'Toy Story'
The character Buzz Lightyear from Pixar's 'Toy Story' series. Photo by Bloomberg
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Courtesy United King
From Mosh Danon’s 'Ilay and Ben.' Photo by Courtesy United King
Gil Cohen-Magen
Gila Almagor, chair of the Children’s Film Festival in Tel Aviv. Photo by Gil Cohen-Magen

When she finished writing "The Summer of Aviya" in the late 1980s, actress Gila Almagor reread it in a single sitting and then thought, "There's a movie here." Several years passed before her vision was realized, but the book, after first becoming a successful play, was eventually made into a movie.

"When it was filming, we didn't think of it as a children's movie, but rather as a movie for a general audience in which one of the two heroines happens to be a child," recalled Almagor, who is chairing the Children's Film Festival that opened on July 22 at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. "This is different from the book, which for some reason was designated from the outset as a book for young readers. The movie was made with utmost seriousness. It ended up becoming a family film, enjoyed by both teens and adults, and that's part of its power."

It is no exaggeration to say that Almagor was working in an almost total void. In the history of Israeli cinema, very few dramatic films intended for children or the entire family had ever been made. It may be, she said, that the success of the play made "The Summer of Aviya" a sure bet.

The Children's Film Festival will present an envy-inspiring, selection of children's movies from Europe - small dramas that manage to move and excite without the tricks used by major studios. One could justly ask why such high-quality movies aren't being made here.

Producers, scriptwriters and others in the film industry all give the same answer: money, money, money. In other words, the lack of desire to enter the niche of children's movies stems from a lack of financing by foundations and broadcast studios. Children's movies aren't screened in prime time, explained producer Mosh Danon, whose film "Ilay and Ben" was relatively successful.

Money is important, but there are other considerations - mainly, certain ideas that developed here about the essence of children's movies.

Not just book adaptations

About five years ago, Katri Shchori, CEO of the Israel Film Fund, opened a new program in the fund to develop and finance children's movies. "We realized that part of our mission as a public fund was to nurture the viewing habits of children under the age of 10 or 11," he said.

For years, Shchori said, he was deluged with letters from both the general public and teachers asking for movies featuring a language and culture familiar to kids. Grandparents would tell him, "We'd love to take our grandchildren to see an Israeli movie."

The most recent children's movies to hit the silver screen with the fund's help are "Ilay and Ben" and "Little Heroes" directed by Itay Lev. Another movie, "Igor and the Cranes' Journey," directed by Evgeny Ruman, is now in the final stages of completion, as is an animated film directed by Noam Meshulam based on Ephraim Sidon's book "Baldy Heights."

But Shchori admits that interest in the new funding track has been modest: Some artists aren't interested in the genre, he said, because "it's not what's going to bring them the glory they want."

In the last year or two, only some 15 scripts have been submitted. Of these, the fund approves three or four for development and only one for production.

In total, the fund invests about NIS 2 million annually in production budgets for children's films and another NIS 200,000 in development, representing 15 percent of the fund's total budget.

Israel has no problem with writing for kids, Shchori said. "Judging by what we receive, there's tremendous power in the stories. We have a large number of writers, and there's an outpouring of creativity. But our ability to help a movie make its way is limited."

Regarding the claim that Israel is too small a market, because of the language limitation, he retorted that the same is true of the Netherlands and Denmark. But there, children's movies are part of a long-standing cultural tradition. Those countries also have foundations obligated to earmark a certain percentage of their budget for children's films - usually one-third, according to producer Mark Rosenbaum.

Michal Matus, the festival's artistic director, said the dearth of children's films in Israel stems largely from the notion that successful children's movies must be cinematic adaptations of books: "They want a sure bet."

Another problem, she said, is Israelis' protective attitude toward children. "In Europe and the United States, there aren't very clear distinctions between children's or family movies and movies for a general audience," she explained. "But Israeli society is conservative. We live with Qassam rockets, so parents don't want to expose their kids to heavy topics. It's an outdated attitude."

The definition of a children's movie is very much culturally determined. "In Israel, you wouldn't be able to show the children's movies I see abroad, especially in the Netherlands - a powerhouse in terms of children's films," Matus said. "Those movies touch on death, sex, relations between parents and kids. Artists there have the unusual ability to do this without condescension, without infantilizing younger viewers. They manage to do it in a sensitive artistic way, like naive paintings."

One movie being screened at the festival is "Tony and the Queen," a Dutch film dealing with divorce. "In Israel, no one would touch this," Matus said. "Everyone would say it's depressing. But this is precisely what preoccupies kids today - their parents' divorce. And it's a beautiful movie with a charming child actor, who enlists the queen's help so that his parents won't divorce."

Matus hopes that the local children's film industry will develop as the documentary and drama industries did, asserting, "We are on the verge of a breakthrough."

"Once upon a time, we all thought a documentary was expanded television reportage," she explained. "Then along came Docaviv [Israel's documentary film festival] and documentaries were suddenly liberated. It took a few years, but in the end people discovered that Israel, where reality outdoes anything the imagination can come up with, is the place for making it happen. Dramas, too, went an interesting process, from collective movies to auteur films."

She attributes the transformation to the law establishing the Israel Film Fund: "The moment the decision was made to invest in movies, Israeli film started to thrive and win international prizes."

Humor for adults

At the end of the festival, 10 artists and producers will pitch scripts in various stages of development to producers and directors from abroad.

Mickey Aviram, a veteran scriptwriter who, until two years ago, headed the children's track at the Israel Film Fund, said many writers of children's movies don't know what makes a children's film: "The often think it has to be a movie about a child."

Aviram said a good children's movie is judged by three criteria. First, children have to understand what they're seeing, in terms of language and plot. Second, the movie must have some educational value or respond to a child's need. Third, it has to construct a magical world, "something that clicks with a child's imagination."

Because artists are afraid parents will be bored by children's movies, studios such as Disney and Pixar often construct the contents so that they are suited to parents as well, he said. One example is "Madagascar": "It's a story about friendship between animals that love American deli and find themselves in a totally different environment. That's humor for adults."

"Silhouettes," to be presented at the festival's pitching session, may meet these requirements, though scriptwriter Fanny Zarbiv (Rosenberg ) claims she didn't have kids in mind when she wrote it. It's a story about Talia, a 12-year-old girl from Tel Aviv who is forced to move into her aunt's home in Dimona after her own mother dies. The transition is tough, and the only joy in her life is the silhouette show that her cousin - a high-school dropout with an artistic soul - puts on for her.

Producer Mark Rosenbaum said he got involved in the project because he just fell in love with it. "In this field, you never know a movie's chances, and not only when it comes to kids' films," he said. "But I'm hardly a martyr to the cause. I really hope the film does well at the box office."

He feels it's necessary to teach kids to go to Israeli children's movies, because currently, there are no viewing habits. "One, maybe two movies come out every year. I'd like the educational system to make sure that kids see them. Let the movies be screened at community centers for one shekel a kid. You have to let kids meet their culture."

Operation Granny

Here are some of the movies to be pitched at the festival:

* "Wadi Hamam," by Adi Adwan: This Arabic-language movie tells the story of Said, 10, who lives in Wadi Hamam. His physician father disagrees with his mother, a school principal, about their son's future. But his only dream is to fly like the doves.

* "Saving Granny," by Tomer Sarig: Yaron, 10, tries a daring act to prevent his parents from moving his beloved grandmother to the hospital.

* "Cohen 82," by Danny Cohen-Solel: It's summer 1982, and an uncle is supposed to be coming from France for Danny's bar-mitzvah. When the uncle cancels, dashing the boy's hopes of getting the present he's been waiting for, Danny embarks on a brilliant prank that brings his uncle to Israel after all. But not everything works out as planned.

* "Daddy Was a Rolling Stone," by Maya Zamir Arditi. Lihi, 13, embarks on a journey to discover her real father after finding out that the man who raised her isn't her biological dad. On the way, she's exposed to the Jerusalem rock scene of the 1970s.