Telling Israel’s story through film
By Einat Kapach
Films are among the greatest tools for teaching, primarily because they are so enjoyable. When people sit in a darkened room watching a story unfold, they have come to be entertained. But they often gain something so much deeper because they are connecting with characters, the struggles and conflicts presented in the film. Film helps raise uncomfortable questions in a way that people can hear them.
At the Ma’aleh School of Television, Film & the Arts, our students strive to create films that are both entertaining and challenging, that explore the intersection of Judaism and modern life and that speak in a variety of voices. The school, founded to allow those from a religious background to be creative in an environment where they would be comfortable, has been doing this for 25 years. Today, our students come from a variety of backgrounds, religious and secular, and from across the political spectrum. Our instructors, too, represent a pluralism of views from left to right. Some are observant Jews but most are not. What they all share, is a dedication to creating films in their own unique voices.
Our students have created an incredibly diverse collection of films. We have a library of more than 200 short films, each about 20 minutes in length, that deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, homosexuality, religious struggles, you name it. They offer a prism through which audiences can view Israel in all its diversity and complexity.
For example, the film, “Eicha,” by Laizie Shapira, tells of a young religious girl living in a yishuv (settlement) who wants to change her name, “Eicha,” which is the title of the book, “Lamentations,” that we read on Tisha B’Av. She wants a new identity, something she finds is not so easy to establish. Shapira, the director of the immensely popular television series, “Srugim,” has packed a 21-minute film with tension and atmosphere, creating a compelling work of art. Rachel Wasserman’s 33-minute film, “The Rabbi’s Daughter,” depicts the conflict between the chosen paths of three women, daughters of prominent rabbis, and those of their parents. Chaim Elbaum’s “And Thou Shalt Love,” in a mere 29 minutes, grapples with homosexuality, Orthodoxy and Israel’s army.
Telling these stories also means finding an audience that appreciates them. For more than a decade, one of the ways The Ma’aleh Film School has been doing this is through a cooperative effort with the JCCs. Although we have always sent our films to independent festivals, where they have done very well—“Barriers,” for example took prizes at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, the Jerusalem Film Festival and the Munich International Film Festival—we continue to find receptive audiences, hungry for these stories in JCCs across North America in their own festivals—and beyond.
As Israel’s film industry has grown and matured, so too has the American film-going audience, which is more receptive toward subject matter and subtitling. Today Israeli films stand their ground alongside those of any other country.
Both technically and narratively, Israeli film is sophisticated and complex, taking a deep look at the issues rippling through Israeli society. Our films explore Jewish identity, and yet are not limited to that. What makes them Jewish is something that flows beneath the surface, not necessarily the subject of the film. Israeli—and Jewish—film has changed and is no longer thought of as merely a repository of Shoah stories. Today, the world of Israeli film is as rich and as varied as the members of this diverse tribe.
Last March, I traveled to San Diego to attend JCCs of North America’s Biennial Convention. There I spoke about what a great tool film can be for connecting communities to Israel. Film can reach audiences in ways that lectures and other educational programs do not. That little bit of magic that happens when the lights go down and the reel begins to unwind makes all the difference.
The connection between Ma’aleh and JCCs is a growing one. When many JCCs bring groups to Israel, they schedule time to visit for a screening and meet with our filmmakers. We now hold webinars about our films through JCC Association. In a recent one, in which more than 30 JCC arts and culture programmers participated, we showed parts of two films and discussed various ways they can be used in JCCs.
Two years ago, a group of German journalists visited our school and watched “Barriers,” by Golan Rise. In 22 minutes, “Barriers” explores the tense encounter between Uri, a commander at a West Bank checkpoint and two women from an international “watch” group. When the house lights came on at the end of the film, one of the journalists stood up and said that the film had changed his whole perspective about Israel and the ongoing conflict. What is so amazing is that this is a film that refuses to tell you what is right or wrong, but simply lets the viewer decide.
Some films are that powerful. And I invite you to harness that power. It’s a sure way to keep alive and relevant the ongoing conversations of the Jewish people.
Einat Kapach is the director of international relations at The Ma’aleh Film School in Jerusalem.
Originally published in the JCC Circle, Winter 2014