"World Cinema: Israel"

My book, "World Cinema: Israel" (originally published in 1996) is available from Amazon on "Kindle", with an in-depth chapter comparing and analyzing internationally acclaimed Israeli films up to 2010.

Want to see some of the best films of recent years? Just scroll down to "best films" to find listings of my recommendations.


Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Human Rights Activist, Leah Tsemel

The Other Israel Film Festival in New York City is opening this week with the film Advocate, directed by Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche.  It is the documentary story of the veteran human rights lawyer, Leah Tsemel, who has been defending Palestinians since she became a lawyer back in the 1960s. 

Check out my review!

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Our Boys is a Triumph!

This is my second posting about Our Boys, a TV series of 10 episodes, created by Hagai Levi, Joseph Cedar and Tawfik Abu-Wael (two Jewish Israeli filmmakers and one Palestinian Israeli filmmaker).  

The series is based on an historical re-enactment of terrible murders that took place in Israel-Palestine during the summer of 2014, and is being broadcast on HBO in North America and Keshet in Israel.
If you are looking for the story of the kidnapping and murder of the three Yeshivah boys – Gilad, Eyal and Naftali, and the subsequent military search for the Palestinian terrorists who committed this crime, then this is not that film.  

This TV series focuses on the subsequent revenge attack, equally shocking and repulsive, perpetrated on a Palestinian youth by Jewish terrorists.

The series is very well-acted and directed, extremely hard-hitting and amazingly realistic.  In brief, it is a triumph!  But keep in mind that the subject is very difficult.  See my previous posting for info concerning the story-line.

My husband and I went to the preview screening of the final episode at the JCC on the Upper West Side in Manhattan a few days ago. The screening was followed by a discussion with two of the filmmakers, Joseph Cedar (Norman, Footnote, Time of Favor, Campfire) and Tawfik Abu-Wael (Thirst), moderated by Yitzi Zablocki, director of the JCC film center. The discussion opened my eyes to so many things about the series, including the creative process of working collaboratively and some of the difficult societal issues brought up in the script.

Identifying with the Pain of the parents of the victim
A fair amount was talked about concerning the series’ success in humanizing the characters, both Israeli and Palestinian, so that viewers would empathize with their personal anguish and would understand them better. Abu-Wael felt that they were dealing with a taboo story in both societies, so there was the need to fully empathize with the other side. He lives in Tel Aviv and he was proud to declare that one of his Israeli Jewish friends told him that in this show, you can identify with the Palestinian pain. He concluded by stating that “when you humanize your enemy, you humanize yourself.” 

Indeed, as I viewed this series, I became intensely involved with the human tragic stories and serious moral dilemmas of so many of the characters: the Palestinian father and mother of the boy who was so brutally murdered; the agent for the Shabak (Shin Bet security services) who did the best he could in extremely trying circumstances, but was conflicted whether he did the right thing vis a vis the youngest of the Jewish perpetrators of the murder; the psychiatrist, who held her ground, despite lots of pressure to declare her patient mentally unfit to stand trial; and the rabbi/father/grandfather who struggled also to do the right thing for his family.

Insanity as a defense strategy
The lawyer for the main suspect in the murder trial presented a defense of mental incapacity.  Cedar said that theoretically one might have thought that the establishment (the government, the prosecutor and the Shabak) would have wanted him to be declared insane and this would have allowed most Jews to breathe a sigh of relief and to consider this occurrence as an aberration.  But the Shabak in the TV series reaches the opposite conclusion -- a guilty charge for all three boys would be preferable to an insanity plea because of fear of public opinion and pressure in Israel and the world, and also because it would help deter the future growth of the movement of the right-wing Jewish fanatics.

Within the ultra-orthodox community, a lot of pressure was put on Devorah, the psycho-therapist (who was actually a composite figure based on two female therapists in Jerusalem), to certify that the main suspect was incapable of testifying.  According to Cedar, Devorah, however, had the courage to say “no” to the need for people to blame this all on one psychotic young man, which would have whitewashed a deeper problem within Israeli society. 

The Process of Collaborative Work
Cedar worked on writing and directing the scenes with the Jewish Israeli characters.  Abu-Wael worked on the Palestinian scenes.  In fact, the family of Mohammed Abu Khdeir saw Abu-Wael as their representative who was retelling their story.  In so doing, both directors made an honest and authentic attempt at presenting both narratives, and multiple sub-narratives on each side.  Both Cedar and Abu-Wael discussed the fact that this TV series is fiction, even though they tried their best to verify the details by speaking with so many people involved with the story.  

In addition, they used a lot of documentary footage, especially the ambulance scene when the mob attempted to steal the body of Mohammed, and all the rock-throwing demonstrations.  Cedar stated that he wouldn’t know how to make a TV series of substance about Israel that doesn’t reflect reality and have tremendous nuance.  Although it is a close representation of reality, it is a nuanced form of art, and not a form of international propaganda or advocacy.

Our Hero, the Shabak Agent
Simon, the Shabak agent (played by Shlomi Elkabetz) who was tasked with finding the murderers of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was called a traitor by many right-wing Jews in Israel in the film, and was shockingly misunderstood by his own brother and others within the ultra-orthodox community, especially for his lack of willingness to conduct his life based solely on Jewish loyalty. This character, according to Cedar, was a composite of a few Shabak agents who worked on the case.  Abu-Wael added that the fact that Simon is considered to be traitorous and is forced to leave his job and go abroad makes you want to think about the country we live in. 

The character of the Rabbi
The rabbi in the film, who is also a composite character, is conflicted by the understanding that his son, who committed the murder, actually dragged two of his grandsons into this with him. On the one hand, he wants to empathize with his son, whom he believes is mentally disturbed, and on the other hand, he is somehow bothered fundamentally that his son actually committed murder. He travels all the way to the prison to visit his son, looking for a sign of contrition, willing to apologize to him for how he has treated him over the years.  But he is disappointed in what he finds.  The rabbi represents the kind of Judaism in which young people are growing up and learning to hate “others”, especially Arabs, ultimately leading them to do such disastrous deeds.

The System of Justice
The leading prosecutor (played by Lior Ashkenazi) is also one of the heroes of this film series. He reaches out to the Palestinian father, Hussein, in a very meaningful fashion, and tries to help him as much as possible in preparing for the trial and during the trial itself.

It’s not really a spoiler to tell you the verdict that the judges provide – not to sound banal, they provide justice, the only verdict that was really possible, given the evidence in the case.

And here is the crux of the matter – the judges raise the disturbing question about the kind of Jewish education that these orthodox Jewish boys received. How was it possible that their education led them to such hatred and such despicable deeds? This is undoubtedly one of the major themes of the film, one of the reasons that the actions of these three perpetrators were so disturbing to me and to so many others in Israel and abroad at the time, and still is to this very day.

To see my first posting about this TV series -- press here!

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Deadbeat Dads

Perhaps not surprisingly, divorce is on the rise in Israel, as is the phenomenon of fathers withholding child support payments. The documentary, Reinvestigation, directed by Anat Yuta Zuria and Shira Clara Winther, covers this issue from multiple perspectives. This is a tragic story within Israeli society and it must be faced head-on.  Here it is told in a compelling way.

Ella is a 28-year-old ultra-orthodox single woman who works as a private investigator.  The film tells the story of her involvement in a case about a father who refuses to pay child support and how this leads her into investigating the entire phenomenon within Israeli society.  She finds women who have suffered, and multiple young adults whose fathers didn’t pay and who are still resentful. One woman wants her father’s name removed from her identity card.  One young man wants to sue his father. These adults feel abandoned, both financially and emotionally.

Ella also discovers the movement for father’s rights and interviews some of the men, one of whom tells her that forcing a father to pay child support is just a way to ruin him financially. Some of these fathers have learned a trick – they demand joint custody so that they don’t have to pay support, but then they just don’t take responsibility for the joint custody. One mother, Yael, talks about the feeling of abandonment when she learns about the money that her ex is earning, but continuing to withhold payments for the children’s support.  In fact, she is sure that the children would be destroyed if they heard that their father had money. 

Is having children a risky business?  In a moment of genuine openness, Ella talks about her own personal life and she reveals that she has a fear of falling in love because she has seen in her work so much suffering and divorce, and is therefore convinced that getting married and having children can be a difficult enterprise.

Reinvestigation (documentary, 70 minutes) is available from Ruth Films.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Our Boys

Currently streaming on HBO in the USA is Our Boys, a series of 10 episodes, created by three filmmakers, Hagai Levi, Joseph Cedar and Tawfik Abu-Wael (two Jewish Israeli filmmakers and one Palestinian).  The series is an enormously impressive and hard-hitting historical re-enactment of terrible murders that took place in Israel-Palestine during the summer of 2014.

The TV series begins with the abduction and murder of three Jewish Israeli teenagers from the Gush Etzion junction, south of Jerusalem, during that summer. This incident brought deep sorrow and mourning to Israeli society.  But this is not the focus of the series. Rather, the filmmakers decided to examine the ethical and strategic issues involved in the senseless revenge murder of an innocent Palestinian teenager.

Seeking revenge for the murder of the three Israeli teens, Israeli right-wing ultra-orthodox extremists kidnapped, and while still alive, set fire to a Palestinian youth named Mohammed Abu Khdeir from Shuafat (a Palestinian neighborhood north of Jerusalem).  Following this heinous murder, extensive rioting broke out in the Palestinian community in Jerusalem and all over the West Bank, and missiles were shot from Palestinian militants in Gaza.  The film series reveals how much damage the murder of this Palestinian boy caused in Israel that summer.

All of this eventually led to the beginning of Operation Protective Edge, a military operation, that lasted for 50 days, against the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

After the murder of Abu Khdeir, my husband, Ron, and my daughter Dahlia, went to pay their respects to the Abu Khdeir family at the tent of mourning in Shuafat, along with hundreds of other concerned Jews from all over Israel, on a solidarity visit organized by the Tag Meir Forum (see below).

Filmed on location in Jerusalem and surroundings, the TV series sets out to document how the Israeli police and Shabak (Shin Bet—Israeli internal security services) investigate the heinous murder of this Palestinian Arab teenager.  At first, the police were misled because they were so sure that such an atrocious murder of a Palestinian youth could not have been committed by Jews.  This sounds like a ridiculous assumption these days, but many people in Israel still believe that Palestinians are capable of terrible atrocities but that Jews would never do such things.  Even years after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Israelis still refuse to believe that there is a violent right-wing extremist movement capable of such terrible deeds.

It is interesting to also note that the series deals frankly with this issue of “who is the victim?"  Both sides, Israelis and Palestinians, claim victimhood in this decades long conflict.  Palestinians feel that they are the underdog, treated very poorly as part of the occupation, and therefore they see themselves as the only victims.  On the other hand, Jewish Israelis feel that they have been the victim ever since the Holocaust, and that they are still victims of Palestinian terror all the time, and therefore they must never let down their guard.  These are two conflicting narratives – both of which are articulated in the TV series-- which attempts to follow the actual events and at the same time, to evoke empathy and understanding on both sides.

The series has two heroes – one is the father of Mohammed and the other is the Shabak investigator.  The father of Mohammed Abu Khdeir is seen as a rational and cool-headed figure who is able to resist the demands of the Palestinian Arab extremists who want to turn his son’s murder into a cause for rioting and revenge.  The credits at the end of each episode show that the real-life parents of Mohammed cooperated in the making of this series, which is quite amazing.

Our other hero, Simon, the Shabak investigator, is given the difficult job of finding Abu Khdeir’s murderers.  He begins by tracking some of the young men of the Hilltop Youth, a group of young Jewish anarchists and extremists, who remind me sometimes of white supremacists in the USA.   These youngsters operate freely throughout the West Bank and inside Israel, even though the Shabak is aware of them and constantly watching them on their security cameras.  They indulge in terrible acts of destruction of property and even sometimes in murder, in what they call Tag Mechir, price-tag revenge attacks.  They represent a horrible stain on Jewish society in Israel. In recent years, they have been opposed by the Tag Meir (Light Tag) Forum, which engages in solidarity visits and educational programs to combat Jewish racism.

This is a very courageous and compelling television series, produced by HBO and Keshet. I am still in the middle of viewing it together with my husband. One of the reasons we chose to see it is that Bibi denounced it calling it anti-Semitic and anti-Israel. The opposite is the case. It is a gripping portrayal of an issue at the heart of Jewish morality within Israel, and I applaud the directors for having taken such a bold step in forcing us to grapple with these issues.

We have more episodes to watch, and we plan to go to hear the directors of the film speak at the JCC on the Upper West Side in New York in a few weeks, at the preview screening of the tenth and final episode. After that, I will update you on the conclusion of this important series. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Do you enjoy over-the-top side-splitting comedies?

The Mossad, directed by Alon Gur Aryeh, is currently playing in movie theaters in Israel.  It is a comedy about undercover agents, spies and ridiculous bureaucrats. 

Although quite ridiculous most of the time, the film offers great humor and a fair amount of a critical view of so many sacred cows in Israeli life and government.  I don’t think I have laughed so hard in a really long time!

The story is about a bunch of criminals who are about to destroy all the cellphones in the world by the flick of a switch, and our Mossad hero, working together with a CIA female agent, is meant to save the world. 

There are tons of nods at other films and comedy routines, both Israeli and international — James Bond, The Gashash Trio, Bruce Willis saving the world together with a gorgeous female, similarities to Walk on Water, and so many more. 

Even though the story was quite over-the-top, the gags poked fun at just about everything, and the pacing was terrific.  My friends and I laughed the entire time!   

The Mossad is a spoof, providing lots of fun. Check out the trailer (with English subtitles).

Monday, September 2, 2019

A Behind-the-Scenes Tour of the Israel Museum

The Museum, directed by Ran Tal, is a surprisingly intimate and special documentary about the Israel Museum – its workers, visitors, exhibits, and its meaning as a national museum of memory, history, culture and art.

At the beginning of the film, a group of soldiers in an officer-training course are asked: why do we take you to this place?  What can you learn from this museum that will be important for you to take with you as you become officers in the Israeli army?  This question stays with the viewer as we watch the film.

We see the storerooms, the restorations, new exhibits, preparation of pieces for shipping.  And we meet the guards, curators, designers, and restorers.  There is the immigrant musician from Azerbijan who restores artwork. There is the rabbi of the museum who shockingly tells us that the museum has no meaning for him.  On the other hand, there is the religious guard at the Shrine of the Book who talks about how he loves the nostalgia and the historical connection. And James Snyder talks about how meaningful it has been for him working at the helm of this institution. 

There are personal stories told by visitors to the museum – a second generation Holocaust survivor, a woman who made Aliyah from Venice, a blind woman who comes to “see” art through the eyes of others.  And there are issues discussed by the staff – how do you tell the story of a cruel and violent emperor when putting together an exhibit about Hadrian, who was greatly admired by other nations but hated by the Jews.  In addition, a moral question is raised about whether a Jewish museum, within the current political context, can properly display Palestinian art and culture. 

All of this put together presents us with a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at what is entailed in the running of the Israel Museum. The Museum (documentary, 72 minutes), is available from Ruth Films.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Story of a Public Housing Building in Jerusalem

In The Stars of Stern, filmmaker Gad Abittan documents a public housing building which is going through drastic change.  The building, located in the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood of western Jerusalem, is home to the filmmaker, who narrates the film with a lot of humor and charm.

I especially liked the fact that the filmmaker mixes his own personal story with the story of the building.  He talks about his aliyah from Morocco via Youth Aliyah in the 1960s and his handicap as a result of being seriously wounded while serving in the Israeli army.

We meet diverse and fascinating tenants – some of them renters and some owners, some veteran Israelis, particularly from North African countries like Morocco, and some recent immigrants.  We meet Clara, a veteran, who is the "soul of the building", running the house committee for many years; an elderly couple, recent immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, who live a very lonely existence in this building; Moshe, from Morocco, who lives with his brother and is very playful with many of the neighbors, some of whom think that he might be somewhat disturbed.  We are witness to some poignant shared moments between the neighbors, and also some disturbing funerals.

Abittan tells the viewer that the film started out as a love letter to his building and its residents, and eventually became a letter of farewell.  We begin to understand the meaning of the farewell, when his neighbors begin to move out.  In 2008, ultra-orthodox (haredi) families began moving in.  Their families are quite large, and the apartments are too small.  They leave their strollers and bikes in the entrance hallway, and the veteran residents complain.  

Demanding respect from the secular Jews, the religious Jews begin to impose their lifestyle on the others within the public sphere – insisting that the women dress modestly, for example, which causes friction and arguments.  As the tensions rise, more and more people decide to leave the building, and even more haredim move in. Today, the building is 70% haredi – the turnover took place in just under 10 years.  When Clara decided to move out, Abittan admits that things were no longer the same. And he himself has decided to move to Tel Aviv, but it is very difficult to find affordable housing there.

This is a moving human story of identity and displacement in an old Jerusalem neighborhood. I found it to be compelling but sad.

The Stars of Stern (documentary, 60 minutes) is available from the filmmaker, Gad Abittan –