"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.


Monday, January 16, 2017

Family Relationships

Personal Affairs, debut feature film by Maha Haj, is about family relationships and loneliness, made with humor and charm.  Although it is slow-moving, and many sequences have a lot of quiet, the tone of this award-winning film is surprisingly compelling.
The story is about an older Christian couple, living in Nazareth.  The father is obsessed with the internet, the mother with her knitting and her soap operas.  They have three grown children, all of whom have moved away. Their daughter is married and almost ready to give birth, living in Ramallah.  Their two bachelor sons -- one lives in Sweden, another in Ramallah.  The vignettes are about relationships – between the parents, between the daughter and her husband, between one of the sons and the object of his love with whom he is incapable of making a commitment. 

At a premiere screening, last night at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, the filmmaker explained that she chose to use humor, because humor crosses borders.  She acknowledged that she shows moods and situations, but hesitates to provide answers as to what will happen or to offer a standard ending.  It is the situation, rather than the narrative, that is important.  She also said that she moves between imagination and reality, as does the film.

According to the filmmaker, the scenes of a dysfunctional family break the stereotype of the warm and supportive Arab family.  In fact, parts of the film border on the absurd, and the elderly grandmother provides comic relief. There are also subtle political comments in the film, and a strong feeling of claustrophobia, especially reflected in the son-in-law’s obsession with seeing the sea for the first time in his life.

This is a film about checkpoints and reality, but it is mostly about daily routine and dreams, about the dissatisfactions of everyday life, and the need to resolve inter-personal issues.

Personal Affairs was screened in Un Certain Regard category at Cannes and was the winner of the award for best Israeli feature film at the Haifa Film Festival.  Beginning March 2017, the film will be available from Sophie DulacDistribution.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Espionage, Collaborators, and Terrorism

If you are a fan of the thriller, then the Israeli TV series, Fauda, directed by Assaf Bernstein, is for you!  According to the producers of the series, it is based on real-life episodes from their army service as members of an elite unit doing undercover work in the West Bank.  The title of the series means “chaos” and refers to what fighters of the Israeli Secret Service (shin bet) shout into their cellphones when they get into a difficult situation and back-up.
The narrative is about a unit of shin bet counter-terrorism soldiers, hunting down a Palestinian terrorist who is running from one hideout to another, in an attempt to save his own skin and to mastermind another large-scale terrorist attack.  We get to know the fighters on both sides, both Palestinians and Israelis, and their families, their vulnerabilities, and their heroics.  On the Palestinian side, we realize that there are different factions within the terrorist network.  And on the Israeli side, we learn about the tremendous bravery which becomes an obsession as the shin bet undercover agents spend their lives passing as Arabs and penetrating into Palestinian society.

Fauda is a thriller, gritty, hard-hitting, and extremely well-made with complex characters and an authentic script.  I just finished bingeing on the first season – and I was happy to hear that a second season is in the works! You can catch the first season of Fauda on Netflix!

If you like action films, you might want to see Bethlehem by Yuval Adler, previously reviewed on this blog.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Combatants for Peace

Last night, I went to see the film, Disturbing the Peace, directed by Stephen Apkon and Andrew Young.  This is a film about Combatants forPeace, an organization which has been created by former enemy combatants, Israelis and Palestinians, who have realized that working to end the occupation and to establish a two-state solution is the best way to bring about peace in this part of the world. 

This is a documentary film (83 minutes) which attempts to present an even-handed look at two narratives, presented in parallel, beginning with the 1940s – the Holocaust, the declaration of the State of Israel, and the Nakba – a moment in time when the two narratives--the Palestinian one and the Israeli one-- can be seen side-by-side.  Then, the stories continue up to the terrible reality of the last 20 years -- the occupation, the terrorist bombings, and repeated wars in Gaza. 

The film follows the amazing and compelling stories of personal transformation of some of the leading activists of Combatants for Peace -- Jamil, a Palestinian father from Dehaishe; Avner, an Israeli soldier; Suleiman, a Palestinian fighter from the Al Aksa Brigades of Fatah; and others.   These are former enemies who are today working via non-violence during an ongoing armed conflict in order to resist and ultimately to end the conflict.  This is certainly not an easy task, and it is not sufficiently appreciated within their communities.

The film makes use of dramatized sequences, mixed together with archival footage, which creates a very effective and hard-hitting experience for the viewer.  The reactions from the audience last night were mostly positive. In the discussion following the screening, viewers described the film as “very brave,” “makes me hopeful,” “deeply moving.”  When Jamil stood up to speak, he began his remarks with expressing condolences for the terrorist attack that took place here in Jerusalem just the day before.  Then he went on to say that “we condemn violence on both sides, on the Palestinian side and on the Israeli side.”

According to Avner, the film itself was “created as an invitation to action.” He and the other leaders of this courageous organization clearly see this film--which is being shown in many places in Israel and in Ramallah--as a programming tool for encouraging more people on both sides to join their movement. They offer a new and unique model of non-violent resistance to the current situation, and at the same time they offer hope when despair seems to be all too prevalent in our country and our region.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Best Films of 2016

It’s that time of year!  Here is my lineup of my favorite Israeli films of the past year.
All of them are wonderful films and not to be missed!

Feature Films

  • ·        Junction 48 - directed by Udi Aloni and featuring Arab rapper, Tamer Nafar.  About the frustrations of living in a divided society, and about the meeting point between Israelis and Palestinians within Israeli society.

  • ·        Sand Stormdirected by Elite Zexer – about Bedouin women living in the northern Negev, this is a gritty and authentic picture of life for the women, a prizewinner at Sundance.   

  • ·        Through the Wall – directed by Rama Burshtein (Fill the Void) - an impressive comedy drama about providence, faith, matchmaking, and a woman’s desire for marriage, all on the backdrop of life within the haredi (ultra-orthodox) community in Israel. 

  • ·        Past Life directed by veteran filmmaker, Avi Nesher (Dizengoff ‘99, Secrets, Turn Left at the End of the World, Wonders) – tells the story of two sisters in 1970s Israel who unravel the dark mystery of their father’s life during the Holocaust, based on the true story of Ella Sheriff.

  • ·        The Women’s Balcony (Yismach Hatani) -- Emil Ben Shimon’s debut film about the Sephardi modern Orthodox community in Jerusalem, a warning about the dangers of religious fanaticism.

  • ·        One Week and a Day - Asaph Polonsky’s debut feature - winner of the Critics' Week award at Cannes 2016, a quirky tragi-comedy about fathers and sons, family issues, and bereavement.


  • ·        Presenting Princess Shaw -- directed by Ido Haar – triumphant story of how an African American singer goes viral when she is discovered on-line by Kutiman, an Israeli musical phenomenon.

  • ·        Who's Gonna Love Me Now? -- directed by Barak Heymann and Tomer Heymann – a soul-searching documentary about Saar Maoz, a 40-year-old Israeli gay man living in London.

  • ·        Café Nagler -- directed by Mor Kaplansky – creative documentary story of a Jewish family in 1920s Berlin. 

  • ·        Photo Farag– directed by Kobi Farag - about a family from Baghdad, who emigrated to Israel in the 1950s, and eventually became successful in their family business of wedding and events photography.

  • ·        Ben Gurion – Epilogue – directed by Yariv Mozer – about an extraordinary visionary, who he was and what he believed.

  • ·        Tel Aviv Live – directed by Nellu Cohen -- a stupendous film about art and artists and about what is unique in the culture of a city.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Unraveling History

The Essential Link, directed by Yonatan Nir, is a fascinating documentary that combines personal family details with elements of an historical thriller.  

On Kibbutz Hazorea in the Jezreel Valley, there is a building called the Wilfred House.  It is a cultural center for the kibbutz and filmmaker Yonatan Nir’s grandfather displayed his paintings there.  But Nir doesn’t know for whom it is named and he is determined to find out.  His research unravels a story that includes Nazi cruelty, a stunning collection of art from the Far East, survivors’ guilt and an overwhelming tale of tremendous personal sacrifice.

The complete title of the film is The Essential Link – The Story of Wilfred Israel and we slowly learn to appreciate the activities of Wilfred Israel who used his personal connections and most of his wealth to help save literally thousands of German Jews.

Wilfred Israel was a wealthy businessman, owner of a department store in the center of Berlin, which was built by his ancestors during the 19th century.  He was a lover of literature and art and in the 1920s, he traveled to the Far East where he began his art collection.  He had a personal relationship with Einstein, Chaim Weizmann, Christopher Isherwood, Martin Buber and Lord Herbert Samuel, to name a few!  During a short detention in a Nazi prison, he befriended members of a Jewish youth group, who he later helped to emigrate to Palestine.  These were the founders of Kibbutz Hazorea.  Today, his art collection is housed in the Wilfred House on Kibbutz Hazorea!

Wilfred Israel worked unceasingly to help obtain the necessary documents for Jews to leave Germany, expended his personal wealth to the rescue of these Jews, with the help of the MI6 agent at the British Embassy in Berlin, obtained visas for Jews, and was the key figure in initiating the Kindertransport operation that saved perhaps as many as 10,000 German Jewish children by sending them to England.

After visiting his pioneering friends in Palestine, he traveled around Europe, desperately trying to free Jews from the clutches of Nazism.  He lost his life when, traveling from Lisbon to London, a German missile shot down his plane.

The Essential Link tells an important and rather unknown story of the Holocaust and, at the same time, it talks about the importance of memory for future generations.  

The film is available (beginning March 2017) from Ruth Films in two versions: 78 minutes or 52 minutes.  I previewed the longer version and was spellbound. If you enjoyed other films that unravel historical mysteries such as The Flat by Arnon Goldfinger and The Green Dumpster Mystery by Tal Haim Yoffe, then you will enjoy this film also!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Past Life by Avi Nesher

Last night, I had the honor of seeing one more Israeli film which just opened here in Jerusalem – Past Life by Avi Nesher – and it is the most compelling and serious Israeli film that I have seen in a long time.

Avi Nesher makes great films.  He is known for his earlier films – Dizengoff ’99 and Sing Your Heart Out – and for his later films – Turn Left at the End of the World, Secrets, and Wonders

His newest film, Past Life (Hebrew title: החטאים ), tells the story of two sisters in 1977 Israel who learn about their father’s complicated and problematic past during the Holocaust.  It is also about the blurring of moral choices in time of war.  The script is based on the true story of Ella Sheriff, wife of Noam Sheriff (the Israeli world-renowned conductor/musician/composter).
According to a radio interview with Avi Nesher last Friday, he chose to have the film take place in 1977 because this was a year of upheaval in Israeli society.  There were the political changes of the revolutionary election of the Likud to power as well as the historic visit of Egyptian President Sadat to Jerusalem, which led to the groundbreaking peace agreement with Egypt.  This was also the end of the period of the “generals”, a macho period in which the leadership of the Israel Defense Forces  thought that they had answers to everything, but in fact their conventional understanding of the enemy was mistaken, which led to the debacle of the October 1973 Yom Kippur War.  The fact that   everything got turned upside down in so many different ways is clearly reflected in this relevant film, especially because this is the story of two very strong women.

Ella Sheriff, like her husband, is a musician/composer.  Interviewed on the same talk radio program as Avi Nesher, she said that as a result of participating in this project, she felt that she was being pushed to finally grapple with her story.  She said that before she saw the film, she couldn’t believe that this would be a true telling of her family’s story.  But now, having viewed it, she realized how much Avi Nesher caught the depths of who she is and the important aspects of her story. 

The narrative of the film is about two sisters -- Sephie is learning music at the Academy of Music in Jerusalem, and Nana, who is older, is married and co-publishing a provocative intellectual magazine together with her husband.  At a choral performance in Berlin, an older woman shouts at Sephie that her father was a murderer.  Clearly shaken by this outburst, she undertakes a journey, together with her sister, trying to discover who her father really was and what happened to him during the war. 
This is not just another Holocaust film.  It is a deeply compelling look at some of the extremely difficult moral choices people were forced to take, and how those choices impact on their lives 30 years later. 

The film is also like a concert, showcasing extraordinary choral music and concluding with a triumphant, even cathartic, concert performed back in Berlin. 

Past Life, which opened at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year, is probably Avi Nesher’s best film yet.  Don’t miss it!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

On the Background of the Second Lebanon War

Having just had the chance to view a film that I missed last year, I thought I would share it with you – Haven  (עיר מקלט), directed by Amikan Kovner, which takes place during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

When in crisis, or living with on-going situations of danger or war, Israelis often spout the cliché that “life must go on”.  This is often not so easy, especially for those under direct attack.  During the Second Lebanon War, those living on the front-lines in the northern parts of the country, found it difficult to go on with life as usual.  In fact, many were unable to go to work, frustrated due to the fact that they could not protect their families, and were forced to flee their homes for a more secure venue. 

Moti and Keren are a young Sephardi couple from Kiryat Shmona, who are expecting their first child.  They are being hosted by Yali and Boaz, a secular, slightly older, childless couple living in Tel Aviv.  

This is not a complex film, but it is an interesting study of two very different couples who are living under very close and tense conditions in the stifling summer heat.  There are the obvious resentments, jealousies, and of course, sexual tensions.  I loved all four of the characters, and felt for them during this very difficult period. 

The story could be a metaphor for the differences within Israeli society – religious and secular, periphery and center of the country, left and right, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, and more than anything else, those living on the frontlines and those living in the bourgeois city of Tel Aviv.