"World Cinema: Israel"

My book, "World Cinema: Israel", is available from Amazon on "Kindle", with an in-depth chapter comparing and analyzing internationally acclaimed Israeli films up to 2010.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Family Reconciliation

Saar Maoz is a 40-year-old gay man living in London.  He grew up on a religious kibbutz in the Beit Shean valley, served in the paratroopers, and now works for Apple in London.  He sings in the London Gay Men's Choir and discovers that he is HIV positive.  More than anything else, he seems to crave a reconciliation with his family back in Israel. 

Along comes a filmmaker team, Tomer Heymann (who recently directed Mr. Gaga, previously reviewed on this blog) and his brother Barak Heymann, who work together to create a soul-searching documentary, Who's Gonna Love Me Now? about Saar Maoz.  This is a hard-hitting film filled with both joy and sadness, and much drama.
Saar talks about how he was thrown out of the kibbutz where he grew up and his bitterness at the fact that his parents didn't fight the decree.  We meet his parents -- his mother comes to London to visit him and we see that she is trying very hard to fight her earlier shock and antipathy to her son's homosexuality. 

Then we meet his siblings.  One of his brothers is worried about letting his brother, Saar, who is HIV positive, come close to his children.  In an extraordinary scene, sitting in a coffee shop, he is explaining his feelings to Saar, and we see that he has it all neatly worked out.  Sitting quietly next to him, however, is his wife who suddenly chimes in and says -- I am the mother of those same children and I want to say that I'm not worried! Saar's father is old-school macho, still living his triumphant Six Day War memories, and obsessed with how his oldest son has let him down. 

These are just some of the family members with whom Saar must come to terms if he wants to reconcile with his family.  What makes them particularly interesting is the fact that they are religious Jews and, therefore, they are finding it particularly difficult to come to terms with the reality of Saar's lifestyle.

Living in London, Saar sings in the London Gay Men's Choir and we have the delightful opportunity to watch rehearsals and performances which are stupendous!  They add a wonderful dimension to the film, providing not only musical interludes but also a wonderful respect for the talents and charm of this particular group of men.  

Who's Gonna Love Me Now? (documentary, 85 minutes) is available from Heymann Brothers Films.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Ronit Elkabetz

I was saddened to learn today that actress and film director, Ronit Elkabetz, has passed away.  She was an amazingly iconic figure in the Israeli world of cinema.  As both an actress and director, she has been a major force, making award-winning films, garnering international acclaim.  

Born in 1964 in Beersheba, she worked as an actress of stage and screen, both in Israel and in France. Her most impressive roles as an actress in Israeli films include the demonic Lilith character in The Appointed,  the mentally-challenged sister in Sc'chur, the mistress in Late Marriage  and her tour-de-force performance as the owner of a cafe in small town Israel in The Band's Visit.  
During the last decade, together with her brother, Shlomi Elkabetz, she put her hand to film directing.  Together they made a trilogy of films which are critical of the traditional Moroccan Jewish community and its restrictive nature vis-a-vis women.  The most recent film of this trilogy is Gett,  which is also critical of the rabbinical establishment and how it treats women seeking a divorce.  

So often you hear of actors talking about how they had to study in order to prepare themselves for a special role.  In the case of Ronit Elkabetz, I remember, years ago, her talking about how each and every role that she played became part of her and helped to form her being.  This is a thought that has stayed with me as I think of the importance of the role of the actor in filmmaking, and also the importance of the roles that each actor plays.  

Ronit Elkabetz was a strong and dominant woman with an extraordinary personality -- a personality that was formed by so many of the diverse and hard-hitting roles that she played throughout her career.  May her memory be a blessing.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Portrait of a Cultural Hero

Safaa Dabour is a cultural hero within the Arab community in Nazareth.  For decades, the Israeli Arab community did not have movie theaters and cultural centers, then along came Safaa Dabour who established the first cinematheque to serve that community.  She is a strong and independent wonman, the mother of two grown sons, a religious Muslim woman, a widow. The award-winning documentary portrait, Nazareth Cinema Lady, directed by Nurit Jacobs-Yinon, masterfully tells her story -- integrating the personal with the story of the Nazareth Cinematheque, which she established in 2003. 

Dabour talks about how people laughed at her when she said she wanted to establish the first movie theater to screen Arab films for Arab citizens.  She desperately wanted her children to be proud of her, but it's a complicated and frustrating business for a woman in the international world of film.  Sensitively produced and dramatically portrayed, we see her story take shape, as she talks about her difficulties with distributors, how she travels to Amman to collect films, her stormy relationship with her sons, and her traumatic attempt to expose corruption. There are battles that she wins, succeeding in screening films to fully sold-out audiences -- and battles that she loses, such as her fight with the franchise restaurant owner who insists on serving alcohol in the building of the cinematheque. 

This is a portrait of a charming, yet somewhat stubborn and immensely courageous, woman who sets her sights on fulfilling her vision for the Arab community of Nazareth.  
Nazareth Cinema Lady (documentary, 52 minutes) is available from JMT Films.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Firebirds by Amir Wolf

Israeli filmgoers know that living in the shadow of the Holocaust is still an important subject within Israeli society.  The latest Israeli feature film to open in Israeli cinemas, Firebirds, directed by Amir Wolf, is a murder mystery, dealing with Holocaust survivors.   (The erroneous English title being used in Israeli newspapers is Sandbirds.)  

The film opens with an unidentified body found stabbed, partially submerged in the Yarkon River in north Tel Aviv.  The victim has a number on his arm.  A police detective who has been in disgrace is called back to the force and assigned to this case. The story moves back and forth between past and present as the detective discovers clues that help him identify the man and eventually the killer.  We slowly discover that despite his age, this man was still good looking and charming and exploiting Holocaust survivor widows, taking advantage of their loneliness, telling  fabricated stories from the past, building on their neediness and taking their money. 

The pacing is a bit slow and even stilted for a crime drama.  Perhaps the film should have been billed as a psychological drama.  As the detective, who is himself the child of survivors, discovers that the tattooed number on the arm of the victim is relatively new, we ask ourselves, what would make anyone tattoo a number on his arm, faking his identity as a Holocaust survivor?  

This is an intriguing story told on the background of the Holocaust, about aging survivors living in Tel Aviv today.  According to an interview with the filmmaker, Amir Wolf, on Reshet Bet Radio, the film began from this simple story, on the background of the Holocaust, and moved from there to a homage to the three women playing the survivors in the film.  The three women are Gila Almagor, Miriam Zohar and Devorah Keidar and the main character is played by Oded Teomi.  

Firebirds is available from Israeli Films.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The State vs. the Individual

In 1943, approximately 875 Holocaust orphans were brought to the state-in-the-making from Poland via Teheran.  Referred to as the "Teheran children", they were quickly absorbed into the country and were an integral part of the founding generation.

Decades later, when they discover that the State of Israel has received reparations from Germany on their behalf, a small group of them decide to sue the government of Israel for what they consider to be their rightful share of the reparations. 

In the documentary film, The Last Battle of the "Teheran Children" directed by Talila Frank, a group of elderly survivors come together concerning their legal case, and they find some consolation in their common cause.   

On the one hand, these people are very connected to the State.  They were part of the generation of founders and fought in the War of Independence.  Even though they say difficult things about the government and the State of Israel, they are patriotic and some of them ironically talk about how they want the emblem of the Palmach to be put on their gravestones. 

Filmmaker Talila Frank, in a discussion last night at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, talked about how she worked on the film over a period of 8 years.  Her personal connection to the story is that the father of her brother-in-law is a Teheran Child who never talked about his experiences until lately.  He is featured in the film.  Frank talked about the anger of these "children" and how she identifies with their pain because they were not taken care of by the state.  She went on to talk about how these people feel abandoned by the state and therefore are experiencing a feeling of being orphaned again. 

The film raises many issues concerning the life of the individual within the state.  It cannot be denied that the State of Israel did not treat Holocaust survivors in an exemplary fashion over the years.  In fact, one of the judges in the case shown in the film talks about how this case could be dangerous for the government because it could be seen as a precedent and if there is a judgment in favor of these survivors, it could open a deluge of claims by other survivors against the state. 

During the discussion last night, one person in the audience spoke eloquently in favor of the choices made by the growing and developing state in its early years.  It is clear that the state needed the reparations money received from the German government to build its military capability, to build homes and schools, and to invest in a thriving economy.  On the other hand, it cannot be denied that there is much poverty, even until today, and that not enough has been done to give honor and to cover the basic needs of so many Holocaust survivors. 

The Last Battle of the Teheran Children (documentary, 57 minutes) is available from Maya Weinberg (mayafilmfest@gmail.com).