"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.


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, who was also interviewed on the same talk radio program, said that by 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.    

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

New Gangster Film is Surprisingly Compelling

Our Father (Avinu), directed by Meni Yaish, tells the story of Ovadia who is a semi-religious, Sephardi married man.  He is a wonderful husband, a good friend, and as we get to know him, we find him surprisingly lovable!  He owns his own moving company and at night supplements his income by working as a bouncer at his friend’s nightclub.  Ovadia and his wife have been trying for a long time to get pregnant and the IVF treatments via the kupat cholim system have not been working. 

There is a small-time gangster who hangs out at the nightclub and he is impressed by Ovadia’s capabilities in dealing with troublemakers.  When he offers him a well-paying job as a debt collector, Ovadia is attracted by the money which will enable him to pay for private IVF treatments for his wife.  But debt collecting is not so simple and Ovadia is shocked at the things he is expected to do. 

The film stars the husband and wife team, Morris Cohen and Rotem Zissman-Cohen, who became pregnant in real life as they were working on this film!  You probably have seen Rotem in recent years in The Kind Words, God’s Neighbors and A Place in Heaven (all of which have been reviewed on this blog). 
This is the second feature film by Meni Yaish.  His first film, God’s Neighbors (previously reviewed on this blog) is about a group of neighborhood thugs who establish themselves as the kosher squad, enjoying the power that they hold over their neighbors in the supposedly religious realm.

This film, Our Father, is compelling and extremely well-made.  However, you can’t hide the fact that it’s a gangster movie, with plenty of beatings, cussing and more than the necessary number of low-lifes. 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A Touching Story

Ewa, directed by Haim Tabakman, is a period piece. 

The story takes places in 1972 Israel in a rural setting.  It is the touching portrayal of Ewa and Yoel, who have already been married for a long time and have a grown daughter.  A Holocaust survivor, Ewa is a mysterious and lovely woman.  One day, Yoel learns that his wife has purchased an apartment in a nearby apartment complex where she is housing another man.  As a result of this discovery, their lives take a dramatic and surprising change of direction. 

This is a slow paced yet touching love story, which brings to the fore one of the heartfelt problems encountered by Holocaust survivors after their arrival in Israel.

Ewa is the second feature film by Haim Tabakman, who is well-known for his first feature, Eyes Wide Open. The film (88 minutes) is available from Go2Films.  

Saturday, November 12, 2016

A New Comedy based on Halfon Hill Doesn't Answer

Halfon Hill Doesn’t Answer (1976), directed by Assi Dayan, was a popular comedy about the Israeli military that became a cult film, especially with young Israeli audiences that learned to recite by heart entire comic sequences of the script.  The film showcases the Gashash comedy trio – Yisrael (Poli) Poliakov, Shaike Levi and Gavri Banai – and is a parody of the absurdities of Israeli military life, which takes place along the Egyptian border.  

Today, 40 years later, along comes a new comedy, based on Halfon HillThe Last Band in Lebanon, directed by Ben Bachar and Itzik Kricheli, also features a trio of comedians and is also about the Israeli military, but this one takes place during the final days of the War in Lebanon.  The film stars Ofer Hayoun, Ori Lazerovich, and Ofer Shechter. 

It’s the last day of the war and as all the Israeli troops withdraw, our three heroes awaken to discover that they’ve been left behind.  They are reserve soldiers, members of a rock band who were brought in to entertain the troops on their last night.   In fact, we soon learn that they were actually brought to this base as a cover for an evil and corrupt officer and his two side-kicks to enable them to steal a huge amount of hashish from the local South Lebanese Christian militia (Tzadal).
This is the humorous story of how these three abandoned soldier-musicians win the day!  Portrayed as bumbling yet loveable heroes, stumbling around South Lebanon in their underwear, they eventually discover a mosque where they find the missing hashish.  Surprisingly, they succeed in stealing back the hashish and returning it to its original owners -- the Christian militia -- who desperately need it to pay protection money to Hizbollah. It is interesting to note that the extremely moral and sympathetic leader of the Christian militia is played by the Palestinian Israeli actor, Salim Dau. 

Although it is a bit over-the-top, this film is hilarious and enjoyable.  It has great pacing, fun music, an absurd story-line and dependent on your point of view, offers a cynical or optimistic ending.  The film pokes fun at everyone and everything and there are heavily stereotyped characters in every group – the Jewish band, the Israeli military police and army officers especially the corrupt officer and his two idiotic side-kicks, the South Lebanonese army, and of course the Hizbollah.  This is a film for young adult audiences, with lots of laughs and spiced with a fair amount of cynicism. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Sand Storm by Elite Zexer

The new Israeli feature film that everyone is talking about is Sand Storm (Sufat Hol), directed by Elite Zexer.  This film is about those Bedouin who live in small villages, many unrecognized, dotting the hills of the northern Negev.  Some live in shacks, and some live in small homes, all without basic infrastructure provided by the government.  Those who can afford it have generators which provide electricity for basic needs such as small refrigerators and washing machines.  This is a patriarchal and traditional society. 

The film tells the story of a mother and daughter in one family within this closed society.  Layla, the oldest daughter, is attending a nearby college.  Her father obviously indulges her and, in the opening scene of the film, he is teaching her how to drive.  She is independent, bright, and in love with a lovely Bedouin young man from another tribe, whom she met at school. They want to marry.  

Her mother, Jalila, on the other hand, is suffering humiliation and unhappiness as she prepares the wedding feast for her husband who is taking a second wife.  The story of these two women, mother and daughter, provides the basic narrative structure for this film.

The dancing at the wedding celebration shows Jalila celebrating with a forced smile.  Because there are no men at this celebration, she is wearing a false mustache, creating a striking image.  But her face also shows a mix of pain, determination, and mostly worry about her daughter who she knows will never be permitted to marry the man she loves, a man from outside the tribe.
The characters in the film are compelling, even the father whose actions, in dealing with these two strong women in his life, are based on what seems to be at first unclear motivations.  It eventually becomes clear to the viewer that he is mostly conforming to what is expected of him and makes all of his decisions based on what other men in their world would say.   

This is a gritty and authentic picture of life for the women, a hard-hitting emotional and psychological study.  These women live very difficult lives and they desperately need to believe that things might change for them and that their family conditions might improve.  You might think that the position of the new second wife is actually to be envied.  But the viewer gets a glimpse at her own humiliation at not having been able to catch a young husband who would make her his first wife.
Sand Storm was a prizewinner at the Sundance festival, and more recently, the winner of multiple Israeli Ophir awards, including best directing and best film, which makes this film the Israeli entry for the Academy Awards.  Debut filmmaker Elite Zexer was originally drawn to the world of the Bedouin of the Negev via her mother who is a photographer and had long ago made personal connections with this community.  Zexer is to be commended for her success as a Jewish filmmaker looking in at Arab society.  This film is a tour-de-force in its emotional power, effective script and visual strength.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Child Brides

Child Mother, directed by Yael Kipper and Ronen Zaretzky, is a compelling documentary film made in a minimalist style, which tells an extraordinary story.  This is a film about Israeli women, today in their 80s, who were married off at very young ages.

Esther, born in Morocco, 84-years-old, sits in her apartment in Jerusalem, telling her story to her daughter Sima.  She was 12-years-old when her father married her off.  At first, she thought it would be fun – new clothes and a big celebration.  But when she realized what her new husband wanted from her, she ran away.  When he found her, he took her by force.  

Naomi was born in Yemen.  Hana was born in Morocco.  Ziona, from Yemen, had 12 children and lost her first child in childbirth. 

These women talk of loveless marriages, of painful memories, of multiple miscarriages, of husbands who were 40 years older.  When they came to Israel, their husbands were already older men and, as a result, the women had to work hard to support the family.  One woman cleaned houses, away from home for days at a time.  Another worked planting trees for the JNF.

These are painful stories of tragic childhoods, of motherhood at young ages, of little girls forced to live with cruel mothers-in-law, of living in fear of their husbands.  In many cases, these are stories that were never told – mothers keeping their stories secret from their children out of shame and a deep-seated need to forget. 

One grown daughter, now 60-years-old, begs her mother for a hug and a kiss.  But her mother tells her that she was never hugged or kissed as a child and as a result does not like to be touched.  Through tears, they are finally able to cling to each other. 

Child Mother was the winner of a Special Jury Mention at the Doc Aviv film festival.  According to the jury:  "The film Child Mother delicately reveals the harsh story of women who, as young girls, were given to much older men and enslaved by them, in the name of tradition. The filmmakers succeed in portraying a complex, complicated and important story – through multiple layers of concealment, denial and shame. A story that echoes and has existed from ancient times to our own days."

Child Mother (documentary, 89 minutes), is available from Michael Treves JMT Films.
Watch the trailer!