When I was a child, growing up in 1980s Israel, foreign films were often late to open in Israeli cinemas, sometimes taking months to arrive. Later, I came to realise that film was by no means the only Jonny-come-lately in town, and that other cultural trends were also known to take their sweet, fashionably late time before eventually landing on these Levantine shores – including Rock ‘N Roll, hippies, and modernism – to name but a few.
Whilst waiting for all these new releases which I’d been reading all about in the papers to finally be released in Israel, I would regularly frequent our local video rental shop. And after smashing my way through the drama, comedy, thriller, and musical sections (I was strictly prohibited from going anywhere near the erotica and horror sections), I started renting out films from the Israeli section. Now I can’t quite recall whether they were arranged by year of release, but I certainly do remember watching them chronologically.
When I got to the sixties, I carried on full steam ahead, surrendering myself to every last twist and turn of that utterly glorious cinematic decade, from the dance Daliah Lavi performs for a wounded Oded Kotler in Burning Sands [aka Brennender Sand] (Raphael Nussbaum, 1960) to the reveal of the film camera shooting Gila Almagor, Yehoram Gaon, and Dahn Ben Amotz as they listen to a report on the transistor radio about an Israeli military squad clashing with a group of terrorists at the end of Siege (Gilberto Tofano, 1969). In the sixties, as Hollywood’s light was dimming and the big studios were unravelling, one by one, Israeli film hit a massive growth spurt. In fact, there were six times as many films made in that decade vs. its predecessor, and through all those strips of celluloid new and exciting voices and genres began to emerge.
Israeli film of the 1960s gave rise to three major trends; three genres; three distinctive ways of filmmaking – all of which I will now try to sketch out for you in the broadest of terms.
The first is the heroic-nationalist genre – a state-affiliated, propaganda-driven type of film whose main protagonist is the native Israeli (aka ‘sabra’); and the antagonist, the sabra’s archenemy – be they British, Turkish, or Arab. The second genre is popular film, the hero of which is the Mizrahi Israeli whose nemesis is the Ashkenazi Jew (or vice versa). Lastly, the third genre is the personal film (aka ‘the new sensibility movement’) in which the protagonist is the director whose enemies are the two aforementioned film genres.
The heroic-nationalist genre was born in the 1950s with Thorold Dickinson’s Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer (1955) where viewers first got to feast their eyes on Israeli film’s quintessential hero – the handsome and fearless sabra with his immaculate head of hair, who is fighting to defend the land. Five years later, at the dawn of the sixties, director Baruch Dienar’s They were Ten (1960) came out. Further down the line, the genre continued to grow with a number of prominent post-Six-Day-War additions, including Yosef Millo’s He Walked Through the Fields (1967). In Hollywood films, the character of the inimitable sabra hit the big screen in Otto Preminger’s 1960 film, Exodus, starring the blue-eyed, khaki-clad Paul Newman who personified the quintessential film sabra and also created a template of sorts, into which all the finest Israeli actors of the day were moulded throughout the decade, playing a host of local ‘superheroes’.
Popular film was tailored to provide an escapist, Hollywood-esque alternative to the heroic-nationalist genre. One prominent example of the genre from the turn of the decade is the comedy, I Like Mike (Peter Frye, 1961). A couple of years later, following the release of Sallah (Ephraim Kishon, 1964), popular film started to adopt a more working-class tone and gradually morphed into a genre now known as ‘Bourekas films’. Sallah and its successors forever changed viewers’ expectations of an Israeli film and in the process, radically redefined the most fundamental theme of mid-to-late 20th century Israeli popular film – one’s experience of the melting pot ideology, and of underlying interethnic tensions amongst Israelis of diverse origins.
In my introduction I mentioned how, in the last century, a range of artistic trends were late to arrive in Israel. Modernist film which first appeared in late 1950s Europe was no exception and would only make landfall in Israel in 1965 with Uri Zohar’s film, Hole in the Moon. Zohar’s trailblazing film was the first harbinger of the personal film, later more commonly known as the ‘New Sensibility movement’ – the latter of the three aforementioned genres which, this author considers to be the most exciting of that decade. The filmmakers who were part of the New Sensibility wave were all very much influenced by European modernist film and in turn, promptly snubbed both popular and heroic-nationalist genres. They turned their cameras away from the battlefields and temporary migrant camps inwards – into the streets, the small Tel Aviv flats, the ‘lowercase’ narratives. The result was a type of film that rebelled against the values, techniques, and content of its predecessor. An enthralling, invigorating type of filmmaking that sought to be artistic as opposed to popular and as such, often saw the films under its heading tank at the box office. And so, at the beginning of the ‘70s, the new sensibility wave started to ebb just as it had earlier flowed.
One filmmaker in particular stands out as a common thread between the three genres – Uri Zohar, who starts off the decade in his khakis, alongside Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint at the end of Exodus, then later pops up in the kibbutz next to Gila Almagor in Burning Sands, and further down the line turns up in a suit in Hole in the Moon. In between, Zohar directed a slew of both popular and artistic films.
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Now, to wrap up this introduction, the time has come to dive right into some of 1960s Israeli film’s finest moments. This is a personal and chronological overview of the author’s absolute favourite highlights; the below scenes all represent a certain aspect of the artistic trend with which each of the chosen films is associated. Some have long fallen through the cracks of history, whereas others have since been elevated to holiday season TV staples. And whilst several of these films may have grown old and dated, a great many others still feel every bit as fresh and relevant.