In the stacks of the National Library (photo credit: Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

In the stacks of the National Library (photo credit: Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

To celebrate the Oscar nomination of Joseph Cedar’s movie “Footnote” for Best Foreign Language Film, a Jerusalem tour guide has been advertising tours throughout February of the movie’s Jerusalem hotspots, including the Hebrew University campus, the National Library and the Old Katamon neighborhood.

Film tours are a new concept for the holy city, which isn’t accustomed to being an urban filming location, with the exception, perhaps, of “Srugim,” a television series about a brat pack of religious singles who live in the Katamon neighborhood. Then again, it isn’t all that often that a Jerusalem-based film is nominated for an Academy Award.

Telling the story of two Talmud scholars who happen to be a father and son competing for the Israel Prize, the country’s top academic honor, the film is somewhat intimate, personal — Cedar’s father, a biochemist, is an Israel Prize winner — and very local.

As the younger Cedar told Daphne Merkin in Tablet Magazine, “More than a film that can only take place in Israel, it’s a Jerusalem film. Even if it had taken place someplace else geographically, it’s still a Jerusalem film. Two scholars fighting over the tiniest nuance of language: That’s what Jerusalem is — or what I want it to be.”

Joseph Cedar (photo credit: YouTube)

Joseph Cedar (photo credit: DP/30 The HotButton Channel)

Right now, ahead of Sunday’s Oscars ceremony, the entire country is feeling proud of Cedar, a former Jerusalemite, now Tel Avivian, who has made it in Hollywood. He’s done so with a movie that is Israeli in the extreme, yet appeals to the world out there. New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott called it his favorite movie of September’s Telluride Film Festival, blending “academic satire, classic Jewish humor and an almost Shakespearean sense of the tragic potential of the paternal bond.”

“He’s articulate and intelligent and he works on his movies for a year or more,” said Hannah Brown, a local movie critic who teaches film at New York University’s satellite program in Tel Aviv. “People didn’t understand that kind of work ethic prior to writers like Joseph Cedar.”

Cedar’s success isn’t surprising to those who know how much he invests in his productions. What’s more, he’s part of a roster of directors and writers who are mining their own lives and experiences to create a genre of real, defining Israeli stories.

An Israeli voice

It wasn’t until the last decade that the local film industry became more serious and found its own voice, said director Avi Nesher, perhaps best known for his earliest work, “The Band,” as well as his more recent work, including the celebrated “The Matchmaker.”

“In the beginning of the Israel film industry, filmmakers didn’t have formal film schooling; they were novelists and writers,” said Nesher, adding that even directors Ephraim Kishon and Uri Zohar were self-taught. “Now we know that if you make movies that are very truthful and really tell your story and your situation and your country, they become interesting. The more local you are, the more universal you become.”

There are many who credit that switch in thinking to Renen Schorr, founder and director of the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem. A film producer, director and writer himself, he helped found the Israel Film Fund in 1978 and was chosen to run the fledgling film school when director Sam Spiegel offered money for such an endeavor to Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek. (“Kollek jumped in,” said film critic Brown, “which is why it’s in Jerusalem.”)

At the time, most Israeli films were not intended to communicate with their audiences, commented Schorr. Instead, they were seen as a vehicle for filmmakers to speak to their friends and the critics. Directors spent time debating whether literary or spoken Hebrew should be used in films and if they should appeal to the masses or a select few.

“The old expectation was that cinema was too smart for the masses,” added Nesher.

And the movies, as Brown likes to joke, were often about kibbutz-living Holocaust survivors who become the victims of incest. Or they were so-called bourekas films, slapstick comedies or tearjerkers that revolved around the ethnic conflict in Israel, particularly between European and Eastern Jews.

There was a brief period of global success for Israeli films in the 1960s and 1970s, with some Oscar nominations for best foreign films that included Kishon’s “Sallah Shabati” in 1964 and “The Policeman” in 1971, Moshe Mizrahi’s “I Love You Rosa” in 1972 and his 1973 “The House on Chelouche Street.” That was followed by a fairly long dry period, with the exceptions of “Operation Thunderbolt” in 1977 and “Beyond the Walls” in 1984.

At the time, many Israeli filmmakers, Nesher among them, escaped to the US, where they had access to larger budgets and the more fertile breeding ground of the Hollywood feature film machine. But by the early 1990s, with schools like Spiegel, Tel Aviv University’s Film and Television School (which is the country’s only film degree program), and others that were later established, Israeli cinema became optimistic, with teachers who could demonstrate how to make films that could relate to the audience.

“Films are a kind of ‘outing’ for our students [and their work] and we endorse it,” said Schorr, referring to his Sam Spiegel students’ first attempts at filmmaking. He doesn’t want smooth, commercial-ready films from them, but rather “authentic dialogue and character-driven stories,” he added. “We want direct contact with the audience through emotion.”

The new era

Toward the end of the 1990s, people like Nesher returned to Israel, while a new generation of directors came of age, including Cedar and Eytan Fox, the American-born director whose first success was “Yossi and Jagger,” about the relationship between two gay male soldiers.

Stimulus came from the government, too, as a 2001 law tripled the existing budget allocated to Israeli filmmaking.

“That was a tipping point,” said Brown. “There was a lot of talent, and now groups that hadn’t gotten a chance to tell their stories, such as Georgians, Ethiopians, Sephardim, gay and Orthodox Jews could get in there.”

Moreover, some of those films became commercial and popular successes, reaching audiences worldwide. While making it to Hollywood isn’t the ultimate goal, Israeli filmmakers do have that desire to “reach out and impact culture,” said Nesher, who is currently working with Shaanan Streett, frontman of the hip hop band Hadag Nachash, on a new project.

“We do it for different reasons,” he said. “It’s not a financial motivation but that desire to reach out and touch an audience and culture, and that’s a very American thing to want to do.”

The effort to reach a broader audience seems to be working. An Israeli film has been nominated for an Academy Award every year since 2008: Cedar’s “Beaufort” for 2008, Ari Folman’s “Waltz With Bashir” for 2009, Scandar Copti’s “Ajami” for 2010, and for 2011, Cedar’s “Footnote.”

Cedar also won the best screenplay award for “Footnote” at Cannes, while other Israelis have been collecting prizes at other venues, including the Sundance Film Festival in January, where film director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz won the World Cinema Grand Prize in Documentary Film and Tel Aviv University film student Adi Kutner was chosen to show her $800 18-minute short, “Barbie Blues.”

Of course, none of them are typical Israeli stories, or perhaps they actually are, and therein lies their appeal. They offer a slice of Israeli experience — tortured Talmud scholars, IDF military court judges (Alexandrowicz’s “The Law in These Parts”), and a coming-of-age story (Kutner’s “Barbie Blues”) — that is a window on the often-complicated universe that is life in this country.

As Schorr tells, the success of these films is in their telling of conflicted Israeli stories, not just “the [Arab-Israeli] conflict, which is mega,” but personal, individual Israeli conflict. “That’s become the trend,” he said.

Noah Stollman, a Sam Spiegel-trained screenwriter who has written for both the small and big screen, commented in Haaretz after winning the Ophir Prize for his adaptation of A.B. Yehoshua’s “The Human Resources Manager” that ”the more developed and sophisticated the industry in Israel becomes, the more scriptwriters there are who understand there’s an entire world of good stories that other people have already told, that are worth telling in another medium.”

“Artists are looking beyond themselves. They no longer tell only war stories, Holocaust stories and personal experiences,” he said.

A film future

At the same time, commented Nesher and Schorr, government support is starting to dwindle, making it more difficult to make pure, visual films that will also push filmmakers to the next level.

“There needs to be another stimulus,” added Nesher, who fears another “dark era” of Israeli film, when filmmakers will head for other shores. “These things don’t happen by themselves.”

Even if Cedar’s “Footnote” wins an Oscar next week, it won’t change anything for the Israeli film industry, which is by definition small and very local. What makes a difference, emphasized the filmmakers, is having people pay to see the films, plus continued government funding.

“An Oscar doesn’t make Israeli films more commercial, or make more people speak Hebrew around the globe,” said Nesher.  ”Israeli cinema is really in the great interest of Israeli culture.”

It would be great if Cedar won an Oscar. We’d be proud. But it doesn’t change the fact that we all still need to be his audience and pay to see the movie in a theater. That’s where cinema still offers its own kind of culture, and where Israeli directors meet their hometown crowd. Consider it your contribution to the future of Israeli civilization.