Lights, camera, action: The power of Israeli film


The 2019 St. Louis Jewish Film Festival will feature 14 films, including (clockwise from top left) ‘Working Woman,’ ‘The Unorthodox,’ ‘Carl Laemmle,’ ‘Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People,’ ‘Shoelaces,’ ‘Inside the Mossad,’ ‘Who Will Write our History,’ and ‘Golda’s Balcony.’

This Q&A is adapted from one of eight mainstage conversations held at Z3 2020: Visions of a Shared Futurea virtual conference produced by The Z3 Project and the Oshman Family JCC of Palo Alto, California, aimed at reimagining Diaspora-Israel relations.

In recent decades, Israeli TV programs such as “Shtisel” (2013), “Fauda” (2015) and “Tehran” (2020) have been released to worldwide acclaim and commercial success. The Q&A below, which has been condensed and edited for length and clarity, was adapted from a discussion between “Shtisel” star Neta Riskin and former Haaretz and Forward journalist Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt. The conversation was about the unique bridge that the arts, and specifically film, may offer between Israel and the international community.

Chizhik-Goldschmidt: Israeli TV is receiving a lot of attention these days. It seems to me this is sort of a new phenomenon. Previously a lot of Israeli films that were getting attention here were based on true stories or historical political moments. And it seems there’s been a shift. And I was wondering if you have seen this? What is it about these stories in particular that has really captured the world’s attention, thanks to many of these streaming platforms?

Riskin: Well, the way I see it, it has to do with one word and that’s streaming. Because as you said, “Shtisel” was aired seven or eight years ago, and the first season was bought by Netflix a year or three years ago. And ever since then it became, like, a global hit. But the show was successful before [when] it was just in Israel.

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Second of all, there was some sort of, let’s say, a concept or notion. It was if a show was successful, the only way for it to reach a global audience was to have a remake done in English in America. So no one had believed that [U.S. audiences] would be able to watch a-non English-speaking TV show. That was the lead idea of the whole thing until Netflix came into the picture and bought “Fauda.”

So you have to be open to trying to understand a different culture. And I think that the world has changed. It’s not that Israeli television has changed but it’s a world change, that [people are] willing to be open to more and more cultures than before. Having said that, over the past 10 or 15 years, Israeli television has gone through a very, very big change. And it has to do a lot with the fact that people have learned how to make movies. We always had good stories, and they were very good TV shows, but they were poorly made.

Was it shocking for you when “Shtisel” appeared in the international scene and sort of like the whole world woke up to you?

It was so shocking. We didn’t think anyone was going to watch it because it was too esoteric in a way. I mean, there are shows about the Orthodox world, but they always had a much bigger drama, bigger story. In “Shtisel,” there aren’t big dramas. I mean, it’s all between closed doors. All the big dramas are inner dramas. I still don’t understand how people who do not speak Hebrew and who are not familiar with this culture can relate to it or understand what’s being said in it. I mean, I don’t understand. It’s such an inner take, a private joke. I mean, you know, I mean, not a joke, but it’s a private language. So I don’t know. 

But you grew up in Tel Aviv in a secular home, right? And for you, you relate it to it, right? You found yourself in Giti. I mean, the way you took on that role, first of all, this woman in pain, but also, you know, this, this larger cultural role, [which] you just mastered. The show is very rare in its cultural representations of Orthodox Jews and Orthodox women in particular. I’ve written quite a decent amount of criticism on this, and how sort of many times, as you said, there’s these sort of overly dramatic stories about coming from the haredi community. Rarely do they come from inside and they’re usually kind of voyeuristic.

I didn’t know anything about this world. I was so not familiar with it. I grew up in a, I mean, secular family would be a nice way to put it. We speak Hebrew and live here. And it’s written that I’m Jewish, but then we didn’t practice anything. So … it was also for me this exotic land that I didn’t know anything about. And I have to say that I was quite hesitant on taking this role because, I thought to myself, it’s gonna be shot in the summer in Israel, which is really serious. It was horrible. It was, you can’t even imagine. And I said I don’t want to be here in summer wearing all those clothes — most are synthetic polyester — like women from Mea Shearim. 

So I got into it, but then it was really a very long process of learning how to do it. I mean, if you think I walk well then I had a very good teacher, I had an instructor who was with me the entire time. And yeah, she was a coach … I started going more and more to those neighborhoods and watching the women and talking to them. And I’ve spent a lot of time in their houses. But the thing is that, at that point, I realized something and that’s exactly what you were talking about. The previous shows about this world were stereotypes. Stereotypes because the people, the characters, are all the time talking about very big things like ‘do I believe, or do I not believe? Do I have faith? Or don’t I have any? I don’t have faith.’ And the truth is that every day, in everyday life, you don’t ask those big questions. You just live. And when you do it, it starts being too big. It’s like a stereotype.

And also, I think a lot of the ways that Orthodox people are being portrayed is that they are the bad world and the secular world is the good world, and you have to run away from them to be part of the good world. And “Shtisel” challenges this because, you know … it’s like two ways of being a viewer. I’m now talking about being a viewer, an audience. You can go to see something that is going to reassure everything you think, and you’re going to feel very good about yourself. That’s exactly what I thought; they’re so bad and I’m that smart … That’s one way. And the other way is challenging yourself. I mean, you come with a [preconceived] notion about some idea, about something, and you’re going to flip it.

I think that great television challenges its viewers. Is there anything about haredi life that you found inspiring at any point? Was your perception of that world changed after this role, and has it changed your life afterwards?

OK, so I was asked this question a few times, and I always don’t like this question. And the reason I don’t like this question is because I always feel obligated to, I mean, I’m an actress. I just, I portrayed this thing. I don’t have to be part of any world. I mean, I can play a serial killer tomorrow, but then nobody’s gonna ask me ‘did you find anything to like with this world?’ So I don’t judge it that way.

I teach journalism, and I always tell my students that journalism allows one to sort of explore different careers. So I was amazed to also learn that you actually started off as a writer before you entered acting — at age 30, if I’m right — which is also reassuring that you started at 30. That’s incredible. … I was wondering, can you tell us a little bit about that, about what it was like to be a writer? And are there similarities for you between writing and acting?

That one similarity is exactly what you said. If you don’t know what you want to do in life, you should either be a writer or an actor because then you can be a little bit of everything. I mean, you don’t have to study seven years to be a doctor, but when you play a doctor, then you learn a bit about heart functions and everything, you know, so it’s like I know a lot, in a very shallow way, about a lot of things. 

I worked for Haaretz for some years and I got a sense of Israeli media. And it tends to be really aggressive, specifically the gossip column tabloids. And I was wondering how you deal with that? How do you deal with these sorts of invasive questions about your private life as an actress? And do you think that female actors face more challenges in this than male actors?

I think Israeli journalism is very invasive. I think Israelis are very invasive. I hate it. I don’t know […] Israelis tend to think of themselves as very warm people. They love to say that about themselves. I don’t think they are warm, I think they’re invasive. And I think that men are not being asked those invasive questions. And I think it is part of the culture here.

I don’t know if Zionism is the word here. But there is something to it; there is an Israel that has a larger-than-life role in, I think, the world’s imagination. And there’s a reason for that. And, you know, I have my spiritual and religious reasons to think that way. But I think that’s true for many people, even the sort of average American. You know, the Christian Americans are huge Zionists and huge supporters of Israel. So I guess it’s sort of, there is something I believe there’s something sort of spiritual that draws people. 

What’s the fantasy that Israelis have about America? And what I was trying to understand when I came to talk with Americans and so on … I always looked at them and I asked ‘what kind of fantasy do you have about this place?’ I mean, ’cause I see a lot of things here. This is an unaffordable place to live in — so, um, OK guys. So I’m just always trying to look in their eyes and think of what fantasy do you have, because it’s a fantasy? I think, OK, what I want to say about being Jewish, if I got anything from “Shtisel,” is living with a fantasy. You always want to be somewhere else.

I’ll say as a sort of haredi woman, as a woman wearing a sheitel, or in a, you know, at a journalist event or something and I’m surrounded by secular journalists, there’s always this fascination with me like I’m some creature from another world. And there’s always a lot of invasive questions also that come up that probably wouldn’t come to a man in my position, but it’s very fascinating to me to sort of be the object of that when … this is just my life. But for other people, they sort of imagined like, well, what’s the …

People want to get [close to the] exotic, you know. I think “Shtisel” really is focusing on just living the life of human beings, tackling normal problems, normal human problems. And I think that what lays at the core of “Shtisel” was the sense of everyone was missing something and I think that connects to the existential human situation. They’re all longing for something more.

Right and that’s, I suppose, the core of good film, good cinema, good TV. It opens us up to others. It fans nostalgia and other longings and dreams in life, even when it’s in Mea Shearim. That experience of yearning for something unattainable is so relatable.

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