The Great Israeli Cinematic Brain Drain: Why Israeli Filmmakers Are Opting for Hollywood

The bright lights of Hollywood have proved irresistible for a group of acclaimed young directors.

Joseph Cedar, director of the Oscar-nominated Israeli film 'Footnote.'
Mario Anzuoni, Reuters

NEW YORK — With the global success of Israeli cinema in recent years, a ‘brain drain’ of Israeli filmmakers was all but inevitable. And indeed, the coming year will see an impressive number of Israeli directors making their international debut with A-list Hollywood stars (including Ellen Page and Kate Mara), or productions by prominent figures in cinema, like the Oscar-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu or comedian Amy Poehler.

The main force driving Israeli filmmakers to try the craft abroad seems to be money more than politics: It’s hard to argue with the fact that in Israel more and more mice want their bite of the budgetary cheese. In recent years, dozens of feature length films are produced annually in Israel, including low-budget guerrilla productions with little-to-no support from Israeli film funds. As it is close to impossible to produce a film without the help of one these funds, one can easily understand why young directors are trying to make their artistic way outside of Israel, in search of alternative resources.

It is important to draw a distinction between the success of Israeli-Americans who left Israel for the U.S. many years ago and made a place for themselves in the entertainment industry — names like Noam Murro, Oren Peli, Oren Moverman, Boaz Yakin and producer Ram Bergman — and this recent and surprising surge of Hebrew-speaking Israelis for whom Israel is still their domicile. Most of these filmmakers are in their 30s and are now on the cusp of making their international directorial debuts, after making one or no more than two full-length films in Israel beforehand.

First came the “new wave of Israeli cinema,” including the critically acclaimed war movies “Beaufort” (2007), “Waltz with Bashir” (2008) and “Lebanon” (2009). Then came the golden age of Israeli cinema, with a rich array of films of all types being screened in Cannes, Venice, Toronto and New York film festivals (for example Nadav Lapid’s “Policeman” (2011) and “The Kindergarten Teacher (2014), “Youth” (2013) by Tom Shoval, “Gett” (2014) by Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz, and no small number of documentaries that even earned Oscar nominations like “5 Broken Cameras” or ”The Gatekeepers.”

Finally, as of late, local cinema has taken its game to the next level thanks to directors directing English-speaking projects with a Hollywood cast — like Ari Folman, Joseph Cedar and Ido Fluk (whose first film in English, “The Ticket,” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April). Folman led the trend by jumping head first into the major leagues with “The Congress” (2013), a partially animated film starring Hollywood actors like Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel and Jon Hamm. Folman is currently developing an intriguing animation adaptation to Anne Frank’s diary. Cedar, whose films “Beaufort” and “Footnote” were both nominated for an Oscar, has recently revealed his new film, “Norman”, at Toronto International Film Festival. This Israeli-American drama, which received hailing reviews, stars Richard Gere, Steve Buscemi, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi.

Lior Ashkenazi and Richard Gere arrive for the premiere of the film 'Norman' at the Toronto International Film Festival, September 12, 2016.
Reuters / Fred Thornhill

According to Cedar, “the story I want to tell takes place in the U.S. with the plot centering around the character of an American Jew who for years I have tried to develop into a film. When the opportunity finally presented itself, I was glad for the chance to experience the American [film] industry.”

Cedar doesn’t have a clear answer as to why Israeli filmmakers are choosing to work outside of Israel. “Every filmmaker is a world of influences, desires and circumstances that aren’t necessarily part of a wider trend,” he says. And yet, there is a deep trend in Israel and the world that facilitated the love affair between Israel, Hollywood and Europe. What began as one night stands of varying success has since matured into a full-fledged relationship involving international agents, funds, festivals like Sundance, and in some cases even television networks and video streaming websites.

While Cedar’s “Norman” is an Israeli-American film in both English and Hebrew filmed in both countries, most of the other projects are Hollywood productions for all intent and purposes. For example, “Mercy,” the second feature film directed by Tali Shalom Ezer (“Princess”): a lesbian drama starring Ellen Page and Kate Mara and currently in production, being filmed on location in Cincinnati, Ohio. Another Israeli director on the precipice of her move abroad is Talya Lavie, whose film “Zero Motivation” made its debut two years ago at Tribeca and won critical and commercial success. In June it was reported that Amy Poehler is planning to produce a television series based Lavie’s first film, slated to be broadcast by BBC America.

Lavie herself will be enjoying an executive producer credit for the project. Another Israeli filmmaker to receive a surprising phone call from abroad is Tom Shoval (“Youth”). Variety revealed in June that French actress Bérénice Bejo will star in his new film “Shake Your Cares Away”. The film will be shot in France and Israel, and the Oscar winning Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Birdman”) will serve as its executive producer. Shoval recounts how the script was written initially with the main character being Israeli.

“When I was in Paris, an agent with a French agency set up a meeting with Bejo, who saw ‘Youth’ when it came out in France and wanted to meet with me. It was a long and amazing meeting.” There was only one problem: Bejo would have to speak Hebrew in certain scene. “She was willing and able to meet the challenge and began to study Hebrew!”

Why do you think that more and more Israeli filmmakers are opting to direct films in Hollywood or abroad, predominantly without Israeli funding?

“I think that people abroad cannot see the films coming out of Israel and not recognize Israel as a wellspring of talent, and it is understandable that large film industries from around the world, that have the financial abilities to do so, would want to import that talent for themselves. Filmmakers need the ability to create and movies are an expensive medium. In Israel, the chances of making movies in an ongoing and consistent manner is obviously smaller.”

Shoval joins Nadav Lapid, another Israeli director who will direct a film in France this year. Unlike other Israeli directors are set to direct projects in America — including Shalom Ezer, Lavie and in most likelihood Aharon Keshales and Naboth Papushado, who moved to Los Angeles last year — Lapid contents that his new film, “Micro Robert,” is the most Israeli film he will ever direct.

He explains that “though it is set to be shot in Paris and it is almost entirely in French, ‘Micro Robert’ is the most personal movie I have ever made, and deals with the essence of Israeliness. It was developed from notes and sketches I made over 15 years ago when I was living in Paris. It is the story of a young Israeli who moves to Paris, and thus will be played by an Israeli who speaks French with the French and Hebrew with the Israelis. The movie is a reflection my experiences during my time in Paris.”

“It would not even cross my mind or peak my interest to make a French film to which I have no connection,” he said. “I have received a couple of offers to make such projects and I always rejected them. I don’t think I have the tools to find the interesting angle for such a movie. I don’t think it interests me to invest time and artistic inspiration in something that isn’t me who must be the one to make it. For me, it just makes sense that a French director do it.”

Why do you think more and more Israeli directors are starting to direct films abroad?

“I completely understand directors that want to try their hand at directing a foreign film, American or European. It’s an adventure, it’s new and exciting, like moving abroad for a period. And maybe here’s even a certain magic to America, American actors, especially for those close to that type of cinema. There are those from whom the mythology of cinema is Hollywood, and for whom the Oscars is exciting even if they think most of the films competing there are mediocre. I completely understand the directors. But when it excites journalists, for example, or the Israeli film industry, it seems to me pretty provincial. As if it’s a bigger achievement to shot a film in London or Paris or New York than in Tel Aviv or Be’er Sheva; or directing an actor called Bruce or Louise, and not, for example, Yitah.

“It’s very similar to the thinking that holds that just living in Berlin or New York is somehow in itself a success. That’s nonsense, because the question then become what will you do in Berlin, or what movie do you plan to film in London. By and large, the interesting films from recent years were made in places like Lisbon or Istanbul or Bucharest, local directors whose lack of means and creativity are the force of their great talent.”

Lapid added that he does not believe the phenomena is connected to the sense of the erosion of artistic freedom of expression in Israel.

“Obviously and this still needs to be said that there are today political issues that you cannot receive institutional financial support for. To be fair, it’s important to note that these are not just films at the far-left end of the political map; there is no right wing or patriotic films being made either, for example, for a number of different reasons. I think it’s a shame. But there is no doubt that there is growing political pressure on the film funds and of course that turns certain essential issues, like the occupation for example, into something you see less and less on the screen, especially if it is treated seriously. On the other hand, in Israel, there is still no Jafar Panahi, the Iranian director jailed for five years for one of his films. A Jewish director in Israel still has the freedom to maneuver, and I really don’t think that those traveling across the ocean are doing so because they feel politically persecuted.”

Israeli directors who were born in the 70s and 80s like Lapid, Shoval, Shalom Ezer, Lavei, Keshales and Papushado benefited from the growth of the local industry and the integration of a number of factors that laid the infrastructure for Israeli cinema’s golden age and the ability to “make it” abroad. These filmmakers, now in their 30s and 40s, gained from the surge in the number of film schools in Israel (including Sam Spiegel and Ma’ale) and the advents of digital technologies that dramatically decreased production costs.

Alongside these changes, in 1999, Israel passed a film law which substantially changed the local industry, regulating for the first time a generally steady flow of funds to the field. The law saw over

2000 full-length feature films made since it was passed.

As a result of these changes, in the past decade Israeli films have begun to appear in almost all film festivals - prominent or otherwise - and even win commercial distribution in the U.S. and Europe. “A Week and a Day” by Asaph Polonsky, for example, was screened in Cannes and sold to the U.S., France, Italy, Denmark and other countries; “Sand Storm” by Elite Zexer, which won Israel’s Best Film Award, will be shown in more than 100 cinemas across France, Canada and the U.S.

Israeli documentaries are also making headway abroad in international distribution. Thus was the case with “A Film Unfinished”, “The Apartment”, “Five Broken Camera” and many others screened in the U.S. Another testimony to this trend took place this week, when the film “Princess Show” by Ido Haar was sold to Netflix and will be available for streaming in over 184 countries.