New Movie on the Block

Yamin Messika and Yarmi Kadoshi are convinced their 'neighborhood' film genre represents a social revolution. The establishment is beginning to notice.

Local residents had no idea what hit them - one morning they were informed that everyone was being vacated from their homes. Real estate sharks had designated the neighborhood as the next luxury complex and thanks to their connections to the mayor their venture succeeded. Liat (the singer and actress Liat Banai ), a local resident, wife and mother, decides to go to war after her husband, who launched the opposition, is murdered in mysterious circumstances. She battles the establishment and at the end of an aggressive campaign is victorious.

That, in a nutshell, is the plot of "The Big Lie," the 12th feature film by Yamin Messika and Yarmi Kadoshi, the owners of Hamizrah Productions. In addition to Banai, the film also features Yankele Ben Sira, Eran Levy, Beber Yoko and even Yaron London playing himself. But besides the feature films, the two say they have also directed and produced hundreds of clips, discovered singing stars (Sarit Hadad, for example ), and produced documentary films and children's videos. They are also responsible to a certain extent for the rising use of VOD (video on demand ) cable services and at HOT they acknowledge that the addition of Hamizrah Productions has brought them audiences.

Messika and Kadoshi - Daniel Tchetchik - July 2011
Filmmakers Messika, left, and Kadoshi.Daniel Tchetchik

Despite all this, it is highly likely that the names of Messika and Kadoshi are pretty much unknown to the average reader, especially if he is not a fan of the "neighborhood film" (known in Hebrew as "Bourekas" films) genre. Kadoshi and Messika are personally responsible for a thriving and popular industry of cult films whose heroes are virtually anonymous beyond the limits of the genre - at least not until now.

After years of stubborn complaints about discrimination, a change recently occurred. For the first time in the nearly 20 years of their company's existence, Messika and Kadoshi received funding from the establishment. The Film Fund and Channel 10 announced that support in the form of hundreds of thousands of shekels will be transferred for the film. The significance for the people who got used to doing their own publicity and phoning potential viewers to get them to see the film, is nothing less than historic.

Like the cassette revolution

Not that the recent change is causing the Kadoshi-Messika team to update their message. The people who define their work as "social protest cinema" are perhaps not familiar names or faces to the broader public, but they are certainly known to their "audience."

"Neighborhood films" is a term for low-budget films whose distribution methods and successes mirror that of the music cassette revolution, which started off as a flourishing underground industry until it assumed center stage under the headline of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean music. Here too, there is a close-knit audience that watches films on the Hamizrah site operated by Messika and Kadoshi or on VOD.

The scripts, the two say, are outlined in a general way, and the actors improvise a large part of the text. There is a limited selection of lead actors, such as Liat Banai, Avi Biter (all of whose films have been produced by Messika and Kadoshi ) and other Middle Eastern singers such as Tamir Gal and Moshe Cohen. All of them, incidentally, are superstars in the genre. The other actors are not professionals, but authentic characters who fit the role: The belly dancer is a belly dancer "we know from around the neighborhood," the drug dealer will play the drug dealer and so on.

Kadoshi, who write the films with Messika and also produces them (Messika is the director, cameraman and editor ) regularly plays supporting roles in the films.

But the two are not known not only among their fan base, but at least when it comes to Kadoshi, among the television and film directors and scriptwriters, although here the circumstances are completely different. During the enactment of the new commercial television licensing law, which took over a year and entailed weekly discussions in the Knesset's Economics Committee, Kadoshi regularly sat in and reiterated the same messages. And when he would start talking, the representatives of the scriptwriters and directors would start rolling their eyes.

Kadoshi knows exactly why: "For years, the clique of certain writers and directors' guilds were extorting the channels and forcing broadcasters to work only with them on what was called 'original productions,'" he charges. "This ignored the audience. We thought there would be competition and that the public would choose what it would watch. When they set up Channel 10, we thought it would compete with Channel 2, but the same programs are on both channels and they appeal to the exact same audience. It's the same thing, even though we are a nation of ingathered exiles."

Are you part of the Film and Television Directors' Guild and the Scriptwriters' Guild?

Messika: "No, intentionally not. They took control and want to silence us. We want to maintain our identity. What really upset us is that the scriptwriters' and directors' guilds collaborated with the franchisees, especially of Channel 2, in order to maintain this situation, the homogeneity of Israeli productions. That is our main charge. To Channel 10's credit, it should be noted that now they really are changing this and showing that it is possible to provide cultural diversity. Providing support to us is a revolutionary step."

The decision to support them, Channel 10 executives say, came from the CEO, Yossi Warshavsky. "They have a clear ideology and fervor, and a reasoned position against the enlightened conquest by the elitist culture," he explains. "That is why I told Kadoshi that when one of the film funds affirms that his films are worthy and meet the criteria for investing, we will invest. I personally really am in favor of pluralism, and Kadoshi is right in this respect that there is small monopoly of writers and directors with a certain way of doing things and a certain kind of film, who dominate.

"I admit," agrees Warshavsky, "that I'm not wild about what Hamizrah Productions is doing, but they are important in and of themselves. The decision to invest in them is a kind of statement."

The case of Sarit Hadad

At this stage the harsh messages about discrimination warrant a reality check of the current state of affairs in the Israeli cultural scene. Over the past few years there has been a flowering of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean culture and music. The Music Channel was sharply criticized for choosing to focus on Middle Eastern singers and it will soon be joined by another channel, Ahla, with content that is declaredly similar. Genre singers are today part of the consensus, cultural icons and an object of emulation. The Middle Eastern music industry is practically the only one now bringing in nice revenues. Even Biter, who became a "legend" thanks to Messika and Kadoshi's films, is a familiar image in every household.

Messika disagrees: "He may be recognized, but at what cost? Avi Biter had to make a joke out of himself. The easiest thing to do is laugh and poke fun at the genre."

Kadoshi: "Even now that they stand out more in the media, it is still people who are copying what we do. They will not take the authentic people, but their own people who will make something about it. Even someone who is on Channel 24, on 'A Star is Born,' everywhere it is not someone who emerged from the neighborhoods. These are wax dolls that were created in the image of these authentic singers."

All of the greatest stars emerged from Middle Eastern music: Kobi Peretz and Lior Narkis, and the list goes on and on.

Kadoshi: "They are people, who when they were just Middle Easterners, they were liked, but they cut off their roots."

Messika: "In order for them to succeed and become popular, they had to dye their hair white and change their singing style. It's very serious; they changed their culture. In order to get more money, and time on the mainstream channels, they were asked to change their style. I think this is dangerous. And instead of encouraging anyone who wants to preserve his identity and heritage, instead of supporting him, the come and change him."

Kadoshi: "Middle Eastern music and Mediterranean music are different things that appeal to different audiences. To take a singer and alter his style so that he can perform on television and be accepted there is intervening in his identity. These same artists who started with us, from Sarit Hadad to Zehava Ben, we were the first to discover them. But the media and television people have power, control the money, and the funds work with them, and they come and change them. We invested the first amounts in Sarit Hadad, suddenly they took her and remade her in a different way that would not be too Middle Eastern."

There are many performers who feel there is no issue of discrimination to speak of because today it is clear that Middle Eastern music dominates. The money and the audience support is there and you are now receiving support. What are you actually complaining about?

Kadoshi: "Until now, they also took us and the audience we represent and used us and our material while they held onto the budgets. Now Channel 10 had decided to support our work as it is. That is the positive change and that is how I think it should be."

The Internet audience is ours

If we are already referring again to the film industry, the two admit that "neighborhood films" are not the height of artistic achievement. The plots are telenovela-like and simplistic; the production level is like that of a school production. The audiences watching these films are equally fond of Turkish and Indian films and sometimes they are an audience that sees these films as a joke and are addicted to the exaggerated gestures.

Your films are to a large extent "bourekas films," which portrayed characters in a way that is now being critiqued a lot. The argument was that these films were condescending toward their target audience.

Messika: "In our films, unlike the old bourekas films, the unfortunates and the ones who suffer fight back. They always accuse. They are unfortunate, live in poverty, their situation is difficult and they are taken advantage of, but they fight back. They are not drunk like Aryeh Elias is in his films. No, they fight back and the fight is always against the establishment that is screwing them. In this film, they fight the local authorities. The actors in the film are unfortunate and suffering, but they fight, and that's not the way it is in the usual bourekas films."

Kadoshi: "The lead character in 'The Big Lie' is a woman who fights the oppressive establishment and holds on to her family and herself. She struggles and does something."

And that's why your films are successful?

Both: "Absolutely."

Kadoshi: "Our audience is diverse and large; I see it on the street. People quote the films, even children who weren't born when the films were made quote it by heart."

And is there any money in it?

Kadoshi: "At the moment, it's being done primarily for the community. It's hard to live off this."

Messika: "There isn't any money in it, but whoever is in film has to be nuts, because it's impossible to stop."