The Director's Version

Conversations with a baker's dozen of Israeli cinema's hottest filmmakers go a long way to giving us a sense of what all the fuss is about

Karhonim Be'eretz HehamsinimHakolnoa Hayisraeli Hehadash - Sihot im Bama'im (The New Israeli Cinema: Conversations with Filmmakers), by Pablo UtinResling Publishing ?(Hebrew), 329 pages, NIS 94

At the start of Eran Kolirin's 2007 film "The Band's Visit," a driver is seen taking a huge yellow exercise ball out of the back of a white van and driving away. I don't know how many viewers noticed the ball or wondered about its possible symbolic value. I must admit that though I saw Kolirin's film twice, I had completely forgotten about the ball until recently, when I read "The New Israeli Cinema: Conversations with Filmmakers," which consists in the main of author Pablo Utin's interviews with 13 Israeli directors.

In the book, Kolirin tells Utin that the screenplay's first readers wondered how the Egyptian band invited to perform in Israel, whose story is told in the movie, could have been abandoned at the airport (and then stuck in a Negev town). It turns out the film originally included an entire scene explaining the mishap: The white van was supposed to have picked up the band members, but then the driver's very pregnant wife began to have contractions. Her husband brought out the exercise ball to help her get through labor, and drove away.

"This scene had two aims," Kolirin tells Utin. "The first was to justify in the screenplay why no one came to pick them up. The second was to create an aesthetic justification for the gap between the tale and the reality. It is as though the reality drives away, leaves, and we are left with the tale."

Kolirin says he filmed the scene and that it came out well, but he ultimately decided its frenetic directing style was too much of a contrast with the overall style of the rest of the movie. And so he retained only the moment the driver removes the ball from the van and brings it to his wife. And those who get it, get it.

The significance of that tale, one of the many such stories that turn up in the interviews, extends far beyond mere anecdotal value. The tale of the (mostly) deleted scene offers us a glimpse into Eran Kolirin's mind, his filmmaking aesthetic, his creative process, his directing goals and the way he tried to realize these goals.

Providing such glimpses was the main aim of Utin's conversations with the 13 directors in the book. And Utin has accomplished his goal; I read all the interviews with great interest and even with a modicum of surprise, very pleasant surprise.

These interviews provide unambiguous proof of what I have been claiming for quite some time now: that contemporary Israeli cinema is lively, vibrant, varied, alert and, above all, intelligent. This can be seen not only in the nominations and prizes Israeli filmmakers have received around the world, but in their awareness of their place in local film history and in the contemporary cinematic experience. It is this awareness that has transformed Israeli cinema into a central element of today's culture.

I have argued for many years that Israeli cinema operates in a theoretical vacuum, and that a complex, varied and fertile cinematic culture will be capable of existing only when the practical teams up with the theoretical. Although this absence is still felt, things are getting better, and Utin's book shows there are talented and educated directors working in Israel today who know what they are doing.

One can argue with some of the directors' claims, or object to the way some of them want to carry out their goals, but one cannot deny that each of the 13 filmmakers Utin interviews in this book have something to contribute to the shaping of Israeli cinema at this particular moment in history.

Utin, a doctoral student at Tel Aviv University and a lecturer in its film department who has also worked as a film critic, knows how to ask questions. He is familiar with the genre of filmmaker-interview books, and in his own work, he draws a convincing portrait of each director he speaks to. In bringing these high-quality interviews together, Utin provides us with a collective portrait of Israeli cinema today.

Puzzling absence

Utin makes a laudable effort to interview the directors who have made the most interesting Israeli films in recent years, but it isn't entirely clear to me why he begins at the point he does. Why, for example, does he ignore Dover Kosashvili, who made "Late Marriage" and "Gift from Above," with whom an interview could have been especially interesting, or Nir Bergman, who made "Broken Wings," a movie that had considerable influence on the contemporary Israeli film scene? Utin mentions "Late Marriage" (2001) and "Broken Wings" (2002) in his introduction, calling them both films that presaged what he describes as "a new Israeli cinema," but it is precisely for this reason that their directors' absence from the book is puzzling.

On the other hand, Utin did well to include not only interviews with directors whose films became hits - like Kolirin, Joseph Cedar ("Beaufort"?), Eytan Fox ("Walk on Water"?), Eran Riklis ("The Syrian Bride"?) and Shemi Zarhin ("Aviva My Love") - but also filmmakers whose names are not yet known to everyone. I was especially glad he did not leave out Keren Yedaya ("My Treasure"), David Volach ("My Father My Lord") or Danny Lerner ("Frozen Days"). Especially welcome are Joseph Pitchhadze, whose film "Year Zero" (2004) is one of the best produced here in recent years, even though it did not win the acclaim that it deserves, and Mushon Salmona, whose film "Vasermil" (2007), also one of the best Israeli films of recent years, flitted across the big screen with regrettable speed.

In several of the conversations, I was left with the feeling that Utin didn't go far enough. This was particularly evident in the interview with Fox, which did not delve deeply enough into the connection between mainstream cinematic work and both the treatment of homosexuality on-screen and the gay aesthetic.

The iceberg effect

The main problem with Utin's book stems from its introduction and the structure it attempts to impose on the interviews. Subtitled "The Detachment Approach in Israeli Cinema," the introduction presents a thesis to the effect that during the past decade, the relationship between the political and the personal in Israeli cinema has changed. It what seems to be the key paragraph, Utin writes: "In the wake of the second intifada, there began to be a need to deal with the political and the social, but in a more sophisticated way and without getting caught up in the slogans that many had dealt with. A realization emerged among some filmmakers that the personal is not the opposite of the political, but rather that the situation is more complex."

To convey the way some filmmakers address such complexity, Utin draws on the iceberg metaphor of the book's Hebrew title, which translates literally as "Icebergs in the Land of Heat Waves." The "iceberg effect," he writes, is a filmmaker's depiction of a narrow slice of Israeli reality that nonetheless lets the viewer know that beneath the surface "there exists a very large charge of complexities and of materials that are not spoken of directly in the film, but rather are to be found there and are keeping it afloat. ... The growth of the new cinema and the need to relate in some way to local politics have engendered what may be called 'the disengagement approach of Israeli cinema.'"

This approach, adds Utin, is characterized by "films that in fact do follow the logic of the disengagement from the political and the turn toward the personal, but that do this with the aim of carrying out a sophisticated circumvention and transmitting the political messages in a profound way by means of emotional moves and special aesthetic forms."

The problem with Utin's thesis, as is the case with many theses, is its attempt to impose itself on the reality. The conflict between the political and the personal, the private and the collective, has always been the force that impels Israeli cinema, and the history of Israeli culture as a whole, and it has never been possible to fit it into a simple, unambiguous formula.

Utin's attempt to compare the movies produced in Israel today with such earlier ones as "Marriage of Convenience," "Avanti Popolo," "Beyond the Walls" or "Cup Final" is misguided, because the earlier movies contained the same tensions that also characterize many contemporary Israeli films, even if they portrayed them differently.

In his introduction, Utin argues that as a result of the iceberg effect and the detachment approach, the formal essence of Israeli cinema has changed, with the emphasis having shifted from the "what" to the "how." The main problem with this argument is that, unlike the interviews that make up the bulk of the book, it restricts contemporary Israeli cinematic reality instead of expanding it.

It is true that in recent years Israeli directors have been paying more attention to form, as can be seen in the interviews with Yedaya, Volach, Pitchhadze, Lerner and Kolirin, who are among the harbingers of this change. (Other directors who fall into this category, but do not appear in the book, include Ari Folman, who made "Waltz with Bashir," and Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz, the directors of "Seven Days.") This is a very positive change in direction, and it's good that Utin's book discusses it. But his attempt to link it to other changes and to the connection between the personal and the political seems forced to me.

Utin sorts the 13 interviews into four chapters, a somewhat artificial division that showcases the problematic nature of the thesis presented in the introduction. The first chapter, called "The Aesthetics of Detachment," includes conversations with Cedar, Volach and Kolirin. "The Political-Social Cinema" includes interviews with Yedaya, Salmona, Fox and Udi Aloni ("Forgiveness," 2006). Interviews with Lerner, Dror Shaul ("Sweet Mud," 2006) and Shira Geffen (who co-directed the 2007 movie "Jellyfish" with her husband, author Etgar Keret) are lumped together in the chapter called "Fantastic Realms," and in "The '90s Generation Continues to Develop," we read about the directors Pitchhadze, Riklis and Zarhin.

There is something artificial about this classification; "Forgiveness," for example, could easily have been included in the chapter on the fantastic, and it's not clear what prevented Riklis' "Syrian Bride" from being included in the political-social category. But that's what happens with conceptual theses that sometimes override reality in an excessively energetic attempt to adapt themselves to the requirements of academia.

All this, however, detracts little from the book's importance, which, thanks to the ideas expressed in it, demonstrates just where Israeli cinema is today. For many years we have aspired to a meaningful connection between cinematic activity and writing that addresses it. "The New Israeli Cinema" is leading us in the right direction.

Uri Klein is the film critic of Haaretz.