A cinematic mosaic
In his recent documentary, Raphael Nadjari portrays the chronological development of Israeli cinema, while also revealing the dialectical nature of the discourse in local filmmaking
"I am not a historian. I have come to listen, not to talk." Thus filmmaker Raphael Nadjari describes the point of departure of his 2009 documentary "Historia Shel Hakolnoah Israeli" ("A History of Israeli Cinema"), which recently came out on DVD. Two weeks ago Nadjari was among four Israelis to be awarded the Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters ) at the French embassy in Israel. The award is bestowed each year by the French minister of culture on individuals who have distinguished themselves in the fields of art or literature or have "significantly contributed to the enrichment of the French cultural inheritance."
Nadjari's film is divided into two parts, which runs for a total of almost three and a half hours. The first part surveys the history of Israeli feature films from 1932 to 1978; the second part continues the story, up to 2007. There is little voice-over narration, and the documentary is composed in the main of clips and interviews with movie directors, producers and critics, as well as experts on the history of Israeli cinema. The interviewees include, among others, Yehuda (Judd ) Ne'eman, Mohammed Bakri, Nachman Ingber, Avi Nesher, Ze'ev Revach, Ronit Elkabetz, Joseph Cedar, Keren Yedaya, Menahem Golan, Amos Gitai, Ram Levy, Eitan Green. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am one of them, as well ).
French-born Nadjari, 39, says the initiative for making the documentary came from the European television channel ARTE, which in 1995 produced a series of historical surveys of the filmmaking industries of a number of different countries in honor of the centenary of cinema's birth. A decade later, ARTE began to produce a second series devoted to countries, including Israel, whose film industries had not been dealt with earlier.
Nadjari's work aired on ARTE last year, and was screened at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival as well as at the Jerusalem Film Festival last summer. It is both unfortunate and strange that no Israeli TV channel has so far chosen to show the film, which, though not an in-depth study of the history of local filmmaking, does constitute a preliminary introduction to the evolving story of the industry, which gravitated from the margins to the center of Israeli culture, and whose role at the core of that culture is constantly growing.
The decision to commission Nadjari was itself surprising, insofar as he did not emerge from the local cinema scene, but rather began directing films in Israel only a few years ago. To date he has directed two movies here: "Avanim" ("Stones" ), in 2004, and "Tehilim," which was shown in competition at Cannes in 2007 ).
When I asked, Nadjari said he didn't know why ARTE had approached him for the project. Perhaps, he suggested, because he is at once an insider and an outsider here, and is therefore able to look at the history of local cinema differently than would another director whose entire oeuvre was shaped by this place. And maybe also because he is able to ask questions that a veteran director here - someone who may have a more intimate knowledge of the history of Israeli cinema - would not raise.
Initially Nadjari thought the documentary would run to 90 minutes, but after working on it for several months, he concluded that the variety of issues involved - and the contrasts and contradictions that characterize not only the history of local cinema itself, but also filmmakers', critics' and historians' attitudes toward it - were so great that an hour and a half would not suffice to present a reliable portrait.
He had seen the occasional Israeli film before arriving here, but knew little about the creative development of the field, so he was surprised by the number of social and other debates it has aroused over the years. He says, for example, that he was unaware that the works of Ephraim Kishon were a source of such controversy here; likewise, he had seen several works belonging to the genre of ethnic comedies known as "bourekas movies," but had no idea of the social and cultural discourse that evolved in response to them.
Nadjari toiled for two years to find a way to turn the material he collected from feature films, and the knowledge he had accumulated, into a documentary. He decided to juxtapose each excerpt from a film with one from a different work, and each opinion with a different one, and in so doing to create a mosaic. On the one hand, he portrays the chronological development of local cinema, while on the other, he reveals the dialectical nature of the discourse that accompanied and continues to accompany the history of cinema, through the views expressed in the film - some of which stem from different and even contradictory ideological and theoretical directions.
"The moment somebody says in the film 'we didn't want that kind of cinema here,' he is actually saying what kind of cinema he personally would not like to see here," Nadjari explains, adding that his documentary is not "the" definitive history of Israeli filmmaking. Rather, he says, he is proposing one possible way among many of looking at the subject.
"A History of Israeli Cinema" is the first documentary film Nadjari has directed, and it is a very special type: "It is not easy to make a film about films," he notes, not only because it is difficult to select the right excerpt to represent any given film, or the most fitting reactions to it, but also because, as he says he knows from experience, it is frustrating to watch films of this type. Viewers would rather see a film in its entirety than short excerpts.Universal interest
Raphael Nadjari was born in 1971 in Marseille, to an Egyptian mother and a Greek father. He studied visual arts, worked in television as a screenwriter and in other capacities, and in the late 1990s moved to New York, where he directed three films: "The Shade" (1999 ), which set Dostoyevsky's short story "A Gentle Creature" in contemporary New York City (the film was shown in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival ); "I Am Josh Polonski's Brother" (2001 ), which was shown at the Berlin Film Festival as part of the International Forum of New Cinema; and "Apartment #5C" (2002 ), starring the Israeli actress Tinkerbell, and screened at Cannes as part of the noncompetitive Directors' Fortnight program.
Nadjari is married to actress Sarah Adler, who starred in movies such as Jean-Luc Godard's "Notre musique" (2004 ), Joseph Pitchhadze's "Shnat Effes" ("Year Zero," 2004 ), and Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret's "Meduzot" ("Jellyfish," 2007 ); she also had a supporting role in "Stones." The couple has a daughter.
In preparation for making the documentary, Nadjari says he watched nearly every film ever produced in Israel. While issues on which local filmmakers focus - things like ethnic and national identity, preservation/destruction of stereotypes, etc. - are of universal interest, he suggests, Israeli cinema tends to shed a local, historical light on them.
Since he chose to focus on the issue of identity, Nadjari was unable to include several films he likes - such as Uri Zohar's "Shlosha Yamim Veyeled" ("Three Days and a Child," 1967 ) and Dan Wolman's "Michael Sheli" ("My Michael," 1976 ) - because he says he could not work them into the documentary.
"I was interested not only in how I see Israeli cinema, but also in how Israeli cinema sees itself," Nadjari says. "How it perceived itself over the years as playing a role in the country's history, society and culture. And to what extent local cinema asked itself the question of what is the 'right' cinema for this place. There are only a few film industries in the world that have dealt with a question of this type so intensively."
With these ideological issues dominating his film, he scarcely touches on matters of aesthetics. This perhaps reflects the fact that Israeli cinema seldom deals with questions of form and aesthetics at present, despite the dialogue Nadjari says it conducted with such concepts in the 1960s. However, he did decide to include David Perlov's "Diary" (1973-83 ) in his documentary, because it is, in the filmmaker's opinion, one of the only examples of a local movie that combines both elements of ideology and form.
Nadjari agrees with the suggestion that Israeli cinema has also been preoccupied over the years with the question of the individual's place in the collective. From this standpoint, too, Perlov's "Diary" is relevant to "A History of Israeli Cinema," Nadjari claims, because of its emphasis on the discourse surrounding that subject. "The possibility of speaking to the world from the viewpoint of 'I, myself' began with Perlov," he notes.Questions and answers
Nadjari concedes that beyond aesthetics, there are other subjects his film does not deal with, including the genre of Israeli documentaries, which, he notes, deal with the same issues as feature films, but in a completely different manner, and also local movie actors, whom Nadjari regards as "witnesses" to the creation of Israeli identity - as people who have helped make that identity more tangible on the silver screen.
Since questions seem to interest Nadjari more than answers, he has difficulty deciding whether his film provides a definitive answer concerning whether local cinema truly represents Israeli identity.
Nadjari: "Israeli cinema began by trying to present on screen the creation of 'a new person' and has now evolved into cinema that deals with the integration of the 'other' into local society. The fact that my film is split into two parts accentuates this process. The moment that Israeli cinema began speaking about the 'self,' all of the questions that preoccupy it to this day began to surface, because there was no longer a uniform narrative to cling to - rather, a collection of narratives had come into being."
Today, Israeli cinema is "anyone's cinema," he continues. "Anyone can have his say in it, and the era is over when any film produced here was considered 'the last word'; the final and definitive say on what and how Israeli cinema should be."
Furthermore, when it comes to the topic of Israeli identity, in general, and to the identity of the cinema emerging here, maybe it is time to stop talking about "Israeli cinema," its identity and function, and to start talking about "cinema in Israel." These concepts, he observes, have entirely different meanings.
Even though "A History of Israeli Cinema" is Nadjari's first documentary, it is evident that his approaches to feature and documentary filmmaking are similar. In both cases, making a movie is a continually evolving process for him, which is why he tends to make use of improvisation in his works and relies heavily on the output his actors (and interviewees ) provide on set.
Just as his approach to both genres is similar, Nadjari also sees no difference between making a film in France, New York or Israel. "I do the same thing here that I did there," he says, adding that the issue of his own national identity is of no interest to him when directing movies. "I have no questions regarding this matter," he notes, "although I have questions regarding my identity as a Jew, and they preoccupied me to the same degree in France and New York as in Israel." For the same reason he is not interested in whether he and his work can be subsumed within the "narrative" of Israeli cinema. "Until I came to Israel," he admits, "I didn't know such a narrative existed."
The ethnic identity of the characters in his films is not of major concern to him either. The first film he directed in the United States dealt with a Russian family; "Stones" depicted the story of an Israeli family of Middle Eastern descent; and "Tehilim" presented the tale of an Ashkenazi family. What intrigued him in all of these films was not the family's origins, he says, but the network of familial relations itself, and the standing of each member - father, mother, child - within that network.
Nadjari makes a constant distinction between time and history. "History has a beginning and an end," he says, "but time is endless, and that interests me. I try to penetrate that in my films."
Perhaps his documentary should have been titled "The Time of Israeli Cinema," for indeed its time has come.