A Rich History of Israeli Film, in Need of Rescue

Obscure and long forgotten, here are 12 films that capture a very different Israel from decades past that will be lost to future generations if they are not digitized.

Yigal Alon, the army general and politician once said, “A nation that doesn't respect its past will have a dull present and an uncertain future.”

By extension, a culture that doesn't preserve the treasures of its past is poor and one-dimensional. Such is the case with Israeli film.

After decades of obscurity, disregard and sometimes just bad luck, countless classic Israeli films have disappeared into oblivion. Hardcore cinema junkies, who make the time and have the discipline to go digging through old archives, are the only ones who get to revisit these lost gems, among them films that represented Israel at the Cannes Film Festival and others that won countless prizes. Some of these were truly ahead of their time, both technically and artistically.

The 80th anniversary of Israel’s film industry is the perfect occasion to celebrate a dozen of these films and make a passionate plea for their conservation. Some of them have been released on VHS tape but the world has already moved onto the DVD and online streaming. So these films, which capture a very different Israel of decades past, will be lost to future generations if they are not digitalized.

The list is, of course, subjective, and incomplete. There are loads of other great films – important works like Giddi Dar’s “Eddie King,” or Haim Halachmi’s “Oded Hanoded,” from 1932 – that are also worthy of conservation.

Above all, Israeli cinema needs a comprehensive, sustainable plan for preserving and restoring its cinematic legacy. Here are a few examples of why such a project is essential.

1. "Saint Cohen" (Hagiga Le'enayim), 1975, directed by Assi Dayan

Assi Dayan was full of pride and nostalgia when he discussed his second film, “Saint Cohen,” on a short biographical series which aired on Channel 8 recently. Dayan has much reason to be proud - the film won critical praise, though it flopped at the box office and was pulled from screens after just two weeks.  “Saint Cohen” is a wild and brilliant satire, which begins with a poet’s failed attempt at suicide after he reaches a town in the middle of nowhere.

Thanks to a few misunderstandings, the town’s residents think the wayward poet is as famous as Haim Nahman Bialik, Israel's national poet, and figure that if such a famous guy committed suicide in their town, it'd be a huge boost to tourism. The film's wild and humorous approach to morbid subjects made Dayan one of Israeli cinema’s most interesting directors. Unfortunately, due to a long legal battle, the movie has never been released on DVD.

“The film is in the hands of producer Shish Koler," Dayan said, calling "Saint Cohen" his best. "Today, in my opinion, it’s even better, and it needs to be rereleased.  It will be great for humanity, and Israel, because it is perhaps the best film ever made. In its time, it was hardly seen. Five thousand non-stupid people saw it, and the rest remained ignorant.”

2. "The Dreamer," 1970, directed by Dan Wolman

Dan Wolman’s filmography is full of so many gems that a DVD box-set should be released. Such a set could include, for example, “Hide and Seek” (1981), one of the first Israeli films to show a gay romance, “My Michael” (1975), based on the novel by Amos Oz, “Soldier of The Night” (1985), one of Israel's first horror films, and the brilliant short film “The National Poet” (1978, which could easily be Wolman’s "Saint Cohen").

If we’re forced to choose just one, however, Wolman’s first feature, “The Dreamer” (1970), which screened at Cannes, stands out. The love story, between a strange man who cares for the elderly in a Safed retirement home and a Tel Aviv woman, is a prime example of the “new sensitivity” movement, which originated in France and inspired Israeli artists to create modern, personal and revolutionary films.

“Throughout my life I’ve been burned by those who would distribute my films without paying anything," Wolman said. "I’ve always been too busy making my next movie to worry about distributing the last one. I’m happy to report that I’ve invested a great deal of money in making DVD versions of ‘Floch,’ ‘Hide and Seek,’ ‘My Michael,’ ‘Soldier of the Night,’ and ‘The Dreamer.’ Soon, they will be available for purchase directly from me, or streaming on iTunes.”

3. “Isha B'Heder Hashanei” (Woman in the Other Room), 1967, directed by Yitzhak Zeppel Yeshurun

Another classic from the “new sensitivity" period was the first film directed by Yitzhak Zeppel Yeshurun, which he also produced and wrote, based on a French script that was  influenced by French noveau roman novelist, Alain Robbe-Grillet.

 “Isha B'Heder Hashanei” isn't an easy viewing experience. Unlike the "burekas movies" popular in Israel at the time, which were comic melodramas or tearjerkers, this movie was considered a challenge for the average movie-goer.  The film portrays the relationships between two couples, one young and one older, but the plot is not linear. Two of Yeshurun’s earlier films, “Joker” (1967) which stars Yehoram Gaon, and “Kobi and Mali” (1978), are also worthy of rerelease on DVD.

4. “Paratroopers” (Masa alunkot), 1977 directed by Yehuda "Judd" Ne'eman

"Paratroopers," directed by Yehuda Ne’eman, was one of the first films to criticize the otherwise holy Israeli Defense Forces, and featured outstanding performances from a slew of young actors. The film follows a young man drafted into the paratroopers who suffers abuse from his commanders during basic training. Back then, the Israel Film Council refused to allow screenings of the film because it portrayed suicides in the IDF.

 “Actually, none of my movies are readily available today," Ne'eman said, noting that "Paratroopers" is only available on VHS.  "I’m working hard on a rerelease of ‘Paratroopers,’ and if it works out, I’ll continue on to ‘Hasimla’ as well." The latter refers to another of his films that was part of a sort-of black and white trilogy.

"I decided to rerelease ‘Paratroopers' first because it has more cultural importance than ‘Hasimla,’" he said. "Rerelease is a very large expense for filmmakers themselves. For a film fund or foundation, it would be a minor expense – but there is no film foundation working to conserve Israeli films.”

5. "Hill 24 Doesn't Answer," 1955, directed by Thorold Dickinson

In its time, "Hill 24 Doesn't Answer" was considered the most expensive film ever produced in Israel. The black-and-white film by British Director Thorold Dickinson, opens as UN observers reach ‘Hill 24’ after the 1948 War of Independence to decide if it will remain under Israeli control or be transferred to the Arabs. At the hill, they find the bodies of four Israeli soldiers who fought to defend it. Although it is an English-language film, it is an integral part of the Zionist ethos that characterized Israeli discourse during the 1950s and celebrated the “new Jew,” ready to sacrifice his life for the homeland. The film also represented Israel at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

6." Ma'agalim Shel Shi-Shabbat" (Friday-Saturday Circles), 1980, directed by Idit Shehori

“Ma'agalim Shel Shi-Shabbat,” about four restless young girls looking for fun in Tel Aviv, was one of the first films to examine the Israeli urban experience from the female perspective. Like “Moments,” a film directed by Michal Bat Adam in 1979, “Ma'agalim Shel Shi-Shabbat,” directed by Idit Shehori, examined female coming of age and sexual attraction between women, at a time when Israeli cinema was strictly masculine.

“I last saw the film about two years ago and I really loved it," Shehori said. "When it was released, I hated each and every frame. I guess that happened because of the film’s release – I saw only the external factors, the critics who blasted me. I was young and immature, and only a few years later, I said ‘hey, it actually went well,’ and since then, we’ve had good relations, the film and me.

"The film was not released on DVD, partly my fault, because a contract was signed and it was supposed to come out. Then I found out that the translation prepared for it was inaccurate. I put a hold on the process, and from there it was mostly forgotten. The movie has been aired a few times on Yes and HOT," she said, referring to Israel's two biggest cable networks.

7. "42:6," 1969, directed by David Perlov

Perlov's second film, “42:6,” is a biography of David Ben-Gurion, following Israel's first prime minister from his childhood in Poland to his move to Sde Boker, the kibbutz in the Negev where he lived the latter half of his life. Unfortunately, the only remaining copy of the movie is housed at the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive in Jerusalem and, even worse, the last few minutes are missing.

Perlov’s extensive documentary film, “Yoman" (Diary), was released on DVD, but most of his other films have vanished into oblivion.

“I saw the film with David at the Spielberg institute in Jerusalem," said Yael Perlov, Perlov’s daughter. "The last time I saw it, I saw the retrospective that was made for it as well. If I’m not mistaken, it has no ending… it needs to be restored, but there is no one who can do that except me, and unfortunately, I just can’t get to it.

"It’s a huge project that needs more than money – and there is no official body that does these things in Israel. It’s the duty of world cinema – and in Israel, no one does restorations. It shouldn’t come from me; it should come from the state because at the end of the day, this is a film about Ben-Gurion. My father made two feature films, and neither is available to the general public.”

8. “Lifnei Mahar” (Before Tomorrow), 1969, directed by Elida Gera

“Lifnei Mahar” is considered the first film to be made in Israel by a female director. Unlike some of the other films on this list, which at least have VHS copies available, no copies of “Lifnei Mahar” are known to exist. The film, a love story, has completely disappeared from video libraries. In addition, Elida Gera, considered one of the pioneers of Israeli film, has also disappeared. 

9. "When Night Falls" (Ad Sof Halaila) 1985, directed by Eitan Green

In the tradition of “The Dreamer” and “Paratroopers," Green's film critically examines, and breaks down, Israel's macho culture. Assi Dayan plays an IDF officer who, after choosing to be discharged from the army, sets out on a crazy night of barhopping in Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, his father also comes to town. The movie has been screened in the past at the Haifa Film Festival. It was released on VHS but no DVD copies exist.

“In its time, this film played in France for a few weeks," Green recalls. "It wasn’t a huge hit, but it wasn’t a huge failure either. I’d like to have a copy at home – it annoys me, more than it saddens me that I don’t.

"The last time I saw it was at an Israeli film festival in Paris. It was also the first time I saw it since I made it, almost 20 years later. Slowly, while watching it, I realized that the scenes are not in the correct order. People that died suddenly were suddenly resurrected in the next scene. I understood that the film was incorrectly cut. The film is owned by the Adery brothers, and they can’t find the original negative. We’ve been searching for it for a long time to release the film on DVD.”

10. "Rachel’s Man," 1975, directed by Moshe Mizrahi

Moshe Mizrahi is among the most successful Israeli directors, winning an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for 1977's “Madame Rosa,” a film adaptation of the French novel “The Life Before Us.”  While some of his other works have been released on DVD, his film about the biblical love story between Rachel and Jacob is available only on VHS.

“Talking about a film that no one saw is a little difficult," he says. "It’s impossible to see it because no copies exist anywhere – the film was funded by a British producer, it was released in England and taken off the screen within two weeks because it was unsuccessful. It wasn’t released in Israel at all, and personally, I haven’t seen it since the premier in London.

"It was a special movie, something that would have needed a big public relations campaign to take off. I wanted to do something new in the genre of biblical movies, and in retrospect, I’m partly responsible for its failure, because I submitted to the demand that the movie be in English, and it didn’t work out well. If there was a copy, I’d be happy to see it."

11. "Crows," 1988, directed by Ayelet Menahemi

“Crows," which premiered at an international student film festival in 1988, is a courageous film about a commune with a cast of characters that included a gay couple and a woman recently released from a psych ward. The film is an expression of the strange Tel Aviv subculture of the 1980s and is a very impressive achievement for an inexperienced film student.

“I’ve seen pieces of the film throughout the years, but I haven’t seen it in its entirety for decades," Menahemi said. "It was a film with many autobiographical elements, and I’m different today, so the film is slightly far removed from me. It has a student’s touch, there is ideology behind it, which seems primitive to me, but at the same time, very authentic.

"The Third Ear has been trying to get me to rerelease it and I’ve decided to digitalize the film copy that I have. I’ve even found some materials that can be great bonuses on the DVD, like auditions. But to release a DVD, I need time and money. I want to do it – but it’s an endeavor. I’m not blaming anyone, I’m angry only at myself. Maybe one day, when I’m 80, a special edition of ‘Crows’ will be released."

12. “Habanana hashorah” (The Black Banana), 1976, directed by Benjamin Haim

The plot – if you can call it that – of this slapstick comedy centers around a Hasidic Jew, a tourist from Texas, and an Arab inventor, who are thrown into a mikveh, a kibbutz, and some other strange places. It is the first – and only – film directed by Benjamin Haim and a brilliant satire of faith and redemption. The film is influenced by silent film and the physical comedy classics. Haim edited an abridged version of the film in the 1990s, which was screened at cinemateques throughout Israel, but is unavailable today.

The Tel Aviv and Jerusalem Cinematheques and the Israeli Film Fund weigh in:

“The Jerusalem Cinematheque film archive is responsible for restoring and conservation of old films," said a representative from the Tel Aviv Cinmeatheque, claiming in Tel Aviv there is "no archive, nor budget, to handle it.”

A representative from the Jerusalem Cinematheque said, “The directors are right, but in truth, we’ve restored quite a few old films. We’d like to live up to everyone’s demands, but what can we do if the state does not support our efforts? We just can’t satisfy everyone.”

The Israeli Film Fund agrees. “Conservation and digitalization of the films cost a great deal of money," a representative said. "The film law did not take this into account, so there is no budget to do this. We’ve helped here and there in restoring Ne’eman’s film, 'Paratroopers,' but the fund’s budget is meant for creating new films, not preservation. We make sure to save a copy of every film for the archive in Jerusalem. If we are given a budget for it, we would be glad to help.”

Haaretz