Israel’s unique population – consisting primarily of immigrants from around the globe – coupled with the country’s highly political and current affairs-centered culture, make it a fertile breeding place for the production of passionate and distinctive documentaries. Says Orna Yarmut, director of the Israel Forum for International Coproductions, ‘Israel produces strong documentaries because the news is an obsession here. The culture of the country is based around dealing with the reality that comes from the news.’ Documentary filmmakers in Israel face harsh realities of their own. A shortage of public investment in filmmaking and lower-end domestic broadcast commissions have forced filmmakers to garner support from an international market that often limits Israeli film topics to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Holocaust.
In 1999, the Ministry of Art and Culture, which represents the country’s film industry, persuaded the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) to pass the Cinema Law, which promised to increase the annual national film budget from ILS30 million (US$7.2 million) to ILS80 million (US$19.3 million). Two years later, the law has not yet been implemented. A few weeks ago, Israel’s Treasury Minister announced he might retract the revised budget in favor of increased military security on Israeli settlements. Yulie Gerstel, chief executive of the Forum of Israeli Documentary Filmmakers – a private organization that was instrumental in lobbying the government to pass the Cinema Law – comments, ‘The struggle is never-ending. We thought we were at the beginning of a new era, but it doesn’t look like that right now.’
David Fisher, director of the New Foundation for Cinema and Television, which in the past received ILS3.5 million (US$845,000) from the government to finance 10 to 15 independent film productions per year (the vast majority of which are docs), comments on the current state of public financing: ‘These times are harder than we expected. Without the final budget for 2001, we’ve had to give positive feedback to applicants without telling them how much money we can invest in each of them.’ Fisher is pursuing municipal governments and domestic foundations to augment the New Foundation’s budget. ‘I have started diversifying the sources of income and developing new creative tracks, because I realize that we cannot rely solely on the government.’
The state’s public channel, the Israeli Broadcasting Authority (IBA), is dedicated to newsreels and factual programs, but few independently produced docs get commissioned due to the strict editorial policy imposed by the government. Says Gerstel, ‘We are currently working in the Knesset to reorganize Channel 1, which has been in very bad condition for many years.’ However, slots for docs continue to grow on the Israeli TV scene. The primary documentary broadcaster is Channel 8, but almost all channels – including niche channels on the six-month-old satellite platform, and Channel 3, the new commercial channel scheduled to launch in November – offer a number of openings for doc content. According to Phillipa Kowarsky, managing director of Tel Aviv-based distributor Cinephil, ‘Budgets have grown significantly over the past years. Three years ago, it was normal for broadcasters to give a doc coproduction US$30,000 per hour. Now, channels recognize that a documentary film cannot be made for less than $100,000. Terrestrial and cable channels are giving somewhere in the region of $60,000, and the new terrestrial channel has promised $75,000 for coproductions. Prices are rising.’ While copros – which require the involvement of an Israeli partner, and the content of the project to be related to Israel – gain access to broadcaster bucks, straight acquisitions are not as fruitful. Says Ilan Ziv, co-founder of New York-based AT Media, ‘If you want to sell a finished program in Israel, you can only get between US$500 to $2,500 per hour for a straight acquisition.’ According to Gerstel, ‘None of the channels commission films outright. You have to get one third or half of your budget from a broadcaster, then go to a fund, and another fund, or pursue a coproduction partner from abroad.’
One place for Israeli filmmakers to meet potential copro partners is the Israel Forum for International Coproductions, the third edition of which was held in Tel Aviv last March. The two-day pitching event has grown since its inception, this year attracting the support of the European Documentary Network (EDN) and 10 commissioning editors from around the world, who heard 20 to 25 Israeli filmmakers pitch their projects. Despite the success of the Forum – this year, five projects resulted in international coproduction deals – venturing into foreign markets has its challenges. According to Yarmut, ‘First of all, if you are not American or European, your films may be very successful in festivals or in broadcasting after they are made, but it’s more difficult to make international coproductions. Secondly, distributors and broadcasters often have stereotypes of subjects for each country. From Israel, they usually expect subjects that concern either the Holocaust or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Finally, most of the films made in Israel are auteur documentaries; there aren’t many series produced here, so it is harder to make international coproductions. Filmmakers tend to be naive when it comes to thinking about their films from the marketing point of view.’
Nir Toib, president of GN Communication in Tel Aviv, resists producing films that cater to the expectations of the international market. ‘Most international coproductions that come out of Israel give foreign audiences what they expect, which only strengthens their idea of how they imagine Israel… most of my colleagues who sell internationally adjust the flavor of the project to suit what they think commissioning editors want. I say if you coproduce with an Israeli production company, or if you buy a documentary film, buy an authentic, original one,’ he says.
AT Media, a prodco with branches in New York and Tel Aviv, specializes in doc copros involving Israel and the U.S. Ziv acknowledges that American broadcasters are wary of coproducing with Israelis. Says Ziv, ‘Cable has been reluctant to work with Israeli talent because they’re unsure if Israeli producers will understand the American or international public. For example, will they be able to produce a Discovery-type program?’ But, he explains, ‘That’s where we come in. By teaming Israeli and American talent, we ensure the program is just what Discovery wants. In the end, channels determine their interest based on the story and the idea; not necessarily on the country that is making it.’