"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.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Visionary Leader

Ben Gurion: Epilogue, directed by Yael Perlov, is a new documentary film about David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel.  He was the visionary who ran the Zionist enterprise during the years before the establishment of the State, who declared the of the State of Israel in 1948, and served as prime minister for 13 years. 

The film makes use of an unknown interview which was conducted in 1968 by Clinton Bailey, a young American journalist.  The film of the interview was found in a film archive and the soundtrack was uncovered in a completely different archive!  Here we meet a steadfast and dedicated man of surprising charm, great humor, vision, and even surprising modesty.  He states quite clearly that a single person doesn’t change history and that the things that he was able to accomplish in his lifetime were built on the deeds of others.

This remarkable interview is accompanied by stupendous footage of Ben Gurion during his early days in Eretz Israel, at the beginning of the 20th century, and later in life working as a farmer during his years living at Sde Boker. Some of the subjects that are dealt with include: his unpopular decision to accept German reparations, his interest in Buddhism, and his love for his wife Paula, who had passed away just a few months before.

Ben Gurion: Epilogue is a documentary film which provides insight into an extraordinary man, who he was and what he believed.  Perhaps most importantly, it revisits Ben Gurion’s resounding desire for peace.  He states unequivocally, “If I would have a choice, between peace and all the territories which we conquered last year, I would prefer peace.”   This is a reference to the territories that Israel conquered in the 1967 war.  Even though many Israeli leaders have espoused this ideal of trading land for peace, only Menachem Begin, in the peace with Egypt, has been brave enough to actually take this step.  If only we had leadership today who could act on this ideal.

Ben Gurion: Epilogue (documentary, 60 minutes) is available from Go2Films.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Operation Moses – Looking Back

The film, The Jerusalem Dream, directed by Meni Elias, tells the story of Operation Moses during the late 1970s.  It is a tale of sacrifice and hardship on the part of the Jews of Ethiopia who decided to undertake the long and difficult trek to Jerusalem. 

Using the interview format of “talking heads”, the film focuses on five different families.  Their stories are told from their own perspective and in their own words.  This is a strangely compelling format – we watch as they talk, as they smile and as they cry.  And all of this is interspersed with beautiful landscapes and footage from Ethiopia. 

The participants talk nostalgically of their memories growing up in Ethiopia, the cornfields, herding the goats, playing children’s games.   Then they talk of their terrible sorrow that all of this ended, especially since there was so much danger and tragedy as they trekked to Sudan and were finally airlifted to Israel.  The story is in the telling – their compassion, their emotion, their memories.  They talk of the loved ones who were lost due to thirst and hunger and disease.  There was so much death that one man remembers his father begging God that someone in the family would survive to make it to Jerusalem.  These people paid a tremendous price. 

The film The Jerusalem Dream (documentary, 51 minutes) is available from Ruth Diskin Films.  

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Mental Health Issues

Until recently, there was a phenomenon in Israel that too many people were being kept in hospital mental health wards for long periods of time, even perhaps for most of their lives.   This policy, which cut off these people from the society around them, has finally been changed.  The new understanding is that those with mental health issues are better off living in group housing or hostels, as functioning and contributing members of society.

In the new and ground-breaking documentary film, Open Ward, directed by Yoav Kleinman and Ido Glass, we meet three men in an unprecedented look at an open ward at the Abarbanel Mental Health Center.  And we learn about each of their fears vis-a-vis the new policy. I found this film particularly compelling.

Avner, age 54, has been living at Abarbanel for 32 years.  In a conversation with his social worker, Nati, he complains of inner boredom.  Even though he is not living in a closed ward, he is terribly afraid of going out past the main gate.  His brother-in-law visits him regularly, feeling compelled to take interest and take care of him because his wife, Avner's sister, is not capable of doing so.

Avraham, age 68, likes to sing.  He dreams of being reborn as a normal man with a family. Otherwise, like a "passing shadow," who will remember him when he goes?  He is particularly interested in talking about death especially after he is diagnosed with cancer.  Participating in a drama workshop at Abarbanel, he decides he wants to leave behind a song.

Igor, age 28, hears voices in his head.  He likes to sing rap, and we see him sing/perform his own rap song as part of the film (Where the Sky Ends) that is being produced by the drama workshop.  Still a young and vibrant man with dreams, Igor wants to be permitted to go to live in a hostel and to get a real job.

This film offers an upfront and personal portrayal of three men who are willing to expose themselves and their inner fears.  They talk about their lives, their dreams, and their acceptance of their lot in life.

Open Ward (documentary, 57 minutes), produced for broadcast on Israel Channel One, is available from Muse Productions. Contact: muse.prod1@gmail.com

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Role of the Ultra-Orthodox Woman

In a new documentary film, Measures of Merit, by Irit Dekel and Roni Aboulafia, we are offered a view of the world of Haredi (ultra-orthodox) women.  It is not easy being a Haredi woman.  They live in a man's world -- their lives are run by their husbands and their rabbis, they are harassed by the dayanim (judges) in the religious courts, and they have no representation in the Knesset.

This film offers a fascinating portrayal of one woman, Ruth Colian -- a woman who wants to change all that. She is a courageous and outspoken Haredi woman who is fighting for representation for Haredi women in the Knesset.

It would be a dramatic precedent for her to obtain a place in the Knesset.  The official Haredi point-of-view is that women have different roles in life from men.  Women must take care of the children, the home, and obey their husbands and their rabbis.  Otherwise, they begin to descend the dangerous slope towards assimilation.

But Ruth Colian believes that women's voices must be heard and that issues relevant specifically to women -- such as poverty, divorce, and gender issues -- are not being given fair treatment by the Haredi men who have been elected, who do not see themselves as representatives of women also.  In this film, we see Colian decide to create her own political party and to run for the Knesset, and we realize that this is not because she has a strong ego but rather she is motivated by a responsibility for the quality of her daughters' future.

In one of her speeches, she opens with: "It's more worthwhile to be silent, but more honorable to fight."

There are those who argue that it is immodest for a woman to be active in the political sphere and that her party contradicts the values of Haredi life.  But she cannot be dissuaded.

This is a film filled with drama and tension as election day approaches and our candidate works tirelessly, with virtually no budget, to get elected.

Measures of Merit (Hebrew title: A Jewish Woman, 49 minutes, documentary) is available from Ruth Diskin Films.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Palestinian Arab Citizens of Israel

Did you know that the Arab citizens of Israel, including Christians, Muslims, Druze, and Bedouin, make up 20% of the population?   

In the documentary film, My Home, filmmaker Igal Hecht raises a lively discussion about the racism that exists within Israeli society and, notwithstanding this reality, he shows that many of these Arabs citizens are loyal to the state of Israel.  We meet a diverse group of articulate  people, all of whom are seriously working towards coexistence and understanding, some of whom have served in the army, and all of whom support the State of Israel. 

Following Ariel Sharon's famous pilgrimage to the Al Aqsa compound (Temple Mount) in 2001, there was rioting among the Arabs of the Lower Galilee.  The violent response by the police against these rioting citizens caused the death of 13 young men.  In a democratic country, police do not usually open fire on their own citizens even if they are part of an active and even violent protest movement.  According to one woman, this destroyed something in the social fabric and the goodwill in the Galilee.  But she still lives a life which reflects her desire for coexistence.   

It cannot be denied that there is a certain amount of racism and discrimination smoldering -- sometimes below the surface, sometimes more blatant -- against the Arab citizens of Israel. Even the Druze and Bedouin, who serve in the army and believe in supporting the state, admit this and say that things must change.  We also hear from a young man whose father was a soldier in the Southern Lebanese Army (SLA).  After having been granted asylum in Israel,  they live in Acre and this young Christian man finds that he identifies with Israel and is thankful to Israel for having saved his family.  

The film also gives voice to other opinions, to people who are Palestinian Arab citizens and are very critical of how Arabs are treated in Israel.  For example, there are Arab members of the Knesset -- Ahmad Tibi, Ayman Odeh and Haneen Zoabi -- who are all very critical of the discrimination that Arabs suffer within Israeli society.  In addition, they speak out forcefully against the Occupation. 
Perhaps one of the things that points more than anything else to the xenophobia within the country is that a day before the 2015 elections, Bibi Netanyahu made a plea to Likud voters to come to the polls by announcing that "the Arabs are coming out in droves."  He was trying to ensure the election of his right-wing government.  It was a terribly shocking comment which drew a lot of criticism and he was forced to apologize for it.

The film My Home, directed by Igal Hecht (documentary, 52 minutes), is a fascinating documentary which reveals the complexity of life in Israel for its Arab citizens.  The film is available from Ruth Diskin Films.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Jewish Art: Mixing the Sacred and the Mundane

At the age of 60, Jo Milgrom became an assemblage artist, collecting junk from Jerusalem trash pails ("the discards of everyday life") and recycling her finds into new works of art. In a short documentary, Torah Treasures and Curious Trash, directors Paula Weiman-Kelman and Ricki Rosen offer a portrait of this learned and artistic woman and her unique vision of Jewish art.  

Today, Milgrom is 87-years-old and her Jerusalem home is decorated with dozens of pieces of her art. Years ago, she received a collection of abandoned ritual objects from a funeral parlor in San Francisco.  Instead of letting them bury these objects in a geniza, she recycled them into works of art which are meaningful and extraordinary.  Using tefillin boxes and torah mantles, and mixing them with ordinary junk, she creates art which is provocative, both religiously and politically, a type of visual midrash.   

For example, a few of her pieces deal with the sacrifice of Isaac, and one piece in particular is a political statement about our sons in uniform and how they are being sacrificed on the political altar.  In another piece, she uses phone wires and attaches them to a tefillin box to show "voices" coming out of the box. 

Jo Milgrom is a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.  She is also an articulate and provocative artist who recycles everyday materials into new "works of creation." 

Torah Treasures and Curious Trash offers an extraordinary portrait of an iconoclastic woman who challenges the traditional uses of religious objects by imbuing them with new life.  The film (24 minutes) is being screened this summer at the upcoming San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and is available from 7th Art Releasing.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Peter the Third

When was the last time you saw a feature film that didn't include vulgarity, crime or murder?  Or an Israeli film that's not about the Holocaust or the "situation"?

Here is something that might surprise you -- Peter the Third, directed by Tommy Lang, is a gem of a comedy about inter-generational friendship and family rapprochement.   

Peter is a retired actor at Habima, and spends his days with his quirky friends at a coffee shop where Alona is their waitress.  Peter is more than 30 years Alona's senior, but that doesn't stop them from becoming friends -- and from teaming up to help each other with issues in their lives.  Alona, a head-strong young woman,  is currently without a place to live, so Peter invites her to stay with him.  In order to help Peter obtain his pension, together they start a political party which will create a vacation resort for widows and widowers.  A fair number of amusing scenes ensue and their eccentric friends in the coffee shop, a group called the "parliament", create a humorous backdrop throughout.  A feel good and funny film.  

Peter the Third (81 minutes) is available from Ruth Diskin Films.