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Sinai Abt • Artistic director, Docaviv

"Documentaries can gradually change awareness"


- Cineuropa sat down with Sinai Abt, the artistic director of Docaviv, to discuss the event’s success and the potential link between politics and documentary films

Sinai Abt  • Artistic director, Docaviv

The 17th edition of Docaviv, the Tel Aviv International Documentary Film Festival, which took place from 7-16 May, was a huge success. The festival screenings were visited by 50,000 viewers, a 10% rise compared to the 2014 edition, which in turn also outsold the 2013 event by 10,000 tickets. Cineuropa spoke to the artistic director of the festival, Sinai Abt, about the reasons for this sudden upsurge and the current state of Israeli documentary filmmaking.

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Cineuropa: How do you explain the huge jump in attendance at Docaviv?
Sinai Abt:
We like to believe it is the result of our hard work and good programming, but I am sure that is not the whole explanation. There is a big audience for mainstream media, television and all that, but there is also a backlash. A part of the audience is looking for alternatives, and they come here, to Docaviv. They may be a minority, but they are a large minority, and they are looking for different cultural outlets.

Has the audiences' perception of documentary films changed?
More and more, the general public sees it as a form of entertainment. Once, it was perceived as something very serious, educational and information-driven. Now people come to see it for the cinematic experience, in addition to the subject matter, which is still the heart of the documentary form. And increasingly, we are receiving films that are designed to be entertaining, besides depicting a certain subject.

Where does the funding for Docaviv come from?
Most of it is public funding, from the Israel Film Council and some money from the municipality, and the rest is from private contributors and commercial sponsors, the biggest one being the satellite company Yes, which invests a lot in documentaries. Commercial sponsors have an interest in seeing their brands connected to Docaviv because of the ever-increasing audiences and because the event itself is perceived as something that has a certain level of quality. 

Does the state funding limit you in terms of showing some films that might be considered politically tricky?
No, we've never had any attempts by any political figures to intervene in our programming or mention any particular films as potential problems. It is also the case with the films themselves – most of the Israeli documentaries are funded to some extent by public money from the Israel Film Council, and many of them are very critical of the Israeli government and its policies, but nevertheless, they get made and screened in the country.

Politics is separate from the professionals who decide how the money is allocated. There has been talk about it, politicians who complain about how the Israeli government funds "anti-Israeli" films, but the movies still get made and shown. I hope it stays that way.

Not so many Israeli films screened at Docaviv are very political, which is a surprise to me. There seem to be more intimate and family stories…
Yes, there seems to be a new trend. Some ten years ago, a huge percentage of the films were about occupation and the overall political situation. But maybe filmmakers are getting tired of these subjects and want to do something else. There is probably also a feeling of despair, which leads to this new trend towards more intimate films. And because of the specific situation in Israel, even when we tell a very personal story, it often has a lot of political implications. 

People often ask me if documentaries can make a difference, and I always reply that it is very rare. I think that if documentaries really made a direct difference to the reality they depict, then the occupation would be over. There have been some very good ones about the occupation, and they didn't change much. They do make a difference when it comes to creating awareness or gradually changing mind-sets.

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