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Israeli Filmmaking Programs Transform the Lives of At-Risk Youth

Variety logo Variety 4/26/2017 Malina Saval
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Israel’s film and television industry is one of its most lucrative exports, with series such as “Fauda” and the feature-length comedy “Zero Motivation” packing a collective critical punch on American screens. But the power of film is also being used for good in the Middle East nation.

The Lahav Assn., a nonprofit project founded in 1998 by director, producer and drama therapist Sylvain Biegeleisen, is changing the lives of children on Israel’s periphery — the low-income, low-achieving communities that exist beyond the satellites of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv — by harnessing the transformative power of film. Filmmaking, say Udi Segal and Itai Kahn, chairperson and director of the organization respectively, can also function as therapy. Working alongside schools and government funds, Lahav helps kids on the brink to make movies about the topics that are directly affecting their lives: violence, race relations, parental issues, social gaps and bullying.

It’s a cinematic twist on art therapy, one that comes with a director and an on-set crew. Since its establishment, Lahav has produced more than 250 films and changed the lives of more than 6,000 Israeli kids who exist on society’s fringes. The program has also worked with senior citizens.

“We created a method for helping at-risk kids and youth using drama therapy and filmmaking,” Kahn says. “We combined those two worlds.”

Lahav students become part of a weekly meeting of fellow would-be artists, joined by a professional film director and a drama therapist. While the participants undergo group therapy, the director pens a script based on their real-world troubles. Screenwriters are brought in to execute and polish, the kids themselves are cast as actors, and over two days of filming with a professional crew, a short of 12-17 minutes is produced.

“The power of our project is actually the ability to work on three levels: on the individual level, on the community level and on the national level, too,” Kahn says.

Founded in 2011, the Looking Forward Assn., a branch of Israeli media giant Keshet, is another revolutionary program harnessing cinema to help its society’s neediest kids, including Solomon Chekel. When he was 4, Chekel and his family emigrated from Ethiopia to Israel and settled in the hard-knock southern city of Ashdod.

“You have kids from different places…so it gives you the real Israel.”
Udi Segal

Born into a sliver-sized Jewish minority in Africa, Chekel lived his life on the outskirts. A black immigrant raised just a few miles from Gaza, he seemed destined, like so many poor and disadvantaged Israeli kids before him, for a marginalized kind of existence.

But Chekel always had a passion for filmmaking and a love of poetry and music. Thanks to Looking Forward, he now has a hit pop song on Israeli radio and is studying film at Jerusalem’s renowned Sam Spiegel Film & Television School.

Looking Forward functions much in the model of America’s Big Brother and Big Sister program. The two-year program operates in several cities around Israel’s fringes, pairing award-winning Israeli directors with groups of 10-20 talented teens in grades 11 and 12. The students take filmmaking and editing classes with top-of-the-line equipment; study the history of cinema in weekly three-hour classes; and make friends and earn mentors. It’s an intense, all-encompassing program that nurtures the participants’ creativity, encourages their dreams, and pushes them to educational and professional success in the entertainment industry.

“Keshet really does look forward,” Chekel says. “They know there really is a glass ceiling in Israeli society. They are breaking it.”

At the end of their two years, scholarships for university study in filmmaking and TV are available. Graduates — Jewish and Muslim, immigrant and native-born — are today studying at Israel’s top film and TV programs. Some are on Israeli TV, or like Chekel, filling its radio airwaves.

But most Israelis have never heard of it. That’s intentional, says Keshet CEO Avi Nir.

“We chose for this to evolve under the radar,” Nir says. “We knew that if we launched a full-blown high-profile operation, it would become an event, or a PR or marketing move. And this … had to be different. We wanted a personal connection with young, underprivileged, inspiring and talented people.”

Israel’s periphery, says Lahav’s Segal, is both physical (its far-flung towns) and societal (its immigrants, Arabs and non-white Jews). He hopes his work is bringing that diversity to light.

“The kids in those films … are colorful, they are multicultural and diverse, and you have kids from different places and different colors, so it gives you the real Israel,” he says. “It shows a different layer of reality. They’re part of the story and they live it day after day after day.”

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