"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.


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 ridiculous, 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 –

Monday, August 26, 2019

Are you a fan of fashion and design?

 Mrs. G. is a documentary film, directed by Dalit Kimor, about Lea Gottlieb (1918-2012), the great Israeli swimwear designer and manager of the Gottex brand of swimwear.

Lea Gottlieb had a difficult beginning, living through the Holocaust period in Budapest.  She came to Israel in 1949 with her husband and two daughters, at a time when the economic situation was very difficult in Israel.  Together, husband and wife founded the manufacturing company of A. Gottlieb, and later changed the name to Gottex. 

Lea Gottlieb was an artist and had a vision.  She added style and tropical color to swimwear at a time when bathing suits were dull and drab.  She developed lycra, special prints and exclusive designs.  Many celebrities wore Gottex bathing suits, including Princess Diana! 

The film shows dozens and dozens of women modeling bathing suits and cover-ups over the years.  The most fascinating thing is to see the things that inspired Gottlieb, including the peace with Egypt, when she established a line inspired by ancient Egyptian motifs. We watch her as she works. We learn about her family, her husband and daughters who eventually joined the business.  And we learn about the turmoil and tragedy which was part and parcel of her life – together with the stupendous creative vision and international success!

Mrs. G. (documentary, 54 minutes) is a wonderful film for film festivals and is available from the producer, Yahaly Gat at Muse Productions, muse.prod1@gmail.com.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Bedouin of the Northern Negev

The Bedouin of the Negev are citizens of the State of Israel and many of them serve in the Israeli army.  They are traditionally are a nomadic people, whose way of life has been drastically curtailed since the establishment of international borders which prevent their wanderings with their families and tents and herds of sheep and goats.  Therefore, in the last few hundred years, they have settled into communities or villages which are spread throughout the northern Negev (in addition to some other areas within Israel and the West Bank).  These small villages are mostly unrecognized by the government, which means that they live off the grid – no electricity from the national electric company, no water supply, and no garbage removal. The government of Israel is trying to urbanize this community by destroying the villages and moving the people into towns in which every family would be given a small plot of land on which they can build a permanent home.  But how would they continue their lifestyle of herding goats and sheep?  

The Unrecognized, a new documentary film by Anna Oliker, which premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival recently, tells an important story about the issue of the demolition of Bedouin villages in the northern Negev.

The film focuses on Othman, who previously served as the principal of a local school.  Now he has been appointed to convince the people of Bir Hadaj to accept the new town plan and to sign on the dotted line.  He recruits his sister, Aisha, to work with the women and young girls, especially helping them to understand the importance of education.  

As things progress in their work, there are elections in Israel and the government minister in charge of this plan for urbanization is switched and suddenly all the plans and promises fall apart and village demolitions begin anew.  Even with this terrible set-back, Bir Hadaj is considered a steadfast symbol of resistance and hope among the Bedouin communities in the Negev.  

More a reportage than a documentary, The Unrecognized (48 minutes) is available from the filmmaker, Bolt Productions, annaoliker@gmail.com.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

New Film about Obsession and Musical Prodigies

God of the Piano, screenplay and directed by Itay Tal, premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival this week.  This is an effective and compelling film about music and obsession! 

Based on his graduation film at Tel Aviv University, this feature-length film is Itay Tal’s first feature. 

The basic story of the film is quite unsettling. According to the filmmaker, the entire screenplay was based on a particular germ of an idea -- he wanted to make a film about a woman who gives birth to a child with a birth defect, and since she cannot accept it, she exchanges the infant in the hospital nursery for another child.  He explained that only later did he decide to take this idea and make it about hearing loss and music

The film stars Naama Preis, a remarkable actress, who carries the entire film, appearing in every scene.  Her character, Anat, grew up in a family of classical musicians and is herself a concert pianist. The film opens with her performing, and her waters break while she is sitting at the piano and playing. 

Following the screening, the lead actress talked about her own background –that she was a dancer and also played some piano when she was young.  She explained that she was pulled into the role by the obsessiveness of the main character, her disappointment in herself, and the tragedy for her when her deaf child is born.  

This is a film about obsession, about the power of music, about talent and competition, about the pressures of being a child prodigy, about mother-son relations, and about fulfilling your dreams by pushing your child to the extreme. There are also difficult issues being raised here.  Not only has the mother stolen someone else’s baby, but her actions have caused us to think about the nature of musical talent and whether it is inherited or acquired.  

I liked God of the Piano, especially the complex character of Anat.  I also liked the use of classical music as a unique character in the film. Not only is music heard constantly on the soundtrack, but the viewer is brought to consider the nature of musical talent and genius, especially in the area of original composition.  In fact, there are three composers within the film's story – the child pianist, Anat’s father, and a renowned musician who appears a few times in the film as the ultimate talent in the musical world.  Itay Tal did a wonderful job of recruiting musical talent – original music by Roie Shpigler and Hillel Teplitzki, piano playing and recording by Eran Zvirin. 

For distribution information, contact the filmmaker at itaytal@gmail.com.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Story of Human Rights Defender Leah Tsemel

Advocate, directed by Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche, is a documentary look at the human rights lawyer, Leah Tsemel, who has been defending Palestinians since she became a lawyer back in the 1960s.  She defends armed activists and non-violent activists, men and women, children and adults.  

When asked why she defends terrorists, Tsemel explains that it is not clear to her that they are terrorists. She sees them rather as freedom fighters.  In fact, it’s not a question of whether you condone the actions of the people that she defends, but rather if you can understand what motivates them, especially as they live under the strict regime of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the morass of the legal system of the Civil Administration.

In this film, we meet Tsemel’s husband and grown children, talking about her work.  Tsemel admits that she has only won one case in all of her years of practicing law – the landmark case that she brought to the Supreme Court against the use of torture in the interrogation of suspects.  This was a big success for her and also for Israeli democracy.  

In another case, she defends a 13-year-old Palestinian boy who, together with his 15-year-old cousin, went wielding knives to a Jewish neighborhood.  The cousin was killed on the spot.  The 13-year-old, a child who hadn’t hurt anyone and who clearly stated in his interrogation that he only intended to frighten, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for what he had done.  The shocking part is that we all know that if Jewish hooligans, even adults, were caught running around an Arab village with lethal weapons, they would be sent home with a reprimand.  This imbalance in the way Arabs and Jews are treated in the occupied territories and in the Israeli judicial system is quite shocking.

In another scene, Tsemel is seen with her friend of many years Hanan Ashrawi. They are both young mothers. Hanan tells the camera, and the viewer who can bear to hear this, that imprisonment of family members is the plight of every Palestinian family. This is perhaps the strongest line in the film.

The film Advocate is an extremely cogent and powerful documentary story of a human rights lawyer who is fighting for justice for all of us. The film is 108 minutes.