Lone voice in the written void
There's no doubt that Israeli film is flourishing. A slew of films made here in recent years have been well received at home and abroad. They have been screened at the most prestigious film festivals around the world, won important prizes, wowed critics, drawn large audiences and made an international name for the local film industry. Yet this exciting development is slightly overshadowed by the fact that there has been little serious analysis of the phenomenon. The press does frequently highlight the accomplishments of Israeli films, features interviews with artists and considers the changing face of the local film industry, but a truly in-depth and theoretical discussion of local movies is truly lacking in Israel. The amount of bookstore shelf space devoted to Israeli film is embarrassing in its paucity.
Pablo Utin, 32, a doctoral film studies student at Tel Aviv University, finally decided to do something about the lack of a theoretical discussion of local films. Utin, also a journalist and a film critic, decided to write a book using the interviews he conducted with local filmmakers over the last two years for the Cinematheque journal.
"Karhonim B'eretz Hahamsinim" ("The Iceberg Effect: Israel's Cinema of Disengagement"), recently published by Resling Publishers, presents conversations with 13 leading Israeli directors, as well as an introduction in which Utin analyzes the factors that led to Israeli film's current success in the world.
For years, Israeli film has focused mainly on ideology and not esthetics, says Utin. "Hardly anyone considered the esthetics of films and no one dealt with the question of whether Israeli films have a style," he explained during a conversation. His book is a collection of enlightening interviews that a provide a glimpse into the creative process of new Israeli cinema.
Utin argues that contemporary Israeli films are more restrained than early Israeli film, and believes that the new focus and restraint are the reasons for the considerable success. "It seems that the young artists have lost the need to shout out their statements, messages and emotions and have found a restrained, complex and interesting way to express them," he writes.
Utin uses two main symbols, the icebergs and the disengagement, to make his point.
Just as with icebergs, he argues, only the upper tip is visible to the naked eye, while the large mass is concealed under the surface - so, too, are local films of recent years. "The films relate a very limited story. Yet it is possible to sense there is much complexity bubbling under the surface that is not directly mentioned in the film," Utin writes.
As opposed to early periods in Israeli filmmaking, when artists shouted out their views on various political and social issues, current film directors prefer to deal with these subjects "by refraining from directly attacking the political discussions," Utin writes. "This means these directors really are trying to touch on things that are happening here, that are happening to society, but without pushing it into your face."
And how is the disengagement related to the new Israeli cinema?
"The disengagement, the separation fence, the withdrawal from Lebanon, and similar events are not just political processes but are also symbols of Israelis' desire to disengage from what is happening in the political sphere," writes Utin. "The films about the disengagement do not really disengage from the political, rather they have the opposite effect: They make it seem as if they are disengaging from it, in order to nevertheless discuss it, in a less direct fashion."
The idea of a book came to Utin after film students continuously approached him about his magazine articles. "Suddenly I thought that the directors were all saying similar things," he says. "You hear talk today of how there are no longer trends in filmmaking, such as the Italian neo-realism. It's something created by the spirit of the time, and I believe it is not the responsibility of the directors to create some kind of a film movement for a given country of period, but the responsibility of the critics to look at the films from such a perspective."
"Abroad there is now great interest in Israeli film and we, too, feel there is vibrancy, that something is happening," adds Utin. "We still can't know exactly what this wave is, when it started and when it will end. Industry leaders constantly say 'live in the moment,' because we don't know how long it will last. In another few years, we will be able to look back and understand what the significance of this wave was. Today it is a little harder. This book is perhaps an attempt to start understanding this."