In the Heart of Jerusalem, a Film School With Soul

Students of Ma’aleh delve into provocative topics including rape, homosexuality in yeshiva, and the divorce of an Orthodox couple.

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Click photo to download. Caption: A scene from Barriers, by Ma’aleh School of Television, Film and the Arts graduate Golan Rise. Credit: Ma’aleh.

The Ma’aleh School of Television, Film and the Arts is not a wealthy institution. Its grayish brown edifice easily blends into the buildings that surround it, maintaining an unassuming presence in a quiet ultra-Orthodox neighborhood outside Jerusalem’s Old City. It offers little hint of the enormous creativity and talent that lie between its walls.

Films that emerge from this place are anything but somber. Provocative, jolting and honest to the core, Ma’aleh students delve into taboo topics that would shock its unknowing neighbors: rape, homosexuality in the yeshiva, and divorce between an Orthodox couple, to name a few.

Ma’aleh started out in the Israeli film industry 22 years ago with the intention of giving voice to filmmakers with traditionally held Jewish views. Today, 60-70 percent of Ma’aleh’s student body is religious, and the faculty is a secular to religious mix of experts in their field.

For this school, the issues are what it’s all about. Ma’aleh has been at the forefront of tackling Israeli society’s perceptions of the Orthodox, difficult political and religious issues in Israeli society and the ways Israeli Jews confront real, personal challenges in their lives. Before Ma’aleh came along, portrayals of religious Jews on Israeli TV and in films was always the same, says Einat Kapach, the school’s director of international relations and special projects: rabbis with black beards dealing with halakhic issues, quoting verses and talking down to people, and never dealing with “normal life.”

“Religious people were presented as people who had problems with halakha,” Kapach says. And to solve the problems, the character generally needed to give up trying to make religion work and become secular. This one-dimensional stereotype gave little space to religious Jews eager to confront their challenging beliefs without rejecting the whole system, let alone space for normalizing religious Jews by showing them look for love, serve in the army and fight with their parents.

“I believe Ma’aleh broke this gap,” Kapach says. “We really feel we were unique and doing something that’s unusual… We were doing something that has changed the Israeli culture.”

School rules prohibit students from showing nudity, hard-core violence or vulgarity. However, no graduates I spoke with complained about these restrictions. Graduate Eliran Malka, 31, a secular Jew who lives in Jerusalem with his wife and four children, says of the regulations that “I didn’t feel it in a minute at Ma’aleh. I just felt that I’m in a good place, a very secure place.” In any film school, there will be controls on a film’s content, Malka says, such as many times a political film has to come from a left-wing perspective.

“I don’t think if you’re secular you’re free and you can do whatever you want in film school,” he says.

Harold Berman, Ma’aleh’s development director, says these stipulations make it so anyone can watch the films, as well as push the filmmaker in his/her creativity in hinting at disturbing events. When you take away images and words designed for shock value, Berman notes that the films really become about the issues themselves.

Co-creator and director of the popular Israeli TV show Srugim, Eliezer “Laizy” Shapira, and many of its writers and production staff are Ma’aleh graduates. The drama follows the lives of five religious Jews in Jerusalem as they date, build their careers and struggle in their marriages, all without crude language or showing sexual relations. On Srugim “someone with a kippah wants to find love,” Kapach says. Simple as that, and yet fairly revolutionary for Israeli television. “Religion does not have to play a role in the film.”

Authenticity in such films as And Thou Shalt Love, the story of a young man in yeshiva who is in love with his study partner, comes from the fact that the director, Ma’aleh graduate Chaim Elbaum, underwent a similar experience, having realized he was gay and feeling unsure of his place in the religious world. Elbaum won first prize in the drama competition at Jerusalem’s 2008 Jewish Film Festival.

“The students are not afraid to talk about themselves,” Kapach says. “[They] raise up questions that 10 to 15 years ago people in Israeli TV and film didn’t dare to speak about.”  

I recently had the opportunity to spend an afternoon in the school’s Sallah Shabati auditorium watching a handful of the roughly 150 documentary, experimental and fictional films to emerge from Ma’aleh, of which many have received both top prizes in Israel as well as international recognition at such festivals as the Tribeca Film Festival, the Short Film Festival in Hamburg, Germany, and the Jewish Film Festival in Hong Kong.

Kapach likened my afternoon of film watching to enjoying a “jar of candies.” While I agreed wholeheartedly with this comparison, certain candies left a lump in my throat that has yet to leave. One such film was Barriers by Golan Rise, this year’s first-prize winner for the best short film at Jerusalem’s Film Festival.

The film is centered around a checkpoint station between the West Bank and Israel proper. Uri, the young officer in charge, is faced with a series of ethical questions. A Palestinian mother and her young daughter with Diabetes approach the checkpoint in a bare ambulance, begging Uri to let them through to an Israeli hospital. The other soldiers on duty are skeptical of the story, and Uri is unsure, as he has received a warning that a suicide bomber is intending to enter Jerusalem that day.

Meanwhile, Uri’s mother, a human rights activist, shows up to film the Palestinians being demeaned waiting in line to cross, and is shocked to find her son in charge. After much tense screaming and anxiety-filled moments, Uri lets the ambulance pass, which provides the distraction for a man with a bomb to blow himself up, killing the Russian soldier on duty. I felt reduced to a puddle on the floor, unsure where to turn for answers or judgments on right and wrong. The film is captivating and extremely challenging.

“I tried to create the complicated reality,” Rise says. “I think all the political movies that were in the past, they show one way to look, one point of view, and I tried to make a complicated point of view.”

Rise himself identifies with the choices Uri has to make, as he served as a commander in the West Bank, and continues to serve in a reserve unit. “When I found myself as a commander in the West Bank, I saw a complicated situation,” he says. He describes one experience of getting a call at 6 a.m. that a suicide bomber planned to approach the barrier. “I remember that I saw a father and a son… standing in the barrier,” he says.

The two stood there for two to three hours, clutching a small bag of hummus and pita. “I looked into the eyes of this father and I thought about my father,” Rise recalls. In that moment he started to cry, so overwhelmed was he by the sadness of the situation, and at the same time feeling the need to be aware of the danger alert. “I found myself in a very complicated situation. You must choose all the time what is your way.”

This generation of young Israelis is different in this way from previous generations. While his parents are sure of right and wrong and have clear political opinions, he says his peers struggle more with the gray areas.  

While at Ma’aleh, Rise says he was religious, but then fell away from it, and has now returned to it. Still, he says his approach to Judaism is not so clear to him. “The movie is very similar to this point. My parents have a very sharp way [regarding politics and religion]. My generation does not. We are not like our parents.”

Rise, 33, lives on Kibbutz Ein Tzurim with his wife and three children. He says Barriers has opened a lot doors for him in the Israeli film industry, and he hopes all over the world. “People from the industry call and say good things about me,” he says. “But I need to be cool, not to think that now I’m the best director in Israel,” he says, chuckling. He is currently writing a feature-length film called The Parliament.

Rise says he chose to study at Ma’aleh because its teachers gave him a “unique” space that embraces complexity. He describes the school’s approach: “We give you the tools, the space, the teachers. Just do what’s in your heart.”  

Like any good filmmaker, the students at Ma’aleh bare their souls and offer universal truths that any viewer can relate to. They explore and criticize, but do not reject their problematic country or religion. Rather, they “ask questions, and at the end of the day go back home,” says Kapach.  

Ma’aleh films are shown at festivals and workshops all over the world and are available to communities for purchase as educational tools. Visitors to Jerusalem are also welcome to stop by to watch a film and meet with the director. Visit maale.co.il for more information and to watch segments of films.

Posted on November 20, 2011 and filed under Arts.