The new Jerusalem

A season of new Israeli films reveals a more intimate take on the country's complex divisions
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The Independent Culture

Israeli director Eran Riklis likes to describe his latest film The Syrian Bride, set against the backdrop of the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, as a work of "opssimism". "It's a mixture of optimism and pessimism," he explains. "You need a strong dose of it to survive the Middle East."

The Syrian Bride follows the wedding day of a young Druze woman. Her future husband is a well-known Syrian TV actor in Damascus. Once she crosses the Israeli-Syrian border, she will never see her family again.

With pathos and humour, Riklis deftly captures the complexities and absurdities of life for the Golan's 18,000-strong Druze population that has lived under occupation since Israel seized the mountainous area from Syria in the 1967 war.

"The wedding is only part of the story," he says. "The real issue is people living on a border, torn between their original country, Syria, and the practicality of living under Israeli occupation."

The Syrian Bride is among a dozen Israeli works being showcased at the National Film Theatre in London as part of the "New Films from Israel" season. It is the first such event in 14 years.

"We've been trying for years to make this happen. The last showcase was at the Barbican in 1991. We nearly got there in 2001 but the Second Intifada broke out," says Israel Film Fund director Katriel Schory, referring to the Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000.

Over 3,200 Palestinians and 900 Israelis died in the violence. A ceasefire announced by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last February has partially stemmed the bloodshed.

"The political atmosphere was too harsh. It wasn't the time to be putting up big banners promoting Israeli cinema. People felt uneasy about it. Some didn't want to upset Palestinian sensibilities," says Schory. "Today the situation has eased a little and on top of that our films are much better."

Indeed, the NFT season coincides with something of a renaissance for Israeli cinema, both at home and abroad. For the first time in nearly a decade, Israelis are paying attention to local films. Avi Nesher's Turn Left at the End of the World was seen by 460,000 of his compatriots - roughly 15 per cent of the population - making it the second highest grossing picture in Israel in 2004 after Shrek 2.

"What's going on at the moment is amazing," says Nir Bergman, director of family drama Broken Wings which opened the NFT season. "In the past, there would be one big Israeli film a year; now there are four or five."

The tragicomic Turn Left... follows the fates of two immigrant families - one from India and one from Morocco - trying to make new lives in a down-at-heel, development town in the Negev Desert in the late 1960s. It was Nesher's first Hebrew-language film in nearly 20 years. The director had not worked at home since his fifth feature, Rage and Glory, about the 1940s Jewish militant group, the Stern Gang, sparked controversy in the mid-Eighties.

"It was about Jewish terrorists fighting the British. It made people very uncomfortable," says Nesher. "I got bomb threats. It was a bit of a nightmare." He left for Hollywood shortly afterwards where he made a string of thrillers including 1993's Doppelganger, starring Drew Barrymore, and the more recent The Taxman.

Back in Israel, other homegrown successes include Ushpizin, a surprise hit comedy set against the backdrop of Jerusalem's ultra-orthodox Haredi neighbourhoods, and Joseph Cedar's Campfire, examining the settler movement of the 1980s.

Ushpizin has an all-Haredi cast and was made in adherence with ultra-orthodox religious laws. Writer and lead actor Shuli Rand was a popular figure on the Israeli cinema scene in the 1990s, until he exchanged his secular life for one of ultra-orthodoxy. Shabbat, running from dusk on Friday to dusk on Saturday, was strictly observed and sexual segregation laws meant Rand could only play opposite his wife Michal, who had no previous acting experience.

Somehow it worked and has clocked up more than 150,000 admissions since last August, even though it could not be screened on Friday night or most of Saturday.

A timely work as Israel prepares to withdraw from its controversial settlements in the Palestinian territory of the Gaza Strip, Joseph Cedar's Campfire is a coming-of-age tale about a widow and her two teenage daughters trying to join a planned religious settlement just outside the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The oldest son of a religious Zionist family who moved to Israel from the United States when he was seven years old, Cedar has drawn the ire of some right-wing groups for portraying the settlers' motivations as materialistic and elitist rather than religious. Despite calls for a boycott, it still performed well.

At the heart of the recent upsurge in Israeli cinema is a new Cinema Law, introduced in 2001, that pumped much-needed finance into the sector. But, says Schory, the reasons for the new-found success go beyond this. "Our directors have reconnected with the audience," he says. "We've moved from a period of naval-gazing to stories that are more present and rooted in the world and environment in which we live.

"A lot of second and third generation Israeli directors are also going back to their roots, examining their family histories and traditions. This has struck a chord with the audience. The idea of an Israeli melting pot, where everybody is the same, is dead. If you look at some of the big films of last few years like Dover Kosashvili's acclaimed Late Marriage, it revolves around a 30-something Israeli man of Georgian Jewish descent trying to find a wife that will meet the approval of his traditional parents."

Tel Aviv-based film critic Dan Fainaru, who helped put the NFT programme together, concurs: "The new generation of filmmakers is far more intimate in its approach. Cedar's Campfire is much better than his previous film because he has managed to tell the story in a much more personal way."

From an outsider's point of view, what is most striking about the recent films, given the violent backdrop against which they were made, is how few of them deal directly with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Among the titles screened at the NFT, Broken Wings revolves around a family coming to terms with the death of the father from a bee string. Keren Yedaya's Or is the tale of a Tel Aviv prostitute and her teenage daughter who is determined to break out of the web of poverty and despair spun by her mother.

"We grew up with the conflict. It's always there in the background. We see it on the TV everyday," says Bergman. "Of course it influences my life but the conflict within my family and what happened with my father had a far greater influence on me." Broken Wings is partly inspired by his father's departure from the family home in Haifa when he was just 10-years-old.

"In the 1980s, there were a lot more films tackling the conflict but the situation was less complex than it is now and so many of those films look very simplistic today," says Fainaru. "The question is what can a director really say through a film?"

Bergman goes further: "It's much easier to make a film about the conflict from a Palestinian point of view than an Israeli one. Their moral position is clear-cut. They are the ones under occupation, the conquered. For an Israeli director the situation is much more complicated."

Would Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, whose recent feature Paradise Now following the final hours of a suicide bomber recently took the Berlin Film Festival by storm, concur?

'New Films from Israel' runs to 31 March at the NFT, Southbank, London SE1