Contemporary Israeli Film

Filmmakers find a uniquely Israeli voice.

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After a lengthy gestation period, the Israeli film emerged from its womb in the 1990s, moving into a period of remarkable artistic growth and international legitimacy. Whereas once the idea of the Israeli film had been associated with third-rate dramas and sophomoric comedies, the emergence of young filmmakers like Eytan Fox, Dover Kosashvili, Shemi Zarhin, and Eran Riklis, along with the continued success of Israel’s most prominent director, Amos Gitai, meant that cinematically speaking, Israel was a cultural backwater no longer. 

Amos Gitai

Gitai, who had first come to prominence in 1982 with Field Diary, took center stage in Israeli film in the 1990s while remaining true to his idiosyncratic, ever-varied interests. Gitai’s films alternated between an interest in the way Israelis live now and an in-depth exploration of Israel’s short, tumultuous history. For the former, Gitai sought to avoid the yuppie melodramas favored by filmmakers like Nir Bergman (Broken Wings, 2002) and Savi Gabizon (Nina’s Tragedies, 2003), turning his eye to heretofore ignored subgroups like the residents of Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim district in Kadosh (1999), and the Sephardic working class of Tel Aviv in Alila (2003).

At the same time, Gitai turned back the pages of Israeli history to such national turning points as the Yom Kippur War in Kippur (2000) and the 1948 War of Independence in Kedma (2002), seeking to invest the past with the immediacy of the present. Kippur, possibly Gitai’s masterpiece, was a deeply unusual war film, one more attuned to the confusion of war, and its dispersal of peacetime pursuits, than the traditional combat movie. Never content to make the same film twice, Gitai was condemned to a career of uneven peaks and valleys. While Kippur was considered one of the best Israeli films of the era, Kedma, Alila (2003), and 2005’s Free Zone (co-starring Natalie Portman) all received less-than-stellar reviews. Nonetheless, Gitai remained the don of Israeli directors, his restless artistry an inspiration to a generation of younger filmmakers.

New Filmmakers

In the late 1990s and the beginning of the millennium, a new generation of Israeli filmmakers moved to the fore. These filmmakers were more sophisticated, more polished, and better trained than their predecessors, and their influence spread throughout the Israeli film industry, which suddenly found itself the subject of considerable international interest.

israeli filmUnder the influence of directors like Fox, Kosashvili, and Keren Yedaya, Israeli film concerned itself seriously, for the first time, with the nuances of the country’s diverse, ramshackle society. There were films about the lives of Georgian thirty-somethings looking to escape from the stifling wing of parental authority (Kosashvili’s Late Marriage, 2001), Sephardic teens bowed under the burden of familial responsibility (Shemi Zarhin’s Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi, 2003), a working-class mother and daughter forced to turn to prostitution as a last-ditch response to impending poverty (Yedaya’s Cannes prize-winner Or, 2005), and middle-class families struggling with loss (Nir Bergman’s Israeli Oscar-winning Broken Wings, and Savi Gabizon’s Nina’s Tragedies). There were Yemenites (Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi), Russians (Yana’s Friends, 1999), Christian Africans (James’ Journey to Jerusalem, 2003), Israeli Arabs (The Milky Way, 1997), and the ultra-Orthodox (Ushpizin, 2005).

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.