Israel’s surprising history of high and low film

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If someone asked you to name a popular shooting location for films, most of us would go with the easy answers. Downtown Toronto, Central Park New York, or maybe Venice Beach in Los Angeles. The movie buffs among us might show off by mentioning Vancouver for low-budget Canadian sci-fi, or Atlanta’s current popularity as an inexpensive alternative to those pricy big city productions. Few of us would think of Israel… and that would be a mistake.

Israel has a rich history as a premier film location for some of Hollywood’s best productions (as well as some of it’s schlockiest worst).

The Juggler


It’s impossible to talk about film in Israel without acknowledging The Juggler. Shot and released in 1953, The Juggler was the first Hollywood feature film shot in the relatively new state of Israel. Director Edward Dmytryk thought it was important to film the movie in Israel given the intense subject matter – a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust coming to grips with his psychological trauma and new life in Israel. Starring Kirk Douglas, the film portrays German Jew turned refugee Hans Müller’s difficulties dealing with the loss of his family, his misplaced sense of survivor’s guilt, and his attempts to re-integrate into society. It’s notable for its depiction of kibbutz life and the restorative communities that welcomed so many survivors after the war, a rare topic in 1950’s American film.

Shooting in the newly established state was not without its difficulties. For one thing, the pace and demands of a Hollywood production far exceeded what the Israeli crews were used to, so much so that it generated some complaints (which Dmytryk took as a compliment). There were also issues with the interior shots. The equipment and personnel just weren’t there to accomplish some of the more demanding shots, and many interior shots needed to be re-done in a Californian soundstage.

Despite these issues, The Juggler was a milestone in Israeli film production. It opened up the nation as a shooting location and set the stage for several movies to come.

The Age of Schlock 

The Juggler was a very serious movie, and you would be forgiven if you assumed other western productions in Israel followed a similar tone, but that wasn’t exactly the case. While many native Israeli filmmakers had lofty artistic aspirations at the time, western producers saw a different opportunity. During the 70’s, Israel was the place to go for schlock films.

Untested stars, bizarre passion projects, shoestring budgets – all classic hallmarks of a B-movie production, and Israel was the place to film them. The economic conditions of 1970’s Israel made it a cheap and inexpensive place to shoot, especially compared with major American cities. So, crafty producers and directors set their sights East. In fact, we can put a pair of faces to this phenomenon, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, known better as the minds behind legendary B-movie house Cannon Films.
 
In 1975, Golan and Globus (at this point operating under AmeriEuro Pictures) produced Diamonds, a heist film starring Richard Roundtree fresh out of his leading role on Shaft and looking for any film to help him make the jump from TV to the big screen. This was where they found the formula to their success. A recognizable but not A-list star with niche appeal, a pulpy aesthetic that focused on genre movies (heists, action spectacles, sci-fi oddities), and budget shooting conditions in Israel. From that point forward, it was off to the races for Golan, Globus, and the newly christened Canon Films. They spent the 70’s and 80’s pumping out a series of B-Grade classics in the country, going so far as to create their own Golan & Globus film studio in Neve Ilan. 

Success always brings imitators, and it wasn’t long before other low-budget productions caught on to what Cannon Films was doing and brought their own productions to Israel. This is why truly wretched bombs like American 3000 (a look at post-apocalyptic America shot in the Negev desert), franchise flops like Rambo III, and bizarre oddities like Jean-Claude van Damme’s The Order, all came to be filmed in Israel. 

It’s a strange legacy for sure, but an important one for film. While it’s hard to say with a straight face than many of these movies were good, they all possess a kind of unique energy. A strange mix of ambition and creative vision that exceeded the talent and budget they had to work with. An off-beat enthusiasm that can be a joy to watch (so long as you don’t try and take any of it seriously). Many of these strange gems wouldn’t have been possible with Israel as a welcoming home for oddball productions.

A Proud Tradition of Film

 

Of course, today Israel has its own thriving film culture depicting uniquely Israeli stories from their own perspective, as well as a proud tradition of American film productions shooting in the country. 
Sometimes, Israel is used as a backdrop for the world’s most pressing conflicts. Rambo III used locations all across Tel Aviv, Jaffa and Eilat to stand in for the war-torn fields of Afghanistan. The much more high-brow 1999 drama The Insider (nominated for seven Academy Awards to Rambo III’s zero) would pull the same trick, simulating the dangerous streets of Lebanon by shooting in an Arab town near Haifa. 

Israel doesn’t always play stand-in for a nearby and more dangerous state however, it often is used to portray the unique nation itself. This was the case for the 1960 Paul Newman film Exodus based on a novel by Leon Uris. The film is expressly about the formation of the Israeli state and is said to be responsible for a rise in popularity for the US Zionist movement at the time of its release. During production, the filmmakers realized they would need at least 20 thousand people extras for a pivotal scene where the partition of Palestine is announced. To fill this monumental need, the filmmakers held a lottery promising twenty thousand Israeli pounds and six free trips to the New York City premiere, hoping it would at least rope in a few thousand people. Instead, 40,000 people showed up, almost a quarter of Jerusalem’s population!

Today, Israel has a booming film scene that produces top tier artistic and commercial successes. Films such as Waltz with Bashir (2018), an animated documentary of director Ari Folman’s experiences in Lebanon War, Broken Wings (2002), a look at a family struggling after the loss of their father, and the satirical comedy Zero Motivation (2014) have propelled Israeli film to the world stage. From B-movie haven to award winning films in less than 50 years, Israel is quite the study for any fan of the silver screen.  

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