"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, February 14, 2019

The Aleppo Codex

The Lost Crown, directed by Avi Dabach, documents the story of the Aleppo Codex, better known as the Crown. This is a fascinating film which, like a good detective story, tells a story of intrigue, murder, and even cultural appropriation at the hands of the government of Israel. 

The Aleppo Codex was written on parchment in the 10th century and is the most ancient manuscript of the Hebrew Bible.  Today it is located in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, but about 200 pages of the manuscript are missing.  The manuscript was kept in the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, which was destroyed in a fire caused during the riots of 1947, following the UN vote on partition. Even though the Crown was rescued from the fire, it is still unclear what happened to the missing pages. 

The filmmaker, the great grandson of the Syrian Jewish man who was the guardian of the Crown, becomes obsessed with the subject and begins to try to solve the mystery of what happened to the missing pages. He interviews Mossad agents, antiquities dealers and historical researchers. He travels to Deal, New Jersey, where he meets members of the tight-knit, vibrant Halabi (Aleppo) Jewish community, who vacation there every summer.  When he returns to Israel, to continue his unrelenting investigation, it becomes clear that we are still in the dark about what happened to these priceless pieces of manuscript. 

This is both a personal quest for the filmmaker and also an attempt at righting a wrong that was enacted in the name of the State of Israel, a kind of cultural interventionism and paternalistic appropriation on the part of officials of the State. 

I loved this film and I was absorbed as the filmmaker works to unravel a 20th century mystery.   You can learn more at an investigative website, which has been produced in cooperation with KAN TV, the Israeli public TV network.

The documentary film, The Lost Crown (60 minutes) is available from the producer, Judith Manassen Ramon, at Micha’s Films.  Watch for its premiere at the Sephardic Jewish Film Festival in New York City in the middle of next month.  Watch the film’s trailer! 

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The story of Soviet Jewish Refuseniks

From Slavery to Freedom, directed by Arkady Kogan, a new documentary about Soviet Jewish refuseniks, especially Natan Sharansky, is premiering this week at the Berlin Film Festival.  The film tells a fascinating story of Jewish dissidents who stood up to the Soviet political machine and succeeded in winning their freedom from the shackles of Soviet oppression. 

Here we learn about those Jewish dissidents who, in the early 1970s, fed up with the institutionalized anti-Semitism in the Former Soviet Union, decided to apply for permission to leave the Soviet Union and emigrate to Israel.  Due to the fact that their requests were refused, these Jews became known as refuseniks.  The film tells their stories, including interviews with well-known refuseniks such as Josef Mendelevich (who was a participant in the attempted hijacking affair), Zeev Dashevsky, Vladimir Slepak and Dina Beylina. 

Perhaps the best known of all of the Soviet refuseniks was Natan Sharansky, who began his long fight for permission to leave for Israel in 1973.  He was three years a refusenik and human rights activist.  Then in 1977, he was arrested and became a Prisoner of Zion, held in terrible conditions, until his release in February 1986.  During these years, his wife, Avital, was traveling around the world trying to raise interest and awareness of his plight, and that of others held against their will in the Soviet Union.  The film also includes interviews with American Jewish activists in the “Let My People Go” movement who worked tirelessly to obtain freedom for these refuseniks. 

Sharansky talks about how the Six Day War had a profound affect on his Jewish identity.  Up until that time, refuseniks, like himself, had grown up disconnected from their Jewish roots and slowly they began to learn about Jewish history, traditions and about the State of Israel.  This was the beginning of the movement that eventually opened the doors and lead to more than one million people leaving the Former Soviet Union for Israel.

Although the film does not go on to talk about what happened to these people after they left the Soviet Union, it is important to mention – Natan Sharansky became a major public personality in Israel, including head of the Jewish Agency for many years.  And the aliyah of the more than one million people from the Soviet Union, so many of them educated and skilled, has dramatically changed the face of Israel in fields such as music, medicine, engineering, and more.

From Slavery to Freedom (documentary, 84 minutes) is available from Go2Films.www.go2films.com The film tells an important story of heroism in the modern period.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

New Israeli TV Series Available on Netflix

If you liked Fauda, then you will surely like the new Israeli TV series, When Heroes Fly (Bishvila Giborim Afim), directed by Omri Givon, based on a novel by Amir Guttfreund.  Just like Fauda, this is a complex and gripping thriller, with highly developed characters and script. 

Unlike Fauda, however, this is not about how the Israelis treat the Palestinians and how the Palestinians treat the Israelis.  Rather, this is about a bunch of Israeli soldiers who served together in combat during the 2006 Second War in Lebanon. They are a diverse group – religious and secular, Sephardi and Ashkenazi.  When their commander gets badly wounded and they are overrun by a large contingent of Hezbollah fighters, they are forced to leave him behind on the battlefield.  One of them is badly affected by this incident and, as a result, he pushes his girlfriend away, and she runs off to Colombia, where she is apparently killed in a terrible road accident.  Years later, there seems to be a doubt as to her death.  Is it possible that she is still alive and well in Colombia?  Four friends, putting aside their old resentments and terrible memories, set off to try to find her.
When Heroes Fly is very well-made, moves back and forth in time, providing context and memory, and there is stunning photography in the jungle of Colombia.  It is a 2018 Israeli TV series made by Keshet, 10 episodes in Hebrew and Spanish with English subtitles.  I just finished binge watching the series and I highly recommend it!

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Political and Religious Extremism in "Red Cow"

Red Cow, the new debut film by Tsivia Barkai-Yacov, tells the story of Benny, 17-years-old, who lives with her father.  Her household is an interesting one -- her father encourages her to don tefillin for morning prayers and her mother died at Benny’s birth.
Benny’s name, short for Binyamina, draws our attention to her ambivalent attitude toward her role as a female within her religious community.  Another cue, perhaps not so subtle, is the extreme close-up on Benny’s red hair, which opens the film.  This is certainly a reference to the red color of the cow in the title of the film, and already a hint, in the first shot, that Benny herself might become a sacrificial lamb.

The fascinating part of this film is the context – Benny and her father live in a small apartment which looks out at the Dome of the Rock, in an enclave surrounded by Muslims, perhaps in the village of Silwan, right outside the Old City of Jerusalem.  Her father is a leader of a right-wing group of zealots who favor the use of violence in order to stop the evacuation of hilltop youth at Amona, and more importantly believe it is their duty to bring about the destruction of one of the most holy Muslim sites, the Dome of the Rock, thereby permitting the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.  According to the Bible, in order to re-establish prayers in the new temple, they need an unblemished red heifer which must be sacrificed. Now that a sacred red heifer is found, they are that much closer to their goal. 

Notwithstanding the wonderful photography and composition of each scene and the interesting political context, the rest of the film is a poorly scripted story of a girl’s dissatisfaction with her community (she goes so far as to tell her father that his plans could bring about World War III) and her sexual awakening in the arms of another girl. Her authoritarian father’s reaction when he learns of this homosexual affair is quite painful to watch.  But more importantly, we see how the affair becomes the most important journey in Benny’s life – more important than the religious and the political.

Red Cow is available from Laila films (lailafilms.office@gmail.com).

Friday, January 4, 2019

Best Films of 2018

Here is my list of the ten best films of 2018 --

Please note that all of these films have been reviewed on this website.  In order to read more about them, find them arranged alphabetically by title in the index on the left side of the screen. 

Feature Films
  • Shelter by Eran Riklis -- a thriller about the intense relationship that develops between a Palestinian woman informer and her Mossad female protector.
  • Laces (Shoelaces) by Yankul Goldwasser -- the relationship between a father and his special needs son.
  • Working Woman by Michal Aviad -- sexual harassment in the workplace.

Feature Films that take place within the context of Haredi Society
  • The Other Story by Avi Nesher -- a young woman who has recently become haredi and her relationship with her parents.
  • The Unorthodox by Eliran Malka -- the establishment and rise of the Shas political party.
  • Geula (Redemption) by Joseph Madmony and Boaz Yehonatan Yacov -- a man forms a band to play at haredi weddings in order to pay for his daughter’s chemotherapy.
  • Driver by Yehonatan Indursky -- a man who makes a living driving needy people around town to the homes of wealthy people to ask for money.

  • The Oslo Diaries by Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan -- the historic Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the early 1990s.
  • Wall by Moran Ifergan offers both the filmmaker’s personal story and a look at multiple issues of contemporary Israel.
  • One Last Bedtime Story by Anat Zeltser and Modi Bar-on -- a TV documentary series about Hebrew children’s literature.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Other Story by Avi Nesher

Avi Nesher is one of Israel’s greatest and most prolific filmmakers.  In his early years, he was well-known for Sing Your Heart Out (HaLahaka).  After a long period working in Hollywood, he returned to Israel where he has made some of the more important films of the last 25 years: Turn Left at the End of the World, Secrets, Wonders, and Past Life.

According to the publicity for his latest film, The Other Story, it’s about a young woman who is becoming haredi (ultra-orthodox) and her parents want to prevent her from marrying, because, let’s face it, marrying someone from the haredi world would probably be an irreversible commitment for her. But the film is not only about that. It’s about so much more.   

It is a gripping complex narrative film that follows two family stories.  Both stories are about relations between parents and children, and explore whether any of us really can know what’s best for our children. 

Anat and Shahar were a couple when they were secular, even hedonistic, youngsters.  Today, they have both become ultra-orthodox and are engaged to be married. Shahar is the lead singer in a band and is studying in a Jerusalem yeshivah and Anat is in an ultra-orthodox seminary for girls. In a desperate attempt to block the upcoming wedding, Anat’s mother sends for her estranged husband who has been living in the USA. She wants his help in stopping the wedding at any cost.

In the second story, Anat’s grandfather and father are both therapists and are counseling a couple who are fighting over what is best for their young son. Both parents seem to be somewhat off balance – the father is ready to stoop to any means to keep control over his son and the mother participates in a so-called “cult” which is actually an ultra-feminist group where the women are worshipping a Canaanite goddess. 

The parallel between ultra-orthodoxy and ultra-feminism, both as forms of extremism, is quite striking. Who is to say which zealotry is preferable – extreme secularism or ultra-orthodoxy? 
I loved The Other Story.  It is filled with sharp dialogue, dramatic tension, multiple motivations, and in-depth characterizations. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Life Within the Ultra-orthodox community

During the last year or two, there have been a lot of Israeli feature films on the subject of life in the haredi (ultra-orthodox) community.  The award-winning Geula, directed by Joseph Madmony and Boaz Yehonatan Yacov, is such a film!  It is an honest, passionate, and touching portrait of one particular man. 

Menachem works in a haredi grocery store.  Once, 15 years ago, he was the lead singer for a rock band.  But today, he is a religious man, a single father of a six-year-old daughter.  In order to earn some money, Menachem decides to search for his old friends and put together the band to perform at orthodox weddings. 

Similar to the Blues Brothers, Menachem sets out to visit each of his friends in order to ask them to help him put back together the band – for a higher cause.  In this film, it’s to help Menachem raise the funds he needs for his daughter’s chemo-therapy.

Menachem is not exactly a talkative fellow, but he does succeed in drawing us in, helping us understand who he is, and what happened to his wife.  As the wedding band becomes a success, there are problematic effects on each of his friends.  But eventually, his friends help him reconnect with his past and to come to grips with what he is searching for in his own life.

The title Geula (Redemption) is his daughter’s name. It also refers to Menachem’s searching for some sort of personal redemption as we see him change and develop within the film. 

Geula, a surprisingly compelling and touching film, filled with some great music, is available from Transfax Films.