JSFS - A New Genre
By Laurence Kardish
In watching and re-watching thirty short narratives by graduating students from Jerusalem’s estimable Sam Spiegel Film and Television School over its thirty years of operation, 1989 - 2019, selected in part by the teaching staff of other recognized film academies worldwide and international film critics, I remain impressed, even awestruck, by the consistency, coherence, relevance and integrity of the films. While they do share certain defining characteristics they are, at the same time, individual and distinctive. It is almost as if the Sam Spiegel School has created its own humanist genre of film, and like any living genre, the JSFS genre is elastic, expansive and welcomes originality.
Accomplishments are not usually defined by negative virtues but at JSFS they most certainly are. What the films are not is what makes them positively special - unsentimental, unabashed, unashamed and unpredictable. They are also personal, socially engaged and like life itself, open ended.
The strong characteristics of these films date from the founding of the School in November of 1989, at a time when Israel itself was under siege. The First Intifada, begun years earlier, had eroded any sense of national security, a sense crippled in July when the country experienced the first suicide attack within its borders. Nevertheless, the Jerusalem Foundation and the Ministry of Education and Culture realizing the significant expressive power of cinema to rally and inform, established, within a short period, the Jerusalem Film and Television School following a program developed by its first founding director, Renen Schorr.
At 37 Schorr had already managed a film division at a major Israeli theatre school, had campaigned successfully to have cinema recognized by government funders as an art as well as an industry, and had made a feature film in 1987 that enjoyed international distribution, Late Summer Blues, a “verité” chronicle about four high school graduates waiting out an anxious summer before reporting for their mandatory military service. Schorr determined that the concentration at the School was to be on the making of short films that spoke to the filmmaker’s own experience as relevant and meaningful to an audience. Students immediately enrolled and with the full teaching program taking four years, the first graduate films appeared in 1992. Months later David Ofek, an original student, won the competition for Best Short Film at the Jerusalem International Festival for High-Tech Dreams, and won again in 1994 for his documentary-like narrative, Home, the most senior film in this 30th Anniversary selection.
Many of the School’s films were shown at the festival in Jerusalem which was attended by international guests, some of whom were film festival directors themselves and others noted film critics. Jerusalem’s foreign guests began to spread word of the School’s accomplishments, and at a very young age the School had an enviable reputation beyond Israel.
I came to know the School in 1994 when, as a juror for the International Festival of Student Films in Mexico City, I saw a number of impressive works, of which Daphna Levin’s The Price is Right, one of the School’s rare comedies, won an Honorable Mention in a field of stiff competition. Excited by the films I enjoyed in Mexico City I asked to see more. The School obliged and in November of 1996, only eight years after the School’s founding, I organized the first retrospective of any film academy at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. The 10-film program was seen by over a thousand museum goers and was introduced by Teddy Kollek who had been mayor of Jerusalem when the School, now named the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, was established.
In 1998, Gilles Jacob of the Cannes International Film Festival established Cinéfondation, an annual competitive section for films made at film schools the world over. In 2008, I was honored to serve on the Cannes Cinéfondation international film jury whose head was the master Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien, and which included the celebrated filmmakers Oliver Assayas from France, Susanne Bier from Denmark, and the British-French actress Marina Hands. As a jury we were unanimous in awarding the Grand Prize to a film from the Sam Spiegel School, Elad Keidan’s longish short film, Anthem, a decision I am pleased to see has been confirmed by its other esteemed viewers who have rated it the “Top” film of this selection.
Without going into the details of its plot, Anthem is worth citing as an emblematic film of the School. It is shot on location, in a specific Israeli city, and begins and ends with an easy naturalism, the ‘action’ taking place within a few hours on an ordinary day. There is no music to establish or exaggerate a mood but there is instead a subtle use of ambient sound. The dialogue is sparse and pointed. The camera records smoothly without drawing attention to its presence. Nothing about the film appears rushed or even dramatic, but what seems to be a series of insignificant events in and of themselves, turns out to be an extraordinarily important afternoon for the protagonist, a fellow about whom we know nothing except that he lives alone and goes out for a carton of milk. The brilliance of Anthem and many of the School’s films including Boaz Frankel’s very recent 212, is how everyday narratives are transformed into surprising existential adventures. None of the films finish neatly. The films often end unresolved, with a question, and with the recognition the story continues beyond the film’s own running time.
In insisting that the School’s students make films that are reflective of their own experience and biography relevant to others, the School has produced some very strong films about what matters most to young Israelis. These concerns are presented directly, forcefully and, in their honesty, grippingly: social alienation, the fraught and unequal relationships not only between Jewish and Arab citizens but Israelis and Palestinians, the boredom and tension of military service, the misunderstandings between parents and children of all ages, abandonment, religious observance and religious hypocrisy, the uneasiness between secular and Orthodox Jews, the shift in gender roles, and the power and confusion of sexual choice. Each of these tension sites is represented by one or more of the short films in this extraordinary collection.
It also needs be noted that while personal expression is encouraged at the School, a student’s vision is not sufficient for success. The School is, after all, a training ground for communicators whether in cinema, for television, or on internet platforms. The student must learn not only how to wrest the attention of an audience, but to work within an industry that requires collaboration with others and, most importantly, the keeping of deadlines. That 70% of the School’s graduates are now working within the Israeli media and that its filmmakers keep winning awards at festivals abroad, is testament to the remarkable success of Jerusalem Sam Spiegel Film School.
Laurence Kardish is a former Senior Curator, Department of Film, The Museum of Modern Art and a current instructor in Film Directing, Graduate Program, School of Visual Arts, New York.
By Nadav Lapid
I arrived at Sam Spiegel after spending two years in Paris. Those were, as they say, the most significant years of my life. In Paris I discovered Cinema. In Paris I found my passion for filmmaking. In Paris I figured out what films I wanted to make.
My life during this period was a romantic cliché– living pretty miserably from hand to mouth, frequenting movie theaters and visiting the Bibliothèque Nationale where I read devoutly the Cahiers du cinema and Positif quarterlies. My kindred spirit Emile and I talked about the films we watched for hours on end, dissecting them, and putting our thoughts into writing. We could hardly wait for a film to end so we could discuss it.
Upon returning to Israel, enrolling at the Jerusalem Sam Spiegel Film School seemed to me the obvious next step. Like the New Wave directors of the 1950s – in Sam Spiegel School I would express my concepts and analyses in images, create films that engage thoughts and theories. Jerusalem, which I had only visited for school trips, guided tours to the Ammunition Hill memorial site, and the annual film festival – will continue what began in Paris.
The Pedagogic Committee headed by Renen, found my first film project, early in my studies at Sam Spiegel, to be alienated, cold, intellectual, artistic and formalistic, “too cerebral, and not from the heart”. One member of the Committee had gone as far as asking me: “Do you consider yourself the French ambassador to Israel?” After the meeting I wandered around Talpiot for hours. This morose neighborhood, I thought, is charming precisely for its non-formalistic, non-artistic, and unscholarly nature. I then realized what Sam Spiegel could mean to me. I realized I had no other option. I will have to face Sam Spiegel in the boxing ring. I will have to take its heavy punches. Occasionally I would land a punch too. My films and I will bang our heads against its walls. If we hit hard enough, some concrete might even chip.
It doesn't sound good, but it's not all bad either. I believe that films are made from a position of defiance, struggle and conflict. Cinema is created against, in opposition to, regardless of, and in spite. Filmmaking requires an opponent, someone to lock horns with, to disagree with, to wrestle in an exacting struggle, total and crushing. I have found an intimidating rival, one which demands my respect.
Sam Spiegel helped form my identity as a filmmaker through this struggle. At times it softened me, other times helped hone my edges, testing my beliefs, pushing me to extremes, forcing me to stay alert, on edge, like a gunslinger in a mean Wild West town, or a man traversing across jagged rocks.
Years later, after having graduated and become a teacher, I still notice that gunslinger's shadow now and again. I would then dedicate a short scene to him, perhaps a sly shot, and direct it for, or against him.
Nadav Lapid is a graduate and teacher, an internationally acclaimed filmmaker. This essay was written for “Reflecting on the School Experience", Sam Spiegel 25 Year Anniversary, 2015.
By Elad Keidan
It was the summer of 2006. I was walking around with my hands in my pockets, head full of thoughts, obsessed over my graduation film, which I had still to write. I wrote down ideas on notes, scribbled manifests, trying to shape into words and images my feelings towards Man, society, and reality; I was thinking about brilliant concepts, and like many filmmakers, I asked myself whether this was the last film I will ever make.
Katamon, the neighborhood I had lived in before leaving Jerusalem, was on my mind. There was something about it, its grey and peaceful charm, but I couldn't work out a story. The narrative I kept coming up with seemed forced and overdone. On the other hand, I was adamant to avoid turning the film into a lecture on “the architectural aspects of the heterogeneous Israeli culture.”
The deadline for handing the script to the School's committee was quickly approaching. One day, while I was at my desk agonizing over the script, my girlfriend on her way out scolded me, “Will you ever finish writing this film of yours?!” “You know what,” I shot back, “I will have a first draft ready by the time you're back.” she laughed. Bless her laughter.
I stayed, facing the blank page. Somehow, in a rare moment of humility and self-effacement, I let my haughty concepts fade away, and wrote a clean, simple, movement-driven story: a story about loneliness and redemption. The plot was stripped down: a fellow steps out of his house on a Friday afternoon to buy a carton of milk at the grocery store, walking pendulum-like up and down the street, running into people, and, in his walk, “mapping” the neighborhood and the world around him, as reality accumulates meaning with every time he passes by.
The first draft was titled “Milk,” but I quickly changed it to “Anthem”. I don't have any specific reason why I named it such; it was a matter of feeling. I suppose it has to do with Fanfare for the Common Man, a musical work by Aaron Copland, honoring ordinary people's sublimity with trumpet blows.
My partner's father asked me whether I was really planning to shoot this film, “a film about nothing”, about a man out to buy milk. I wriggled around in my chair. I wasn't certain whether I wanted or was even able to make the film, or whether I was willing to defend it at all.
The script passed the script committee, headed by Renen Schorr, with relative ease. I was the first in class to start shooting. It took ages to edit the material. I edited it once without any sound, then a second time with a soundtrack. It came to over half an hour. I was carrying with me the feeling that I created a film that was wholly personal, something no one other than me could possibly understand. The first screening for the School panel did not go well. I could feel the film not working. I explained that there was more sound work to be done, that my long-shots would allow for editing of the dialogue, but the panel members were not convinced. I left the panel feeling as if I was a stranger in a foreign land.
A few days later I was called into Renen's office. “I ask that you bring the film down to twenty minutes,” he said. I said I would prefer to finish it the way I had imagined it, and for all I care Renen does not have to send it on a festival circuit. He could have insisted, but instead Renen eased the pressure. “Fine,” he said. “Finish it your way”. He promised the school will continue to support the film at its current length and send it to festivals.
I found a sound editor to work from his home. We worked together for the next six months. A couple of friends who watched one of the final versions told me they watched it to the end, then watched it a second time. It surprised me. It was the first sign of many to come that helped me realize the film has potential.
A year and a half after shooting, my partner's father passed away. On the first day of Shiva mourning I received a call from Cannes. The film was accepted to the prestigious Cinéfondation. I found myself in an ironic situation, forced to share those happy news on a sad, tragic day.
The film, to me, is a gift from heaven. A gift from the person I used to be to the person I wish to become again – someone who places people ahead of concepts, who sees things in their simplicity, who does what he wants, regardless of passing trends. Filmmaking that cherishes the flow of time. After completing this short film about a person who walks up and down the street for a carton of milk, I decided to make a full-length film in a similar vein. I made my first feature, Afterthought (Hayored Lema'ala), featuring two characters walking up and down the side of Old Mount Carmel in Haifa, the city I grew up in. I did not cave under the expectations. I carried on following my heart. Afterthought was screened in the Special Screenings section at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.
Many stories were circulated over the years about Anthem and tension with the School board. The film was never shelved, I didn't have to steal the raw material, nor sneak out to film in secret. The film had simply to prove its value, and once it had done so – it received consistent and generous support. I am especially proud that – in my subjective view – Anthem helped the Sam Spiegel genre become richer and more diverse. Some of my favorite films to come from the School graduates in recent years border on the experimental, and are still able to tell a story and touch on what is most human. One of cinema's greatest secrets is the hidden relations between simplicity and daring.
I am excited when I remember the fun days at the School. Fortunately, I do not need to work too hard to recall those times. I have maintained warm and loyal relations with my classmates, which I consider to be the best thing I have taken with me from Sam Spiegel.
Elad Keidan is a director, writer and teacher, and an international award-winning graduate.
The Beehive of Cinephiles
By Prof. Yair Lev
Almost thirty years have passed since I first took the dilapidated elevator to the third floor of the brutalist building at the Talpiot commercial zone and entered the school, then called The Jerusalem Film and Television School. The image was and remained the same ever since: young students moving along the corridor from the classrooms and editing rooms to the library on the other side. Some are holding a precious VHS/DVD, others in conversation with friends. You can feel the atmosphere in an instant; busy, purposeful, energized. Feels like teen spirit.
I'm packing my bag with all the necessary stuff for a day of teaching, when suddenly I realize that I cannot find Tarkovsky's Nostalgia anywhere. That's a real problem when you're teaching at Sam Spiegel… There's no chance that the library copy will be available. It's one of those films that is always on loan. The same goes for Tsai Ming Liang's The River or Kaurismaki's The Match Factory Girl and Perlov's Diary or Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive. Practically any given art-house film or documentary is a subject for our students' interest.
And then there's Tova, the diligent film buff librarian and high-tech master of downloading and copying. Looking for Dreyer's Gertrud or Ozu's I Was Born But…? Rest assured - Tova will find them for you somewhere on the Web (and before you know it there's a copy waiting just for you). Other favourite activities include: consulting a confused student who cannot choose between a Ford or a Hawks Western (“take them both”, I suggest) or discussing enthusiastically the latest Tarantino or Lanthimos, or just browsing at the library's latest acquisitions (“Wow! The Bunuel Criterion box and the Allan Berliner collection!”).
Tracing my memories down that corridor, I recall a multitude of meetings with excited students holding a film (once on tape, nowadays on a USB stick) with one request: to watch the film ASAP and get back to them with a reasoned impression, ready to debate (that was the way I first encountered Park Chan Wook's Revenge Trilogy). Or another recollection: the roaring silence and watery eyes of students who had just finished watching the heart-rending final scene in Kiarostami's Homework. The beehive of cinephiles, that's what it's all about.
Now, after watching again the thirty films selected for the 30th anniversary celebration, it all becomes clear. I can easily recognize, through the variety of themes and styles, how all these moments are reflected in the students' films themselves: the well-timed seesaw of laughter and heartbreak in Talia Lavie's Sliding Flora; the physical and emotional abyss which two religious girls are thrown into in Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnun's highly charged Sabbath Entertainment; defying boundaries: in Nadav Lapid's Road, set in the desert, blending tough realism and a personal political stance with its radical approach to storytelling, and in Benjamin Freidenberg's Guided Tour, which examines the borderline between documentary and fiction both in form and content on a one Jerusalem's street, as David Ofek's Home does the same while depicting his Jewish-Iraqi family coping with the first Gulf War at their home. And then there's the emotional depth of Sharon Amrani's Bonfire Night with his unforgettable, intellectually disabled protagonist, or the ironical yet magical one street long journey of an ultimate loser in Elad Keidan's Anthem, and the curious look of the female creature in the forest searching for real love in Gan De Lange's fairytale Babaga, or the Israeli-Palestinian Cock Fight at a West Bank checkpoint in Sigalit Lifshiz's metaphorical comedy, and so on and so on… Each selected film and its merits.
And then there are some images that stay with me forever: the amputee Palestinian boy playing guitar in Tamar Kay's The Mute's House, taking place in Hebron; the glorious one shot that follows the protagonist into a crowded bus in the finale of Tom Shoval's Shred of Hope; the father carrying his defiant son through a minefield in the Sinai Desert in Omri Levy's Bedouin Sand; the portrait of a rain-soaked, broken family facing the camera just after saving their kid from falling off the balcony in Nir Bergman's Sea Horses.
All of which prove that some students took the road marked by the great masters of both East and West, others the subversive, guerrilla approach to telling a story; some depict a true-to-life situation, while others go for fantasy and innovation; some put their trust in familiar settings, while others choose a road not taken.
The old elevator is still there, at the school building, managing somehow to reach the beehive. So is the love of cinema, that passion for watching films (and re-watching them), and the constant humming of students and teachers debating them, as they continue making meaningful films.
Prof. Yair Lev is an award winning documentary filmmaker, a teacher at JSFS since 1990 and a professor at Bezalel, Department of Screen Arts.
The Lonely Protagonist
By Dan Muggia
“You know an SSF – a Sam Spiegel Film – when you see one.” I've heard this sentence uttered many times. Whether meant as a compliment or not, I have always wondered about the meaning behind it. Do SSFs have certain typical features? Do they differ from films made at other schools? If so, in which ways? Thematically? Stylistically? Politically? Do they share a set of values? A school-wide dramaturgy? Does a certain filmic tradition shine over all SSFs as a dominant source of influence?
The school's meticulous study methods, the competitive nature it inspires, and the supervision of students’ films, guarantee an uncompromising professional standard. The films – with titles that are short and to the point, their length about 20 minutes – exhibit, without exceptions, an absolute command of the medium, serving as an excellent entry ticket to the Israeli film and television industry. Through attentive viewing of the thirty films in this collection, dominant themes emerge, as well as preferred narrative structures and common aesthetics.
The SSF, like the Israeli cinema, is usually realistic in nature. The means of cinematic expression – the cinematography, editing, mise-en-scene, and soundtrack – primarily serve the plot, without drawing attention to the filmmaking itself. This is the direct path to the hearts of the viewers. It opens the way for identifying with a host of characters, who at times inhabit a world that is a far cry from the world of the young filmmakers themselves. The viewers are lured into sharing the pain of a retired person who's lost purpose in life, in Shred Hope by Tom Shoval; they live through the difficult journey of two Palestinian siblings on their way to a graduation ceremony, away from the watchful eyes of the army, in Diploma by Yaelle Kayam; the viewers deliberate awkwardly, alongside the elderly man seeking intimacy with a sex worker, in After All by Zvi Landsman; and they feel for the protagonist in Bonfire Night by Sharon Amrani, who simply wants to be at his younger brother's wedding.
Once we mention the realistic fiction films, the exceptional and unforgettable formalistic ones come to mind. Home by David Ofek, the veteran of the group, appropriates aesthetics of documentary filmmaking to mock questions of truth and visual memory; Guided Tour, by Benjamin Freidenberg, weaves elements of personal documentary films as he contemplates and undermines in his own voice (in the style of David Perlov) the frozen images he presents on screen; The Red Toy by Dani Rosenberg adopts an aesthetics associated with surveillance cameras, which record an invented reality as if it were true; and Staring Match by Orit Fouks-Rotem, which dramatizes life-like auditions gone awry, in order to discuss ethics in film and punish the one who deviates.
Comedy is not a popular genre at Sam Spiegel. Most films are serious in dealing with life. Humor and irony – if they appear at all – serve to balance out the drama and avoid the melodrama and sensational. Two films, although different from one another, depart from this stylistic characteristic, Sliding Flora by Talya Lavie and 212 by Boaz Frankel, both satires, each unique in its own way, about characters who struggle in their respective workplaces.
The other films look reality straight in the eyes, a harsh, critical and distressing look. The setting of choice is Family. Whether bourgeois or proletarian, it is portrayed as dysfunctional and conservative, often missing a parent. The relationships at stake are usually between a parent and a child, or two siblings, neglected or abandoned. SSFs apparently don't believe in intimacy between couples, and are certainly not optimistic about it. There are coming-ons in naive adolescence, occasional sex later in life, courting and rejection, but hardly ever is there matrimony. When there is a wedding, the protagonist is not invited.
Family melodrama is often the preferred framework. It domesticates the family members, bringing them together at the end of the film, into a unified unit, protective in the face of the chaos that lies outside. Here too the SSF aligns with Israeli cinema, which tends to house-train its protagonists and force them to compromise in light of the harsh reality.
Two Palestinian uprisings – Intifadas, two Gulf Wars, a war in Lebanon, and a catalogue of bloody conflicts in the Gaza Strip took place over the years of the School's existence and have left their mark on its films. The first of these is actually a controversial narrative, focusing on the Palestinian side of the conflict. Such is the case in Diploma by Yaelle Kayam and The Red Toy by Dani Rosenberg, both of which follow Palestinian youth under occupation (also The Mute's House by Tamar Kay, which tags along with a Palestinian child and his mother, isolated in their own city). It is similarly the case in Road by Nadav Lapid and Cock Fight by Sigalit Lipshitz, films which divide the point of view and the power games rather equally between Israelis and Palestinians. The conflict echoes in The Forgotten by Ehab Tarabieh, a road movie (Angelopoulos and Tarkovsky hover in the background) of a displaced Alawite, who steals across the border for the last chance to visit his birthplace in the Golan Heights.
The protagonists of SSFs are varied, hailing from all over Israel, men, women and children, religious and secular, new immigrants and native-born, common folks and outcasts. This diversity only covers the sad truth that lies beneath: the protagonists, down to the very last, are desperately lonely. A solitary librarian who lets a young man into her life – part son, part lover; a latent homosexual Rabbi, sharing a bed with his wife; the manager of an old age home, surrounded by people and yet feeling alienated; the friendless divorcee in a remote southern city; a Palestinian family, living in isolation in Hebron; a Jewish missionary who dances in joy but whose heart is deprived; a young man wandering the streets of Jerusalem in search of random sex and his mother's affection; immigrants living far away from their loved ones and homes; a lonesome witch in the forest; a peculiar young woman at a trendy cafe. Always a cruel loneliness from which there is no escape.
The film picked to top the list, Anthem by Elad Keidan, reinforces my observation. The film brings together the cinema of Abbas Kiarostami and the dialogues of Nanni Moretti, portraying a solitary, middle-aged man who leaves his home to buy milk from the store. A series of events distracts him from the task at hand, extends his walk, and begets chance encounters. The mission is completed and the man returns home – with a carton of milk. He was lonely to begin with, and lonely he remains.
Dan Angelo Muggia has been active as an actor, critic, teacher, producer and curator. Since 2016 he serves as Head of Film Department, at Beit Berl College.
By Benjamin Freidenberg
A camel crossed the Sam Spiegel Alley. An actual full grown living camel. The giant 8’5 animal was led by a Peter O'Toole Lawrence of Arabia look-alike. The recreated iconic figure from the classic produced by Sam Spiegel, was now at the center of the humble 2004 15th anniversary street festivity of the school. I was a freshman at the time and had the privilege of being assigned to accompany the school’s honorary guests Professor Dick Ross and his wife Phyllis. The three of us followed the Lawrence of Arabia camel and his in-costume shepherd in the hope that at least they knew where they were going in the scorching heat of a Jerusalem July.
The late Academy Award winning director Anthony Minghella had visited the school a week earlier. An aficionado of his work like myself was excited to meet the person behind the films which creatively brought to the screen misfits of conflicting identities. At the end of his talk with the student body, he asked whether anyone had questions. A reticent silence filled the classroom. “Com’on, I’m not as British as my accent. I’m of an Italian descent. Speak up!”
His words came back to me when I first met the Rosses - the school’s English guests. Dick and Phyllis weren’t Brits, but in fact New Zealanders who knew how to break the ice and stimulate a direct and truthful dialogue. Dick gave a biannual short film workshop for the school’s students ever since 1993 which was unanimously described by students, graduates and staff as inspirational and revolutionary. Meeting Dick and Phyllis was the beginning of a long lasting friendship. Fifteen years later, Dick Ross’s two volume guide for teachers and students is still on my desk, frequently opened and often revisited. The guide which was a project of CILECT Film Schools Association consisted hundreds of interviews with filmmakers and lecturers which Dick edited and formed into strategic lessons.
In his view, making short films is one thing but teaching the art of the short films is quite another - a challenge for every film school. It is not enough to only embrace artistic intuition and for sure nor is it productive to solely emphasize theory. Despite the fact that each of these approaches was respectively common practice in vocational filmmaking programs and universities, Professor Ross advocated for an alternative that fits the unique short film form.
“Dramatic fiction is capable of moving in only two directions: long or deep. Since the short film by definition cannot go long, the adventurous filmmaker might aspire to go deep on the basis that what a work lacks in length, it might make up in profundity.” (Chapter 1: To Hell with Aristotle, volume I, p. 5)
In his in-person intriguing workshop Dick expounded on the art of the oral storytelling tradition in which humans practice visualizing narratives to one another. For Dick, this practice, whether within the individual himself or within a collaborative crew, is a necessity:
“I define courage as the ability to look at yourself not only as a creative writer or filmmaker but as a human being - flawed, foolish, wonderful: to live with what you see; and to use it without shame, embarrassment or remorse...You are not a voyeur - although sometimes you have to act like one. But you are a participant in all your own creations.” (Lesson 5: The Tools of Storytelling, volume II, p. 104)
Dick stressed the personal ingredient not as self indulgence but as an act of involvement. Once a filmmaker’s perspective is shaped, the artist and the person are to be forever active participants, not only in their close and personal environment but also influencing and sparking dialogue in the wider arena.
All this he brought with him to Sam Spiegel alongside tens of international films that otherwise would not have been seen by the students of the 90’s and 00’s pre digital era. A worldly experience which encouraged awareness and endless curiosity.
In the mayhem of the school’s festivities, the hilarious image of Lawrence of Arabia’s camel had a two-pronged effect on me: on the one hand, being thrown back to a stirring moment in film history and at the same time being thrilled to become a future filmmaker.
Benjamin Freidenberg is a film director and cinema studies scholar, teaching in film schools and arts academies. Founder-director of Jerusalem Filmmakers Guild.
A School with a Heart
By Tamar Kay
“My little brother is getting married today!” cries out the intellectually disabled Morris at the opening of Bonfire Night, a film directed by the late Sharon Amrani (1970-2001), one of my favorite Sam Spiegel films.
The film portrays a heart-rending situation: Morris, who is super excited for his brother’s wedding which is supposed to take place that same day, learns that his family had actually lied to him and that the wedding took place a month earlier. The bridegroom did not want his brother to embarrass him at the event, and so the family hid the fact of the wedding from him.
I remember myself, a first year student, watching the film for the first time. I was blown away by the sour-sweetness of the film, how clever it was, the complexity of emotions on screen, and above all - by the huge HEART of the film. It met the most complicated and painful relationships between family members head-on, with compassion, respect and love.
Watching the film, I thought these are the sort of stories I want to tell: compelling stories; stories with a clear HEART; stories about the human condition; probing stories that observe people, relationships and situations in all their complexities; stories that are not afraid to criticize and challenge reality and world-views - from a place of true concern and love.
Two years later, my classmates and I presented our first films, on which we worked on during our 2nd & 3rd years, to a committee of film professionals and teachers, and the entire class. I remember a friend's film was being discussed, the committee elaborating on the film’s problems and making suggestions. Summing the discussion, Renen said something that stuck with me: “The film isn’t there yet, but – its heart is in the right place.”
As time passed it made more and more sense to me. It is clear how important it is to be precise about the goals and reasoning for the film as a whole and for every single cut in the film. What do I really want to tell? What lies at the HEART of the film? How to make sure that moral compass is calibrated?
Two more years have passed. I was working on my graduation film, The Mute’s House. My choice to make a documentary was rather unusual; all my friends were directing narrative films. The choice had both positive aspects and challenging ones, as the school was less equipped to accompany documentaries. And although my film had a clear hero who, no doubt, was interesting and heart-rending, the concerned staff kept asking me “Where’s the story?”
Then, as in my professional life ever since, I had to face the most complicated task, namely that of striking the balance between the thoughts and suggestions of teachers and professionals on the one hand, and my own intuitions, gut feelings and thoughts on the other hand. I had to make sure MY HEART as the director of the film stays in the right place throughout the process.
Sam Spiegel demands excellence from its students even at the cost of frustration, disappointment and pain along the way. At times, the School did not even feel it was being fair; I did not always agree with decisions that were made. But it was this unwavering line that I am grateful for. It helped me remain committed, find my original voice, work hard and find camaraderie along the way. Looking back, I realize that just as films and directors have hearts, so do institutions.
Tamar Kay is a documentary filmmaker, editor and writer.