"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, May 29, 2022

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem -- An Israeli TV series is the hottest item on Netflix

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, directed by Oded Davidoff, and based on the novel by Sarit Yishai Levi, is a new TV series, previously broadcast on YES-TV in Israel and now streaming on Netflix. 

What makes it so special?  The fact that it is exotic, set in a different historical period, and so much of it is in Ladino (Judeo Spanish), not to mention Hebrew, Arabic, English and even some Yiddish!  This is a story about the divide between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, between Jews and Arabs, between Jews and the ruling powers (specifically the Ottomans and then the British), and between the socialist Jews working to create a state and the right-wing Jewish underground. 

The first episode sets the stage. We meet the Armoza family, a wealthy Sephardi family (of elite Spanish descent), who refuse to permit their son, Gabriel, to marry the woman he loves because she is Ashkenazi.  Instead, he is forced to marry Rosa.  The series moves back and forth in time, which sometimes is confusing, but overall provides a fascinating way for the viewer to discover how things evolve. 

The set design is especially well-done.  Architectural models are used throughout -- models of Jerusalem, the neighborhood with the background of the walls of the Old City, close-ups on the courtyards and streets.  As the series progressed, and the models changed, I began to really love this choice!

The first few episodes are about Gabriel and his lusting after the woman he loves.  He is apparently rather weak, and really can’t stop himself.  In these episodes, we also see how connected he is to his daughter, Luna, who in later episodes will become the beauty for whom the series is titled.  When she’s young, there is a particularly touching scene of Gabriel picking lemons with his daughter in his arms.  This hints at the close relationship that develops between the two.

The series is blessed with some humor – for example, when a friend comes from New York with a gift of a bra for Rosa!  There are lots of belly-dancing scenes, making the whole thing rather exotic.  There are also many scenes within an Orthodox church.  And there is quite a bit of politics – Rosa’s brother becomes a Jewish “freedom fighter” in the 1930s, making quite a bit of the story about the right-wing underground organization, the Etzel – their violent activities and their in-fighting.

So, with all of these elements, and plenty of drama, why didn’t I like the series?  I have been thinking about this a great deal during the past few days, while watching the entire season of 10 episodes, and I have concluded that the reason for this is that the characters were not likeable.  Gabriel (played by Michael Aloni, known to viewers as Shtissel) is a weak man; his wife Rosa is bitter as a result of finding herself in a loveless marriage; Gabriel’s mother is a manipulative woman; and Rosa’s brother is portrayed as immature and surprisingly egotistical.  These largely unhappy characters were too “soapy” for me—they turned the series into too much of a melodrama.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

A New Film by Avi Nesher - Image of Victory

Avi Nesher’s new high-budget and powerful film, Image of Victory (aka Portrait of Victory) tells two parallel stories about a battle of the 1948 war, particularly how the Egyptians conquered Kibbutz Nitzanim.

The film opens in 1978 when peace is announced between Egypt and Israel.  A successful Egyptian journalist remembers back 30 years to a battle during the 1948 war when, as a young man, he had been sent, with a cameraman, to shoot propaganda newsreels which would portray victorious moments that would help King Farouk with his popularity.  He remembers back to a battle against Nitzanim. At that time, Nitzanim was a small kibbutz outpost (on the southern border with Egypt).  The young kibbutz members and the army irregulars were poorly trained, na├»ve and idealistic. They were up against the fedayeen and then later, up against the better equipped Egyptian army.

The film is based on a true story of the defeat of Nitzanim.  At that time, the kibbutz was outnumbered by the powerful Egyptian army, but members of the kibbutz were told to hold the line.  Their eventual surrender, even after many were killed in the fighting, was seen as a shameful defeat, leaving a black mark on the history of the State of Israel, according to normative Israeli history.  This film was meant to redress that terrible historical black mark. The film was billed in the media as an anti-war film but it seemed to me to be much more of a nationalist telling of the “real” story of what happened at Nitzanim. It makes some of the kibbutzniks and soldiers into heroes and heroines, despite their defeat.

I really liked the fact that two parallel stories are offered.  One story is that of the journalist who is dedicated to making a serious film, using also a love story as a hook to bring in the Egyptian audience, but is forced to create army propaganda.  The second  is the story of the kibbutzniks, as personified in Mira, an extremely motivated and independent young woman, the radio operator for the kibbutz, willing to die in defending her community.   These two stories are somehow connected since the journalist and his cameraman have their eyes on Mira, throughout the whole film, as if to put a human face to the enemy.

Overall, I feel that it was a good film but not a great one. Many of the characters were lacking in depth, and the script was often childish. Nevertheless, it was a moving and authentic re-enactment of an important part of the War of Independence, with a new twist. It was particularly fascinating to get a glimpse of how some Egyptians saw us during that war, as not much more than a bunch of colonizers who were settling on contested land. Bringing the Egyptian narrative into the film was an important innovation—it allowed us to see “the other side” for once in one of our wars, and help us get some insights into what they were thinking and feeling.

Without offering a spoiler, history has taught us that Israel lost the battle for Nitzanim, but Egypt never succeeded in its main goal of destroying Tel Aviv (and eliminating the state of Israel!) and therefore Egypt (and the other Arab countries) lost the war, even though they won this particular battle. Historians in Israel in recent years have revealed that even though the Arab armies were larger and better equipped (as we saw in this film), the young Israeli army was better organized, which was one of the main reasons that it was able to be victorious.

Avi Nesher is a highly acclaimed filmmaker and many of his films have been previously reviewed on this blog.  In his earlier period, in the 70s, he made Sing Your Heart Out (The Troupe) and Dizengoff 99.  After a long period of filmmaking in Hollywood, he returned to work in Israel and made Turn Left at the End of the World (2004), Secrets (2007), Matchmaker (2010), Wonders (2013), Past Life (2016), The Other Story (2018).

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Tantura, The Story of an Arab Village from 1948

Tantura, directed by Alon Schwarz, is a new meticulously-researched documentary film which tells a disturbing story from the 1948 war, including a shocking and senseless killing, and a massive cover-up in its wake.  The film includes interviews with perpetrators, victims and witnesses (many now more than 90 years old), recreations, and never-before-seen archival material from the 1948 war.

The Arab village of Tantura was located on the coast, a bit south of Haifa, near Zichron Ya’akov, where Kibbutz Nachsholim and Dor Beach are located today. The soldiers of the Alexandroni Brigade conquered the village in 1948, and the surviving villagers were expelled – some of them across the border.  There had always been rumors of a massacre there, and in the 1990s, Teddy Katz, a graduate student at Haifa University, interviewed more than 130 people – both Jews and Arabs – as primary research material for the writing of a Master’s thesis.  He stated in his thesis that not only were the Palestinians of Tantura expelled from their village, but there was also a massacre of perhaps as many as 200 unarmed men which took place after the conquest of the village was concluded. 

A conspiracy of silence had been created by the veterans of the Alexandroni Brigade.  At the time that Katz’s thesis became public through a report in an Israeli newspaper, members of the brigade’s veterans’ association sued Katz in civil court for libel, forcing him to deny his academic findings and to apologize saying that no massacre had taken place. 

Now, more than twenty years later, filmmaker Alon Schwarz provides the viewer with an enormous body of testimony – using the original audio recordings from Teddy Katz’s research, original documents and also contemporary interviews -- in order to build a story of what happened in that village so many years ago.

This film is part of the ongoing story of the Nakbah, the Arabic word for “catastrophe”, which refers to the terrible tragedy that befell the Palestinian people during the 1948 war, in which hundreds of Palestinian villages were destroyed.  In some cases, the villagers fled, but in many other cases Palestinians were expelled or forced to flee by intimidation.  Later on, tractors were sent in to demolish the villages. As if this was not enough, there were also terrible atrocities that occurred – senseless killing of unarmed villagers, looting, and cases of rape. 

But Israelis like to think of themselves as the under-dog in this war. Also, atrocities were committed not only by Jews but also by Palestinians in that very difficult war. Nevertheless, an entire myth of denial of the Nakbah has been built up in Israeli society which includes the refusal to teach about it in Israeli schools and the claim that the Israeli army is the most moral army in the world.  During wartime, however, armies by definition do many immoral things.  Apparently, the Israeli army in the 1948 war was not immune to such acts.

Many questions remained in my mind after viewing this difficult film: can Israeli society acknowledge the destruction of the village of Tantura, the massacre, the expulsion and the ensuing years of denial? Will grappling with the terrible atrocities committed during the 1948 war help us to move on?  Will it help the descendants of Tantura come to terms with what happened there?  As journalist Gideon Levy wrote last week in Ha’aretz, won’t this help to lay the ghosts of the past to rest?  Perhaps this film could be the first step along the path of mutual recognition of past sins, similar to the Truth and Reconciliation commission of South Africa.

The film Tantura (documentary, 90 minutes) was produced with funding from two Israeli mainstream bodies: HOT cable TV and the New Fund for Cinema and TV.  The film is available from Reel Peak Films. 

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Short Films from the Sam Spiegel Film School

I always find it fascinating to see what subjects are on the minds of our young filmmakers.  The latest crop of graduation films from the Sam Spiegel Film School are all professionally produced, compelling films on a wide variety of subjects.  There is one film that deals seriously with the issue of military service and post trauma, but just as our society is moving from national issues to issues of the individual, most of the films offer engaging glimpses at the lives of young people today, stories that emphasize the individual rather than the collective, the human rather than the national.  

Here are a few lines on some of the films –

This Film is a Reminder, directed by Rotem Dimand, offers a troubling look at a young woman and her relationships (16 minutes).

What Has Changed, Mah Nishtanah , directed by Salomon Chekol, which takes place on Seder night, is about the poverty of an Ethiopian family (16 minutes).

Storyboard, directed by Gil Ishai, is a humorous animated story about a high school teacher (5 minutes).

Vacant Space, directed by Shmueli Cohen, is a very hard-hitting film (30 minutes) about a bunch of army buddies who get together on zoom, catching up, telling stories about a friend who died from their unit, and eventually sharing with each other stories of their own grappling with post trauma.

Capsule, directed by Snir Aznovich, offers a sensitive depiction of a young woman’s thoughts and worries when the piano tuner arrives (14 minutes).

The Soloist, directed by Noga Tempkin, is a compelling film about a young woman dancer who is stressed before her performance and she decides to trade places with another performer (19 minutes).

Stagnant Water, by Coraline Zorea, is about a teenage girl from a kibbutz, who is a school drop-out, working at the nearby fish farm (18 minutes).

Distribution:  Cara Saposnik, Director of International Relations & Distribution at the Sam Spiegel Film School, cara@jsfs.co.il 



Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Ari Folman’s new film – Where is Anne Frank

Filmmaker Ari Folman is well-known for his remarkable, award-winning animated anti-war feature film, Waltz with Bashir (2008) which was extremely critical of the First Lebanon War (1982-2000), in which he was personally involved.  Also using the animated style, his latest film entitled Where is Anne Frank, based on the iconic Diary of Anne Frank -- and later literature about her death and the death of her sister-- is a brilliant, provocative and controversial film.

The story, which mixes past and present, revolves around Kitty, Anne’s imaginary friend, to whom she writes her diary.  On a stormy night, the glass case where the famous diary is kept is suddenly smashed and a figure emerges from the ink on the hand-written pages – the figure of Kitty.  Kitty is a spunky young girl, who is looking for her friend, Anne.  On the one hand, she finds evidence of her everywhere – the Anne Frank House, a bridge named for her, a theater in her memory.  But nowhere does she find anything that offers a true memorial to Anne’s values and life.  Where is compassion? Where are the people working to save the refugee children who are facing deportation?

Just like the story of Anne, Kitty’s story is also about first love.
  Kitty is befriended by a refugee boy, not surprisingly named Peter, who helps her on all her exploits.  They make a daring pair, ice skating over the frozen canals of Amsterdam, fleeing from the police, scampering away with the holy diary itself!

I had the chance to view the Hebrew dubbed version at the Jewish Film Festival of the Jerusalem Cinematheque, this week.  Ari Folman and some members of the voice-over cast were present at the screening.  Folman talked about the importance of creating a culturally sensitive version of the film for Hebrew-speaking audiences--much of the English script was loosely translated into a contemporary and relevant Hebrew for viewers in Israel.  Kitty too is updated when she goes through a makeover and comes out as a chic girl, with trendy clothes and lots of style.   

Folman also said that the film combines the past and the present: the Holocaust story known by audiences already, and the Kitty story, which represents the transition to the contemporary period and to the issues of today, especially vis a vis the need to help refugees and asylum seekers survive in the face of so much evil and apathy within contemporary society, both in Israel and abroad.  When asked about the delicate balance between past and present that this film endeavors to deal with, Folman said that it was probably 40% past and 60% present, which tells you where his real focus lies.

Many people within the Jewish community might be surprised by the attempt to liken the Holocaust to contemporary issues, such as today’s refugees, as if it takes away from the meaning and message of the Holocaust for our young people to learn about social responsibility today. Folman does not dodge this issue. He clearly thinks that you can do both, that there can be a particularistic as well as a universalistic message when learning about the Holocaust.

This is an extremely creative, artistic and serious animated film, highly recommended not only for children, which builds on an iconic story that is already so well-known by people everywhere.  The genius of a filmmaker like Ari Folman is how he takes the viewer to see the story through a contemporary lens where Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism, racism and apathy towards refugees are all equally anathema, especially for those who care about the legacy of Anne Frank.  This is a controversial message, since many people think that one cannot equate the Holocaust with anything. Folman, himself the son of Holocaust survivors, does not exactly equate the Holocaust with what is going on today with refugees. Rather, he is not afraid to communicate the idea that refugees who are suffering—who have lost everything and have nothing, as was the case with Jews during the Holocaust—must be saved and given a fair chance to rebuild their lives. The bold hint is that Jews too could have been saved during the Holocaust period as well if people had not been so apathetic.

This film is a remarkable production – the animation is vivid and colorful, the Nazis are portrayed as ghoulish and scary, and the barking German shepherds are reminiscent of the wild dogs in Waltz with Bashir.

The film has been recommended for 10 and up, but knowing my grandchildren as I do, I would recommend it for 12 and up. Take a look at the trailer of the original English-language version.  

Saturday, November 20, 2021

New Film by Lior Ashkenazi

Lior Ashkenazi is well-known as one of the most outstanding actors in the Israeli film world.  He has starred in numerous excellent Israeli films, including Late Marriage, Walk on Water, Norman, Footnote, Foxtrot.  With his directing debut, Perfect Strangers, we see his talent also as a director!  This film is both humorous and serious, it is fast-paced, strongly directed and edited, and superbly acted. 

The film is based on the Italian award-winning film of the same title directed by Paolo Genovese (2016), which seats a bunch of couples around a table, and one suggests putting their cellphones in the middle.  Thus, all the participants end up sharing their messages and phone calls that come in during the evening.  Certainly, a recipe for disaster! Would you share all the details of your life with your friends?

Lior Ashkenazi’s local cultural version of the film is full of twists and turns.  It offers us insights into seven friends, all of them around a dinner table, and makes the outcome into a uniquely Israeli story, with secrets big and small.  The film takes place in a comfortable suburb, where upper middle-class friends joke about how terrible it would be to live in Tel Aviv.  They have a real suburban lifestyle and the host of the evening is very proud of his new gas grill on his beautiful balcony, on which he cooks all kinds of ostentatious meat dishes, reflecting his over-the-top cultural milieu.   

The conversation begins as lightweight and humorous, and at first, I thought the film was a great comedy, but we soon discover it has a dark side to it as well. Slowly there arises a real competition among the participants and many personal problems are brought up, including lying about how one’s business is doing, and sharing problems with regard to child-rearing. After the cellphones are placed in the middle of the table, the tone of the banter begins to shift from light to heavy, as some sensational secrets emerge. 

We all live behind a curtain of a certain amount of fiction. I will not reveal any spoilers about some of the secrets that are revealed that lead to more and more complications among the friends at the table. Nor will I share anything about the remarkable denouement, which gives the plot a whole new paradoxical meaning. Suffice it to say that the film is full of surprises.

I really enjoyed this film.  The script was tight and complex – it deals with many issues in Israeli society, including problems of post-trauma from experiences in the army and the nuanced nature of Israel society’s struggles relating to people in the LGBTQ community. It is labelled as both a comedy and a drama, and I now understand why. Freud would have loved this film as well!

Take a look at the trailer (Hebrew only).

Friday, October 29, 2021

Let It be Morning -- a new film by Eran Kolirin

The new award-winning feature film, Let It Be Morning, directed by Eran Kolirin, based on a novel by the well-known Israeli Palestinian writer, Sayed Kashua, is a biting political satire which won the Israeli Ophir award this year as best film and therefore will be Israel’s representative to the Oscars in the category of foreign films.  Filmmaker Eran Kolirin won this award once before with his film The Band’s Visit, but the film was rejected due to the fact that it spoke mostly English and therefore couldn’t be considered a foreign film. Let It Be Morning was in the newspapers last spring when it was chosen to be screened at Cannes, but was boycotted by the Palestinian cast because they did not agree that the film should be considered an Israeli film.

The film is about an Israeli Arab man, Sami, who works in high-tech in Jerusalem.  He is married with a son.  After attending his brother’s wedding in the village where he grew up, he finds the road back to Jerusalem has been closed, and he is stuck, not able to return home to Jerusalem, to his job, to his Jewish lover, or to his life.

Although the story is imaginary since Israeli Arab villages don’t have the roads closed and the village electricity turned off, it does however reflect a lot of reality, especially the complexity of life in the occupied West Bank.  The story is about an ongoing closure, the road out of the village is blocked for an unspecified reason, the electricity to the village has been turned off, and there is no food left on the shelves in the grocery stores.  Also, there is a secondary plot which does reflect the contemporary reality within Israeli Arab villages – the head of the town council runs the village like a hoodlum and as a result there is corruption and violence within the social fabric of the village.

Checkpoints have been the focal points of many Israeli films in the past.  Here the tightening checkpoint is part of the absurdity of the story. In fact, one of the soldiers who sits at the checkpoint is both friendly and aggressive, both eager to do his job and lazy, a sleeping serpent, so to speak.

This film, which is a bit like theatre of the absurd, also conveys a message about the inter-connection between the Palestinians within Israel who are citizens of the state of Israel and Palestinians of the West Bank who live under military occupation since 1967. Some of the West Bank Palestinians, who work in Israel, often sleep in Israeli Arab villages, which poses a dilemma for the locals who are citizens of Israel, and who sometimes harbor their cousins illegally.  This film cleverly portrays some of the impossible dilemmas of Israeli Arabs, who are in a double bind—how can they be loyal citizens of the Jewish state while maintaining their commitment to Palestinians under occupation. This puts them in psychological occupation.  It should be noted that Sayed Kashua himself found life so absurd here that he no longer lives in Israel.  He has moved to the United States.