Portrait of the Auteur as an Unruly Film Student

The committee process was painful for Jonathan Dekel, but now his ‘April Fool’s’ is winning awards at festivals.

Olivier Fitoussi

“April Fool’s,” the senior project of Jonathan Dekel at Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel Film & Television School, is the latest Cinderalla story of Israeli student films. Filmed on an iPhone and made in just two months, it raised a lot of faculty eyebrows but won the juries’ hearts at two festivals and bucked expectations to win two awards: special mention from the Film Critics’ Booth at the TLV International Student Film Festival and Best Student Feature Film at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

Dekel never wanted to make a senior project, to spend 18 months on a movie that only his classmates and a few festival-goers would ever see. He wanted to start working in the industry, gaining professional experience. So while his classmates were working on their screenplays, going before school committees, being critiqued and making revisions, he did other things.

The emotional baggage from his most recent film at the time — a short military Western in rhyming dialogue, based on a few hallucinations he had in the army — contributed to the decision. “That film stole so much energy from me, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it again,” Dekel says. He says his teachers told him the film was bizarre, because of the rhyming dialogue and the voice-over by the omniscient narrator, who communicated with the characters. In the end they had faith in him and supported the film, but he found the process exhausting and traumatic. So in his last 18 months at school, Dekel worked on outside projects and wrote his first feature.

Final projects at Sam Spiegel must be approved by a screenplay committee before filming starts, and submitted to an editing committee once it’s completed. The teachers and filmmakers on the committees discuss the work, give feedback and request changes, repeatedly if necessary.

“You give your screenplay to the screenplay committee [facing] a panel of teachers, like on ‘American Idol’ who tell you what it’s worth, or, as usually happens the first time, what it isn’t worth,” Dekel says, adding that while the process makes the films much better it is often traumatic on the personal level.

“They often say harsh things, like ‘This film is one long series of mistakes’ or ‘This isn’t a film.’ You have to make corrections in accordance with the comments, and you keep resubmitting until it’s approved for production,” says Dekel, who is 31.

The comments he heard from teachers about “April Fool’s” took him back to his army Western. “They didn’t know how to take it, They told me: ‘That could be a nice end-of-year skit, but a film?’” Dekel says it was the unbound nature of the film, together with a self-referential aspect — it takes place at the school, in part, and students and employees appear in it — that made it hard for the teachers to process.

“April Fool’s,” is a strange, unusual and very compelling movie. It opens with an old video, of a prank that went tragically wrong, that finds its way to a film student (played by Dekel), who sets out to find the mysterious prankster.

Dekel conceived the movie as a “mockumentary,” with the “dirty” look of a documentary that sweeps the audience with a rapid narrative and extensive use of jump cuts. Hence, the iPhone. (“Sometimes it got really hot, we had to put it into the freezer to cool it and film with another iPhone in the meantime.”) He worked quickly, hoping to show the movie at the school’s final-project screening, with his classmates.

That meant submitting his film to the committees. “The reactions were difficult to watch. “At first they said, for example, that the beginning was perfect and the end heartbreaking, but the whole middle had to be reshot. We knew from the start it would be hard to gain approval because it wasn’t a classic short — a small story about a character who undergoes a small change, with a small, tight moment that works.”

Dekel defended his film firmly. “We said today’s audience was used to a YouTube-like pace and the visual language of iPhone images, and we convinced the school it would work. They wanted us to cut the film from 30 minutes to 15. We refused.”

Dekel says that despite the criticism, committee members recognized the film’s special spark and assigned him two advisers, both of them film editors: Tova Ascher (“Kidon”) and Arik Lahav-Leibovitch (“Zero Motivation”). He says they were perfect for his project and helped improve it. Dekel agreed to cut the running time (to 25 minutes), and admits that the cut and other suggestions from the school made the film better. In the end, Sam Spiegel accepted “April Fool’s,” showing it at the student screening and sending Dekel to compete in the two festivals. It will be screened at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque on August 14, as part of the Film Critics’ Booth, with Dekel there to answer questions from the audience.

The committees

While the word conjures up an image of the student versus the establishment, in fact the screenplay and editing committees are composed of young industry professionals who can give the students new perspective, says Renen Schorr, founding director of Sam Spiegel. He is very familiar with the complaints about the committee system, but rejects them.

“The committees pose several basic questions to students: Do you need to tell this story, what is your added value as the one telling it, why must you tell it and how will you make it as close as you can to your own voice?”

In addition to a representative of the school, each committee include two outside members who don’t know the student.

“Every screenplay that stands on its own, that has literary truth is approved. But it must have storytelling, it must be comprehensible and that it be clear and have a cinematic and stylistic position. The committees provide constructive criticism. There is no force here; rather, it’s a matter of artistic standards. We know some students see it as torture, but this method has proved itself,” Schorr says. He notes that the school’s student films are very successful, and that 70 percent of graduates find good jobs in the industry.

Schorr says the committees shed their threatening, traumatic image 10 or 15 years ago, and that in any event it had to do with the tone, rather than the content, of the criticism. “It’s much nicer, to the point and improves the project. In the past, we would bring a lot of directors into the editing committee, while today we bring in more editors, who know how to work with people and suggest solutions instead of just saying where the problems lie.”

Schorr says that Dekel is an example of the supportive way the school works.

“The first screenplay he submitted, which was highly autobiographical and very interesting in terms of visuals and style, was approved in one go. About a month later, he wanted to stop working on that screenplay and submitted a brilliant idea for a series of skits with [the highly acclaimed Israeli actress] Gila Almagor that was also approved. After he completed the series, when the approval period was over, he submitted the screenplay for ‘April Fool’s.’ We told him the approval period had ended, but said, ‘Take the school’s equipment, shoot the film and if we think it looks ‘legitimate’ after editing, we’ll approve it retroactively as a final project.”

“After filming was complete, Jonathan showed the movie to [senior instructor] Akiva Tevet, who recognized its potential. But since the film was totally chaotic, it went through the [committee] process. After several editing rounds, even though we felt the film was problematic from a narrative perspective and unfinished, we made an exception, allowing it to be screened at the school’s graduation evening. The film that was screened at the festivals in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem underwent additional editing that tightened its focus even more,” Schorr says.