Cultural gaps in on-screen portrayals - a matter of principle or a question of taste? This could be the theme title for an evening of broadcasts on Arte, the European arts and culture channel. It was also a question that came up during an interview held with Jerome Clement, the president of Arte, who visited Israel last week.
Arte is a high-brow channel which is received throughout Europe and on cable and satellite in Israel and it consistently broadcasts films from Israel and supports its movie industry in other ways. Clement's attempts to explain this raised questions of identity and the connection between an individual and his country on one hand, and world views and aesthetic values on the other.
Clement came to Israel for the opening of a retrospective of the films of Amos Gitai at the country's cinematheques, and spent five days here in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and Ramallah.
The Arte channel he heads is a singular French-German television venture. It was founded in 1992 and is considered unique for its thematic broadcast schedule, with evenings devoted to documentaries or feature films, studio discussions and even droll comedies - without being influenced by commercial considerations. The channel's viewers are typically 35 or above, educated urbanites, well-to-do members of the free professions.
Despite its small size, Israel's film and television industry has always been prominently represented on the European channel. For years it broadcast episodes of the "Cameri Quintet;" the films "Life According to Agfa" and "Mr. Baum," both directed by Assi Dayan; "Song of the Siren" by Eytan Fox, and the television drama "Malka Lev Adom" (Skin Deep) by Ran Tal.
Among the Israeli documentary films screened on Arte have been "Pinhas' Dream", a beautiful and surprising film by Ruth Wolk about an immigrant family from Iraq that vanishes one day; "Anaphase - The Film" by Levi Zini about the Bat-Sheva Dance Company; "The Children of Dana International" by Veronique Tabo about the club scene in Tel Aviv; and two films by Raanan Alexandrowicz, "The Inner Tour" about a trip taken in Israel by Palestinians and Israelis, and "Martin" an excellent film about a Dachau survivor who stands all day in the concentration camp to remind visitors what took place there.
Currently, the channel is screening the series "The Age of the Generals," an Israeli production in conjunction with BBC and Arte on Saturday nights on Channel 8 on cable - last Saturday, a segment about Golda Meir was aired; Menachem Begin is next week's subject.
However, Arte is especially well-known for its support of the films of Amos Gitai. Last Tuesday, Clement opened the retrospective of films of the Israeli director at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.
Recently, Arte underwrote an exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris that featured photographs from Gitai's films, as well as the films themselves. The channel also supported the release of an anthology of his six documentary films on DVD, and the publication of the book, "Exile and Borders in the Cinema of Amos Gitai."
Asked about the disparity between the warm reception accorded Gitai in France and the chilly reception he generally gets in Israel, Clement offered no clear-cut answer. He only knows that the French like the director.
"I can say why I think intellectual circles in France like his films so much. It started with his film "Kadosh" about the world of ultra-Orthodox Jewry. That was his first success, and the others followed. He lived in France for a long time, so he is somewhat considered a French-Israeli filmmaker. He makes films in a cinematic language that is familiar to the local viewers. He deals in reality, with sincerity and honesty, and asks the good questions. We are proud of Amos Gitai, as we are proud of Chagall. I have another hypothesis, which is that in terms of politics, he is close to the French audience."
The disparity in crowd appeal is evident in other Israeli films that Arte has helped to support. For instance, "My Terrorist," a documentary film by Yulie Cohen-Gerstel that was well-received at international festivals, but was panned in Israel, not for its political message but for poor documentary quality. Clement also had a hard time explaining this disparity. "There were claims that the film is sentimental," he says.
What about Mohammed Bakri's "Jenin Jenin"? In the end, you decided not to show it on the channel.
"We were scheduled to broadcast the film during the war in Iraq, when there was enormous tension between the Jewish community and the Muslim community in France. We didn't want to exacerbate the tension. The entire Jewish community objected to the broadcast of the film. It really was very one-sided, and we did not have another film on hand that would have provided balance, so that we could broadcast both of them in a single thematic evening. The Israeli ambassador, Nissim Zvili, requested that we not broadcast it, and I decided to postpone the broadcast until a quieter time. As a rule, whenever we deal with Israel, we normally get criticized from every direction."
Region of interest
Nevertheless, the channel tackles the subject of Israel a great deal. Wouldn't it be correct to say that the number of Israeli films broadcast on it is relatively large?
"We try to broadcast as many films as possible about this region. This is our commitment as a culture channel. For us, culture means to open eyes to the world. Culture is not only high art, architecture and sculpture. It is about all of that, too, of course, but it is also intended to provoke curiosity.
"Obviously, the Middle East is a region of interest to everyone. The problems of this region are global, it has implications on everything else, including the institution of democracy. It is of special interest to France because both communities - Muslim and Jewish - are very influential there. We also broadcast films from Arab states, but almost no films are made in Jordan about the conflict, or Syria either. More attention is devoted to it in Israel, and we are open to receiving more proposals."
Admitting that he feels under attack whenever the channel airs anything related to Israel, Clement said this intensifies when he is asked if he had heard that some people say the German side of Arte is a little more pro-Israeli and the French side is seen as pro-Palestinian.
"It is hard for me to accept this," he said. "At times, we are in fact accused of being pro-Israeli. That is what Laila Shahid, the PLO representative in Paris, said when we broadcast an Israeli film. Recently, we held an evening on the theme of `Is France Becoming Anti-Semitic?'"
The unease, even a hint of defensiveness, that Arte's president expresses as a Frenchman in conversation with an Israeli newspaper reflect his complex identification with his job and with the place from which he comes. At the end of the interview, he related that his mother was an Odessa Jew who came to France in the early 20th century, and her entire family was killed in Auschwitz.
Clement added that the accusation of anti-Semitism leveled at French President Jacques Chirac for torpedoing a sharp European Union condemnation of the Malaysian prime minister's comments on Jews was unjustified.
Four years ago, Lisa Mueller, who buys comedy productions for Arte, visited Israel to acquire the broadcast rights to the Cameri Quintet. In an interview at the time, she was asked if it was possible to draw inspiration from the collaboration in the Arte channel of two former enemies, France and Germany. Did that mean that it is possible to overcome every historic obstacle?
"It isn't simple," she said. "We constantly maintain strict balance. If the channel has a French manager, it will have a German deputy manager and the rotation will take place with utmost precision every five years. No one will allow these things to pass without someone noticing it."
Clement took a more diplomatic tone. He cited other cooperative arrangements, between the Japanese and the Chinese, and the Americans and the Japanese. He expressed the hope that these examples proved that similar cooperation will someday emerge in this region too.
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