Israel moviemakers get personal to win awards, fame, investment

A scene from ‘Sweet Mud’, one of the Israeli films which has broken out over the last year.By Gwen AckermanBLOOMBERG It is a story of disaster that works out in the end: An Egyptian brass band on a concert trip …

A scene from ‘Sweet Mud’, one of the Israeli films which has broken out over the last year.By Gwen Ackerman
BLOOMBERG

It is a story of disaster that works out in the end: An Egyptian brass band on a concert trip to Israel accidentally finds itself stuck in a small desert town and touches the lives of the people who live there.

The plot of “The Band’s Visit” parallels the making of the movie, which ran out of money before the final edit, was saved by foreign investment and won awards at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and the Munich Filmfest.

Israel’s film industry is attracting finance from home and abroad, playing in cinemas around the world and scooping prizes. Its scripts have moved beyond politics to tell personal stories about ordinary people. Lacking even one studio, it doesn’t seek to emulate Hollywood or Bollywood and prefers to compare itself with rivals in Europe.

“We have a talented group of writers and directors and skillful producers who can produce within budget and deliver the film on time,” said Katriel Schory, executive director of the Israel Film Fund, a non-governmental agency that hands out funding for movies. “This has created a certain confidence worldwide that the people here are worth the risk.”

Michel Zana of France’s Sophie Dulac Productions said he put money into “The Band’s Visit” because it was “political without being political, an encounter of two peoples, a story about love and music.” Distributed by Sony Corp., it will be shown in 35 U.S. cities starting in January 2008.

Individual Tales
Eran Kolirin, the picture’s screenwriter and director, insisted that the script, his first feature-length release, stay personal, even as potential investors pressured him to make it more political, said producer Eilon Ratzkovsky.

Another personal story, this time about gay love, is told in “The Bubble.” The picture will be released in France this month and in major U.S. cities in September after winning audience awards at festivals in Berlin, Toronto and Miami.

“Beaufort,” which explores the moral dilemmas of soldiers manning an Israeli stronghold in south Lebanon, got a Silver Bear for best director at the Berlin International Film Festival. It will be released this year in at least seven countries, including Japan, Germany, France and the U.K.

“Sweet Mud,” the story of a boy dealing with an unstable mother in their communal kibbutz community, won a Crystal Bear in Berlin in the youth-film category and received the Grand Jury Award for world cinema at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. Agreements have been signed to show the film in Brazil, Italy, Mexico and Canada this year.

From the Heart
Rare now are scripts with the underlying ideology or political message of past films, such as “Entebbe: Operation Thunderbolt,” released in 1977, a year after the military rescue of passengers on an Air France Flight hijacked by the militant Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

“Filmmakers stopped telling national stories relating directly to historical or political issues and started telling stories more close to their hearts,” said Dror Shaul, who directed “Sweet Mud.” “Those are always the best stories.”

New filmmakers, many without formal training, started work in Israel with the passing of a Cinema Law in 2001 that boosted government spending on films seven-fold. Without private-equity interest in films, the legislation was considered a crossroads.

Etgar Keret, whose film “Jellyfish” received the Cannes Camera d’Or award for best feature, said the additional cash opened the business to newcomers. “Filmmaking in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s was almost like a closed club,” he said. “Today there is more pluralism, innovation and adventure in the investment and it pays off.”

Overseas Cash
Foreign broadcasters, producers and investors have noticed the change. Last year, $7.2 million, or 44 percent of all the money invested in Israeli feature films in the form of co- productions or joint ventures, came from overseas, said Schory.

“These are countries our size which invest a lot of money in filmmaking, by far more than Israel, but they don’t have the same cinema industry because their stories are weak,” said Schory. “Our strength is in the power of the stories that come out of the turbulent society we live in.”

Ratzkovsky said European investors, especially from France and Germany, are also the most willing to fund Israeli films, and local producers are beginning to take those audiences into account when they take on projects.

The acclaim for Israeli movies this year helps raise awareness among international agents willing to release the films abroad, Schory said in a phone interview. In terms of funding “we are definitely feeling it,” said Ratzkovsky.

Boosts
The entrance of commercial and cable television in the 1990s also gave the industry a boost, both in the royalties collected by the government then put back into the industry by the Cinema Law, and by creating a training ground for producers, directors, cinematographers and scriptwriters.

Today government funding for local films is $13.6 million, up from $2.5 million in years prior to the legislation. Most films are made on tight budgets of about $1.5 million, a fraction of the amount spent on blockbusters such as Sony Corp.’s “Spider-Man 3,” which cost an estimated $258 million to make, said Brandon Gray, president of Box Office Mojo LLC, which follows film costs. (Sony Pictures had declined to say how much it cost to make and market.) The budget for “The Band’s Visit” was $750,000.

“We can’t compare with big budgets,” said Schory. “We don’t have money to make car chases. We cannot pay for huge scenes with hundreds of people running in the background. But we aren’t looking to play on those grounds.”

Still, filmmakers said the next “Lost in Translation,” an independent U.S. film by Sofia Coppola that became a blockbuster, may actually need to be translated. From Hebrew.