Article written by Rich Gorey.
I knew very little about Israeli animation when I attended last week’s ASIFA screening, and it seemed I am not alone: even the event’s host, Lisa LoBracio, admitted she was in the early stages of connecting with the films and artists profiled that night.
My first assumption was that most of the films would concern life in the military and the state of “readiness for conflict” which in many ways defines that region. The films were often about violence and the threat of sudden harm, but were just as often about the same issues people all over the world face—the struggle for individualism in a conformist society, the escapes provided by imagination, and the humor inherent in everyday living.
Lisa started by telling the audience (not large, but a respectable showing in SVA’a fifth-floor screening room) that what we were about to see was just a small cross section of the work currently being produced in Israel. It was a challenge to contact foreign artists, to obtain permission to screen the films, and to get copies of the films with subtitles or dubbed soundtracks. In fact, Lisa had the words to the song in the music video Hora Nadlanim translated and passed around, so the audience could grasp more fully that film’s intent. I was glad she went to this trouble: the film itself is a dark comedy about rampant consumerism and the hidden horrors of commercialism and corporate greed, but its whimsical style and bright colors made the visuals so appealing and funny that I might not have realized its sobering message without the translation. Thanks, Lisa.
Lisa agreed that “the only thing many outsiders recognize in Israeli art and literature is the prevalence of war and life in the military,” but she spoke to a quality in the films we saw, which was the kind of human longing that is universal.
Though these feelings may be common and universal, the state of animation around the world varies. In America, where the art form is a hundred or so years old, artists have the advantage of having inhabited and experienced many styles and techniques. American animation is therefore often polished and more technically sophisticated as a result of decades of precedents, industrialization of the process and prevalence of existing cartoon films to “draw on” for inspiration. Though American feature films are screened around the world, and although animation is not unknown in Israel, the industry itself there is still in the early stages of maturity.
Many of the films we saw on June 16th were the products of animators and artists attending the famous Bezal’el Academy of Art, and in their visuals, felt like student films. The difference to my mind was in the cleverness of delivery and feeling of weary worldliness one seldom sees in student work. Though some of the films were dense and complex in terms of their actual art, (Beton, a war-themed film by Ariel Belinko and Michael Faust, was stunningly rendered with oil pastels) the simpler films got the most powerful reaction. Three films were screened by animator Avi Ofer, and I found the most powerful of these was Sandbox, a fable about the resilience of childhood in the face of danger. The story is told in crude, almost childish scrawl, and follows the misadventures of a group of frolicking toddlers who are, one by one, killed by rockets. It sounds terribly grim, but somehow the broad nature of the presentation managed to create a film that made a strong point in a gentle way. My favorite moment came in a shot featuring two tykes swinging on a swing set, while another watched wistfully. When a rocket took out one of the swingers, there was a moment of pause…before the other child leapt onto the empty seat and began rocking. It was chilling and adorable at the same time, and very true to the unthinking nature of childhood: when we are faced with tough choices, sometimes the simplest one is the best.
The evening opened with a revealing documentary by filmmaker Gilat Parag—a ten-minute short in which several of the artists spoke about the freedom, the opportunity, and the outlet animation gave them. This film had an unexpected bonus for me, in that the translation was done literally by a writer perhaps unfamiliar with English, and the resulting subtitles were a delightful compilation of often endearing misspellings.
Howard Beckerman, who was present that evening, remarked that the style of the films felt fresh and unconventional. We agreed that few of the films looked like anyone else’s, or even like the films Americans are used to in screenings of short works.
Gilat Parag feels the youth of the industry in Israel dictates that new artists are still finding their way around some of the technical issues of the art form, and this makes for films that feel more organic and less studied in their movements. This stylistic roughness is in contrast to the almost photo-realistic approach in last year’s Israeli feature, Waltz For Bashir, by Ari Folman. That elaborate and politically complex film came under fire by critics and historians for its’ treatment of the events of the Shabra and Shatila massacre., yet it became one of the most profitable and noteworthy Israeli films in several years.
The extremes of military conflict and the murky morality of some war-torn regions can be a minefield for artists, storytellers, and animators. I thought the ASIFA event might have benefited from a discussion of the filmmakers’ politics, but the crowd at the screening, while respectful, was subdued—possibly precisely because of the heavy subject matter presented. Some suggested scheduling an evening of Palestinian or Arab animation, not to be politically correct or to “balance the scales” but to see how such subject matter is treated by artists who may feel just as passionately, but for different reasons. The Tales of the Arabian Nights have been animated hundreds of times, but there must be more to that region’s history and culture for animation fans. Are there Palestinian films about everyday life, the joys of childhood, and old people slipping on banana peels? Possibly: I’d be curious to see them, and some political films from other countries.
Lisa’s event was a wonderful opportunity for New York animators to see some films they may yet be unfamiliar with. Most of the films we saw are available on YouTube.
Here is a list of the films screened, in case our readers would like to seek them out online or in other screenings:
The State of Israeli Animation by Gilat Parag
A Naked Tree by Zobalski Tal
Escapism by Avi Ofer
Everyday by Assaf Benharroch and Idan Vardi
Autofoto by Avi Ofer
Tender Waters by Assaf Benharroch
Hora Nadlanim by Aya Amikam
Sandbox by Avi Ofer
Patit by Divi Keich
Beton by Ariel Belinko nd Michael Faust.