Blog: Notes from Israel’s indie scene

Former BravoFACT exec director Judy Gladstone (pictured) shares dispatches from Jerusalem, which recently hosted a thriving film fest for audiences with an appetite for foreign content.

Judy GladstoneBy Judy Gladstone

It was a surreal moment for a Canadian overseas this July, as the Jerusalem Film Festival kicked off with the stories of iconic Canadian author Alice Munro transplanted to Spain in Pedro Almodovor’s Juliete.

The film launched the 33rd edition of the JFF, screening beneath the stars in the amphitheatre of the 16th century Sultan’s Pool, in the valley below Mount Zion. The stone walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, built during the Ottomon rule of Suleiman the Magnificent, shimmered above. It was a magnificent setting for Israel’s most important film festival and a reflection of the event’s international character.

Though by no means prominent, Canadians and their work were sprinkled throughout the fest, with Sarah Gadon appearing in James Schaumus’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s Indignation, Guy Maddin in an Yves Montmayeur documentary and Guy Edoin’s Ville Marie and Denis Cote’s Boris without Beatrice screening out of competition.

But the lack of any Canadian presence on the industry side, despite festival director Noa Regev’s emphasis that “JFF aspires to be a platform for international coproductions” and an ongoing Israel-Canada copro treaty, begs the question: what is the opportunity for Canadian producers in the region?

The festival has tried to open new doors to foreigners, inaugurating a USD$25,000 prize this year for Best International Film to entice more foreign pictures to its screens. The Death of Louis XIV, directed by Albert Serra, took the prize home this year.

Those involved with the local industry say that Israeli and Palestinian audiences are avid consumers of foreign content. “Israelis are curious about other cultures. If your film tells a Canadian story, you will pique our audience’s interest,” says Roi Frey, owner of Tel Aviv-based boutique distributor Ibex Films.

He points out that while Israeli distributors of local and foreign documentaries are thriving, independent distributors of scripted features in the region are struggling with the same issues affecting other markets – the dominance of multi-pronged enterprises that control both the large megaplexes and the major distribution and production companies.

But for Canadians interested in reaching this unique market, there are a few ways in. Filmmakers looking for help in bringing a feature idea to fruition can take advantage of a unique program called the Jerusalem International Film Lab, an initiative of the Sam Spiegel School of Film and Television.

Open to Canadians, the program is described by its associate director, Ifat Tubi, as a “script incubator.” Selected writers and directors are matched with story editors with whom they work over the course of a year. Those selected travel to Jerusalem three times: in December, March and the opening weekend of the JFF. The Lab, which relies on scouts to recommend prospective candidates, culminates with a pitch session, and a USD$50,000 prize awarded during JFF’s opening weekend. In an interview, Tubi said the Film Lab has taken note that there have been no Canadian participants in the program to date and in a break from the norm, is now accepting direct submissions from Canadians.

Creating further opportunities is the fact that digital platforms are gaining traction in the region, especially with the arrival of Netflix. Other streamers include Mako TV, an Israeli site owned by format, distribution and production giant Keshet International and Coolnet, a new Palestinian streaming startup that its sales lead Mohammad Abuawwad says it is eager to receive English content.

Israel has long been known for its prowess in creating TV that travels well, and in this writer’s experience, is also welcome to bringing new content in. Canadians interested in partnering in the region would do well to examine new ways of getting in the door.

Judy Gladstone ran a CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) program in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel, served as cultural attaché at the Embassy of Canada in Israel / Palestinian Territories, and was the Executive Director of Bravo!FACT (Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent) for 15 years. Her email is judy.gladstone@eandeproductions.org.