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Finding Israel’s Soul at the Movies

August 19, 2011 | by Jonathan Mark

Ma’aleh film school explores and embraces the religiously observant life.

Many Jewish artists pride themselves on having empathy for the “the other,” even — especially – for Palestinians.

For example, “Miral,” a film released earlier this year, shows a Palestinian girl living under an Israeli occupation depicted as absolutely brutal. The director, Julian Schnabel, a Jew, was quoted as saying that he had “a personal Jewish responsibility” to make such a film, which was distributed by Harvey Weinstein, who’s Jewish, too.

Rabbi Irwin Kula has said of “Miral,” in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, that what’s missing in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a “lack of empathy on both sides.” Miral “is fundamentally a meditation on empathy.”

The difficulties of being an Orthodox filmmaker in Israel prompted the founding of the Ma’aleh School of Television.

That only begs the question: In recent years, how many films have been made — anywhere — with empathy for, say, West Bank settlers? Of all the Jews in the film business, how many ever felt “a personal Jewish responsibility” to make films empathetic to Orthodox or old-school Zionist lives?

That long unanswered question, and the ongoing difficulties of being an Orthodox filmmaker in Israel (it’s a problem in Israel as much as anywhere else), prompted the founding in 1989 of the Ma’aleh School of Television, Film and the Arts in Jerusalem, primarily by several Modern Orthodox artists. Ma’aleh says it is the only film school of its kind, committed to producing work by filmmakers “inspired by their Jewish heritage,” including the prophetic heritage that was not only about scolding Israel but loving, comforting and defending Israel, as well.

Ma’aleh students are free, in their projects, to explore any Israeli topic whatsoever, fiction or documentary. The only requirement, aside from no work on Shabbat (a rarity in the film business), is that there be no overt sexuality, gratuitous violence or crude language.

The viewer never doubts that the Ma’aleh films fully respect – even love -- all the Jewish characters and Jewish laws that come into play, much as no one doubts that Thornton Wilder, writing “Our Town,” or Frank Capra, directing “It’s A Wonderful Life,” were anything but in love with American small-town dreams and values, while not shying away from the truth that someone in Grover’s Corners or Bedford Falls might consider suicide, or how it can all turn into Pottersville if just one good man has a run of bad luck, or wasn’t born.

Ma’aleh has changed Israeli film and TV. Hannah Brown, a film critic for the Jerusalem Post, reported in 2010 that “in decades past, religious characters could often be seen as the butt of jokes in silly comedies…. But these new films take their religious characters seriously. They have also sold tickets both here and abroad, and have won prizes at festivals around the world.” In recent years, “religiously observant directors and movies on religious themes have claimed an increasing share of the limelight and have become part of mainstream local cinema.”

Among Ma’aleh’s graduates are the creators of “Srugim,” a hit Israeli television series about Modern Orthodox single men and women in Jerusalem.

Harold Berman, Ma’aleh’s director of resource development, says he knew someone “who wanted to make a film, set in the West Bank, with a kind of Zionist script,” only to get a rejection from a Tel Aviv producer who said, “‘Zionism is no longer relevant.’”

Yet, it might be obvious that several Ma’aleh films about the West Bank are more relevant than ever. “Barriers,” a film about the complexity but justification of checkpoints (shown this week in the Jerusalem Film Festival) is a drama, but what’s fascinating is that several Ma’aleh settlement films are comedies. “Evacuation Order,” directed by Shoshi Greenfield, for one, is the story of a secular, leftist soldier, for whom the West Bank is alien territory, sent to evacuate an illegal hilltop settlement. He ends up falling in love with a beautiful female settler with long flowing hair and an ankle-length dress. The settler woman can’t imagine abandoning a thyme-speckled hillside that she sees as entwined with her soul. Beyond the film’s gentle humor, there’s the underlying truth that as a prelude to peace, or evacuation, Israelis must find a way to love the Jewish “other.”

Greenfield, the director, took a settlement story “to a whole new place,” says Neta Ariel, director of the school, “because she knows what it is to be a settler, and self-humor can be very strong and very refreshing.”

In a more bittersweet comedy, “Eicha,” the daughter of an American settler family, wants to change her name from Eicha (she was born on Tisha B’Av), a wink at the names – too creative by half — favored by some religious Zionists. Was there ever a more haunting, ethereal musical theme than the cantillation used for the Book of Eicha? It’s tune floats through the soundtrack.

Robert Avrech, writer and producer of “A Stranger Among Us” and “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” told The Jewish Week, “I wish Ma'aleh had been around when I was an aspiring screenwriter.”

Not all participants in Ma’aleh films are Orthodox. Ariana Gutman, a particularly enchanting actress, e-mails from Israel: “It was a sheer pleasure working” with Ma’aleh. “I’m not religious and playing a Modern Orthodox young woman,” in the film “Newspapers and Flowers,” was “a unique and transformative experience. In fact, I believe it was the first time I came to closely encounter the world of young Modern Orthodox people and the difficulties young religious people are confronted with at this time in Israel, looking for ways to integrate their beliefs, religious customs, and special lifestyle with that of modern life.”

In Ma’aleh films, the land is as sensual as anything else. Einat Kapach, who handles Ma’aleh’s international relations, says that when she did her graduate work at Ma’aleh, “my goal, my purpose, was to go to the desert and film an extreme long shot, because in Israeli films there wasn’t enough connection to the land and the places and the space.”

Modern Israel may be the greatest story ever told, but one consistently hears from Ma’aleh’s artists, “if we don’t tell our story, who will?”

This article originally appeared in the Jewish Week.

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