Israel's female filmmakers move to center stage

The year 2014 reflected the changes that the Israeli film industry has been undergoing for the last few years, with many more female filmmakers, complex leading women's roles and an unprecedented number of awards.

al-monitor Ronit Elkabetz attends a screening of "Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem" in Hollywood, California, Oct. 27, 2014. Photo by Getty Images/Jason Kempin.

Topics covered

women’s issues, movie, israel, film, female participation, cinema, award, artists

Mar 12, 2015

One of the dramatic signs of the women’s revolution in Israeli cinema actually appears in a movie made by a man, “The Kindergarten Teacher” by Nadav Lapid, which has received critical acclaim around the world and has been praised as one of the best Israeli movies of 2014. Suddenly male directors, too, are creating complex and complicated women as central characters. But, in fact, 2014 was an amazing year for female creators in Israeli cinema, and it would be unfair to attribute the change to a man.

“2014 was an excellent and unprecedented year,” Avner Shavit, the Israeli Walla website’s movie critic, says. “Compared to other countries, the Israeli industry provides more room for expression of women’s voices. In the Oscars there wasn’t a single woman nominee for best director. In France, one woman out of seven directors are competing in the [Cesar award] best director category, and in Israel [Ofir award] two women are competing for best film. This is especially amazing when one recalls that until 1980 there wasn’t here even a single full-length film by a woman.”

Shavit is talking about “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” created by Ronit Elkabetz with her brother Shlomi, and “Zero Motivation” — an impressive box-office and critical success by Talya Lavie, which has been screened and awarded prizes abroad.

2014 also saw the screening of “Next to Her,” written by Liron Ben-Shlush (and directed by her husband, Assaf Korman), in which she stars alongside the excellent Dana Ivgy, who also stars in “Zero Motivation”; “The Farewell Party” by Tal Granit (together with Sharon Maymon); “Harchek Miheadro” by Keren Yedaya, and more.

What is even more wonderful is the possibility that 2015 will be an even greater success. “There’s a good chance that already in May we’ll see two films by women, by Yaelle Kayam and Hagar Ben-Asher, at the Cannes Festival,” Shavit says. 

This year, “Self Made” by Shira Geffen will hit screens, as will “Ben Zaken” by Efrat Korem, “Princess” by Tali Shalom Ezer, “The Mountain” by Yaelle Kayam, “Barash” by Michal Vinik, and “Haporetzet” by Ben-Asher — a hitherto inconceivable list in a macho society that for years hung on to movies redolent with military and national themes.

“You can see it on the site of the Israeli Film Fund,” Yael Shuv, the movie critic of Timeout Tel Aviv magazine, says. “In credits for women’s movies it still says ‘director’ and ‘screenwriter’ in the male form of the words. For actors it will say ‘actor/actress’ but directing and screen writing are male preserves. Whoever formulated this did not think of the significance. The point of departure is that these are men’s domains.”

Shuv explains that the leap in women’s films in 2014-15 stems from the creation of a forum of female cinematographers, “and the first step they took was to demand an equal number of women and men lectors in the various [film] foundations. Part of what stopped women is the fact that lectors are men, and this prevented support for films made by women. It should be noted that the Film Fund was more friendly than other grant makers and immediately hired an equal number of women lectors.”

Shuv also mentions the screenwriting grant that used to be awarded only to women at the annual Women’s Film Festival in Rehovot, which was actually canceled in 2014. “One of the claims made by the foundations is that women don’t submit proposals, and men do. It’s interesting that the minute that a women-only program was launched, numerous proposals were submitted. Where were these women before? There was a sense of unfair competition with men at the various funds, so why try if we won’t get support in any case? The hothouse dedicated to women only changed that,” Shuv says.

“The whole Israeli film world has undergone a process of gender, sectorial and geographic pluralization,” Shavit says. “It comes from the audience — the industry produces the films that moviegoers want to see. The films are well made, but as you know, this does not guarantee success. These movies were successful also because they touched on matters that audiences wanted addressed.”

Shuv notes that until recently most movie critics in Israel were men. “We passed all the hurdles, the movie finally comes out, and then you hit another hurdle: Critics angrily trash storylines about strong, critical or 'problematic' women. We applied pressure in this area, too, and we initiated a ‘women’s critic list.’ It tuned out that there were actually a lot of women critics who simply were not given public attention. This is another case of women saying ‘we’re here,’” Shuv says.

“As long as movies were focused on military themes, we were trapped in the tank along with the heroes,” Shavit says, providing a poetic diagnosis. “In the movies ‘Waltz with Bashir,’ ‘Lebanon’ and ‘Beaufort’ only five minutes of screen time, in total, were devoted to women. This [military] issue has been utilized to the fullest, by us, and around the world as well. We cannot make an Israeli film without financial support from 'the world.' Once 'the world' accepted Israeli films on other themes as well, the door has been opened to such creations.”

Another point he brings up is the abundance of film schools in Israel. “There’s an insane number of film schools in Israel, and this allows the nurturing of a diversity of voices. If there had been only one big school, like in other countries, it would have invariably been Tel Avivian, elitist and expensive. Would the change have occurred even then? Not so sure.”

The change swept up actresses, too, who suddenly started getting leading roles. “Men usually make movies about men,” Shavit says. “A year ago, at the Israeli movie critics forum, I didn’t vote in the best-actress category in protest at the paucity of roles for women. This year there were more movies written by women and as a result there was a decent variety of women’s acting displays.”

The fact that the current situation is the result of changes that took place several years ago, creates concern that the change is temporary. “Money is an intrinsic question. Recently, women’s films were not only critically acclaimed, they also brought in money, and this helps change the conception,” Shuv says. “The direction is optimistic, but the cancelation of the women’s festival is a blow.”

Shavit is not as hopeful. "From my experience, in the long run, an article like yours saying 'how wonderful the situation is' often turns to 'whatever happened to this great trend?' just a short while later," he tells me.

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