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I met Dan Katzir (as in Ephraim Katzir, the fourth President of Israel) shortly after I made Aliyah in 2005. I was just a bushy-tailed, bright-eyed American girl fresh off the boat and on an assignment to cover his second documentary film for the Jerusalem Post. Though Dan was a well known filmmaker in Israel, I knew little of his work, or of local cinema in general, at the time. He welcomed me into his family home (I played the piano - see photo), made me some strong Turkish coffee, and sat with me as we watched the “dailies” of his film. The documentary, which had no title at the time, was a heartwarming journey with a Yiddish theater diva comprised of various, separate pieces joined together like a puzzle. We laughed and cried as we watched the scenes up in the attic with his father. I remember Dan speaking passionately about his film’s subject, a lovely woman named Zypora Spaisman, and about how he had a
recurring theme in life: he was always falling in love and making the objects of his affection the subjects of his projects. On that first assignment, my first encounter with Dan, I too fell in love - with him. I’m sure that everyone who watches Dan’s films can feel his love for life - it resonates on screen - and can’t help but fall in love too. I remember that he listened attentively as I explained my reasons for making Aliyah - he seemed amazed that I left the sunny beaches of South Beach to rough and tough it in Jerusalem. Though Dan has now chosen to trade in the beaches of Tel Aviv to make his own “Aliyah” to the cutthroat film biz in Hollywood, he has never lost sight of his roots and his truest love - Israel.
I had a recent chat with Katzir about his film, the Israeli film Industry, Israel, his life and everything else. Yiddish Theater: A Love Story is currently screening at select theaters in New York, Los Angeles and Tel Aviv.
So what shall I tell about myself?
I’m an Israeli filmmaker, who’s trying to live both in the US and in Israel and have a career in both. In a way, I’m living the old Jewish lifestyle of a person without a home. It allows me to be a foreigner and a local at once, and that gives me an interesting perspective on life both in the diaspora and in Israel. I grew up in both societies and that made me bi-continental. Someone once told me great art is only created in airports. So hopefully that’s affecting my own art.
My biggest problem in life has always been that I love living in the US but I also love in Israel. I’m torn between the two. Each has it’s magic and charm. Currently I’m sharing my time between Tel Aviv and Los Angeles.
Israel is the place I call home. It’s the place I feel I belong to. It’s where I feel the most connected to. Everything is yours. Everything is so passionate, and important and relevant. But it can also be at times suffocating.
There’s no space, no real freedom to be yourself and to explore who your real essence is, as Israeli society is very closed towards true self exploration.
The US is the place that’s Free. You can be anyone you want to be- sometimes be different people at any given hour of the day. People are relaxed. No wars, big homes, big cars, big steaks. But in a way no one feels 100% connected. Everyone seems to feel that at the end of the day they’re mostly alone. There’s no urgency and no feeling of importance when any small task is achieved thanks to a miracle.
My latest film: Yiddish Theater: A Love Story is playing in 3 theaters in the US and one in Israel. This weekend it opened in two theaters in Los Angeles, and got amazing reviews in many of the leading LA papers including Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Daily News, LA Weekly (Which recommended us as a GO). In NY we’re in our second week playing in a movie theater with amazing audience attendance. We also got there great reviews in papers including the NY TIMES and a critics pick in the NY Magazine, among other papers in NYC who loved the film.
In Israel we’ve been in Lev Dizengoff center for three weeks, and we’re getting a fourth week based on the amazing audiences attendance. It’s a huge success for a film done on a shoe string budget. The price of this documentary feature is less than many of the segments done for Uvdah, the Israeli like 60 Minutes show. This film was shot on a home video and had about 8 days of shooting.
Still it proves, if the material you shoot has a heart it will break out into the world scene no matter what the budget was.
This film was the hardest film I ever made. Yiddish culture has a stigma with both Israeli’s and American Jews. So making a movie about this old culture that would be hip and happening and would succeed in communicating with people my age was a goal, that fascinated me.I was so delighted that my screenings are attracting a huge crowd of young people that want to learn a little about their past. Ironically it’s also attracting a lot of younger non Jewish audience that are fascinated by the characters, the humor and life of Off Broadway actors in their nineties.
For over 50 years, Jews have been ashamed of this old culture and some have even hated it. I think it’s a pity as it’s the language of so many of the greatest Jewish minds including Einstein, Freud, Shalom Aleichem.
That’s why I did this small labor of love- which has just blown up and might soon be playing commercially in theaters in a few dozen other cities across the US. This film is turning out to be one of the Israeli sleeper hits of 2007, and I’m thankful for this good fortune.
That said, with all the great reviews we’re getting in the American press, we’ve been mostly overlooked by Israeli film critics. That’s sad cause I think this film is particularly important for Israelis. It’s totally breaking my heart that in my home country I’m being disregarded by all the film critics. I don’t know why they’re not willing to review this film. I think cause it’s neither a 100% Israeli film and it’s not a 100 % foreign film.
Regardless, I had hoped for a little bit more support but that’s Israel- the place where everything is harder than it should be- from the bread crust to the false expectation that film critics will write about you - anything- good or bad- even after youi’ve proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that you’re film is a success.
Ironically no one wanted to distribute this movie, cause of the subject matter. Many Israeli and Jewish distributors told me that Yiddish is a problematic subject matter. But luckily thanks to a young and dynamic producer I started collaborating with - Ravit Markus, I didn’t give up, and created a MYSPACE.COM webpage for the film. It started getting buzz and the film was discovered on MYSPACE by a non Jewish film programmer for the Pioneer theater in NY.
He thought it’s an interesting film and wanted to see it. We get an amazing group of people to donate their time for free to create an amazing trailer that got some of the best film critics interested in this film. So we’ve managed to get our unique Point of view on life out there using all the best 21st century geurilla tactics of online marketing. It’s been a roller coaster ride, but we’re lucky, it ended being very satisfactory and a lot of fun.
Living abroad, I’ve become much more critical of Israel. I think most Israeli’s are asking themselves the wrong questions. They’re focusing too much on the political aspects of their existence and not paying enough attention to the cultural and educational side, which I think are more important. I think every nation derives it’s strength not only from it’s army but more importantly from it’s education and belief in it’s cultural moral right to exist. I think my country is not investing the needed resources into securing the existence of our culture- both our Jewish culture and our Israeli culture.
That’s the main battlefield of the future, and it’s better we will start preparing for it today.
I love Israel. My family both from my mom and my dad’s side were among the pilgrim families that founded the Zionist state. My dad’s father, founded the Israeli academy of sciences and was it’s first president. His brother was the President of the state of Israel. From my mom’s side we’re related to Israel’s second prime minster Moshe Sharet.
I’ve been very fortunate. My first film was a huge international success. It opened a lot of doors for me and made my life a little easier. That film was nominated for the Israeli Academy award, It later screened on HBO on prime time on Valentines day and showed on Channel 4 UK, with a new voice over by Sasha Baron Cohen (”Borat”), I realized that Israeli cinema has the potential to break out into the world not just as a political film that deals with the Israeli Palestinian conflct but also as a humanistic cinema that has to contribute to the undertanding of humans of themselves in a certain moment in time. In Israel I got very little support for my dream to make Israeli films that could break out into the world. One film critic even mocked my first film that it was “made for export” and the way he wrote about it in the paper had a very negative connotation as if films that have an International appeal is a negative thing.
After the huge success of my film, I decided I wanted to learn more about the American Point of view on film, so I went back to film school to get an MFA in film. I went to the best film institution in the world - the AFI - The American Film Institute that accepts less than 30 students a year to the directing program. I studied with some of the best filmmakers ever. Among my teachers were: Frank Pierson, (Dog Day Afternoon, A star is born), Gil Dennis (Walk the line), Rick Rosenthal (Bad Boys, Halloween) and many others. The years I’ve spent here in the US have helped me understand more the American market and I’m sure my first Israeli fiction feature will resonate in an even stronger way with an American audience.
My dream is to be able to write Israeli scripts, raise the money in the US and shoot the films in Israel. The film will appeal both to Israeli’s and to an American audience as well as to a European one.
This new film was important to me cause it deals with the culture of my forefathers. It’s the language both Einstein and Freud spoke. Yet young people both in the US and in Israel are ashamed of it cause they still see it as the language of “the weak Jews who many feel were slaughtered like lambs in the Holocaust.” Hitler wanted to kill the Jews not because of their culture was weak, not because he thought they’re a weak nation. Hitler wanted to kill the Jews cause such a small minority had so much to give to the world in terms of culture, science, art, business etc…
I think it’s time young Jews around the globe stop hating their Eastern European past and start seeing it’s beauty. See the humanity, humour, and warmth this culture has to give us.
I was very fortunate to make very warm movies that audiences could relate to. I hope as I now move to fiction my films will succeed in having that same warmth that will allow audiences to leave feeling love for themselves, for their fellow humans, and for the world that surrounds them.
It seems in Israel, I was not getting the support for my humanistic belief, but that’s why I decided to branch out.
I will not change my dream of making the world and my country - Israel, a more beautiful place with high art that’s also moving. I guess I’ll have to find the financing elsewhere.
Very few Israeli documentaries make it to cinemas in Israel. Even less make it beyond one week of a run. I’m about to enter my fourth week in one of the best theaters in Israel- in Dizengoff center, and yet most of the film critics in the country have decided not to write about my new film. I hope that they’re not trying to fail the film. It’s sad cause in Israel many of the people make up their mind about what movie they will see by the magazine called Achbar Haier. There’s a page with critics ratings and based on that page, people choose. Because most of the critics(Except one) didn’t write about my latest film it’s being overlooked by many audience members. I don’t understand it, and it’s breaking my heart.
My first film had the same fate- most of the film critics in the country overlooked the film and yet it still did amazing without their reviews. It’s kind of weird that it was easier to get reviewed by the NY TIMES and the LA TIMES than it was by Maariv or Haaretz newspapers.
I have a very international sensibility so I’m hoping that I’ll continue getting support from abroad. I think Israeli cinema will really leap into the twenty first century when it will be like the high tech industry. International corporations will realize the huge potential and appeal of Israeli cinema and will finance film for the international market. My grandfather believed in that vision when the country was formed and people mocked him. No one thought then that companies like Intel or AOL would spend millions of dollars in Israeli companies and individuals and that Israel could compete on the international level. Cinema is the same. It needs no natural resources. It’s just brain power and heart power and we have those two resources in abundance.
I think both Israel and the Jewish Federation are a little slow to understand the power of media in the 21st century.
We live in a world that it doesn’t really matter who wins physical wars. It’s just the perception the media creates that truly matters. Israel is losing the battle in the media, cause it’s invested so little in truly exploiting it.
I remember after the Last Lebanon war- Israel was almost non existent on Youtube.com while anti Israeli short movies were everywhere there.
I think it’s time the different Jewish and Israeli organizations start learning more about the power of the media in our web connected world- and organize more funding for young Israeli and Jewish filmmakers to tell visual stories.
For centuries the power of Jews was the power of their intellect rather than the power of their weapons. Our stories can touch people around the globe. A good feature film or documentary can touch millions of lives and that will help change the perspective of millions, way more than any thing else. That’s what I loved in making Israeli films. There’s a sense of urgency in making them. A feeling of a mission. There’s the knowledge that one’s film can acutally make a real difference in the state of things to come.
One of the exciting things about living in Israel is the sense that there are still frontiers that one can be a pioneer in. Film and TV are one of those fields that are so young, it’s exciting to be among those who are walking in the desert hoping to be in the generation that will make it to the promised land.
As for my film. Here’s some quotes and some links to the various screenings in LA, NYC and Tel Aviv:
THE NEW ISRAELI FILM
CRITICS ARE FALLING IN LOVE WITH.
ISRAELI DIRECTOR DAN KATZIR
RAVIT MARKUS AND YAEL KATZIR
“Charming…An irreplaceable record of a life and a movement.”
Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
“(A) Touching documentary”
Bob Strauss, LA Daily News
“Funny,wistful and resolute.”
Jeannette Catsoulis, NY Times
Critics Pick !!!
Yiddish Theater: A Love Story , opened this weekend in two theaters in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.
It is also continuing it’s run with great success in
NYC at the Pioneer theater
and in Lev Dizengoff in Tel Aviv.
For more info:
LA AND VALLEY SCREENINGS
TEL AVIV SCREENINGS
More critics wonderful reviews:
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