Israel’s filmmakers are country’s ambassadors, says film school pioneer

Sam Spiegel founder Renen Schorr: Local movies, particularly those made in the last 28 years, build bridges to the world

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Renen Schorr, the director of the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School (at right of picture), reflects on 28 years at the helm (Moshe Shai/Flash 90)
Renen Schorr, the director of the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School (at right of picture), reflects on 28 years at the helm (Moshe Shai/Flash 90)

It’s film festival season at Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel Film & Television School, and long-time founder and director Renen Schorr is feeling pretty satisfied.

There are multiple student films screenings coming up at festivals in Tbilisi, Cannes, Germany, Tel Aviv and Kiev; prizes were won by Spiegel students at this year’s Tribeca and Barcelona film festivals, and the school recently completed its first partnership with the prestigious SONY Classic in New York, introducing Israeli filmmakers to the New York film scene.

“Israel isn’t a popular country, but filmmakers, from the US and Europe, appreciate Israeli filmmaking because it succeeds in surprising them,” said Schorr. “That builds bridges.”

He pointed to Talya Lavie, whose 2014 award-winning “Zero Motivation,” about an IDF desk sergeant made it to the Tribeca Film Festival, as well as nabbing six Ophir awards.

Renen Schorr poses at his Sam Spiegel office in 2013 (Moshe Shai/Flash 90)
Renen Schorr poses at his Sam Spiegel office in 2013 (Moshe Shai/Flash 90)

“That was a movie based on a final project, at Tribeca, about her army service,” exclaimed Schorr. “It succeeded in finding the common denominator, bringing black humor and audiences to laugh with her.”

Schorr knows something about breaking stigmas and engendering cultural shifts. When his first, award-winning film, “Late Summer Blues” came out in 1988, it offered a marked departure for Israeli films.

Telling the story of four 18-year-old Israelis about to enter the army, “Blues” was considered a groundbreaking film, the first time an Israeli film showed what Israeli teens were thinking about, creating a new path in the still nascent Israeli film industry.

It was shortly after that Schorr became the founding director of the Sam Spiegel School, known for a growing list of celebrated directors who have emerged from its doors, situated in an ordinary industrial building in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot.

Scores of Israeli filmmakers, including Oscar-winning Joseph Cedar, Nir Bergman and Lavie have studied at the school, gaining the experience and directing chops needed to make films that would appeal to Israelis, and to an international audience.

For Schorr, heading this school was an opportunity to find the right way to teach filmmaking in Israel, helping along an industry that was still in its infancy.

“We created a goal for ourselves, to make a change in Israeli film and culture,” said Schorr. “The job of the school was to create a dialogue with the Israeli public.”

Until then, Israeli film was “like any other developing industry” in Israel, he said.

Filmmaking was a risky business, not like “low-tech or petrochemicals,” it’s all made “on spec,” he said. Finding financing for film in the relatively poor country was one of the biggest problems at the time; finding worthwhile films to fund was the other issue.

Schorr gives credit for what developed to the directors who came before him, including Efraim Kishon and Uri Zohar, and later, Menachem Golan.

“They identified the audience, the new immigrants from the East, and they made the Zionist agenda satirical,” said Schorr, pointing to films like Kishon’s “Salah Shabati,” which was produced by Golan.

Zohar did the same, with his bourekas films, heavily slapstick movies that poked fun at nearly anything Israeli, and in particular, the treatment of new immigrants to Israel. Eventually Golan moved to the US, Kishon left film and Zohar became religious.

By the late 1970s, the three leaders of Israeli film were gone, and there weren’t any film schools producing young directors.

Schorr, then a fledgling actor and reporter who loved film, was in the third class of Tel Aviv University’s film school, but found that the school’s ideology wasn’t relevant to the local film industry, aiming itself more toward the European model of art house films rather than popular theater. He drafted the synopsis for “Late Summer Blues” while in school, and then took another seven years to write it.

A still shot from the digitally restored version of Renen Schorr's 'Late Summer Blues' (Courtesy Yossi Tzveker)
A still shot from the digitally restored version of Renen Schorr’s ‘Late Summer Blues,’ in honor of the film’s 30th anniversary (Courtesy Yossi Tzveker)

“I wrote it because I hated all the other coming-of-age Israeli films in which I couldn’t see myself,” said Schorr. “My friends and I had dilemmas, not just about girls, and our music was Arik Einstein, not Paul Anka.”

He saw the task of a director as a storyteller, to have heroes and develop a conflict the audience could identify with, one that would make viewers cry, laugh or be scared.

“The more Israeli a film, the more universal it could be,” he said.

It was one of the main concepts he brought to Sam Spiegel, along with developing a strong cadre of cinematographers and experts for behind the camera, something that hadn’t existed until then.

Within five years of running Sam Spiegel, the school’s films were being accepted at film festivals worldwide, said Schorr.

Schorr was recently knighted by the French government in recognition of his cultural legacy, which includes the film school winning the world’s Best Film School award 16 times, and its students having received over 400 awards at international festivals.

The steady involvement of Sam Spiegel graduates in the school also points to another key factor in Schorr’s years of leading this one-time upstart film school — its graduates have become “the deep, steady background” of the current students, said Schorr.

“You never finish your connection with Sam Spiegel,” said Stav Meron, a graduate who was chosen to participate in the recent SONY Classics incubator, and whose most recent film, “Pepe’s Last Battle,” was a documentary about a Jerusalem political legend. “It’s a school that appreciates excellence in different areas of the film industry, creating projects and workshops that involve graduates. It made me understand that we belong to the global world of filmmakers, and they support us in a way that gets us there.”

Despite some of the big names to have emerged from Sam Spiegel, there hasn’t been a big enough name “to crowd out all the others,” said Schorr.

He’s optimistic that it will still happen. And for now, the graduates, said Schorr, “are ours. They’re our ambassadors.”

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