"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.


Friday, June 1, 2018

The Study of a Marriage

Asaf Saban’s debut feature film, Outdoors (Bayit B’Galil), is 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, a marriage slowly collapses, and a pregnancy takes it course. 

Ya’ara and Gili are in their 30s, parents of a 7 1/2-year-old girl.  Ya’ara has recently finished her occupational therapy course of studies and is pregnant with their second child.  Gili is a struggling theater writer and director. 

When Ya’ara’s parents pass away and leave them some money, they decide to buy a plot of land and build their dream house on the same mountaintop in the Galilee where Ya’ara grew up.  But leaving their small apartment in Tel Aviv for the open spaces of the Galilee will not solve the tensions already smoldering in their marriage. 

The entire film takes place on the mountaintop, especially the construction site, where the concrete slab and then the prefab home is slowly taking shape.  The house rises from the hilltop, as their marriage progressively deteriorates. It seems that the pressures of building a house, and all the choices that it entails, are quite a burden. Ya’ara is shocked that Gili doesn’t agree with her when she wants to widen a window!  And when she finds it difficult to choose the ceramic floor tiles, she is hurt that it’s not as momentous a decision for him. 

The film’s narrative intertwines a catalogue (without much depth) of persuasive marital issues including financial worries, professional disappointment, memories of teenage sexual adventures and high school rivalries.  Although it borders on melodrama, I must admit that there are some emotional moments, realistic acting and beautiful landscape photography.

Outdoors is available from Go2Films.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

New Israeli feature film looks at racism within our society

The Cousin, directed by and starring Tzahi Grad, is a new feature film about relations between Arabs and Jews within Israel. 

Naftali lives with his wife and two kids on a moshav in rural Israel. Naftali, an actor and filmmaker, is a bit of a naïve fellow, dreaming of drawing tens of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians into one-on-one encounters in order to advance the peace process. 

Near his house he has a studio in an old cottage which badly needs renovations and he hires a young Palestinian named Fahed to do the renovations.  Fahed is a Palestinian of Israeli citizenship and Naftali explains the difference between a Palestinian from the Territories and one from inside Israel to his children. 

That same morning, a local girl is assaulted and, not surprisingly, the local police jump to accuse Fahed.   When Fahed is released on the cognizance of Naftali, members of the local community get together and decide to take matters into their own hands. 

The film depicts Naftali as a moral person, one who cares about Arabs and wants to combat negative stereotypes about them. As the plot develops and the tension mounts, Naftali is threatened by his neighbors who pressure him to stop protecting Fahed. Although he is a compelling character, he is also beset with ambivalence. As things begin to spin out of control, we see how he blunders from event to event, and how he is especially caught off-guard by his wife’s mixed reactions to his attempts to protect his new worker. 

Afraid of being too preachy and wanting to produce an entertaining film, the filmmaker misses the mark by concluding with a surprising and ironic twist which leaves the viewer asking what happened to the naïve optimism of our main character and wondering whether racist violence can be curbed in our society.

The Cousin was produced by Bleiberg Entertainment. 

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Combining the Personal and National

One of my favorite documentary film styles is the personal documentary which combines the personal and the national.

In her new prizewinning film, Wall, filmmaker Moran Ifergan combines her own personal story with so many of the issues that divide us in contemporary Israel.  A graduate of the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem, Ifergan is from a traditional, religious, Moroccan family in Beersheba.  She herself was religious until the age of 18. Two of Moran Ifergan’s previous documentary films were reviewed on this blog.

Ifergan has made an interesting artistic decision to combine a personal soundtrack of phone-calls, discussions and What’s App messages together with visuals, mostly from the women’s section at the Kotel.  She spent a full year filming at the Kotel, around the clock, searching for meaningful and life-transforming events.  Why the Kotel?  She admits that the film deals with faith, gender issues, problems of young couples, loneliness, and family – on the personal level.  And with issues of holiness, religion, politics, and nationalism -- on the national level. What better venue could be chosen to talk about questions of religion in her life and issues of nationalism -- and combine it all with the intimacy and confessional nature of talking about her own personal story. 
And why is the soundtrack the only place where the personal exists in the film, creating a distance and making it so that we never see the filmmaker, only hear her conversations throughout?  She offers two reasons for this: “I use my personal story to talk about something more universal. Also, I wanted to deal with how a personality can be represented by sound and not by picture.”  It’s amazing how well this technique succeeds, creating two parallel stories – one in the soundtrack and one in the visual.

Ifergan is a young mother going through a divorce.  Her recorded conversations are with her mother, her sister, and her close friend.  Her traditional and old-fashioned mother does not approve of her life choices – not of her filmmaking and not of her splitting with her husband of three years.  On the other hand, her best friend relates to her loneliness and lifestyle crisis honestly and openly in their recorded conversations. 

One night, along comes a religious woman who tells her that she can see in her eyes that she is missing inner peace.  And she proceeds to tell her all about mikveh, and the spirit of God that you can let into your life by fulfilling the laws of family purity. This dialogue is an example of the filmmaker’s letting us in to encounter her own grappling with religion and a religious lifestyle. She also draws our attention to the ultra-nationalism of Jerusalem Day with its flag waving and its indoctrination of our young people.  We catch a glimpse of the military ceremonies at the Kotel and the tears of Memorial Day.  But most importantly we become involved up close and intimate with dozens of young girls and women praying at the Kotel.

Wall (documentary, 64 minutes) provides a fascinating look at issues that are important to us – how we relate to Jerusalem, to the Kotel, to a religious lifestyle, to anti-Arab feeling and fanatic nationalism.  The film is available from Cinephil.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

New Student Films

I always enjoy student shorts which reflect in many ways the issues which are affecting the up-and-coming generation of filmmakers.  I would like to share with you three compelling short films from the past year at the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem. 

212, directed by Boaz Frankel (drama, 20 minutes), is a glimpse at a day in the work of the director of an old age home (played by Moshe Ivgi).  It’s a rainy morning, and the first thing that the director has to take care of is the death of the resident in room 212. It is obvious that deaths are a common occurrence and there is a complete protocol for how to handle it, and it doesn’t seem to truly affect anyone.  In fact, the other residents just want to get on with their breakfast, and the director is more concerned with the fact that someone parked in his parking space on this rainy day.

Big Sister, directed by Michal Gassner (drama, 13 minutes), is about gender issues and rape.  A young woman, who has taught herself to be tough when it comes to how men treat her, is entrusted with the care of her teenage brother when their parents are abroad.  She tries to teach him a lesson about how to treat women.

The Bride’s Tree, directed by Shadi Habib Allah (documentary, 17 minutes), is about a Palestinian adolescent boy.  Under the branches of a big and ancient tree, he spends his days, playing with friends, watching out for the Israeli army, preparing for wedding parties and helping his father with their small grocery store. This film is a bit lyrical in style, which makes it very special.

These films can be obtained from Cara Saposnik, the Director of International Relations – cara@jsfs.co.il

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Dysfunctional Family

A new Israeli feature film opened this week at movie theaters in Israel – Montana, directed by Limor Shmila -- a film about a dysfunctional family.

When Effi’s grandfather dies suddenly, she goes to visit her family in Acco.  There, she visits her grandmother and her middle-aged aunt.  Her uncle lives nearby.  Years ago, her mother took Effi away suddenly, cut off relations with her family and moved to France. We don’t know why, but it becomes suddenly so clear at the end of the film.

Here is your best abusive and cheating love triangle -- Effi’s uncle, a policeman, is a pervert, abusing the young daughter of his friend.  The friend is carrying on with Effi’s aunt.  Just to round things out, Effi begins an affair with the friend’s wife.  In brief, everyone is cheating on everyone.

Although Effi was a compelling character, the film was a disappointment because it had no cinematic sophistication and little complexity of plot.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Since shortly after the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel annexed East Jerusalem, the residents of East Jerusalem have been residents of Israel, but not citizens. As residents, all of their personal status matters must be registered via the Israeli Ministry of the Interior in East Jerusalem.

An award-winning and compelling documentary film by Amir Har-Gil (an Israeli - Jew) and Isfahan Bahaloul (an Israeli - Muslim), Jerusalem in Line, tackles the difficult subject of how these residents have been humiliated and mistreated by this ministry, and how their basic human rights have been denied.    

People go to the Ministry of Interior offices to register births and marriages, and to apply for passports -- in this case actually laissez-passez documents since the Palestinians of East Jerusalem are not able to receive passports since they are not considered citizens of Israel. The applicants were forced to wait on long lines in the hot sun, were treated poorly when they got inside, and their requests were often denied without serious investigation into the complications and implications of each case.

The film, which is premiering this month at the Cinema Village in New York City, as part of the Socially Relevant Film Festival, follows three stories of people who have been forced to fight on-going battles with the Ministry of Interior due to serious infringements of their rights.  One story is about a 12-year-old girl who loses her health insurance since her resident status had been revoked for no apparent reason.  Another is the story of a Palestinian man whose residence in an East Jerusalem neighborhood was misconstrued to be across the border in the West Bank, and as a result, he lost his resident status meaning no social security, no disability benefits, and no health coverage.  The fact that he paid his annual municipal taxes (even though they claimed he didn’t live in Jerusalem) and the fact that he had had medical coverage all his life didn’t change matters.  Indeed, his need for dialysis three times a week only made his case more severe.  A third story was about a man whose house was demolished by bulldozers sent by the city, but he was continuously being billed for city taxes on this same house! 

Using the technique of a story-teller who sits outside the Ministry of the Interior in East Jerusalem, the filmmakers are able to relate these stories, and more, with charm, compassion and humanity – virtues that should be requirements to become bureaucrats of the government of Israel! 

Jerusalem in Line is a documentary film (63 minutes), available directly from Amir Har-Gil.  Check out his website.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Shelter by award-winning director Eran Riklis

Shelter (מסתור) is a thriller by Eran Riklis, one of Israel’s greatest filmmakers, known for his many prize-winning films including Syrian Bride, The Lemon Tree, Cup Final, The Human Resources Manager, and Dancing Arabs. 

As in The Lemon Tree, here, in Shelter, he tackles the subject of relationships between women across the divide, showing the compassion and humanity of the “other.”  But the films are so different!

In this film, Nomi is sent on a mission by the Mossad to babysit Mona, a Lebanese informer, hidden in Germany, having just undergone extensive plastic surgery in preparation for her promised new life in Canada.  It seems like a simple mission, but nothing is simple when the Mossad is involved.
An adaption of Shulamit Hareven’s story The Link, the film combines two genres. One is a psychological study of two women and how the relationship between them intensifies as they are confined to an apartment in Hamburg. Their personal stories are told through flashbacks as they confide in each other.  Nomi has spent the last two years stricken with grief as she has been mourning her husband who was killed by a bullet meant for her. Now, she wants to have the baby that she never had when her husband was alive.  Mona, previously the lover of the head of Hezbollah in Lebanon, is feeling cooped up, fearful for her own personal well-being and her future, and crazy with worry about her 8-year-old son who is hidden in a monastery in Lebanon. Both women are struggling with issues of identity, hiding who they are, trying on wigs, wondering who and where they will be when all of this is over.

The film is also a thriller about international espionage and intrigue.  Tension mounts as Nomi realizes that she is being watched, as the Hezbollah are searching for Mona who has betrayed them, and as the Germans and the Americans are hoping to use Mona as a pawn in their game of buying favors with Iran against Hezbollah.

I enjoy thrillers, but I don’t usually find them so compelling! This film is a particularly captivating and powerful story about two women, their fears and their worries, wonderfully performed and well-crafted, filled with tension and twists and turns.  It seems that betrayal is the name of the game.  And loyalty brings redemption.

Shelter is available from Menemsha Films.