Since the Israeli film industry became a major international player in the last 10 years, it was given the opportunity to present Israeli life beyond headlines and slogans -- to show an Israel with all its complexities and humanity. Sadly, most of the world still focuses on Israel's military and conflict themed films.
This past year was a groundbreaking year in the American box office for Israeli cinema. Although Israel's selection for the Academy Award for best foreign film, Fill the Void by Rama Burshtein, was not nominated, two Israeli documentaries made the cut: 5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers. The latter, about Israel's secret service's activities in the occupied territories, became the highest grossing Israel documentary in the American box-office making 2.4 million dollars. However, these two films both focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
While the overlooked Fill the Void, which was a family drama about the Orthodox community, and was not political, played well for audiences ($1.7 million) it did not surpass expectations. The film was made by an Orthodox woman and was not critical of Orthodox society. This made it lack the necessary social-political edge to make it truly resonate with American audiences.
In addition to the documentaries mentioned above, there were feature films on the conflict such as Out in the Dark, that focused on a hopeless love story between a Palestinian and Israeli man, and Zaytoun, which follows an even more impossible relationship between an Israeli fighter pilot shot down over Lebanon and a Palestinian boy helping him escape back to Israel.
But the real interesting releases of 2013 were the ones that do not touch politics, but rather social-political issues that are much more relevant to the international market. One film worthy of mention is Yossi, by Eytan Fox. The seasoned director (Walk on Water, The Bubble) returns with a very intimate film about a gay man's attempt to deal with trauma and his own coming out. The film, released by Strand Releasing is a follow-up to his 2004 film Yossi and Jagger, which did focus on Israeli military life.
One of the most disturbing yet refreshing films of 2013 releases is Tribeca Film's S#x Acts. This film captures a universal theme of modern teen angst and sexuality. The film does not make any statements but rather shows a shocking depiction of youth, through hyper-realistic filmmaking. It's style is fresh and even groundbreaking. We follow a teen-aged girl attempting to fit in with a group of over-privileged boys. The boys take advantage of her and expose the sexual misconduct of today's youth. There is nothing specifically Israeli about the film apart from it taking place in the affluent suburbs of Tel Aviv. One can make political associations with references to the violence in Israeli society, the macho attitude of the military that plays a big role in the country's youth, or even the ironic realization of the Zionist dream. But ultimately, this story is the product of a developed country with a strong economy.
This film is extremely timely in Israeli society, but it is also rings true internationally and is an example of how global Israeli society has become. Films like S#x Acts and Yossi, excellent films made about complex human issues, are the kind of Israeli films that should be of world interest. Israel promises to bring more of these cinematic and provocative films in 2014, particularly, another film on the topic of misguided youth in Israel, simply titled: Youth, which one the first prize at the Jerusalem Film Festival.
The next big film coming out of Israel is Bethlehem. This is a hyper political film that will stir much debate as it follows the relationship of an Israel secret service agent and a Palestinian boy who is his informant. The film plays off the appeal of the theme of The Gatekeepers, but sadly was somehow overlooked by the American Academy Awards. It would have gone head to head with its Palestinian counterpart -- Omar on a very similar theme.
Another hyper-political film to look out for is Sweets, by Joseph Pitchhadze. This is a brilliant piece of cinema, which deals with the conflict as a comical allegory about businesses fighting over candy. The film is a visual masterpiece and is another step for Israel towards reaching a high international cinematic standard.
Israel released many more documentaries this year. Most on topics of the conflict or the Holocaust. Many of these films got lost in the shuffle and made minor impact. It seems that the American audience is looking for a very specific picture of Israeli society and finding that balance is the key to success in the American box office. Till the next big release, Israeli films -- old and new are available on the streaming site: Israel Film Center Stream, with a variety of political and non-political films.