "The new Russian/Moroccan/Brazilian/Palestinian cinema." We will always try to understand the film according to where it came from.
Apparently, the structure of National Cinema is based on the idea of center and periphery that inspire each other. In the framework of the seemingly "healthy" national cinema, alongside the hegemonic, mainstream products of the center there are also experiments and attempts that debate, dispute and undermine the reigning aesthetics in the periphery, and after a while are appropriated by the hegemony. However, it seems as if fund films have chosen to turn to the periphery.
Haaretz newspaper's film critic Uri Klein has noticed the trend that took over Israeli cinema since the end of the '90s in his 2002 article "Israel is there", and Goel Pinto, a writer for the newspaper, has further clarified the point in his 2005 article "Ultra-Orthodox, gay, and crazy Moroccan".
In his article, Klein claims that the Israeli cinema's increased occupation with the center and the periphery reflects an attempt to find orientation coordinates in order to form a stable identity; a defined demarcation of the center and the periphery. In his opinion, films that direct their storylines to whatever is conventional in the periphery, express the confusion and introduction of radical reforms experienced in Israel starting in the '90s.
Pinto in his article already understands the deep conservatism at the base of the appeal to what is called the periphery. When he reported about the Israeli Film and TV Academy ceremony last year he wrote "Whores, Arabs, religious Jews, settlers, homosexuals and two Israelis who go out to sell an American car in Germany are at the center of the five films nominated for the award". He was referring to the films Or, Atash-Thirst, Ha-Ushpizin, Campfire, Walk on Water and Metallic Blues.
Dealing with characters that do not come from the "center" does not make the fund films multi-cultural or diversified, but perhaps rather the opposite, it unifies them and emphasizes the way these films are formed from a treatment of script that tries to address a peripheral issue (or to "deal with a problem") in hegemonic methods of expression. In other words, it is a hegemonic film in which the scenery is replaced by an exotic one in order to apply oneself to the "other" and the "social". In fund films there is nothing more similar than the "other" - there is an insistence on its presence. In these films the "other" is always sterile, standard and a-political.
Dramaturgically speaking, this cinema of funds is a cinema that focuses on family dramas that contain "the character's gamut", conflict and all the rest of the script jargon. These are family films and when politics makes an appearance in them, it appears as an issue - there is no politisation of the cinematic work. The film is not defying, conflicted or independent and it does not diverge from political correctness. "If the audience likes to become corrupt under the auspices of literature's alibi, it likes to become corrupt also under the auspices of the social alibi" young Truffaut claimed in his essay. The cinema of the "Hugging genre" and the "soft aesthetics" is a cinema in which the center does not inspire the periphery, because it is itself peripheral to a large extent. It is peripheral because it does not create powerful metaphors but rather packages for script submitted within the framework of proper administration. This cinema of the center has hollow metaphors - it does not enable to indulge in polemics. It is empty.