Queen of Israeli Films


Israeli film distributor Ruth Diskin talks about hot topics for Israeli filmmakers, what unique qualities she looks for in a film, and what the Israeli film culture is like.

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When the CEO of The Jewish Channel (TJC) traveled to Israel looking for documentaries and made-for-TV dramas, he discovered the perfect source: Israeli film distributor Ruth Diskin. Ruth is known for distributing the finest contemporary and independent Israeli films, many of which have won awards at Cannes, Sundance, and HotDocs. TJC ended up licensing 40 of her titles and will license 20 more by the end of 2008. Ruth, who refers to her distribution company as “boutique,” says it’s a perfect fit. She talked with us recently about the current state of Israeli films and the culture of filmmaking there.

Getting a film into your catalog is extremely competitive (you only choose a few films each year, yes?). What specifically sets a film apart for you and makes you want to take it on?

We strive to get the best films produced in Israel annually, as well as films made outside of Israel with strong Jewish content. In order to select 10 to 13 new titles every year, we screen about 130 films.

My first criterion in selecting a film is its merit; it must be a film of high production value. Period. I will never take a film with shaky photography, terrible editing, bad sound, or lousy interviews, no matter how interesting the story is. Next I’m looking for a film that will appeal to a wide audience. It can be a local film, but with universal appeal. Moreover, I do not avoid controversial films; on the contrary, I’m looking for films that will move the audience. I’m looking for films that will trouble the comfortable, yet comfort the troubled.

What are the most common themes that Israeli filmmakers are tackling today? Are they mainly political? Do any of the themes surprise you after doing it for this long?

I think that most of the documentary filmmakers in Israel deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Additionally, many films deal with minorities in Israel and women’s issues such as feminism and the fight for equality. However, there are also many docs that are more personal and historical, as well as those that deal with the Holocaust. I don’t think that any of the themes surprise me after doing this for so long. But sometimes I’m surprised to see what I feel is an undeserving film produced with the help of public money (through a film fund). I would prefer to see more quality films produced with that money, and preferably films that speak to a wide audience.

Are you seeing a growing number of women filmmakers, and what kind of movies are they submitting?

I do see a growing number of women filmmakers. I think that more than 50 percent of the filmmakers we represent are women. I would like to especially point out Ms. Ibtisam Mara’ana, whose films Three Times Divorced and Lady Kul-El-Arab we represent. And Ms. Nurit Kedar, who is a veteran documentary filmmaker. Her films Chronicle of a Kidnap, Wasted, One Shot, and Hanuszka are also in our catalog. They are totally different filmmakers, focusing on different themes. Mara’ana continues to deal with films about women. Here is a quote from Goel Pinto, a film critic from Ynet, Israel: “… as in all of the films that Mara’ana has directed, Lady Kul-El-Arab is not a film about a hero, but about a survivor. Mara’ana knows women. Her camera follows, excavates, and probes women’s lives—something she has been doing for the last ten years. She respects women’s place, whether they are following the straight and narrow, or whether they dare to break through the lines. Mara’ana as a director is sensitive and subtle, layered and attentive to the fact that her audience consists of viewers of all kinds.” As opposed to Mara’ana, Nurit Kedar doesn’t pick up on women’s issues and doesn’t necessarily look for female protagonists. Rather, she examines current affairs with a broad universal appeal. Both are excellent filmmakers and Ruth Diskin Films is proud to represent them.

You’ve been marketing/distributing films for 19 years now. What are the most valuable lessons that you’ve learned along the way?

A tough question…

I would say that, running my own business, I’ve learned it’s always better to make sure the income is bigger than the expenses… But, seriously, I would say that working in a very competitive, ever changing, and dynamic market, I have to be alert, flexible, and very efficient. At the same time, I have to listen to my gut feeling and not pick up a film just because the filmmaker has addressed me personally or because he is a good colleague of another filmmaker we work with or has a key position in the film industry. Whenever I took on a film because of the “wrong reasons,” it didn’t succeed. I’ve also learned along the way that this market has no rules or conventions. That said, sometimes a film that I’m absolutely sure will be a hit at festivals, succeeds more in TV sales, and sometimes a film for which I predict a wonderful TV circuit, does great in festivals. I’ve also learned that timing is the main secret. You can have the greatest film; yet, if another film, on a similar subject, is being released a couple of months before, the chances of your film succeeding are slim. I would say that you must constantly look for original, untold stories that will appeal to audiences worldwide.

What are some of your all-time favorite films that you’ve been involved with? Do you have a favorite American indie film? Israeli indie film?

The best films in our catalog so far, when it comes to docs, are Wasted and One Shot by Nurit Kedar, In Satmar Custody by Nitzan Gilady, It Kinda Scares Me by Tomer Heyman, Three Times Divorced by Ibtisam Mara’ana, Jews of Iran by Ramin Farahani, and Eyes Wide Open by Paula Weiman-Kelman. When it comes to drama, we have a wonderful award-winning TV series entitled A Touch Away, which is constantly selected for Jewish film festivals and gets rave reviews. My favorite Israeli feature film is Late Summer Blues by Renen Schorr. A current Israeli film that had a strong impact on me is Waltz with Bashir, which I highly recommend.

My favorite American docs are Spellbound, Capturing the Friedmans, and Super Size Me. (I know that I won’t be blamed for over originality, but I thought these documentaries were great and I wish I could have them in our catalog.)

Can you tell us a little bit about the culture of indie filmmaking in Israel compared to the United States? Is it also growing in leaps and bounds? Are there communities of filmmakers in Israel where they can gather and support each other?

The Israeli Forum of Documentary Filmmakers, which is very active and currently has over 400 members, encourages freedom of expression and struggles to broaden the scope of documentary cinematographic creation while protecting copyrights and maintaining appropriate budgets.

What is the best part of your job? The most challenging part?

The best part of my job is when I succeed in selling a film to a prestigious network like Arte or Sundance Channel. But it’s a very challenging part of my job, too, because it’s very hard and competitive. However, I also enjoy “smaller” successes, such as entering a film into a competitive section in an international film festival, or managing to sell a bunch of films to a university library, or organizing a tour for one of our filmmakers to Jewish film festivals or Jewish institutes and synagogues. But, at the end of the day, I love to be a member of an international jury. This position forces me to sit and watch films (which is my greatest love) for a couple of days, or even a week. So far, I’ve been a juror at the Hamptons Film Festival, Munich Documentary Film Festival, and the Montpellier Film Festival, to name a few. These were the only festivals where I actually got to see films. Otherwise, most of the festivals I go to are mainly for meetings with buyers, festival programmers, and other distributors.

What is the Israeli equivalent of the Sundance Film Festival?

I don’t think we have an Israeli equivalent of the Sundance Film Festival, simply because our festivals mainly include films that have premiered elsewhere. The only premieres we have here are of Israeli films. Nonetheless, we have three excellent and enjoyable film festivals here: the Jerusalem Film Festival, the Haifa Film Festival, and the DocAviv Film Festival.

What are you proud of in your role as a marketer/distributor?

I’m proud of my ability to find at least ten excellent films a year, out of hundreds, and to bring them to as many audiences as possible worldwide. I’m also proud to grant an annual marketing and distribution award to the winning documentary of the DocAviv Film Festival, as well as to the winning documentary of the Israeli Documentary Forum’s annual competition.

Perhaps proof of my success can best be seen in the recent selection of documentaries for the Israeli Academy Awards. Four out of the six films selected are from my catalog, which is cause for a great sense of accomplishment.

Visit www.ruthfilms.com to learn more.

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