"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.


Sunday, September 13, 2020

Moral Dilemmas During Wartime

 Love It Was Not, directed by Maya Sarfaty, is an intense and fascinating documentary about a beautiful, young Jewish woman, imprisoned in Auschwitz, who is beloved by an SS officer.  The story is about Helena who was taken to Auschwitz with the first transport of women in March 1942.  Her group of friends were set to work building the camp, and then later, sent to work in sorting clothes and possessions taken from those being sent to the gas chambers.  While working there, she sang for an SS officer’s birthday, and he fell in love with her.

 During the years that she spent in Auschwitz, her SS officer, named Franz, was good to her, saved her from typhus, helped to save her friends, and saved her sister, Roza, when she arrived at Auschwitz.  The story of Roza is an interesting one – Roza and her husband and little daughter had been living for five years in Palestine, until they decided to return to Europe in 1939 because her husband was unable to support the family.  Back in Czechoslovakia, they obtained forged identity papers, and succeeded in hiding until 1944, when they were deported to Auschwitz, with a newborn son.

Franz was able to save Roza, but made no effort to save her two children.  We discover that he was generally decent towards the women prisoners, but was a real sadist in his treatment of the men.  When they were preparing to leave Auschwitz in the Death March, he gave Helena and Roza shoes for the march, and he asked them to help him after the war, “the way I helped you.”

The film does not hide the moral issues surrounding Helena’s relationship with Franz.  Was it really possible to have a mutual love blossoming under these conditions?   Helena is a woman haunted by her past, especially when she is asked to travel to Vienna to testify in support of Franz in 1972.

The film includes testimonies from other women who were with Helena in Auschwitz, from Helena and Roza and their grown children, and from Franz himself, and there are wonderful family photos included.

Love It Was Not (documentary, 82 minutes), was the winner of Best Film at DOCAVIV this week.  Here are the Judge’s comments -- “A rare story in its dramatic intensity, unfolding gradually and with confidence, through captivating characters, excellent editing and original and brilliant processing of archive photographs. The film runs through the chilling seam between victim and aggressor, and manages to present, all at the same time, important and powerful documentation of the horrors of war, vivid testimonies, memory and forgetfulness, and poignant questions about the deceptive power of love.

I sit on the decision-making committee of the joint collaborative of the Gesher Multicultural Film Foundation and the Avi Chai Foundation and, I am proud to say, that this film was produced with our support.


Tuesday, September 8, 2020

The Success of a Grassroots Movement

Within the framework of the streaming DOCAVIV festival, my husband, Ron, and I had the opportunity to view the documentary film Four Mothers, directed by Dana Keidar Levin and Rephael Levin.  This is the second film about Lebanon that we have seen this week in this festival, which confirms the fact that twenty years later, the withdrawal from Lebanon—and the ongoing crisis with our neighbor to the North – are very much on our minds, and certainly on the minds of Israeli filmmakers.

As is well-known within Israeli society, the term Four Mothers refers to two things. The first thing that it relates to is a movement of women which was formed in 1997 to try to end the War in Lebanon and force a unilateral withdrawal from the so-called security zone.  These women are generally credited with catalyzing the government to finally pullout all IDF soldiers from Lebanon, just over twenty years ago, in May 2000. The second reference is to the four matriarchs, as we sing in the popular Passover Seder song, Who Knows One? Four are the matriarchs, three are the patriarchs, two are the tablets, and one is God above the heaven and the earth! 

These women, not surprisingly, are strong and articulate figures—like their Biblical forebears-- who come across as passionate about their subject, even two decades later.  The film provides a fascinating look at what it meant for these remarkable women to create a mass movement from a small personal protest — while overcoming many major obstacles -- and to finally achieve their goal, which became the goal of Israeli society as well. Following the terrible tragedy of the crash of two IDF helicopters in February 1997, which killed more than 70 soldiers — the largest military accident in Israeli history -- Eran Shachar, a member of Kibbutz Palmachim, wrote a stirring op-ed in the kibbutz newspaper, demanding to understand why Israeli mothers sanctify the ritual of army sacrifice.  He asked “why don’t they stand up and shout: don’t take my son!” After this article appeared, Rachel Ben Dor, who became the best-known of the four women, contacted Shachar to tell him that she agreed with him.  He proposed a meeting with a small group of women who were like-minded.  It was just before the holiday of Passover, (hence the reference to the matriarchs), and thus a protest group was formed to try to get our soldiers out of the mud of Lebanon, in which they had been stuck since the beginning of the Lebanon War in 1982!

The original four, Rachel Ben Dor, Miri Sela, Ronit Nahmias and Zahara Antebi, organized demonstrations on the highways and at intersections every Friday, but there was a terrible price to pay in public opinion.  People yelled at them, accusing them of not understanding anything, condemning them for being women who shouldn’t enter the arena of security and the military, and for harming the morale of our soldiers serving in Lebanon.  People shouted, “Go back to the kitchen,” which was meant to be the ultimate put-down.  However, slowly but surely people from all over Israel joined them, people with deeper backgrounds and wider perspectives, and they began to publish educational materials for the Israeli public and for Israeli “leaders”. In these materials, they explained the rise of Hizbollah and the Shi’ites which was a result of Israel’s presence in southern Lebanon.  Previously, Lebanon had been ruled by Maronite Christians, as an inheritance from French colonization. Also, the PLO, who are Sunni Muslims had taken root in Lebanon after they were expelled from Jordan in September 1970, were a major player in the civil war which raged for 15 years, causing much chaos in Lebanon. In one of their meetings with the head of the IDF at the time, Rafael Eitan, they had to correct him after he told them that the Hizbollah fighters were Palestinians! In fact, they are Shi’ites. These women revealed how shocked they were to discover how ill-informed some of our leaders were (and are?!) about who we are really fighting against and why in Lebanon.

In 1998 and 1999, after more than 16-17 years of our soldiers getting slaughtered almost daily in the mud of Lebanon, their movement gained momentum and became more and more relevant to Israeli society.  The Four Mothers became a large grassroots movement and when Ehud Barak ran for the post of prime minister on behalf of the Labor Party, in May 1999, he was elected on a platform to withdraw our soldiers from Lebanon within a year, a promise he made good, to the overwhelming satisfaction of the citizens of Israel, who had experienced daily traumas from this war of attrition for so many years.

Four Mothers is a superb documentary film that lets the women speak for themselves.  It moved us to want to learn more about this movement -- and especially about these “ordinary” women who expressed themselves so poignantly and forthrightly throughout the film, and who became unbelievably committed to their cause. These women actually succeeded in taking on the military establishment while organizing and implementing the most successful anti-war movement in Israeli history!  This film also has some fabulous home footage shot by IDF soldiers themselves, and wonderful archival material. 

This is an inspirational story about women standing up for what they believe in our society and, as a result, causing a major change.   Indeed, other grassroots organizations today, such as the ones who are trying to topple Bibi, have a lot to learn from the inspirational and effective voluntary movement of these women and all their colleagues. The film (78 minutes) is available from Go2Films.

Monday, September 7, 2020

The Story of How Israel Became Embroiled in the Mud of Lebanon

My husband and I have been watching documentary films from DOCAVIV (via streaming) these past few days.  The festival is a wonderful Israeli film event that usually takes place in the springtime at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, but this year, due to the pandemic, it is currently streaming till Sept. 13th.  In addition to some great international docs, we watched the premiere of the first two episodes of a five-part Israeli TV series called Lebanon: Borders of Blood, directed by the prolific Israeli documentary filmmaker, Duki Dror, and we also “participated” in a discussion with the filmmakers. 

This fascinating and extremely well-documented and well-researched TV series includes an historical chapter, and then delves into the complicated issues of modern Lebanon.  According to Duki Dror, Israelis are used to thinking about Lebanon purely as an issue of defending ourselves against terrorist attacks in the north, but through a TV series such as this one, we are able to see that it is much more complicated than that!  In a DOCAVIV interview after the screening, the filmmaker stated that the working assumption of those who conceived, produced and directed this film is that if we can understand Lebanon in all of its strange diverse components, then we can understand the Middle East, and perhaps even ourselves.

Episode 1, entitled the Lebanon Kaleidascope, offers an historical overview, beginning with the artificial creation of the country in the 1920s.  The country was made up of opposites and developed into a Western paradise quite quickly, offering extraordinary culture and exciting nightlife.  But things rapidly deteriorated in Lebanon after King Hussein drove  the PLO leadership from Jordan in 1970 during what became known as  “Black September”.  My husband and I were here in Israel as students that year, and we remember the news reports of this traumatic event.

 The Lebanese were forced by the Arab world to provide a southern swath of territory to the armed PLO “freedom fighters”, which included  Palestinian refugees who arrived after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, and those who arrived following the outcome of the Six Day War. At this time, during the 1970s, the Christians living in Lebanon began to feel endangered, and this marked the beginning of the civil war.  It also marked the beginning of terrible terror attacks by the PLO against Israel, when a school bus on the northern border was hit by an RPG.  Prime Minister (at that time) Golda Meir demanded that Lebanon crack down on the terrorist groups, and thus things began to heat up within Lebanon. Palestinians massacred the Christians living in a village called Damour.  The Christians retaliated and killed literally thousands of Palestinians at Tel El-Zatar.  Then Syria entered the conflict by financing and arming the PLO.  The violence continued to escalate, and the cycle of civil war and killing got worse and worse.  Since the Christians felt that the entire Arab world was against them, they turned to the state of Israel for support and in 1976 then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed to equip the Christian Phalangists, creating a new alliance, that eventually became stronger and stronger.

Episode 2 added much more to the viewer’s understanding of the complexity of Lebanon which at that time included Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, many different sects of Christians, with the Maronite Phalangists being the most well  known, and then the PLO  fighters and Palestinian refugees are thrown into the mix.  Historically, the Maronite Christians ruled Lebanon and made up the elite with other Christian groups and Sunni Muslims.  The Shi’ite Muslims lived in the south and were humiliated, discriminated against, and even persecuted.  The Palestinian refugees who came to Lebanon from Israel are Sunnis and didn’t get along with the Shi’ites or the Christians in the south.  It was an anarchic situation for a long time, with one persecuted group hating another persecuted group, engaging in violent reprisals against each other constantly. Today, the Hizbollah, who are Shi’ite, are supported by Iran and Syria.  During the Civil War (which lasted 15 years approximately), Muslims killed Christians and Christians killed Muslims and Christians killed Christians.  And, eventually, it brought Israel into the “Lebanese Mud.”

As the citizens of Israel suffered  more and more terrorist attacks in the north of Israel, and the Phalangists, who became the Pro-Israel  SLA (South Lebanon Army) tried to protect their Christian villages in South Lebanon and to stop the PLO fighters from infiltrating into Israel, the situation went from bad to worse. The constant escalation catalyzed  then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin (who had just made peace with Egypt in 1979) to appoint a hawkish defense minister, Ariel Sharon, and, as they say, the rest is history!

The Israeli soldiers who were interviewed for this series who participated in the 1982 incursion into Lebanon admitted on camera that they had virtually no idea about the complex and diverse ethnic, political and religious divisions in Southern Lebanon.  In an attempt to be even-handed and to show both sides of the narrative, this excellent documentary series reminds us that the young Israeli soldiers who were fighting, suffered from the cruel and violent images of repeated terrorist attacks by the PLO at that time.  Similarly,  the  young Palestinian fighters were motivated by their perceptions of their people’s sufferings from 1948, 1967 and into the 1980s.

According to the filmmakers, there were more than 100 people interviewed for this series, including Israeli, PLO, Phalangist and American speakers, providing different points of view.  Due to the fact that the TV series is an Israeli-German-American co-production, with international crews, they were able to locate and interview people who would not usually cooperate with Israeli filmmakers.  This enabled the film to truly be a kaleidoscope of multiple contradictory points of view, helping the viewer to get a deeper understanding of the complexity of the situation in Lebanon that we still confront to this very day, as opposed to usual simplistic black and white, us vs. them view of this very messy situation on our northern border.

The TV series, Lebanon, Borders of Blood, is produced for broadcast on KAN, the Israeli public TV station, and we watched the Israeli version.  A different version will be edited for viewing abroad. 

Monday, July 27, 2020

Streaming Israeli Films

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with the Israeli film distributor called Go2Films.   During these difficult times, when many of us are staying at home as much as possible, Go2Films is offering a VOD service which includes many of their major releases of recent years.  See their VOD collection here .

Some of the films that have been reviewed on this blog that can be seen on VOD include (hot links to my reviews are provided):

  • Ben Gurion Epilogue, directed by Yariv Mozer,  is a fascinating documentary which makes use of a previously unknown interview which was conducted in 1968 by Clinton Bailey, then a young American journalist.  
  • Women in Sink, directed by Iris Zaki, is a creative documentary about multi-ethnic clientele at a hair salon in Haifa.  
  • Café Nagler, directed by Mor Kaplanski  reveals the story of a Jewish family which owned a Berlin café in the 1920s.

TV Series
  • Arab Labor, seasons 3 and 4, scripted by Sayed Kashua, a humorous TV series which provides a glimpse at the life of an Israeli Palestinian journalist trying to navigate his way within Israeli society.

Feature films:
  • Eli and Ben, directed by Ori Ravid (2008),  is a feature film about adolescence.  It is also about corruption in Israeli society, as seen through the eyes of Eli, a savvy 12-year-old from Herzliyah, whose personal moral standards are unabashedly high and he demands the same of others.
  • Doubtful, directed by Eliran Elya (2017)   Forced to do community service after having hurt someone in a drunken driving accident, Assi is sent to work with a bunch of problem juveniles in Beersheba. This is the story of the relationship that he forms with one of the youngsters.
  • Present Continuous, directed by Aner Preminger and script by Orit Kimel (2013), is about the difficulties of letting your children grow up and become independent, especially when you are living in a constant state of anxiety and siege.  This is a delicate study of a woman in crisis.  It is also an intense and beautiful look at her relationship with her husband and her teenage children.
  • Echo, directed by Amikan Kovner and Assaf Shnir (2018), is a compelling feature film about the relationship between a husband and wife. The husband becomes obsessed with trying to understand his wife and her comings and goings.
  • AKA Nadia, directed by Tova Ascher (2015), is a complex narrative film about issues of identity, racism and intolerance. 
  • An Israeli Love Story, directed by Dan Wolman (2017), set in 1947 during the tumultuous period of the end of the British Mandate, the film tells a strikingly human story of the love affair between between a young man and a young woman mixing a private story with the national narrative.  
  • Outdoors (Bayit B’Galil), directed by Assaf Saban (2018), provides a compelling look at a marriage.  The film takes place and was shot over the course of a year -- we watch as a house is built and a marriage slowly collapses. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

A Recipe for Failure

The modern orthodox world in Israel has been unforgiving towards any young man who is grappling with being gay.  The rabbis at the yeshivot have pushed these students to marry anyway, because, according to them, the most important thing in life is to have a family and children.  But these marriages are a recipe for failure.  A new documentary film, Marry Me However, directed by Mordechai Vardi, explores this community’s attitude towards this issue.

Yarden Naor divorced his wife when he realized that he wasn’t going to change. Zvi Ben Meir admits that he knew he wasn’t attracted to his wife, but he married her anyway. Some of the yeshiva boys admit to having undergone conversion therapy, so that they could live a “normal” life. These marriages didn’t take the woman and her needs into the equation.  In fact, she was sacrificed on the altar of what the rabbis in this community thought would be the right thing to do! 

In interviews with some rabbis, we see that they are being pushed to stand up and say that homosexual young men should no longer be encouraged to get married to a woman.  Some well-known rabbis in the film, including Rabbi Ronen Lubitsch and Rabbi Yuval Sherlow, show great understanding in this area.  Rabbi Sherlow admits that today he would never push a gay young man or a lesbian woman towards a normative marriage, as he used to in the past. He realizes that being gay or lesbian is not a mental disorder, but rather part of a person’s identity and they are not about to change or deny that identity.  We must accept people for who they are, he says. 

The film includes varied religious points of view, and not all of them offer solutions within the religious context.  Although the film is a standard documentary with too many talking heads, the viewer is provided with a greater understanding of the issues as they were experienced by the young men and women in the film.

Marry Me However is a documentary film, produced for HOT channel 8.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Conflicting Narratives

Tangled Roots (שיעור מולדת), directed by Anat Zeltzer and narrated by Modi Bar-On, is a documentary TV series which offers a broad history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  The series uses both Jewish and Palestinian academics in an attempt at providing an even-handed discussion of both points of view, what might be commonly called the “double narrative”.  The series, which was surprisingly balanced in its portrayal of both sides in the conflict, is quite thorough, hard-hitting and filled with historical detail.

In Episode One – we see two nationalisms developing, side by side.  The episode spans a period from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the British Mandate, and shows how conflicting promises by the British to both the Jews and the Arabs in the region added to the beginnings of the conflict. 

In Episode Two – we see how Palestinian nationalism arose in the 1920s as a result of the British pro-Zionist policies, especially the Balfour Declaration. It is interesting to learn about the Brit Shalom group which recognized the Arab nation living in Palestine and suggested that we live in peaceful equality.  But the volatile and intertwined issues of religion and nationality didn’t make that vision a possibility.  The riots of 1929 in Jerusalem and Hebron were a turning point and the film uses archival footage – from then and now – to illustrate the explosive nature of developments in the region. Thus the viewer can see that the nature of the conflict, which began back in the 1920s, continues to this very day.

Tangled Roots is available from Go2Films. 

Thursday, June 11, 2020

A Critical Look at the Ma'abarot

Ma’abarot – The Israeli Transit Camps, directed by Dina Zvi Riklis, narrated by Yael Abecassis, is a very hard-hitting and highly critical documentary look at the treatment that new immigrants to Israel received during the early years after the establishment of the state.  This is a story of racism and oppression.

When masses of new immigrants began to flood the gates of the country – from Arab lands and from Europe – temporary tent camps were built to house them.  These tent camps were later replaced with shacks.  Some of the immigrants lived in these camps for more than 10 years, which is shocking to think about since the conditions were so terrible. 

In a well-documented manner, the film reveals the story through interviews with historians, archival footage, government documents, newspaper clippings, and most crucially, personal stories told by individuals talking about their memories and traumas from that time.  These personal stories make up the most important part of the film – retelling memories that can bring you to tears.  There are the stories of siblings who suddenly disappear, kidnapped by health workers who were somehow convinced that these children were better off removed from their parents’ households.  There are the humiliations of being sprayed with DDT and terribly painful hot wax treatments to remove ringworm.  There are the stories of children removed from their families and sent to kibbutzim for schooling, where they were looked down upon and their culture and music were denied. They were forced to speak only Hebrew and when they went home to visit their parents in the transit camps they often found themselves ashamed of them and their broken Hebrew.

Originally, these transit camps held a diverse group of immigrants from countries such as Iraq, Romania, Turkey, Morocco and Holocaust survivors from Poland. There was a clear inequality in the treatment of the immigrants -- the Ashkenazi immigrants received housing within two years, and the Mizrahi immigrants (Jews from Arab lands) were left behind to wallow in the terrible conditions of the camps.  This situation was compounded by the influx of reparations monies which permitted so many survivors to buy their own homes and cars.  Not that they didn’t deserve these monies, but it helped to create a large middle class, leaving the Mizrahi immigrants even farther behind.

Ma’abarot, a documentary film (83 minutes), tells of poverty, hardships, suicides and despair, all of which are part of a terrible story of mistreatment at the hands of the authorities – a story that needs to be told and remembered.  The film is available from Go2Films.