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Doc Edge 2017: the Israelis

This morning (Monday), the Israeli Embassy of Israeli in New Zealand hosted an industry breakfast for Documentary Edge, at a venue whose name we are not allowed to mention. (Whether this was because of concerns from the Embassy about their security, or the venue owner’s desire to maintain their privacy, was not clear.)

The featured guest was Yonatan Nir, director of the film My Hero Brother (pictured, top), the Embassy has sponsored the appearance of the film in this year’s Doc Edge Festival where it featured in the Festival’s awards for international films. My Hero Brother tells the story of a group of youngsters with Down syndrome who attempt a demanding trek in the Indian Himalayas, accompanied by their brothers and sisters. Nir explains that the film is not primarily about disability — rather it is about family relationships and love.

Among the other filmmakers of international origin invited to the breakfast was Israeli-American Alon Schwarz, maker of the film Aida’s Secrets. His film is also about family connections — in his case, the story of two brothers separated at a very young age after being released in 1945 from the displaced persons camp at Bergen-Belsen (previously used as a concentration camp by the Nazis), and sent to Israel for adoption. One remained in Israel, the other was taken to Canada. In their 70s, family secrets are uncovered and the brothers find out about each other’s existence, and their parents’ complicated past. They meet for the first time in seven decades, then track down their mother, who in her 90s is residing in a rest home in Canada.

Both films are exemplary examples of what became a theme of the morning’s discussion — the importance in storytelling of finding the universality in a story focused on the very particular. 

Aida’s Secrets

In discussing co-production, strong preference was expressed for more informal working together, as opposed to official co-production arrangements within government treaties. The latter always involve complicated negotiation and paperwork, with many hoops to jump through; whereas in America, for example, you can apparently set up a small charitable foundation and simply receive donations, which can then be used towards making a film. Much simpler, much quicker.

But what made the local documentary makers present almost drool with envy was when our guests told us of Israel’s government-funded scheme for showing documentaries in schools. The way the scheme works is that a website has been created to which artistic and/or cultural projects can be submitted for selection. The approved projects are posted on the website, and schools can choose from those which ones they would like to host. Schools are given a fixed amount of money per year to spend purely and only on this cultural exercise — if it is not used, it is simply goes back to its source. And the big plus: the artists get paid! Although a variety of artistic forms of expression are represented, quite a few documentaries are chosen — though perhaps unsurprisingly, ones with overt political content tend not to make the cut.

For a screening in a school, filmmakers have to fit their project to within two 45-minute class periods run together — and so, allowing five minutes for the kids to settle down, a short introduction, the screening of the film itself and a discussion afterwards, the film has to be reduced to around 70 minutes in length. This seemed to be no problem for Yocatan Nir.

But one issue he finds he does have to confront each time: in his introduction he must first explain the difference between reality and documentary — since for most kids, reality and documentary are, until that point, seen as the same thing. He points out to them that “reality” programming is in fact artificial, in that rather than observing Real Life reality as a documentary does, reality programmes bring admittedly real (or might one say, supposedly real?) people into an artificially created situation. 



Alon Schwarz commented at one point that while he was no supporter of many of his government’s policies, he was proud of the government’s support for documentary filmmaking.

The salmon was delicious!

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