Israeli cinema has enjoyed a banner year in 2008. In addition to the war drama "Beaufort" scoring an Academy Award nomination, "The Band's Visit," "Jellyfish," and "My Father My Lord" have all made relatively successful commercial runs in the city. One would be hard-pressed to name another country with this many cinematic exports to America in the same six-month span. As various institutions around the city honor Israel's 60th anniversary, it's only fitting that the Film Society of Lincoln Center should recognize the nation's thriving film industry with a look back at some of its greatest achievements (such as Dover Koshashvili's "Late Marriage," Radu Mihaileanu's "Live and Become," and Giddi Dar's "Ushpizin") with its weeklong Israel @ 60 series, beginning today.
"In the past 10 years, there's been an enormous flowering of Israeli films," the program director of FSLC, Richard Peña, said. "I think the work of [the prolific director] Amos Gitai showed Israeli filmmakers that there was international interest and a market for Israeli films. Beyond that, I think the development from 1997 onward was slow but continuous, with each year offering more films in international festivals."
Mr. Gitai, Israel's most recognized filmmaker, will have only one entry in the series, his 2007 drama "Disengagement," starring Juliette Binoche. But that makes more sense than one might think, noted the film critic J. Hoberman, because Mr. Gitai is in some ways considered marginal at home.
"There's long been a strong documentary tradition in Israel, especially political or personal documentaries — and most interestingly, combinations of the two," Mr. Hoberman said. "But for intellectuals, movies themselves were eclipsed by theater. It's only recently that Israeli films have had any international profile. Now there just seems to be a new energy, like in Romania or Argentina."
Among the films in the Israel @ 60 series is "No. 17," a documentary about the search for the identity of the victim of a suicide bomber that was part of FSLC's New Directors/New Films collection in 2004. The film's director, 40-year-old David Ofek, seems to typify a generation of emerging Israeli filmmakers. The filmmaker attended the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem upon completing his mandatory military service. Since graduating, he's worked in television and film, and made fictional features and documentaries.
"In 1994, when the government opened the airwaves to commercial broadcasters, suddenly a lot of filmmakers were finding work," Mr. Ofek said. "The attendance numbers have also gotten bigger. In the last few years, Israeli films definitely have had a presence at all the important film festivals and won many awards. Most of the filmmakers, who are in their 40s now, have had a lot of influence on Israeli cinema. As a young filmmaker, you feel like you have a shot at making it."
Mr. Ofek also said that the Israeil film industry benefits from a law mandating that a portion of the revenue generated by commercial channels be reinvested in local film productions. The law has contributed to the industry's recent emphasis on substantive films rather than commercial fare.
"Of course there are a lot of escapist movies for people who just want to go to the cinemas and be entertained," he said. "Most of the Israeli films that are commercial probably don't get shown outside of Israel. The films that get shown outside of Israel have a political content. In the last few years, there have been many more political films than in the decade before, in response to the peace process and a lot of things that have happened. Also I think it's partly because of demand. In order to make the films, you need to sell the rights abroad. The investors seem to be more interested in the political as well as the social films."