January 19, 2020

Freshman Israeli filmmaker earns three Emmy nods

Arranging a telephone interview with Israeli documentary filmmaker Hilla Medalia requires the scheduling dexterity of a flight attendant: She is constantly en route to someplace else — making movies, promoting various projects and generally wheeling and dealing. And the sense is that it’s not about to get any easier. Medalia’s debut work, “To Die in Jerusalem,” has garnered three Emmy nominations — best documentary, best score and outstanding achievement in investigative journalism.

The Emmys will air live from the Nokia Theatre on Sept. 21 on ABC.

“This is the stuff of dreams,” the filmmaker exclaimed. “To be nominated for an Emmy is one of the highest accolades in my industry.”

Medilia’s film, which earned her a Peabody Award and first place at the International Human Rights Film Festival in Paris, tells the story of two women: one the mother of a Palestinian suicide bomber and the other the mother of a young Israeli girl killed in the same attack.

For Medalia, the attention means more people will see her films, which is the main point.

“For me, the power of film is in the amount of people that can potentially watch what you produce,” she said. “It’s when I understood this that I decided that my role as a filmmaker was to focus on projects that have a social conscience.”

Medalia’s journey to becoming a filmmaker began courtesy of her athletic prowess. During the course of a fairly typical Israeli childhood, she became a teen track star. A subsequent stint in the Israel Defense Forces, with the special status of “athlete of excellence,” was a springboard to an athletic scholarship to study film at the University of Southern Illinois.

“University was great because I was in the middle of nowhere, which meant there was nothing to do but study and train,” Medalia said. “The freedom you have is wonderful; if you want to shoot something, you just take a camera and shoot.”

Her master’s submission, “Daughters of Abraham,” earned her a prestigious Angelus Student Film Festival award and would later become the basis of the Emmy-nominated “To Die in Jerusalem.”

After finishing school, Medalia moved to New York to learn the ropes. Her journey up the filmmaking ladder included the rookie tasks of carrying lights and being an assistant director on a horror film. But Medalia’s biggest break came with working with fellow Israeli filmmaker Danny Menkin on his award-winning film, “39 Pounds of Love.”

“It was a great way to learn the business inside out, because I was involved in so many aspects,” she said. “In the end, I helped raise finance and distribute the finished product, so it also schooled me in the business end of the industry.”

The involvement in and subsequent successful theatrical release of Menkin’s film gave Medalia the confidence to begin work on “To Die in Jerusalem.” She raised the bulk of the funding on her own and traveled repeatedly to Tel Aviv over a period of two years to complete the film. At the rough-cut stage, Medalia achieved every documentary filmmaker’s dream: a pre-sale to HBO.

The journey since has launched Medalia’s career. She has traveled tirelessly with the film to numerous festivals and screenings, from Hong Kong to Cape Town and Edinburgh.

“It’s been an incredible experience professionally,” she said. “I’ve met so many people in the industry, learned so much.”

The results are more than evident: Medalia currently has two projects in the works.

The first, “After the Storm,” focuses on a group of teens in post-Katrina New Orleans who stage a musical in a resurrected community center. The film focuses on the lives of the kids, their schools, homes, struggles and hopes as they attempt to make sense of New Orleans after the disaster. For Medalia, the process has been incredibly moving.

“On one hand, it’s been very difficult because of the conditions there, even though we shot two years after the hurricane,” she explained. “But in another sense, it is very inspiring to see that despite everything that has happened, they are moving forward. It’s a very special place.”

Rosie O’Donnell was impressed enough by Medalia and her venture that she joined the project as executive producer.

Medalia’s other work in progress is a joint project with Israeli producer Itai Horstock, which tells the story of returned soldier-musician Kobi Vitman, who battles Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and ultimately deals with it through writing and staging a rock opera on the subject.

“It talks about things we prefer not to address: namely, the effect of war on society and on soldiers,” she said.

Medalia sees a commonality in all her projects.

“I like personal stories, not just stories about people,” the filmmaker explained. “It’s much more appealing for me than doing things from a historical or purely narrative angle.”

Given all the recognition, it would seem that Medalia is on to something.

The trailer