By Shira Sorko-Ram, Maoz—
For the first time in the history of modern Israel, a faith-based film on Yeshua the Messiah has been produced and premiered in theaters across Israel. “A New Spirit” tells the true story of Yacov Damkani, once a local gangster from a poverty-stricken town in Israel, who fled to the United States and was introduced to Yeshua as his Messiah.
Damkani was discipled in singer Keith Green’s community in the 70’s and his life was turned completely upside down. He returned home and became Israel’s pioneer messenger on the streets of Israel, boldly preaching the Good News to curious onlookers and furious ultra-Orthodox Jews … and does so to this day.
The movie premiered in December 2017 at the famous Tel Aviv Cinematheque to an audience of hundreds of enthusiastic movie-goers. Many billboards and posters displaying “A New Spirit” were plastered on the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and surrounding cities. In addition, the most popular Israeli evening news program dedicated over 13 minutes of prime time to cover the movie.
The film has already won Best Actor and Cinematography awards in the Boston International Festival and Best Actor in the Madrid Film Festival—each with about 200 film entries. The Israel Press Council gave the film an “inspirational acting” award.
Doron Eran, who produced and directed the movie, is a well-known Israeli filmmaker in the business for 25 years. He has made some sixty films, including features, TV dramas, and documentaries.
Three years ago, he met Yacov Damkani when asked to do a forty-minute documentary on the Messianic Community in Israel. He interviewed ten Israelis, and one of them was Yacov. The interview lasted only a few minutes, but then Yacov gave him the book of his life story called “Why Me?” When Doron read it, he said to himself, “This is a Hollywood movie!”
Doron admits he did not anticipate the strong backlash he would receive from fellow Israelis. He explains that he has always made films of a controversial nature.
“I am used to dealing with tough subjects. I want to wake up society. One of the most-viewed movies I made was about the circumcision of girls in the Israeli Bedouin community. In fact, most of my films deal with social subjects. Many are afraid to say anything—even when they see blatant injustice.”
But this film about Yacov’s discovery of Yeshua is a plunge into controversy deeper than anything this film producer had ever done. “When people on the street recognize me,” says Doron, “they are extremely critical of this film. They tell me that the film is great—but that’s the problem! It is dangerous for Jewish people to see,” he relates.
Doron continues, “They shout at me, ‘You are not a Jew anymore! You are a Christian! You are a missionary! You have betrayed your own people!’ When I answer them that Yeshua was a Jew, they don’t like it at all,” he says.
“This has been the weirdest experience I have ever had.” He explains, “Our present government has been very wise in dealing with all the diplomatic and military traps set to bring our nation down.” “But,” he says, “internally I have watched the government allow the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) to take control of the soul of our nation. I feel the dictatorship of the Haredim.”
“It is a religious dictatorship. They are brainwashing our nation. Now I am called a missionary. I am no longer a Jew. It is scary and I am disappointed. I was born a Jew and I will die a Jew.”
Instead of letting the rejection discourage him, he shows his strength of character by looking into the future. “Israel is going to need ten films about Yeshua before they begin to absorb the truth!” he concludes.
“I got a call from someone who saw the film, and he told me, ‘You are before your time,'” Doron remarked. Nevertheless, he believes this movie must be seen by Israelis. “Everyone who views this film will have the opportunity to see things from a completely different point of view. They just have to see it!”
Before he met Yacov, Doron acknowledges he didn’t know anything about Yeshua. In school he did learn Yeshua was born a Jew, but that was it. Doron explains, “I didn’t know that He lived as a Jew and died as a Jew. I was told He was a Christian. We didn’t talk about him as ‘our Yeshua the Jew,’ but ‘their (the gentiles’) Jesus Christ.'”
“It has been for me a three-year process. I am reading the New Testament; I am going deep into the learning process. I’m a student!” Doron confirms.
I reminded him that in Hebrew the word student is talmid. Talmid is the word Yeshua used for his followers. In the New Testament talmid is the word for disciple.
Doron related a conversation he encountered the day before in a thirty-minute radio interview: “They asked me, ‘Why did you need to make a film about Yeshua? Why put him in our religious mix?'”
“My answer was this: The Habad movement around the world is very popular. They are ultra-Orthodox Jews who are usually happy and kind, and they offer a lot of humanitarian help to Jews around the world. They are well thought of.
“Yet when their Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, died in 1994, they buried him in a grave in Queens, New York. The site is visited by some 50,000 Jews a year. However, many of his followers absolutely believe he is not in that grave. His body is no longer there. One day, they say, he will come ‘back to Israel and reign as messiah’—even though his feet never touched the Holy Land while he was alive.
“This is a very strange belief for most Israelis, but it’s OK, they think. But when it comes to Yeshua, there is a total double standard. They declare you cannot be a Jew and believe in Yeshua.”
Even the actors in the film have had lengthy conversations with each other and with Doron. They said to him, “Didn’t you know that people would be angry with you?”
The lead actor, Imri Biton, has also found himself in an unusual position. He is often verbally attacked, and queried if he is now a Christian. He responds, “Look what Yeshua did for Yacov. He was a gangster. When he believed in Yeshua, he became a new person. These Messianic Jews are telling their own Truth. As a professional actor, I can join them.”
Imri added that as a professional actor he was ready to do the film because he believed in the integrity of the people he was working with. He believed in Doron his producer, and in Yacov Damkani.
Doron admits many Israelis see him as naïve. “But,” he responds, “I am a director who deeply believes that film is the most powerful instrument invented in the last 100 years and is able to change the world’s thinking.”
“Hollywood changed everything,” he says. “They can sell anything. I want to utilize this medium to change peoples’ thinking.” He continues, “One day I was walking down Dizzengoff Street (in Tel Aviv) and a couple of owners of a coffee house came out and said, ‘We have been talking about this film for three days!’ This is what I want to hear!”
“I have followed the fights on Facebook as a result of this movie. I estimate 70% of the posts are negative and 30% positive. Again, my aim is to convince people to think.”
Doron truly laments the corruption and greed for power that he sees everywhere. “As I study the New Testament, I think about the Jerusalem of Yeshua’s time on earth. The politicians were corrupt. The religious leaders were corrupt. Yeshua was determined to challenge that corruption.
“Today it is the same. If Yeshua were in Jerusalem today, he would be confronting the evil that exists with our leaders.”
Doron speaks of the original goals of the early pioneers who came to Israel to build an honest and principled new nation. “My father was one of two people who established Kibbutz Manara on the Lebanese border. He would never have dreamed that in this new state for Jewish people, the Prime Minister would one day be imprisoned for corruption. A President would be imprisoned for rape. The Minister of Finance would go to jail for stealing money that belonged to Holocaust survivors. The Communications Minister would also be put in jail for thievery.
“Even today,” this film maker says softly, “our government is buried in corruption investigations. It’s the same as it was in Yeshua’s time on earth.”
There is no mistake in acknowledging that Doron Eran is Israel’s most unusual film producer/director in Israel today. And he is certainly the most courageous voice among those in the Israeli film industry—by far.