"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.


Monday, February 10, 2020

The Dead of Jaffa by Ram Loevy

The Dead of Jaffa  by veteran TV filmmaker, Ram Loevy, is a hard-hitting feature film about how our contemporary reality is haunted by those who have come before us, in this case specifically the Arabs of Jaffa who lived during the British Mandatory period of 1948.

The story is about Rita and her husband George who is the proprietor of a small shop.  One day, three children from a small West Bank town near Hebron are smuggled into Israel and dropped off at their house.  Their mother is dead and their father is serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison. Rita and George are told that these are the children of a distant relative.  Whether they are or they aren’t, George is terribly worried about the risks involved in harboring three undocumented children. But George and Rita are childless and Rita is not willing to give up the children so easily.

The two younger children are happy to become part of George and Rita’s household.  But the older boy, whose political consciousness is already developing, has moved out of their house into an abandoned house next door.  George tells him that this is where dead people live, which we take to understand that it belonged to Palestinians who left in 1948.  As the boy looks out of the window, he magically witnesses the 1948 period, and watches as Palestinians in traditional dress are moving around, preparing for a celebration.  A whirling dervish begins to dance, and is supernaturally flying above.  These figures are not actually ghosts from the past, rather they are part of a foreign film which is being shot in the old part of Jaffa – a romance about what it was like living under British occupation during the 1948 period.

George is cast as a distinguished Palestinian doctor and we watch as his character is shot and killed, in multiple takes, by a British soldier.  This is not the strongest part of the film, perhaps because Ram Loevy has purposefully created the film-within-a-film to look somewhat stiff as a reflection of the lack of understanding of the foreign filmmaker.  The tension between the historical period and the modern one reaches a climax when a staged anti-British demonstration gets out of hand and becomes a violent demonstration against the Israeli occupation.  This is when the viewer realizes how the memory of the trauma and hardships of 1948 is actually part and parcel of the contemporary reality.

Ram Loevy is known for his wide array of films dealing with difficult political and social issues including discrimination, poverty, economic and social inequality, and difficulties between Arabs and Jews.  Loevy is perhaps best known for his 1978 made-for-TV film, Khirbet Hiza’a, based on the story by S. Yizhar (an author of the Palach generation). The film is set during the 1948 War of Independence between Israel and the surrounding Arab states, in which Israeli soldiers forcibly deport the citizens of an entire Arab village.  Remarkable for its honesty and openness at a time when the onscreen examination of Arab-Israeli issues was still rare, the film portrays the impotence of one soldier who challenges the others about what they are doing, but is quickly silenced by another soldier’s vision of the Land of Israel becoming filled with inevitable waves of Jewish refugees who will replace the “fleeing” Arabs. 

The Dead of Jaffa is available from Laila Films.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

A Not-so-funny Comedy

Remember some of the bourekas films of the 1970s and 80s?  They were like eastern puff pastries – basically empty comedies created to poke fun at mizrachi men.  This week, I had the chance to see a new comedy, Forgiveness (Mechillah מחילה), directed by Guy Amir and Hanan Savyon.  This duo also wrote the script for the very successful sentimental comedy, Maktub.   Similar to that film, the premise of this film was a good one.  Unlike Maktub however, this film seemed to be empty and lacking in just the right amount of comedy and joie de vivre.

The story tales place on the background of bombs falling in the south of Israel and also during the ten days of atonement between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when Jews are asking God and each other for forgiveness for their past deeds. 

There are two lovable heroes: Shaul has just sat in jail for having carried out a robbery. He returns home to his wife and daughter, finding that things are awkward after three years.  His not-so-swift buddy, Nissan, who got away with the cash, has become newly religious. But that hasn’t improved his analytical skills and now he can’t seem to find where he has buried the stash!

Here the Sephardi stereotypes are the basic gag line.  The film also casts its not-so-funny eye on women, Bedouin, superstition, ultra-orthodox, and the whole idea of forgiveness. 

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Issues of Family, Gender and the Workplace

Love Trilogy: Chained עיניים שלי  , directed by Yaron Shani (who co-directed the Oscar nominee, Ajami), is an award-winning psychogical profile of a man who loses his work, his status, and control over his own life.  

Rashi is a respected but tough-guy Tel Aviv cop, a man who knows how to defuse a difficult situation, and how to handle himself in tough spots.  His step-daughter is a rebellious 13-year-old, who has an uneasy relationship with her step-dad's strict demands. Rafi is a doting and loving husband as the couple is undergoing fertility treatments. We watch as his life unravels before our eyes. 

After a report of attempted drug sales in a park in Tel Aviv, Rashi and his partner shake down a group of teenage boys who are hanging out in the park.  As they are being searched, the kids are humiliated by the need to pull down their pants, and a few days later, two of the boys put in a complaint that they were sexually harassed by the police officer. With this wrongful accusation and the resulting suspension, Rashi’s life is thrown into disarray. The tragic ending is inevitable.

I think I prefer the hebrew title of the film  עיניים שלי  which means literally my eyes but is used in modern slang to mean my love. 

The other two films in this trilogy are Stripped and Reborn. 

As in the film Ajami, Shani works here with a cast of non-professional actors and uses improvisation to create the script, thus building an authentic and compelling feeling. Of course, there are disadvantages to using non-actors and improv – especially the fact that the look of the film is lacking in polish.  However, the overall effect is a good one and the resultant film is quite hard-hitting.

The film is produced by Black Sheep Film ProductionsLtd.  Take a look at the trailer.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Best Israeli Films, Documentaries and TV Series of 2019

Here is my “Best Films” list for 2019! 

Please note that most of these films have been reviewed on this website, and therefore more details are available by clicking on the hot link for each film title.

I have chosen to put the films together by subject matter, and therefore feature films, documentaries and TV series are mixed together!

Happy viewing!

Shedding Light on the Phenomenon of Right-wing Extremists within Israeli Society

·        Incitement, directed by Yaron Zilberman.  Since I have been living in New York for a few months, I haven’t had a chance to see this one, but it is Israel’s Ophir prize winner (like the Israeli Academy awards), so I am including it here.  The film tells the story of Yigal Amir, the Jewish extremist who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin at a peace rally in Tel Aviv on Nov. 4, 1995.   According to what I’ve read, the film provides a look at this young man’s background and upbringing, and at the same time, it provides a glimpse at contemporary Israeli politics. (Nov. 5, 2019, Times of Israel).
·        Our Boys, a TV series of 10 episodes, created by Hagai Levi, Joseph Cedar and Tawfik Abu-Wael. Focusing on a shocking and repulsive kidnapping and murder of a Palestinian teenage boy, perpetrated by Jewish terrorists, this TV series deals with serious ethical and political issues within Israeli society. It questions the upbringing these terrorists received as part of their growing up within the religious ultra-orthodox community in Jerusalem. Available for bingeing on HBO or Keshet.
Additional Political Issues
  •          Tel Aviv on Fire directed by Sameh Zoabi. Award-winning feature film which is a superb satire about the absurdity of the Occupation and the humiliation of the checkpoints. 
  •          Advocate, directed by Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche.  Documentary story of the veteran human rights lawyer, Leah Tsemel, who has been defending Palestinians since she became a lawyer back in the 1960s.
  •         The Unrecognized directed by Anna Oliker.  Documentary which tells an important story about the issue of the demolition of Bedouin villages in the northern Negev. 
  •          Begin: The Leadership Years, directed by Levi Zini. Fascinating three-part documentary series about the vision and legacy of Menachem Begin.

Post-traumatic Stress
·        When Eagles Fly directed by Omri Givon, based on a novel by Amir Guttfreund. TV series of 10 episodes in Hebrew and Spanish with English subtitles, a complex and gripping thriller about a group of Israeli soldiers who served together in combat during the 2006 Second War in Lebanon. Available for bingeing on Netflix.
  •         Love in Suspenders (Ahavah B'Shleikes) directed by Yohanan Weller. A sentimental romantic comedy about a woman in her 60s who falls in love with a man in his 70s. 
  •        The Mossad directed by Alon Gur Aryeh. A spoof about undercover agents, spies and ridiculous bureaucrats. The story is about a Mossad agent who undertakes to stop a terrorist organization planning to destroy the world.

Gender Issues – Fiction and Non-fiction
·        Working Woman directed by Michal Aviad. A feature film about sexual harassment in the workplace.  This film was also on my 2018 list of “Best Films”, but I have decided to include it here again because it actually received distribution in 2019.
  •         Transkids, directed by Hilla Medalia. Documentary about four trans teenagers who are grappling with their gender identity. 

A Family Story
  •         God of the Piano directed by Itay Tal. An effective and compelling feature film about music, musical talent and a mother’s obsession! 

Thursday, December 12, 2019


Life is complicated for transgender folks.  And I can only imagine how terribly complicated it must be to be a transgender teen.  It can be traumatic, at the same time that it is a journey of self-identity.

In Transkids, a sensitive and surprisingly heartwarming documentary directed by Hilla Medalia, we meet four Israeli trans teenagers, all of whom are articulate and willing to open themselves up to the camera and let us into their lives.

Romy, born as a boy, is a stunning young woman, learning to be a model. 

There are three teens who were born as girls, but are now young men. Ofri, facing breast removal surgery, admits that he defines himself as trans, not as a man per se.  Liron is going for egg retrieval before he begins the irreversible gender reassignment process. Noam, growing up in a religious family, was born as a girl, but according to his father, he was “born as a boy in the body of a girl”.  Now that the father has endeared himself to us, he admits, in a startling moment that they would not have had him if they had known in advance that he would be trans.  As I gasped, I could only imagine how difficult a moment that must have been for Noam.

These four teenagers share their feelings, what it’s like to have to behave in society in a way that you feel is not really you.  They talk about sexuality, self-identity, how they are treated by their families, how they are coping.  And we learn how the parents are coping too.
In most ways these kids are typical adolescents.  But they have the added layer of gender issues.   They have to deal with questions such as whether the military framework is appropriate for them, whether they will be able to have families of their own later in life, and whether or not religious identity is impacted by the choices they have made for themselves.

In Transkids (documentary, 103 minutes), you might be surprised to see the acceptance these kids receive from the world around them.  It is a beautifully photographed film about four teenagers, grappling with their gender identity, and growing up to be wonderful young adults. This is such an important issue and the film treats it sensitively and the young people are each charming in their own way.  Highly recommended.  The film is available from Docs forEducation.  Watch the trailer here.

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!