Israel is a young country, and cinema is a young art form. But the relationship between Israeli cinema and its establishment has often been an uneasy one. Nonetheless, the history of Israeli cinema mirrors the history of Israel itself.
One of the first-ever motion pictures was filmed in Ottoman Palestine by the French Lumiere brothers. It is known popularly as Train Station in Jerusalem (1896). Its exotic, panoramic views are as transfixing today as when they were first screened for a European audience.
Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) itself remained the focal point of filmmakers through the period of the British Mandate. The first feature-length film in Hebrew was Oded the Wanderer (1933). It depicts a young sabra [Jew born in the land of Israel] who gets separated from his classmates on a school trip. In a typically didactic effort, the film emphasizes the importance of working the land and restoring a Jewish connection to it.
Most productions made during the years before and the first years of Israeli statehood, stressed these and other Zionist ideals. A common trope was the heroism of the Jewish pioneers, not just in settling the land, but also in fighting for their survival.
The most prominent Israeli manifestation of this type is probably Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer (1955). Filmed with a relatively expensive budget, it tells the stories of four fighters from diverse backgrounds in the War of Independence. They die, but their deaths are not in vain–their mission is accomplished and the eponymous hill is awarded to Israel.
Ephraim Kishon’s first movie, Sallah Shabbati (1964), is radically different from these standard productions featuring heroism, nobility, and sacrifice. It shattered all box-office records and is still shown frequently in ulpanim [Hebrew-language training] in Israel. Sallah hilariously subverts the self-important idealism that was so pervasive both in Israel and in Israeli films. It was nominated for an Academy Award, and stars Haim Topol as a Sephardic immigrant [that is, a migrant from Mediterranean lands], lazy and endearing, who manipulates the system for his own advantage.
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