Articles & Columns

Capturing Israel on screen

Filmaker Igal Hecht

Filmmaker Igal Hecht’s recent documentary on Israel’s non-Jewish minorities is the latest in his prolific body of work exploring the country’s multi-layered reality

By ROBERT SARNER, The Times of Israel, February 19, 2017

 A few weeks ago, after agreeing to my request for an interview, Toronto-based, Israeli-Canadian documentary filmmaker Igal Hecht emailed me.

“Just so I know, when we meet, what would you like – Igal, the loud-mouth chutzpan or Igal, the lovely Canadian? Will we be venturing into politics or will it be strictly about film.”

 I wrote him back, half-jokingly: “Everything and more.” I should’ve known my response was unnecessary.

Given Hecht’s propensity to speak his mind about Israel – in person, on social media and in interviews – along with his choice of subject matter for his films, it’s unlikely he really thought he could keep our discussion free of politics and his innate chutzpa, even if he or I had wanted to.

Hecht, 39, was quite welcoming when I arrived at his 10th floor one-bedroom apartment where he lives alone. It’s situated in a northern suburb of Toronto, home to many Israeli-Canadians, in an area Hecht refers to as “the Russian/Israeli Jewish shetl.”

His apartment also serves as headquarters for the production company he founded in 1999, Chutzpa Productions Inc.

“The name was inspired by my mom,” says Hecht. “She always said I have lots of chutzpa.”

A maverick filmmaker, Hecht considers himself progressive on many issues, conservative on others. Insisting he’s not dogmatic, he’s quick to express an opinion, regardless if it flies in the face of conventional wisdom. He likes nothing better than to talk about two of his favorite subjects – Israel and his movies, past, present and future. In answer to my questions, he was by turns outspoken, humorous, informative, passionate, caustic, polite, angry, animated and attentive.

 The day before our interview, I watched his latest film, My Home, which explores Israel’s non-Jewish minority groups and their relationship with their country. Following its screening on Canada’s Documentary Channel and at film festivals in Europe and North America (where it won several awards), BBC Arabic recently announced it will broadcast the film across the Middle East in March. Israel Television (Channel One) will show it later this month.

As with Hecht’s previous films, My Home focuses on a compelling, often charged subject. He interviews Arab Muslims, Christians, Bedouin and Druze, some expressing great affinity for Israel, others (including Arab Knesset Members) fiercely denouncing it. He lets both sides speak at length.

 In mid-January, following fatal clashes between police and Bedouin residents in the unrecognized Negev village of Umm al-Hiran, Hecht posted footage from My Home online showing a meeting he filmed in the town in 2015 in which MKs from the Joint List used fiery rhetoric with local residents. The material, which some Israeli newspapers cited, became part of the public debate over whether Arab MKs had encouraged locals to use violence.

“In the material I posted online, you clearly see and hear very volatile speeches that some people would consider incitement,” says Hecht, an incurable Israeli news junkie. “After the tragic events in Umm al-Hiran, I wanted people to be aware that while the Netanyahu government has sometimes incited against minorities in Israel, certain Arab MKs have been doing the same thing. For some reason, the Israeli media never really hold them accountable.”

 With a near-insatiable interest in Israel, Hecht has spent much of the past 20 years focusing his camera on the country of his childhood from many angles. In the process, he’s created an impressive body of work reflecting the breadth of his curiosity. Most of the almost 40 films and numerous TV programs he’s made pertain to Israel.

In Qassam, he examined a city (Sderot) under constant Palestinian missile fire. In Shadow of the Messiah, he explored messianic Jewish life in Israel. In Shunned, he focused on Palestinian homosexuals who’ve fled for their lives to Israel. In The Hilltops, he concentrates on women settler leaders in the West Bank. In A Universal Language, he follows six Canadian stand-up comedians as they tour Israel and perform for local audiences; In Shield of Solomon, he looks at the lives of African refugees in Israel. In Israeli Nightlife, he looks at the country after hours through the eyes of DJs and party animals. In 35 Acres, he delves into one of the world’s holiest and contested sites, Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. In Muzika, a 104-episode series for TV, he interviewed Israel’s top musicians of every genre.

Although attached to all his films, one stands out for him.

Not in My Name, which came out in 2005, still means the most to me,” says Hecht. “It was a three-year journey during which I honed many of my producing and filmmaking abilities. We shot 130 hours of material which took me four months to go over every frame. It accurately predicted the rise in BDS and what many Jewish North American left-leaning political groups have become. This was many years before J-Street, BDS and other self-loathing, hypocritical anti-Zionists decided to make it their mission to demonize Israel. The film was very balanced. Many right wingers and left wingers hated it equally.”

Hecht takes pleasure in portraying himself as an outlier defying what he considers the often prevailing narrative of other filmmakers.

“When it comes to Israel, I take a different perspective than most documentary filmmakers who typically lean to the left,” he says, seated at a table just outside the editing suite that abuts two glass doors opening to his bedroom. “Many go there with a mindset of ‘Israel is wrong and now I’m going to prove it for you’ which is so easy to do in films and in the media. I come with an open mind. Israel is wrong, the Palestinians are wrong, and some are right on either side. I want to find out what’s actually happening on the ground.”

Most of his documentaries have been shown on TV and in film festivals in many countries where they’ve won numerous awards.

“Israel is an exotic place for much of the world so filming a movie there, depending on the subject matter, will usually get you a lot of attention,” says Hecht, who’s fluent in Hebrew and has relatives in Israel. “I was very aware of that from the get-go and I was interested in everything happening in Israel. I don’t think there’s a major issue there I haven’t covered, except maybe a prime minister going to jail. Who knows, maybe that could happen again.”

In addition to Israel, he’s traveled to 30 countries for projects about other subjects. This year, he has two 13-part TV series coming out: House of God about Christianity in Latin America and Buskers about street performers, filmed in 10 countries including Israel. He’s also developing a new film with fellow producer Aaron Mandel about ISIS’s Yazidi genocide and how Canadians (Jews and non-Jews) have been at the forefront of saving Yazidis. Previously, he’s focused on other genocides, including the Holocaust, Rwanda, Darfur and Bangladesh.

Like his films and frequent Facebook postings, Hecht is engaging and provocative in person. It’s more important to him to express his views than court favor with those on the receiving end. He relishes stirring debate and holding up a mirror to subjects in a way he feels is different. He never shies away from controversy.

“I like challenging people and if some people get pissed off, too bad,” says Hecht. “Sometimes I enjoy opening my big mouth and there are days when being adversarial is called for. Overall, I listen more than anything. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking, ‘let’s piss off people’ but I do have an opinion on subjects as do many people. I’m not sure mine is more worth listening to than others but I’ll voice it. If people agree, wonderful, if people get pissed off, that’s also fine and if others couldn’t care less and go about their day, I can live with that.”

Born in Ashkelon, Hecht moved to Toronto with his family in 1988 when he was 11. His Ukrainian-born parents left Israel seeking a better life in Canada for themselves and their two sons.

“For a long time, it was hard for me to understand their decision to leave Israel,” says Hecht. “I eventually understood they wanted something different from what Israel was providing. I’m not sure where I’d be today if they hadn’t decided to move to Canada.”

For his Bar Mitzvah, his parents gave him a Hitachi VHS camera that he had long desired, and that he used years later to film his first documentary in 1997.

“My parents still say they wish they’d never got me that camera,” he says. “If they hadn’t, maybe they’d have a ‘normal’ son who’d be a lawyer.”

Hecht is nothing if not resourceful. He has to be to have made so many films and TV programs despite limited means. On all his productions, mostly costing between $100,000 and $200,000, a relatively low range, he serves as producer, director, co-cameraman, writer and editor.

“Israel can be an extremely expensive place to film in so you need to know how to do it,” says Hecht, who’s made 30 trips to Israel for his films. “I’ve learned how to be cost-effective there, developing relationships and sidestepping many costs somebody who doesn’t speak Hebrew would incur. For the past 10 years, I’ve been fortunate to have the same director of photography, Lior Cohen, who’s brilliant and works within the confines of my budget. I’m also lucky he’s kind enough to give me his couch.”

Hecht sometimes puts up the finances to make a film without any advance guarantee it’ll be purchased by a broadcaster.

“I do what all independent filmmakers do − we get it done,” he says. “I don’t sit on my ass for years excusing my lack of producing because I didn’t get a particular grant. If I want to get a project done, I’ll find a way, including putting in my own money, time and resources. I believe if you’re passionate about making a film, lack of funding shouldn’t be what stops you.”

In Israel, Hecht often reduces costs by shooting more than one film at a time.

He also earns money by doing corporate videos and working on other people’s films as a cameraman or editor. In total, he’s worked on about 20 films or TV productions for other producers/directors.

In 2015, while filming My Home, Hecht had a health scare when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma but was successfully treated. “Doctors said that in the lottery of cancers, I lucked out,” says Hecht.

In recent years, he’s made a bit of a shift, no longer doing just Israeli or Jewish content. For example, in 2014 he made The Sheik, about the tribulations of an Iranian wrestling star. Still, Hecht tries to make at least one film or TV series in Israel each year, for which he’s never lacking ideas.

“I’m constantly thinking of things that are hot-button issues of consequence in the Jewish world and Israel,” says Hecht. “That’s how I come at a story — what kind of impact does it have, does it interest me? I’m very selfish that way. If it’s something I’m interested in, I’m going to do it.”

For now, one subject he’s eyeing is the fraught relationship between Israel and the North American Reform Jewish movement. He’s also working on two others he won’t disclose.

“One, which I’ve been trying to do for seven years, is really explosive,” says Hecht. “I don’t want to mention what it is because when I did in the past, it backfired. The most I want to say publically is that it’s about the impact of a particular Jewish leader who’s no longer alive but whose influence on the Jewish world today is larger than Herzl’s or Ben Gurion’s or even Begin’s.”

Not without chutzpah, Hecht keeps exploring, hoping his discoveries captured on film will help people look at a subject in a fresh light.

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