Saturday, February 23, 2013

A History of Israeli Cinema: The Birth of the Bourekas and Beyond

Ten Israeli films have been nominated for the best foreign language Academy Award, which is not bad for a small, relatively young country, living with the constant threat of terrorism.  While Israeli filmmakers have yet to take home the Oscar, they have become the toast of international festival circuit.  The development of their national cinema is chronicled and analyzed in Raphaël Nadjari’s two hundred nine minute documentary undertaking, A History of Israeli Cinema (trailer here), now available on DVD from Kino Lorber.

Premiering during the final days of 1932, Chanukah in fact, Chaim Halachmi’s Oded the Wanderer is considered the first Israeli feature, well predating UN recognition.  Focusing on the ruggedness of nature and the even more rugged protagonist, it became a model for the Zionist-minded cinema that would follow.  Ironically, one of the films the most effectively swaying world opinion Israel’s way was the product of Hollywood liberals: Otto Preminger’s Exodus, starring Paul Newman.  In contrast, the subsequent wave of Israeli films would challenge notions of Zionism to varying degrees.

Arguably, the most popular new movement were the so-called Bourekas films, ethnic melting pot comedies named after the savory Eastern European pastry (which you can find in New York at Café Noi).  At times, the humor ranged towards the broader end of the spectrum, but they presented more diverse, less severely stoic characters for audiences to identify with.

Of course, Israeli filmmaking continued to evolve, largely reflecting the same cultural shifts apparent in Western cinema.  The “New Sensitivity” school incorporated Cassavetes like intimacy with the avant-garde sensibilities of European art cinema.  As the 1960’s became the 1970’s, films became more overtly political, directly questioning the traditional Zionism of the 1930’s and championing the indigenous and former Arab populations’ claims for exceptional victim status.

It is a frustrating fact of life for Israel’s international supporters that the democratic state’s home grown films are often as critical as those coming from Hollywood and its hostile neighbors, which is indeed reflected in Nadjari’s History.  Nonetheless, the lack of love for Menahem Golan’s zeitgeist-bucking Operation Thunderbolt is an unfortunate omission.  Golan appears quite frequently as an interview subject, mostly in reference to the early Bourekas films he produced.  Nadjari never explores his American interlude as half of the Golan-Globus running Cannon Films, bringing to the world the American Ninja franchise amongst other meathead classics.  Technically speaking, they are not Israeli films, but who wouldn’t want to show clips of Steve James and Michael Dudikoff slicing through hordes of ninjas like straw men?

Arguably, Nadjari has a bias towards art films, but so will most of the viewers seeking it out.  He has a shrewd eye for selecting illustrative clips and shows the patience to let them play out sufficiently.  Even though he shows the very end of Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer, considered the first feature film officially produced in the new state of Israel, it will definitely make war movie buffs want to see the whole thing from the beginning.  He talks to just about every filmmaker of stature, including Joseph Cedar (helmer of Footnote), Amos Gitai, Ronit Elkaetz (who also co-starred in Eran Kolirin’s Oscar disqualified The Band’s Visit), and Dover Kosahvili.  Being good marketers, Kino also includes trailers for their other Israeli films, which feels more like a DVD extra in this case than merely an attempt to plus-sell.  Recommended for patrons of Israeli culture and armchair film historians, A History of Israeli Cinema is now available as a two-disk set from Kino Lorber.