"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, December 13, 2018

A Look at the Experiences of Jews from Ethiopia

Fig Tree is a debut film written and directed by Aalam-Warqe Davidian, a graduate of the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem.  (Previously, she made a number of short films under her maiden name, Almork Marsha.) A strangely compelling film, it deals with the experiences of Jews from Ethiopia. The entire story, shot on location, takes place in Ethiopia during a period of terrible unrest.
Mina is an adolescent Jewish girl.  She lives in the outskirts of Addis with her grandmother and her brother who lost his arm serving in the army.  Her mother has already gone to live in Israel and is waiting for them to join her.  These are difficult times in Ethiopia.  There is a civil war and the government troops are kidnapping teenage boys to force them to serve in the armed forces.  Mina is in love with Eli, also a teenager, who is living in the woods, trying to escape the hardships of serving in the army.  When Mina and her grandmother and her brother are notified that it is their turn to depart for Israel, Mina hatches a plot to try to save Eli from the army and to bring him to Israel, even though he is not Jewish.

The film’s title refers to a specific tree, a place of refuge, where Eli goes to hide from the government soldiers.  It is also the place where Mina has discovered a man maimed by the civil war, who is trying to kill himself, hiding in the large and gnarled roots of the tree.  Eli assures her – this place is neither heaven nor hell – which seems to be an honest appraisal of their life in Addis.  What else might the title refer to? Fig leaves in the Book of Genesis are used by Adam and Eve, after they receive knowledge, to cover their nakedness – this is where Mina and Eli first make love.  In addition, the Christian Bible (and Eli is Christian) mentions the fig tree in connection with the promise that Jesus will return to the Land.  And that is what this film is about – returning to the Land. 

The film has garnered awards – it won a prize for best film by a woman director at the Toronto International Film Festival, and a prize for cinematography at the Haifa International Film Festival.  This is a small film which tells a story about two teenagers, their simple needs and desires.  It is also a women’s film – telling the story through the eyes and experiences of a teenage girl.  Even though this is not a big production, or a complex narrative, it is an absorbing human story of a family, trying to escape the hardships of poverty and war in Ethiopia.

I am proud to say that I sit on the selection committee of the joint Gesher - Avi Chai film fund, which supported both the development and production of this film. 

Fig Tree was made by Black Sheep Productions 

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Laces by Yankul Goldwasser

Laces by veteran filmmaker Yankul Goldwasser is certainly one of the best Israeli feature films that I have seen this year!  It offers a striking emotional and complex story about the relationship between a father and his grown son with special needs.  I think I especially liked it because of three things — the complex narrative, the wonderful and in-depth portrayal of the characters and the fact that it offers a window into the world of people with special needs — their capabilities, their humanity, and capacity for love — a world that is unknown to so many of us.

Gadi’s parents were divorced years ago and when his mother dies in a car accident, even though he is a grown man who has lived his entire life with his mother, he is forced to go to live with his father. Slowly we get to know both Gadi and his father and watch as their relationship develops.

The father owns a small auto repair shop in Jerusalem and he brings Gadi with him to work every day to help out.  Eventually Gadi becomes attached to his father and his circle of friends.  The story has many sub-plots, including both father and son searching for love.  As the father begins to go out with Gadi’s social worker, Gadi becomes infatuated with a waitress at the nearby restaurant.  But the real love story is the one sprouting between father and son.

There is another level to the story — the father needs a kidney transplant and part of the story deals with the ethics of asking a man with special needs, who might not fully understand all the ramifications, to donate a kidney in order to save his own father.

I found the film to be compelling on an emotional level and it haunted me for days as I was thinking about the characters and what happened to them. There is also some charm and humor — for example, the title refers to one of the ways that the employee from the department of social services tests Gadi’s disability — does he know how to tie his own shoelaces?

The character of Gadi is played by Nevo Kimchi in a striking performance which shows his impressive talent for internalizing and portraying a character so unlike himself.

Laces is available from Go2Films.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Identity Theft

You Only Die Twice, a film by David Deri and, Yair Lev, is a compelling historical and personal mystery.  The filmmaker, a second generation survivor, sets out on a journey to solve a family mystery.  

When the filmmaker's mother inherits a cottage in an upscale neighborhood of London, she has to prove who she is and how she is related to the deceased.  The lawyer dealing with the case discovers something unsettling in her father's records.  Ernst Bechinsky, her father, lived in Palestine since the 1930s and died there.  But the lawyer has discovered a second death certificate from the 1980s for a man living in Austria, with the same name and the identical date of birth.  How could this be? 

The filmmaker, Yair Lev, travels to Innsbruck to discover who was this imposter who took his grandfather's identity and why would someone steal another's identity? 

The story slowly unfolds as the filmmaker interviews people who might have known the second Ernst Bechinsky, as he reconstructs the past, and considers what might have motivated this man. He discovers a close connection to an Austrian Nazi family and builds a surprising bond with the grandson of this family – a man his own age, a man also grappling with living in the shadow of that time.  This is a film about victims and perpetrators and living with the burden of the past, about identity and about shattering our own assumptions.    

The film won an award at DocAviv 2018 – the jury's comments: "Research is the heart and soul of this film, a film where the director works as investigator, uncovering a personal mystery to reveal a profound truth about family, brotherhood and forgiveness."

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Oslo Peace Process

Here is a guest review by my husband, Ron Kronish, who has dedicated most of his professional life to dialogue and mutual understanding across the divide in Israel and Palestine.

Viewing the new documentary The Oslo Diaries, directed by Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan, last week at the Jerusalem Film Festival was a fascinating yet painful experience—-fascinating because of the courage and commitment to peace on the part of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders and their senior staff and advisors, and painful because of the power of the rejectionists on both sides of the conflict who prevailed through terrorism, violence, incitement and hatred of the other in severely crippling the historic and hopeful Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process in the early 1990s. 

The film retraces the back channel talks which took place in Norway in 1992 and 1993 —under the auspices of the Norwegian government officially as “academic conferences “—which led to the signing of the Oslo Accord on the White House lawn in front of thousands of people from around the world on September 13,1993. The story is told through the diaries of two of the main partners in this amazing process — on the Israeli side: Ron Pundak , a young academic and on the Palestinian side: Abu Ala, Ahmed Qurei, who later became prime minister of the Palestinian Authority -- as well as interviews with many of the key players on the Israel side, such as Dr.Yossi Beilin, Uri Savir, Shimon Peres and others, but only two Palestinians other than Abu Ala. In addition, there is much good archival footage, not only of the secret talks that took place in Norway but also of the violence in the streets of the anti-peace demonstrators on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides of the divide. 

For me the most painful parts of the film were the hatred in the eyes and the incitement in the faces of the Israeli right wing anti-peace fanatics led by the young and dangerous Likud leader Bibi Netanyahu and others, especially at the infamous rally in Zion Square in which they spewed venomous hatred against Prime Minister Rabin, which undoubtedly sowed the seeds of violence leading to his assassination shortly thereafter, in November 1995. Whenever I see the footage of these fanatic anti- Peace right wing politicians standing on that balcony shouting and screaming like madmen -- looking and sounding like Mussolini —and inciting their faithful base to extreme emotions of hatred clearly leading to violence -- it gives me the chills and makes me feel sick. In fact, in the footage of Netanyahu ranting and raving hysterically at that rally, even his hair (coiffure) was frazzled and out of shape! 
The film revealed to all of us who were privileged to see it both the high hopes and the dashed expectations of the Oslo Peace Process. It showed famous footage of Palestinians rejoicing at the hope of peace by throwing flowers on Israeli soldiers, and it revealed scenes of Israelis dancing in the streets, reminiscent of the day that Israel proclaimed its independence on May 5, 1948. It also revealed terrible scenes of horrific suicide bombings on the part of Palestinian rejectionists as well as excessive brutality against Palestinians on the part of Israeli soldiers. 

Despite all the problems and challenges, this important film brings us back to a period of unprecedented optimism and serious commitments to peace. I remember well the euphoria that could be felt in Israel at the time when for the first time in our history we actually believed that peace with the Palestinians was possible. Moreover, the film reveals beyond any doubt that courageous and creative leadership could lead us to peace via persistent dialogue. 

If only one day we could have such competent, caring and compassionate leaders—and advisors —once again!

The Oslo Diaries (documentary, 97 minutes) is available from Medalia Productions.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Working Woman by veteran filmmaker, Michal Aviad, is a strong statement about sexual harassment in the workplace. 

Orna is married to Ofer -- they have a wonderful relationship and share in taking care of their three children.  Recently they opened a restaurant and are financially stressed, so Orna finds a job working for Benny, a builder putting up an up-scale apartment tower in Rishon LeTzion with attractive views of the sea.  She starts out as his personal assistant and eventually moves up to director of sales.  But something is wrong in their relationship and the sexual tension is thick and unmistakable. Benny starts out by making comments about her hair and suggestions about how she dresses – and things move on from there.

At a time when #MeToo has become so relevant in every woman’s life, along comes a film about sexual harassment in the workplace, making it extremely up-to-date and relevant.  What woman has not experienced some harassment in her professional life?  Why can’t we be looked upon as professional women instead of sexual objects?  Why have we been afraid to speak out at times of harassment?  Why are we so often blamed for what is obviously terribly inappropriate behavior on the part of the boss?
Working Woman is an extremely effective film, portraying compelling and complex characters, with superb cinematography – all leading the viewer to become an unwitting witness in a realistic and hard-hitting narrative.

During the film, I asked myself why didn’t Orna tell her husband about the increasing harassment at work?  Was she worried about how he would react?  Was she afraid of losing her job?  Or was she unsure of her own role in what was taking place? Why doesn’t she take revenge?  As things become more and more unbearable, Orna realizes that she must take steps to preserve her own self-image and dignity.

The film was produced by Lama Productions and United King Films.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

On the Periphery of Society

Here and Now, directed by Roman Shumunov, is a sentimental and dark drama about Russian immigrants living in the slums of Ashdod.  Our four young heroes are burdened with trying to support themselves and their families and, at the same time, learning to adapt to Israeli life.  They are serious rappers and are dreaming of participating in an upcoming music festival. 

There are four tragic stories -- Andrei’s father has been hospitalized for a long period and he is left holding the bag, paying the mortgage and taking care of his little sister.  Things are not so easy and Andrei gets deep into debt.  Things seem to be spiraling out of control when his sister complains about school, they get harassed by the police for loitering on the streets at night, and he loses his job unloading crates at the port.  When the school social worker threatens to take his sister away and the bank threatens to foreclose on the apartment, Andrei realizes that he has to do something drastic to get himself out of this situation.

One of his friends is apparently homeless and misses his mother back in Georgia.  Another is living with the terrible memory of his sister being raped and murdered.  A fourth has gotten himself involved with the Russian mob. 

The film is a bit preachy and the acting leaves something to be desired. The best part is the rap music – although there wasn’t enough of it -- and the lyrics that clearly express the frustrations and humiliations of being a new immigrant young man on the periphery of Israeli society.

Here and Now is available from Go2Film and Laila Films. 

Friday, July 27, 2018

The Unorthodox

At the opening of the Jerusalem Film Festival last night at the Sultan’s Pool, thousands of viewers had the extraordinary opportunity to see The Unorthodox, the debut feature film by Eliran Malka.

In addition, all of us who were there last night were able to honor Cinematographer, Yaron Sharf, who was presented with an award by Nechama Rivlin (wife of the President of Israel, Ruby Rivlin), for his contribution to Israeli cinema, especially for his work on this film and on many other Israeli films, including Someone to Run With (directed by Oded Davidoff, 2006) and Hunting Elephants (directed by Reshef Levy, 2013), both of which were screened at previous Festival opening events, similar to this one!

The film The Unorthodox (הבלתי רשמיים) is based on the actual story of the establishment and rise of the Shas political party (Sephardi Torah Guardians) from the1980s, until the party becomes a major force, especially in the election in 1999 when it garnered 17 seats in the Knesset. The anger, frustration, and disenfranchisement suffered by Jews of Sephardi (Mizrachi) background, at the hands of the Ashkenazi establishment and the orthodox religious Agudat Yisrael political party is depicted as the root cause of the explosion which leads to the founding and growth of this new grass roots political party. 

Our main character is Ya'akov Cohen, played by Shuli Rand—one of Israel's veteran popular actors who became ultra-orthodox in his personal life-- in a tour-de-force performance.  

Ya'akov owns a printing press and is struggling to bring up his teenage daughter who is thrown out of a “good” (read that as Ashkenazi) high school for girls.  When he realizes that she has been expelled simply due to anti-Sephardi discrimination – there is no other explanation – then he decides to take matters into his own hands.  He envisions change through the establishment of Sephardi institutions, such as schools and yeshivot, all of which will be funded by the government, and he bands together with some friends who work with him to establish an ultra-orthodox Sephardi party that will run for Jerusalem municipal elections and ultimately for the Knesset.

The narrative is about a regular guy, a working man, who has no political experience, but has the vision and the passion to make a major change within Israeli society.  This part of the film is told with tremendous humor and understanding as we get to know Ya'akov and his friends.  On another level, the film is also about politics. The director clearly expressed much cynicism and criticism of the political process that Shas underwent as it became an established political party. It seems that politics, in Israel (and elsewhere!) forces people to play dirty and even to engage in corruption!  In my view, this part of the film is not as successful as the first part, but it is nevertheless insightful and helps to explain some of what has happened to Shas over the years.

In an interview with director Eliran Malka, this morning on Israeli radio Kan Reshet Bet, Malka explained that he identifies as a Mizrachi or Sephardi religious Israeli, but he does not see himself as ultra-orthodox.  He also said that he has tremendous respect for the Shas political party, and loves the story of its founding, which he thinks is unique, but he is intentionally critical in the film of how Shas has developed over the years. 

The film provides an opportunity to understand the Shas voters, where they are coming from, and what they are expressing as part of their experience as a minority group which has suffered much discrimination over the years in Israel.  In addition, it provides insight into the workings of Israeli political life, demonstrating how  the "religious" leaders give up some of their ethical values and become poisoned by their new-found power and authority, which they abuse just like their fellow secular politicians.

The Unorthodox does not tell us much about the political platform for the Shas party, which has become well known in Israel for its concerns for "social issues", especially for the lower classes. This makes it a bit disappointing. On the positive side, using humor and pathos, the film is clever and upbeat and offers a compelling and fascinating story of one man successfully bringing about much needed social change.

I sit on the board of the Gesher Multicultural Film Fund and I am proud that we provided some funding towards the production of this film!

The film is distributed by Go2Films.