Challenging the Male Hegemony of Israel's Movie Industry

Why aren't more Israeli women taking leading roles both behind the movie camera and in front of it? In a Haaretz roundtable, four up-and-coming female filmmakers talk about challenging the male hegemony in the movie industry.

More and more local women directors have been receiving funding lately from the two major Israeli funds that support feature productions. Indeed, more and more women are managing to upset, albeit only slightly, the male dominance of the realm of Israeli cinema.

At present, women constitute a mere 5 percent of directors working in Hollywood and in Britain. The situation is a little better in America’s independent film industry: Twenty-four percent of its movies are made by women, according to research conducted last year. In Israel, according to Pilat Media reports, of the 130 locally made features shown in movie theaters between 2002 and 2010, only 13 − that is, 10 percent − were the handiwork of female directors.

In recent years, there have been calls for a change in this situation. In 2004, the nonprofit Women in the Picture Association was founded, which advocates for equal opportunities for women and men and warns about discrimination in the industry. In addition the association, whose flagship project is the International Women’s Film Festival held in Rehovot each year, has persuaded local film funds of the importance of including women as lectors − judges who decide on the projects that will receive the funds’ support.

The results are already evident: An increasing number of movies made by women are making it to the silver screen, and a review of what can be expected in local cinema in the near future paints an especially encouraging picture. Haaretz has learned from the Israel Film Fund and the Rabinovich Foundation ‏(the two main organizations investing in locally made features ‏) that out of 60 films that were given the green light in recent years, and that are now in various stages of production, 19 are being made by women. In other words, in the coming years, it’s possible that women directors will be making about one-third of all movies produced in the country.

It is fascinating to see that in most cases, the women in question have been young directors making their first feature-length films. Among those who have planted the seeds of change in the past two years are Rama Burstein, who directed “Fill the Void,” and Hagar Ben Asher, director of “The Slut”; those two films had the honor of being screened at the prestigious festivals in Cannes and Venice, respectively. Meanwhile, films by Hadar Friedlich ‏(“A Beautiful Valley”‏), Dana Goldberg ‏(“Alice”‏) and Maya Dreifuss ‏(“She Is Coming Home”‏) have picked up an array of awards at local festivals.

To gain further insight into the new generation of women directors that is taking shape here, to examine the way they see the cinematic reality in which they work, and to assess the changes ‏(if any‏) that they seek to introduce − Haaretz gathered for a roundtable discussion four screenwriter-directors who are currently toiling over their debut feature films. Yaelle Kayam is set to shoot her film “The Mountain” this coming winter, Michal Vinik recently completed the photography for her film “Barash,” Tali Shalom-Ezer is due to finish the editing soon of “Princess,” and Maya Dreifuss’ “She Is Coming Home” won three prizes at the last Jerusalem International Film Festival, including for best first Israeli feature, and is awaiting release to local theaters.

The first question posed to the four women was what they think is behind the timing of the current “new wave” of female directors.

Kayam: “I think it’s nuts. How did this not happen 10 years ago? How did this not happen the moment the Film Law, which provides for government funding for movies, went into effect?”

Dreifuss: “In my opinion, it has to do with the fact we have so many studying film, a field that has picked up steam here in recent years. Today there are many more film schools, there are many more film students, and a
student’s ability to make a career with short films is something that has developed greatly. And suddenly there was more room for women, because at the universities [and colleges] about 50 percent of the film students are women.”

Kayam: “But I would like to qualify that and ask: How many women teachers did you have when you were studying filmmaking? How many women teachers of directing? Because I had none.”

Dreifuss: “There weren’t many.”

Kayam: “And they also didn’t show us many films at all made by women. In my first year, I studied in Australia, and they screened Jane Campion’s ‘A Girl’s Own Story.’ I was really fired up by it, before I realized that it was actually the only movie I had seen that year with a women’s story and directed by a woman. In most of the films I had seen, the female characters were totally secondary.”

Shalom-Ezer: “In my eyes, the prominence of women making student films is also related to age. Because they are slightly younger, 20-something, and considerations of raising a family haven’t entered the picture for them yet.”

Kayam: “Right. And here we are, we four also don’t have kids.”

Dreifuss: “Yes, but we hardly have films either.”

They all laugh.

‘Crowding out other tastes’

It is, indeed, often claimed that the scarcity of women film directors is due, among other reasons, to the fact that work on one’s debut feature frequently comes at a time when women want to get pregnant and raise a family. What are the other obstacles that delay women on the road to their first feature?

Dreifuss: “There is this male hegemony among decision makers in the
field − whether among lectors, fund managers or film critics. From the moment there is a male majority in these positions, a situation arises in which the taste that determines which films will be made here is that of the male hegemony. It simply crowds out other tastes, and then a women who goes to a fund to explain why she wants to make her film must, first of all, translate her [concept for the] film into masculine language.”

Shalom-Ezer: “My view is that it also has to do with the traditional education we [women] get, inasmuch as we are not expected to stand out as much or to attain roles that demand vision, leadership and assertiveness. Such directions are not self-evident for us. But now a change is occurring, also in the male hegemony in the industry, because thanks to the activity of Women in the Picture, more women lectors are getting to work at the funds. “

Vinik: “I teach film, and I’ve noticed that somehow it always works out that the female students produce the films for the guys. I gave all my students a whole lecture about how a female student ought to make her own film, and how there is no reason for her to produce a film for somebody else. But I suppose it is part of what Tali referred to: that these are traditional women’s roles and they become internalized in certain women. But sitting here, around this table, are some people in whom nothing was internalized.”

Kayam: “And also we just don’t know how to produce. Maybe that’s why we direct and write our films ourselves.”

Dreifuss: “I want to point out that at the major international festivals, there are not so many movies made by women. So, a woman who wants to make a feature − what role models does she have? At the Cannes and Venice festivals this year, only one or two films by women were chosen for the official competitions. And this is a problem because, in terms of achievements and vision, women directors basically don’t have anything waiting for them ‘on the other side of the river.’”

Vinik: “Moreover, at the Cannes Festival there was a scandal, because Roman Polanski and Francois Ozon expressed themselves during the festival in a misogynistic way and nobody batted an eye. So is it any wonder that women’s films don’t get accepted to these festivals?”

In the current state of Israeli cinema, with a majority of filmmakers being men, do the movies made present a cinematic picture that bothers you, that you would like to change?

Vinik: “I am astonished anew each time to see the female characters that appear here in films, many of which were actually directed by the most sensitive and most charming men. I don’t want to mention names, but I have come out of some of these films with a real sense of discomfort. And it’s scary, because then our daughters will sit and watch these movies, and internalize [these stereotyped images]. And then at best, they’ll want to produce the next guy’s film, or in the less-good case, to flirt with him. In my eyes, Israeli cinema lacks representation of normal women, of complex female characters.”

Kayam: “What’s lacking for me is hearing the voice of women, seeing complicated characters who bring to the screen the complex experiences of women and who communicate with each other. What is missing, to me, is seeing movies that represent us and show that women are not merely sexual objects. And, hello! We’re not some small group but rather 50 percent of the population! That is why it is important that there be female directors, who will bring the voice of women to the cinema.

“Film-marketing experts recently explained to me that the people who buy movie tickets in the world are women. And I think that more and more women are fed up with not seeing women at all in movies, or with seeing certain types of representations of them. And actually there is a trend now in the world of creators who show such women − in the [television] series ‘Girls,’ ‘Orange is the New Black’ and ‘Borgen.’ Witness the fact that the audience likes this, consumes it.”

Dreifuss: “According to what you say, women decide what they’ll watch, and men decide what films will get made. So, oops, there’s a problem here.”

Shalom-Ezer: “As a lector at a fund, I noticed that I’m more interested in reading screenplays by women. Not because of some agenda that I had, but because of the cinema and because of the characters. I am just waiting for the moment when we are no longer invited to be interviewed [simply] because we are women directors. I am waiting for the moment when what reporters are interested in talking about is my movie − not the fact that I am a woman.”

Dreifuss: “I have no problem with men continuing to make their movies, even if the representation of women in them is a little funny, so long as our representation of women is also visible on the screen. I, for example, would be happy to go on watching Bruce Willis save the world again. I like it. It’s sexy. Only alongside this there has to be more films with Sandra Bullock. Then we won’t walk around feeling that we’ve been shortchanged.”

Taking out the trash

The films you four have made each feature a woman as the main protagonist. Is that a conscious choice, deliberate, perhaps political?

Vinik: “I think it’s simply natural.”

Dreifuss: “With me it starts from rage. As a woman, I come to the movies, see the way women are presented on the screen and say to myself: Hey, I like to scuffle, too. I like crawling through tunnels, too. I like shouting, too. So why don’t I find women like me on the screen? So in my films I want to show a heroine who is different, to say something about the women’s representations I see in the cinema.”

Shalom-Ezer: “I think it is less a political choice and more an intuitive one. But obviously you can look at it retroactively, in perspective, as being a political choice.”

Dreifuss: “The question is what will happen when there are more representations on film of women that are not necessarily what men would like to see. For them, movies in which cute Julia Roberts just sits around and waits are an escape. They say: In real life, after all, my wife the pest makes me take out the trash, but I don’t have to see that in the movies, too. And now we [women] are pushing ourselves into that place and saying: ‘No, we won’t take the trash out anymore!’”

Kayam: “We don’t have to wait for men to give us something. Enough, we are here, and the time has come to change the situation. We thought we’d get about half of the budgets back when the Film Law was enacted, but now we are here, and it is high time that it simply happen. I don’t want to wait anymore.”

Do you believe cinema can bring about change? That if more women’s films were to come out here it would affect the society we live in?

Kayam: “Yes. We live in a society in which the voice of women is excluded from lots of main intersections, not just in the cinema, and that affects all of society. I was in Berlin, and some woman who loves Israeli cinema a lot said to me, ‘Say, what’s the story? Are there no women in Israel? Are you as bad off as in Afghanistan? Because I watch Israeli cinema all the time and I don’t see women in it.’”

Shalom-Ezer: “The representation of reality influences reality, and vice versa. We start behaving as we see in the movies, as we read in books, so it will definitely happen here, too, when Israeli cinema gains more perspective.”

Dreifuss: “Especially when dealing with Israeli society, which is very masculine and where the military takes up a very substantial place. It gives rise to a mindset that’s along the lines of, ‘only men understand politics,’ among other reasons because at the moment, the national narrative is the one that is upheld here. But if there are going to be women who rise up and make movies here, and present another narrative, it will also influence the dominant narrative here and the mindset it yields.”

Kayam: “How did my partner’s mother, who is a film buff, put it: ‘I don’t understand why the women in movies are always so passive? After all, all the women I know are very active.’ So I believe that films women will make here will cause, for example, teenage boys and girls to realize
suddenly that women, too, have stories, that they are interesting, and that they are also relevant to their lives. And that will help enable men finally to get out of the military and violent mold.”

Dreifuss: “We also need to see how our films communicate with the audience: whether they will meet with commercial success and artistic appreciation. It would be interesting to know whether the audience, and women in the audience, even want to see what we’re making. What is certain is that along the way we will all have to encounter the film critics, nearly all of whom are men, and the film festivals in the world, which as we noted are not exactly welcoming to women. So there may be women on both sides of the barricade, but you have to remember that in the middle there is a male bridge that is pretty hard to cross.”

Vinik: “As far as I’m concerned, the present situation is discouraging and doesn’t make me want to go on fighting for something I don’t even know will make an impact. On the other hand, perhaps it is not for us to finish the job. Maybe each of us has to do her small bit, and that way it will happen in the end. At least that is how I feel, like a little ant that is dragging along another grain, in the hope of reaching that nest, which is somewhere far off, on the horizon.”

Daniel Tchetchik
Radoslaw Ladczuk
Shai Peleg
Shai Peleg