Sunday, December 6, 2009

THE SHAKSHUKA SYSTEM and Israel's co- opted government: Q&A with filmmakers

Watching THE SHAKSHUKA SYSTEM, the excellent new documentary from director Ilan Aboody and investigative journalist Miki Rosenthal (above, right) should whisk many Americans back to the early days of the Bush-Cheney regime and the now-famous "closed" meeting between the "government" and our titans of energy (the records of which are still hidden, so far as I know). Further, it may put some of you in mind of today's Italy, where the Berlusconi government appears to be colluding with organized crime, politicians and corporations in the dumping of toxic waste that is destroying land, water and people in its wake.

Whatever you might think of Israel as a state via-a-vis the Palestinians, I believe you will be surprised at the amount of graft, corruption, hypocrisy and greed on display in this ground-breaking documentary. According to Mr. Rosenthal (see interview below), the Palestinian question does not run safely along official party lines so far as money and power is concerned. Evidently, you can be sleazy and remain liberal/left wing. (Are we shocked?) Not only do Misters Abbody (shown below, with the film's editor Martha Wieseltier) and Rosenthal point fingers and name names, they back it all up with public records, interviews, facts, figures and just about everything else you might want a good investigative reporter to come up with. When government official after government official has promised never to do anything as venal and unethical as to be hired, post-service, by the very people to whom they've given away the store, Rosenthal has even managed to get one of these creeps on records with that promise -- which he promptly breaks.

Lest you imagine that TrustMovies is some sort of storage facility for Israeli history, politics, gossip and the like, let me assure you that prior to viewing this documentary, about the only thing I knew about Israeli politics was that "Bibi" Netanyahu is back again as Prime Minister. I knew nothing about Ofer family nor of the Israel Corporation. Yet so thorough and precise are the filmmakers about what they tell you and how they tell it that any intelligent viewer will be able to follow along and be properly, dismally amazed at the sleaze on display here.

The pair has come up with the visual notion of a Monopoly-like board game which they use to explain everything from characters involved to deals struck. They pepper their film with history, official records, interviews (or at least the game attempt to interview) and current news -- all of which keeps viewers on top of things. By the end of the 90-minute movie, you won't have to be an Israeli citizen to be angry as hell about what you've seen. What makes the movie so enjoyable are the bits of humor along the way (Miki's family, telling him what they think of his endeavors and the utter transparency of some of the bad guys' methods, not to mention their retorts) and the sheer number of scams and dirty deals that have taken place, up to and including the area of the country -- I think it was Haifa -- where pollution and toxicity are so bad that new cancer victims keep appearing with alarming regularity.

We see the beginning of the "power" families trying to suppress this documentary (one buys the TV channel Rosenthal works for, and the reporter is suddenly out of a job) that finally rose into full-blown law suits and a national scandal that created in the public a growing desire to see this film. They did -- despite a "competing" movie produced by the big boys but given a thumbs-down by the public, once it had seen both films. That The Shakshuka System was conceived and made is stirring enough. That it has caused such an uproar and may, eventually, do some small good in making Israeli politics more transparent and honest -- oops, my naiveté is showing! -- is at least worth a couple (of hundred) cheers.

The Shakshuka System is screening tomorrow, Sunday December 6, as part of the Israel Film Festival at the SVA Theater 2 @ 10:15pm, and again next Sunday December 13, to close the festival, at the SVA Theater 2, at 7:15.


TrustMovies (in New York City) talks to Miki Rosenthal (in Israel) via Skype, a low-to-no-cost computer phone line with a --sometimes-- good connection.

TrustMovies: At the end of the film we see that it has not been shown yet in Israel, so what has happened between that time and now?

Miki Rosenthal: What happened was that we started the investigation in 2004, then started filming in 2005 and finished in 2008. We had an agreement to show the film with a satellite company. After a lot of pressure from the Ofer family, the contract was canceled. For 1-1/2 years, I tried to to screen it it on the public channel, Channel 1. I couldn't get a final agreement until I understood that they wanted to screen our documentary only after the Ofers' own film (which the family had made to counteract ours) was ready to screen against us. Finally, they were screened together, one after the other. The Ofers did not come to the studios but instead sent one of their executives. Everything is on YouTube, but it is all in Hebrew. You can see us shouting at each other but unless you understand Hebrew you won't get it.

It became quite an event, with lots of talking about it. Meantime, the Ofers sued me in the courts and gave me a lot of trouble. They tried to, anyway. Now, from standpoint of time, all their objections to my movie and trying to keep it off the air and off screens has only made our movie more effective. Their trying to to stop the film only made it more popular.

Like when the Catholic Church used to ban something over here, it grew even more popular.

People became curious. What it is the family so afraid of? This all made the movie a must-see. I went with the movie to more than 150 theaters by myself and talked about it. Tens of thousand of people saw it even before it was even on TV.

Did everybody watch it, once it aired?

No, because our public TV channel isn't that popular. But it still managed to get a 12 ½ point rating, rather than the 2 points that channel usually has.

OK: What I am wondering now is: How are YOU doing? Do you have a job again?

Look, I was a freelancer. Doing all my movies, and programs for myself. I was connected with Channel 2. Everything I make, they have the right of first refusal. But when I made this movie, they told me, You’re a nice guy but we don't want to work with you anymore. So I am not working with them anymore, and they are most popular channel in Israel.

But I do manage. I'm still doing shows and other movies. And hoping things will be all right. Of course, I was damaged.

Did the popularity of the move lead to any good changes in the country?

It is too close in time to actually know. I can say a few things: Any radical change will only be seen in a few years. But now, in the Israeli press, when someone wants to say things are going wrong or are corrupted, they use the word Shakshuka because of the film. This is of course means that at least the terminology was effective. In other cases, the Ofer brother themselves, when they give an interview to the press, they say that because of the film, the officials are afraid to meet them and the Israeli government does not give them money because it is afraid to be seen as colluding with them. But there is no radical change yet. Israel is still one of the most corrupt countries in the world, according to the -- (TrustMovies goofed and did not get Miki's next few words...)

Is your family speaking to you?

Yes. My family loves me very much They worry about me and what can happen to me. In most of my articles, movies, investigations, I deal with very powerful people – all criminals. What makes me crazy is that people who are in the government will go to work with the Ofers after they leave their government post.

Do you ever worry for your own safety?

I cannot. If I would, I won't be able to do my job.

Are you married? Any children?

Sure, sure. My wife is in the movie for 20 seconds, saying "I hate your film, you will never beat the system." My son, whom I am arguing with in the film, he is telling me, "Maybe you are right, but why should you do it. I have three sons who are love me and care for me and want the best for us.... (He pauses) I am a meshiga – a kind of idiot -- but a nice one.

Your film does not go into Israel/Palestinian politics nor the U.S.A. Israel “lobby.” Nor does it need to, but I am wondering if these same people are actively/rabidly anti-Palestinian and pro the USA Israel lobby? That would make sense to me, at least in terms of how things work in America regarding money, power and politics.

No. There is no connection there. This Israel is a strange country. We have a free market, but the government is very weak, if you compare it to the rich people. We have 20 families in Israel who own 45% of Israel’s capital. Not only do they own the biggest business, they also own most of the newspapers and TV stations and key factories, and the energy suppliers. They are much stronger than the Israeli government. Maybe they do have connections with the Israel/Palestine thing or the US lobby, but this is not what they care about. They just want to make money. Most of the people want peace -- most of them are what you would call left-wing -- because peace is always good for the economy. For instance, Sammy Ofer's son Idan is left-wing regarding the Palestinian issue but not the economic issues.

I really LOVED this movie. Knowing absolutely nothing about Israeli politics, short of who’s the Prime Minister, I was still able to follow things surprisingly easily. This seems to me a model documentary – and you a model investigative journalist: smart, savvy, dogged and willing to put yourself on the line over and over again. While you and Michael Moore have a lot in common -- but please don’t you gain any more weight! (Miki laughs) -- I prefer watching you because you don’t try to be funny all the time and seem more willing to take a “back seat” to that of your subjects. I think Mr. Moore could really take lessons from you.

Well.. Thank you.

What was the Ofer’s animated film like?

They copied our concept in everything! One lawyer even suggested that I sue them! But I don’t have the money.

Did it get a lot of public approval?

There was a poll taken by a radio station asking who was more convincing: Miki's film or the Ofers'? The respondents answered with 90% of people believing our film, and only 10% believed them. There is not really any question: People know the situation.

Maybe the difference was there is a journalist who had the guts to say and do something.

Most of our journalists are working for those families. They are afraid to say something. I myself was working for commercial papers and TV, and for a long time I didn’t have.... I worked there until I was not able to look in the mirror anymore. I couldn't do that things they asked me to do. I understand why people don’t rise up: They have families. We don’t have a lot media here in Israel: Three channels of TV and four or five daily newspapers, so people are afraid to fight.

Maybe the fact that you did this -- you made the film and got it shown and people agreed with it. Maybe this will inspire other people!

I say that we as a people in the modern world are becoming more and more like customers – they do what is good for them. But we are people -- not just customers. And we need to do what is good for us from time to time.

Look. Israel has wars all the time and we are fighting with other people. But we also have enemies inside our society, and we need to fight them, too. From time to time it is dangerous to fight with them. But we must do it if we believe it is just.

A few days later we had another conversation -- much shorter and with a very poor Skype connection -- with the film's director Ilan Aboody.

TrustMovies: Where did the idea for the Monopoly board and figures come from? That works so well in terms of both humor and explanation.

Ilan Abbody: Basically, I had the idea to do the film with just the camera and Miki, using and animation and visuals. I knew I had to find a good idea fo the animation, to arrange all the stories together. Monopoly was really the most banal idea in a way, and it came from a friend of mine -- who is not even in the film.

How was it to put the film together. Was it all in the editing?

The first thing we did was the research. Then I wrote a script with all the ideas and everything we wanted to do. The only things not in there were things like the wedding – which we did not know was going to happen. The finished movie is quite similar to the script, but the editing was the hard part. The idea was ambitious, to take all these stories about money and finance and put them together. And our first draft of the movie went on for 3-1/2 hours; each part was understandable in itself, but together it was all too much! So we took out some stories and made other stories much more simple.

We have not shown the film yet outside of Israel but within Israel it was a very big success. It made a lot of fuss, and the families really tried to block the film. They just took it too personally. Some of the PR people told them not to sue -- to be quiet and it will pass. But they just could not do that.

Which turned out to be a good thing for your film! Well, for me -- who am definitely "outside" of Israel, the movie worked very, very well. I believe I could understand everything that was going on and why it was important that this be stopped. I just want to congratulate you on making something so full of details and names and events that was so easy to follow and understand. You've done a terrific job here.

I am very happy about what you say because the basic idea about the film -- money and power and the economy -- this is something that touches everybody. But nobody really knows about all that except those who follow closely the economy. We wanted to make a film that anybody can see and understand. And so what you say about the film gives me hope that people all around can see it and understand it.

All photos about, except those of Miki and Ilan,
are from the film, most of which are only of animation
and various papers or photos, rather than photos
of the "perps" themselves -- probably because
the filmmakers would prefer no more lawsuits....

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