Nightmare on Ben Yeshuda Street

A few years ago I read an interview with one of Israel’s biggest film distributors. When asked what movie genres he preferred to bring to Israel, he replied simply: romantic comedies. The Israeli taste in movies just doesn’t seem to include horror movies, he explained.

Horror movies, over the years, just didn’t seem to draw a big audience in Israel and in a small market like that it just wasn’t economically viable to screen them. Some well-known American horror movies from the past 20 years – Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer and Saw to name a few had fair success. But that was not enough to convince the distributors to bring in more films of that genre, let alone make someone think of making an local one.
With all the tension Israelis experience on a day-to-day basis, many can’t find this type of entertainment, well … entertaining. In other words, they can watch the 8 o’clock news instead.
But the local movie industry in Israel is now in its golden age. An Israeli movie again was nominated for the best foreign film category in this year’s Academy Awards, and many other Israeli films have earned worldwide attention. (See the story on Israeli films at the Sundance Film Festival on the facing page.)
New ambitious and creative filmmakers are emerging every year. Some of those young adults have introuduced the Israeli audience to the first-ever Hebrew-speaking horror films. And the audience loves it! Kalevet (Rabies), the first horror film in Israel’s history, was the fifth most popular local movie in 2011. And it seems this is just the beginning.

Kalevet came out on December 2010. Although like most Israelis, I’m not a huge fan of horror films, I went to see it on opening night. I was curious to see what an Israeli horror movie would look like. I found myself laughing most of the time, even though I was intrigued by the plot and was surprised over and over. It was a new mixture of horror, comedy, action and craziness that I had never seen before.

I recently had a trans-Atlantic mini-interview on Facebook with Navot Papushado, the young man who created the film with Aharon Keshales. When I told him I thought perhaps I spoiled the movie experience for others by laughing out loud, he said he thinks it was in the best interest of the audience.
“The movie, thanks to its unique character,” says Papushado, “was a success even outside of Israel.”

John Anderson of Variety wrote that in Kalevet, “genre rules are being kicked to the curb.” For instance, the entire movie takes place in daylight.
This first Israeli horror film “infected” the world: it received a lot of good and surprising reactions worldwide and won several awards at international film festivals, creating a high standard.

The second Israeli horror film was a bit different. In American terms, Chatulim Al Sirat Pedalim (Cats on a Pedal Boat) would probably be referred to as a B movie. A low-budget horror comedy made by three young adults, it is simply for fun. The plot revolves around a teen couple who decide to take a romantic pedal boat cruise at the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv (which is known for being dangerously contaminated, though the Tel Aviv mayor will probably counter that claim) and from there things just go wrong. The movie was shown at several film festivals in Israel last year and is scheduled for wide release at the end of this month.

Unlike the first two, a third horror film released in Israel a few months ago focuses on a much more highly charged topic: Israel Defense Forces. The IDF in Israel is considered more than just an army, it’s an ideal. Muralim (Poisoned, also slang for a very motivated soldier) is kicking this sacred cow. When an incompetent Jobnik (soldier with a desk job) stays on his base on Passover night, he sees some of the combat soldiers on his base become zombies. For Americans, this plot might sound old-fashioned, but no movie in Israel had zombies in it before, let alone army heroes.

“This movie is full of jokes that only Israelis or people who know Israel very well would probably understand,” says filmmaker Didi Lubetzky. “With that being said, this movie is based on a model of a teen comedy, and that is why Americans might find it funny too.”

When I asked him about the negative image it might create for the Israeli Army abroad, he said he believes, “This movie is like a warning for our enemies: If our worst soldier can defeat an army of zombies, think of what our best soldiers can do.”

Amos Meron is the Israeli Shaliach (Emissary) to the Jewish community of Portland, and can be reached at amos10@gmail.com or on Facebook (Amos Meron Shaliach).

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