Good News, and Not Just for Film Fans

In the midst of all the uproar and the violence, in the midst of all the indifference and the beastliness, in the midst of all this chaos, a few islands of sanity modestly persist. It is worth turning the spotlight on them from time to time so that it will get used to illuminating not only the bad.

The 22nd International Film Festival, which closed last night in Jerusalem, is one of these islands. The tens of thousands of Israelis who attended it as enthusiastically as ever watched films from Israel and abroad very far from the usual image of the Israeli sprawled in front of the television, roaming the shopping malls or flapping a piece of cardboard over the barbecue. The Israeli documentary films that were screened at the festival are the cherry in the icing on the cake. About 100 documentaries were submitted to this festival, one of the three (together with the excellent DocAviv festival and the Haifa Festival) that annually screen dozens of new Israeli documentary films. This is an impressive crop in its range. A great many of the films are also indicative of courage and excellence in a society in which these values have become a rare commodity.

Many Israeli films win important international prizes. For example, the important Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival in Toronto held an admirable retrospective of Israeli documentaries a few months ago. Like the shunned and despised Iran, where the cinema is a ray of light that is surprising in its daring, the Israeli documentary cinema transmits to the world a message different from the one that usually comes across in the news broadcasts. With public funding NIS 85 million last year under the Film Law, 61 percent of which went to documentary films, subversive and free, creative, unparalleled work is being done here. The documentary filmmakers, most of them unknown youngsters, direct their cameras courageously and with talent at stories that have not been told, providing a platform for a voice that is different from the one usually heard here.

Look at what we had in the documentary field at the latest Jerusalem Film Festival: "Strike," a wonderful debut film by Amir Tausinger and Asaf Sudry that depicts the failed attempt to organize the workers at Haifa Chemicals South. No newspaper report depicted in this way the bullying and predatory struggle that was conducted against a group of courageous and determined workers who only wanted to establish a workers' committee for themselves at a plant that is owned by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's close friend Arie Genger. Unbelievably, the film was produced by Channel 1, with the support of the public film foundations.

Another excellent film, "Just Married" directed by Ayelet Bechar, tells the story of the cruel Citizenship Law that prohibits Israeli Arabs from marrying Palestinians, unless they decide to emigrate from here. And there is an artistically drawn portrait of painter and sculptor Menashe Kadishman, "The Blue Lamb," directed by Dani Dothan and Dalia Mevorach; a thrilling human portrait of Abie Nathan "Abie Nathan: As the Sun Sets" directed by Eytan Harris; in-depth conversations with five leftist refusers David Benchetrit's "Dear Father, Quiet, We're Shooting"; Dalia Karpel's "The Diaries of Yossef Nachmani," the story of a land-purchaser for the Jewish National Fund at the inception of the Zionist project; "Bridal," a film about arranged marriages in the Arab sector by Ibtisam Mara'na, who last year too made a beautiful ,prize-winning film; and the story of Adolf Hitler's telephone operator and security guard, "The Last Witness" by Yael Katz Ben Shalom.

Holocaust, national revival, protest, eviction, society and art, all for the price of a few movie tickets, and this is just a partial list. This Israeli cinema verite - the cinema of truth - has not been deterred in recent years by any subject, no matter how controversial it might be. In a brainwashed and cowardly society this is a most unusual phenomenon. The fact that this creative work is financed mainly by public funds is even more astonishing. You will hardly hear a word from any filmmaker about the blocking of funds in a political context. Thus, in recent years probing films have been made here such as "Arna's Children" by Juliano Mer Khamis, Eran Turbiner's "Matzpen," Ra'anan Alexandrowicz's "The Inner Tour," Yulie Grestel's "My Terrorist," David Ofek's "No. 17 is Anonymous," Yoav Shamir's "Checkpoint," Muhammad Bakri's "Jenin, Jenin" and Avi Mograbi's original films that are very successful internationally.

The Israeli feature film, which sometimes lags behind the documentary in its quality and daring, is also beginning to touch upon sensitive subjects: Two of the four Israeli feature films that participated in the Jerusalem Film Festival this year dealt with foreign workers.

This is good news, not only for film fans. Although Israeli literature is very successful internationally, it hardly dares to touch upon the troubling collective issues, the musicians stay away from politics as if it were fire, television is shallow and stupid especially during prime time and the press, of its own free will, for the most part, follows the official line.

The documentary filmmakers set a different standard for creative work and involvement. Their works often win more exposure abroad than in Israel, where most of their films are shown on channels that do not attract many viewers like Channel 8 and the new Yes! Docu. Nevertheless some of them have succeeded in finding their way into the heart of the consensus, like "Roadblock," which was shown on Channel 2. These documentary films and their makers are the real pioneers ahead of the camp, a camp that is hard-hearted and blind for the most part. Anyone who wants to know one day what really happened here will have to watch these films.