The Israeli film and television industry is in the midst of a “revolution,” according to Gili Goldschmidt.
Just as the entertainment industry in America has seen a slow but persistent shift toward creating more stories with characters who aren’t white and male, so, too, has Israel seen a new wave in film and television that includes authentic storytelling and representation.
A filmmaker himself, Goldschmidt has over the last 25 years seen more cinema and television creators of different backgrounds tell the stories of their own communities with an authenticity that perhaps has been lacking.
He and his wife Hedva — an industry veteran who started the distribution company Go2Films 11 years ago after working with film festivals — will discuss the changes they’ve seen as part of a special Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia event at 1 p.m. on Jan. 21 at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. The event is part of the celebration of Israel’s upcoming 70th birthday with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
Israel is a country in which minorities make up the majority, said Goldschmidt, who lives in Jerusalem. He cited the large populations of Russian immigrants, Arab Israelis, the modern Orthodox community — his own — and the haredi community.
“All of these on their own are minorities, but all of them together are the majority of Israeli society,” he said. “If they don’t find the voice and they cannot see themselves accurately on screen, it means what the Israeli viewer sees on screen is very much one type of Israeli and all the rest are being portrayed in a stereotypical way.”
The industry has long been dominated by males from the center of Israel who are mainly Ashkenazi, non-religious and left wing, he said. Until recent years, Israel did not have commercial television stations that were not backed by the government, leaving a gap in what was portrayed on screen.
Where there were once one or two film schools, Israel now has more than a dozen. It’s opened the door for new and necessary voices, he said.
“Once you had people who come from these societies, from the minorities — you have Russian immigrant filmmakers, you had religious filmmakers, you had ultra Orthodox filmmakers, you had Arab filmmakers — all of a sudden, the Israeli cinema came to a great blooming, I would say,” he said.
Many films that have won Ophir awards — the Israeli version of the Oscars — have been by these filmmakers from minority societies.
And it isn’t limited to the big screen. During the Barrack discussion, the couple will show clips from TV shows that highlight these communities — and were created by people who know them firsthand.
Srugim, for instance, followed the lives of a group of single modern Orthodox men and women in Jerusalem. It ran for three seasons — which are now streaming on Amazon Prime — and was called “an Orthodox version of Friends” in a JTA article.
“That was the first time a TV series on prime-time television in Israel dealt with this society and for the first time it showed them for really what they were,” Goldschmidt said. “It didn’t appeal only to the modern Orthodox community, it appealed to the whole public in Israel.”
Arab Labor was a sitcom that served the Arab Israeli population in a similar way. It followed an Arab-Israeli journalist in search of his identity.
Shtisel showcased a haredi family living in an impoverished community in Jerusalem, which will receive an American adaptation called Emmis, per a 2016 Deadline report.
What set Shtisel apart was that the family was religious, but that wasn’t what defined them.
“When you have an ultra Orthodox character, [it’s] usually in the context of somebody being jailed or locked in a world he doesn’t want to be in and the whole thing is around how he’s going to come out of it and what are going to be the costs,” Goldschmidt said. “And for the first time, it was a whole television series presenting them as regular human beings with love issues, with family issues.
“It was done with a lot of love by people who came from within that community,” he added. “That is what enabled it to be so authentic and so beautiful. It’s not dealing with people who want to leave that society but people who are part of that society, proud of it, want to stay in it, and have issues like every other person in life.”
He is optimistic that with more films and series that explore the lives of people in different communities by people who actually live in and are from those communities, more voices can be heard.
“I hope it will go into a more colorful market and more colorful world of creation on television and cinema with more new voices, authentic voices, fascinating voices that will show the variety of faces and voices from Israel,” he said.
“This is the process we’re going through, which is a healthy process, and I hope we can continue in that way to understand that the world is complex and the people are complex, and that complexity should be presented on the screen.”
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