Behind Israel's Silver Screen

The Israel Film Council recommends diverting funds from one-off television dramas to short films.

The money that led to the creation of "Yossi and Jagger," "Operation Grandma," "Adventures of James in the Holy Land," "My Father, My Lord" and many other movies is about to be wiped off the public funding map if the Israel Film Council institutes its recent recommendations and changes conditions for applicants. It suggests cutting off funds for one-off television dramas completely, and earmarking the NIS 6 million allocated in recent years for other purposes.

A debate about these purposes is now going on in the film industry: Should some of the money be devoted to shorter films, as the film council suggests? Or would it be better to grant funds for the production of full-length, low-budget independent films? Are those who claim that some of the funds must be invested in peripheral areas right, or is justice with those who argue that while television dramas must continue to receive funding, the broadcasting companies should be obligated to provide it?

 Operation Grandma Israeli film
Operation Grandma

In the past, single drama productions were defined by the film council as "one-part, made-for-television dramas of at least 20 minutes in duration." Dozens of dramas have been produced this way over the past decade with the support of various film funding and local broadcast bodies, and shown in what are considered high-quality programming slots.

The most memorable were filled by the Hot cable company's "First in Drama" series that broadcast "Operation Grandma," "Yossi and Jagger" and "Silent Alarms"; and "Short Stories about Love," produced by Haggai Levy for Reshet, which also produced "James in the Holy Land," "God's Workers" and "Zakuta."

Over time, individual drama productions gathered a reputation for quality and provided an important opportunity for young filmmakers. They constituted an intermediate step between a short and a full-length film, and enabled many artists to train on relatively long works, without having to do the complex and expensive work of full-length film production. In some cases, excellent one-off dramas went over the accepted length of 50 minutes and in the end were exhibited in theaters as movies in every sense of the word (as with the four films named in the opening paragraph ).

But in recent years broadcasting companies have stopped funding and showing such dramas. They have learned that drama requires a relatively large investment, not only in production but also marketing and advertising, and decided that it was preferable to go in the direction of series that remain on the screen for many weeks. The film council continued to support dramas, but the productions had no broadcast outlets. They often remained on the shelf - there was simply no demand for them.

Now the Israel Film Council is considering cutting off all aid to drama. Instead, it is considering the possibility of investing in a more up-to-date area - shorter, cheaper films that enable the professional training so important to young and veteran artists alike - but fewer of even these.

Silence of the Sirens - Israel cinema Israeli film
Silence of the Sirens

According to a draft of the new criteria obtained by Haaretz, the fund suggests supporting only three 40-minute dramatic shorts (professional rather than student films, which receive separate funding ) instead of many one-part dramas, and using some of the rest of the drama budget for what are known as "designated" films (involving multiculturalism and artists from outside the major cities ). These recommendations are preliminary ones, not final, and hearings on them have yet to be held. They would apparently be applied only in 2013, but are already arousing disagreements and controversy.

"I think the fund shouldn't make decisions according to the whims of the concessionaires [the companies awarded potentially profitable television production rights]," says Gideon Ganani, director of the Makor Foundation for Israeli Films, which has specialized in supporting drama for many years. "If these concessionaires have no interest in drama, the council can reach an agreement with the public broadcasting channel [the Israel Broadcasting Authority's Channel 1], exactly as the British Film Fund does in Britain. We've reserved regular broadcast slots for these films. What's the problem? After all, one conversation between the minister of culture and the minister in charge of funding the IBA, or between the chairman of the film council and the chairman of the IBA, can solve the problem."

Ganani believes that television screens, and not movie houses, are the natural places for a short film or drama, and it is illogical to limit support to films that are 30 to 40 minutes long. "These are artificial limits. What if someone has a masterpiece that's two or perhaps 50 minutes long? We must enable artists to make films of any length they choose," he says.

Kicking and screaming

Adventures of James in the Holy Land - Israel cinema Israeli film
Adventures of James in the Holy Land

Rani Bleier, chairman of the directors union, also believes that short Israeli films should not be subject to the whims of television concessionaires. But from his point of view, the problem is not connected only to the fact that airtime for drama is portioned out, but rather to the artists' dangerous dependence on the franchisees. "I would like artists to produce short films with council money, without commercial partners, without [the involvement of] broadcast bodies, so that these films won't be pushed into the mainstream in an attempt to woo the audience. These films must be the spearhead of young, free art - kicking and screaming - that is not subordinate to the personal taste of one franchisee or another," he says.

Bleier himself is working intensively these days on a 25-minute drama, "Placebo," based on a script by Avi Ben David. "People must know there is a budget and a format that is not connected to financial considerations and the ratings concept, but is purely cultural," says Bleier. "Short films must be the avant garde [that comes] before the rest: pure works of art, freed from the politics of big business and government."

Bleier likes the idea of a shift to shorter films, up to 30 minutes long, that will enable most of them to be entered in festivals for short films. In his eyes, the place of these films is not necessarily the small screen, but first of all the film screens of international festivals. "Short Israeli film should be independent, and not dependent on a particular platform. The goal must be to bring them to festivals around the world," he says. "In contrast to feature films that always involve big money, public relations and marketing, a short film doesn't cost much and allows Israeli art to enter the international arena without politics. Short film, free of financial considerations, can disseminate a different Israeli reality throughout the world, to show that we also have real lives."

Bleier's colleague Amit Lior, chairman of the scriptwriters union, also agrees that short film is an excellent opportunity for young artists. "We had the 50-minute drama for our breakthroughs," Lior says, "but today there's no point in making a film that doesn't reach the screen. There's nothing worse than a recording that sits alone on the shelf, and so it's better to start by making short films. I hope a slot will be provided on television, but if not, there are many festivals for them abroad, and there is also Internet, an entire world for short film. If a film has a good platform on Internet or VOD, and copyright law is not infringed, the artist can even make money on this."

In contrast, there are some producers who object to the transfer of funds for dramas to short films. "I think that the entire drama budget, NIS 6.5 million, should go to independent films," says producer Mark Rosenbaum. "In Israel today there is one group of 10 or 12 strong directors who produce films, and young filmmakers have much less opportunity. It's terribly hard for them to break in, and a way must be found to help them.

"To me it's a mistake to make short films," he says. "After all, hundreds of them are made here every year by graduates of film schools. So take this money, earmark it for full-length movies, and with NIS 6.5 million you can make 10 or 12 independent low-budget films a year. True, these are films on which many people work as volunteers, but this is better than short films that will come to nothing."

Ben is Back Israeli movie Israeli film
Ben is Back

The chairman of the producers' union, Asaf Amir, remarks that there is no framework for exhibiting short films today, either on television or in movie theaters. "And so this money should go to the making of full-length, low-budget films," he too says. "Today the technical means of making a movie are much cheaper than they used to be, and a filmmaker who can volunteer and enlist people to help him will achieve relatively good results at a reasonable cost. Instead of a short film that can't be shown anywhere, he can find himself at the end of the process with a movie in hand, a nice calling card for use in the future. In addition, if they do this, the big funds won't have to invest in independent films, and can invest instead in producing big projects."

Social justice

Despite disagreements, it appears that a large portion of the film sector unites around one point: opposition to the transfer of the one-off drama budget to peripheral or "designated" films as they are known in film council jargon. The term refers to films that express multiculturalism and the lives of minority groups on the periphery of Israeli society, literally and figuratively. The previous culture minister, Raleb Majadele, as well as the present one, Limor Livnat, support the council's suggestion to increase film funding in the periphery.

"In this case the council is adding insult to injury," Ganani says. "Not only is it taking money away from one-off drama, but transfering it to the 'designated' area. But all the documents we've provided show that all the film funds contribute to [these films] and most of the films that are produced are connected in one way or another to the periphery."

Bleier is also angry about the idea of taking a bite out of the budget earmarked for short Israeli films. "What is disturbing about these films? Why hurt them? Because they aren't profitable?" he wonders. "In my opinion this is an argument about money versus idealism. On the one hand, short film becomes the victim, because it is possible to play around with its budget out of the need to create art designated as peripheral, a definition which is problematic in any case - because who determines what the designation means, its interests and what it says? On the other hand, short Israeli film should give artists a chance to advance, to be at the stage of creating a work of art, and the state doesn't understand that this stage is something important which is being endangered. And so, it must give up on the idea of using this money for other goals."

Yossi and Jagger Israeli film Israeli movie
Yossi and Jagger

David Alexander, chairman of the film council, remarked that the decision to cease funding one-off dramas is not merely a response to the behavior of the broadcast bodies. "The world of film and the film council are not run according to the policies of the broadcast entities and are not led by their whims," he said. "At the same time, there is no reason why NIS 5 million of the reduced film budget should be invested in producing works for which there is no demand, that reach neither movie houses nor television, when the world is experiencing a resurgence in the area of short films."

As to the increase in the budget for designated films, Alexander says, "Designated film is not an area, and not one genre or another of film. It is a social statement about content. This framework is meant to give expression to many in Israeli society who live in the periphery - geographically or socially. Today the Gesher Fund, which operates in this field, receives only NIS 2 million out of the entire film budget, which stands at NIS 67 million. We suggest adding another NIS 2 million to this. If anyone thinks this amount is a scandal, I suggest they look back to see what happened in Israeli society this summer. The film council, which has long wielded the social banner, understands that Israeli artists don't only live and work inside the borders of the greater Tel Aviv area. In these other places lives a population whose values, stories and narratives are beginning to be expressed in Israeli film, and we believe they should be encouraged and advanced."