Students hard work culminates in For Israel Film Festival

After filming a documentary in Israel, 16-year-old David Patou and 18-year-old Sarah Diamond say they feel better prepared to defend the Jewish state — in conversations among their peers, and once they get to college.

Another teen filmmaker, Emily Mendelson, is ready to defend Israel, as well, but at an even more committed level: After making her documentary, the 16-year-old Santa Cruz resident is more certain than ever that she wants to join the Israel Defense Forces.

The films produced by Patou, Diamond and Mendelson are among five short, pro-Israel documentaries that will debut at the fourth annual For Israel Film Festival on Sunday, Dec. 9 from 12 to 3 p.m.

Emily Mendelson (left) interviews an Israeli soldier for a documentary film.

The showings on the big screen at San Francisco’s Vogue Theatre will end the students’ participation in the yearlong Write On For Israel program for teens, sponsored by the Bay Area office of BlueStar and now in its fourth year.

In the 2011-12 cohort, 22 high school students met once a month from December through June to study Israeli history and politics, journalism and filmmaking.

“We learned a lot about Israel and Israeli history and the current situation with Palestinians,” Diamond explained. “We did our own research. All of us stayed really up-to-date on Israel news and tried to always know what was happening between Israel and Palestine.”

Eleven pairs of students researched and proposed film topics. A panel of professionals chose five, and then the students teamed up in small groups for planning and further research. They had to work hard and be ready for a summer trip to Israel, during which they would not only  tour the country, but also have only 10 days to gather material for their films.

Mendelson was part of a small crew that made a film on IDF lone soldiers, young people who move to Israel without family and serve in the armed forces. She said she and her team contacted more than 20 people by email or Facebook before going to Israel.

“It takes a lot of work,” she said. “Not everybody is going to be available.” The Lone Soldier Center in Israel provided referrals, as well.

David Patou takes a short break from filming in Israel.

“I have always been fascinated with the experience of what soldiers do, what they’re like,” said Mendelson, who, because she was born in Israel, is required by law to serve in the Israeli military. If she didn’t serve and attempted to visit Israel as an adult, she would likely be detained. “I wanted to find out their stories and learn about their journeys.”

Patou, of Palo Alto, and Diamond, of Sebastopol, made a film about IDF checkpoints in the West Bank and along Israel’s boundary with the West Bank — mainly about their benefits to Israel.

“A large portion of the criticism of Israel is that the security barrier and checkpoints create an ‘apartheid state,’” said Patou, who directed the film. “We thought we needed to explain Israel’s reasoning in order to convince people to support Israel.”

Diamond interviewed the subjects on film and helped with editing. She said her group “did a lot of research on the opposition to the checkpoints,” visited two checkpoints and drove alongside a stretch of the security fence.

Filming didn’t always go as expected. One group of students, for example, had planned to film in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, but had to change plans due to incoming Hamas missiles from Gaza. Instead, they decided to make a film about the history of the “land-for-peace” concept in the Middle East.

Sarah Diamond

Other student films tackle equally as heavy topics: anti-Israel incitement in the Palestinian media and living in Israel’s north under the shadow of the Hezbollah terrorist organization and Syria.

The students said they gained more than filmmaking skills from the Write On For Israel program.

“More important than making the documentary was the connection I made with Israel,” Patou said. “It was the first time I went to Israel, and touring around and seeing things firsthand really gave me a personal connection. Going to Israel and speaking to the people we did, I’ll have a much better arsenal to defend Israel” against detractors in the United States.

Mendelson said working on the film convinced her that serving in the Israeli army is what she wants to do.

“Before making the film, I didn’t know what I wanted to do about the army,” she said. “Now, realizing how passionate I am, maybe I’ll serve in the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit. Wow, this is really a possibility — doing something in the media to make Israel have better public relations with other countries.”

For Israel Film Festival, five screenings from 12 to 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 9 at the Vogue Theatre, 3290 Sacramento St., S.F. Includes Q&A with filmmakers.