Israel Prize Winner for Film Judd Ne’eman Dies at 84

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Filmmaker Yehuda (Judd) Ne’eman
Filmmaker Yehuda (Judd) Ne’emanCredit: Asaf Einy

Director, screenwriter and researcher of the cinema, Prof. Yehuda (Judd) Ne’eman, a winner of the prestigious Israel Prize for cinema, died on Sunday morning. He was 84. Ne’eman died at home in Tel Aviv, surrounded by his family, after a long struggle with cancer.

Among the films he directed were “The Dress” and “Paratroopers.” He made a list of political movies that examined the Israeli reality in a critical light, was one of the pioneers of the study of Israeli cinema, wrote groundbreaking articles and helped in advancing this research in academia. He is survived by his wife, Prof. Talma Hendler, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, and his two daughters Liba and Renana. The time of his funeral has not yet been announced.

Ne’eman was born in 1936 in Tel Aviv, grew up in Petah Tikva, was drafted into the Nahal infantry brigade and served as a platoon commander in the paratroopers in the reserves. After being discharged from the army, he began studying math and physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but quickly switched to studying medicine there. He graduated in 1965 and began a residency in surgery in the Hadassah Hospital in Tel Aviv. He served as a battalion doctor in the paratroops during three wars: The Six-Day War, War of Attrition and Yom Kippur War – and for his treatment of the wounded under fire at the battle of Umm Katef in the Six-Day War he was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Service, Israel’s third-highest award for bravery.

At the same time he worked as a doctor, Ne’eman dreamed of making films – and in 1966 he worked as the acting producer on the film “Scouting Patrol” directed by Micha Shagrir. Ne’eman worked without pay on this film, and instead received a crew and equipment for a couple of days of filming, which enabled him to shoot his first short movie, “The Dress.”

Three years later he added two other short films to this movie, and the three came to together – each with its own Tel Aviv love story – under the title “The Dress,” which was screened as part of the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival.

Prof. Yehuda (Judd) Ne’eman in his homeCredit: Meged Gozani

“The Dress” placed Ne’eman in the new group of local directors who turned their back on the “enlisted cinema” and created films that were influenced by the European new wave of that period – along with Avraham Heffner, Nissim Dayan, David Perlov, Moshe Mizrahi, Isaac Zepel Yeshurun, Dan Wolman, Assi Dayan and others.

“Back then, addressing death was powerful. We opposed the films of contemporary Israeli cinema – the ‘bourekas movies’ and ‘commissioned’ films, propaganda films. We opposed everything in our European-influenced films, which also had a local dimension that I called the ‘death mask’ - in other words, a defense mechanism,’” said Ne’eman in an interview with Haaretz in 2008. “It was a generation that lived in the shadow of World War II and the War of Independence, in the shadow of the deaths of young men. It was our obligation, but on the other hand, we wanted to live. When we donned the ‘death mask,’ it was a defense mechanism, because someone who is already dead does not fear death. That mask was reflected in the cinematic expression of those films: an introverted rather than extroverted style, very restrained, minor, minimalist.”

Through 1972, Ne’eman created dramatic and documentary films for the Israel Broadcasting Authority Channel 1, including “Bedouins of the Sinai,” which examined the lives of the Bedouin in the southern Sinai Peninsula, and “Observation on Acre,” in which he documented the alienation between Arabs and Jews in the northern port city of Acre. At the same time, he continued working as a doctor – while publishing articles and reviews in the media on cinema. In 1977, he released one of his most famous films, “Paratroopers” (“Masa Alunkot”), with Gidi Gov, which turned its back on the IDF’s ethos of heroism – and instead told the story of a soldier in basic training in the paratroopers, Moni Moshonov, who suffered from harassment and abuse – until in the end he breaks and commits suicide. The Israel Theater and Film Censorship Board wanted to ban the showing of the film out of fear it would damage the IDF, but in the end then IDF Chief of Staff Motta Gur approved showing it to the general public.

In 1984 he directed “Fellow Travelers” (“Magash Hakesef”) about a left-wing activist who raised money from Germany to establish a Palestinian university, and “Streets of Yesterday,” which was filmed seven years before the murder of Yitzhak Rabin and told the story of a Jew who murdered an Israeli statesman because he initiated a peace agreement. Critics harshly panned this film, saying the plot was absurd – and as a result Ne’eman left the film industry for 17 years and focused on academic research into the cinema.

“I certainly want my films to be seen, but not at a cost of fabrication and lies. That’s how I felt about Israeli politics in 1988, and that’s how I presented it. But a Maariv critic wrote a review entitled ‘Lust and Stupidity,’ which claimed that only someone as delusional as me could invent a plot like that – a blood libel about an extremist assassinating a political leader. And a headline like that incites fire,” he said in the interview with Haaretz in 2008.

Prof. Yehuda (Judd) Ne’eman in his homeCredit: Meged Gozani

“It wasn’t easy to make ‘Streets of Yesterday’ and, in my opinion, it is cinematically excellent,” Ne’eman adds. “But no one wanted to relate to it. So I decided not to make another film because my work didn’t interest anyone. I was only tempted again many years later. I fell off the wagon and decided to make a film even if it was destined to attract only six viewers.”

Only after 17 years did he return to directing, and in 2006 released two films: The documentary “Sheherazade’s Tears,” which showed a trip to Ukraine by a dance troupe of the choreographer Irina Jammal, a Ukrainian married to an Israeli Arab, and “Nuzhat al-Fuad,” a film set in contemporary Tel Aviv that combines episodes out of “A Thousand and One Nights” in eighth century Baghdad.

Ne’eman was an autodidact in the area of the cinema, taught in the film department at Tel Aviv University – and headed the department from 1980 through 1983, and then again from 1991 to 1994. He greatly expanded the theoretical study of cinema, and especially Israeli cinema. He wrote quite a lot about the Israeli cinema.

Filmmaker Yehuda (Judd) Ne’emanCredit: Tomer Neuberg

He was awarded the Israel Prize for film in 2009. Ne’eman’s “academic writings are subversive and full of vision,” the judges wrote. “As an artist, researcher, teacher and leader of artists, he has left his mark on crucial junctures in the history of Israeli film since the 1960s.”

In 2020, Ne’eman published a book of poetry. He told Haaretz: “I start every morning with a five-kilometer walk along the sea and want to continue, and no, the coronavirus is not really frightening or interfering, and in general – I’m not afraid to die, I’m just very curious, want to see what happens after that.”

Ne’eman hoped to have enough time to film a screenplay he wrote about the Yom Kippur War. When he realized that it wouldn’t happen, a group of friends from the cinema field organized a reading of the screenplay, filmed it, and last week they screened the result for Ne’eman.

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