"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.


Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Using Music to Communicate across the Palestinian-Israeli Divide

 Crescendo, directed by Dror Zahavi, is a new feature film about young adult classical musicians – Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs – who are brought together to form an orchestra which will play a peace concert.  There is a nice message – music can connect us across the divide.  But it is not necessarily a feel-good film.  There are difficult issues which are exposed. This is not an Israeli film per se.  It is a German production, directed by an Israeli filmmaker, shot partially in Israel and Palestine, and mostly in the beautiful Austrian Alps.

The film begins as predictable and sentimental, with the young musicians having trouble communicating, since they are all suffering from preconceived notions about the “other.” After they undergo group dynamics exercises to get them to function together as a group, things begin to improve. At the same time, things become more complicated.

The story focuses on a few of the musicians and their issues.  And there is the do-gooder from an international non-profit organization who is running the whole program.  As the musicians share their stories, the German world-renowned conductor feels compelled to share something from his own dark past – his growing up knowing that his parents had both been doctors during the Nazi period who assisted in the mass murder of thousands of Jews at Buchenwald. We meet Ron, a promising Tel Aviv violinist, who is shockingly angry at the Palestinians whom he sees as terrorists.  And we meet Leyla, a violinist, whose mother is against her participating in the international concert because the family will be considered collaborators since she is playing music with Israelis. In addition, we get to know Omar, a clarinetist from Qalqilya, who is offered a scholarship to study music in Frankfurt. He is also involved in a “forbidden love” affair with Shira, Jewish Israeli French horn player.   

The story of the film is reminiscent of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Daniel Barenboim, that was comprised of musicians from Israel and from Arab countries. I heard this orchestra play at Carnegie Hall in New York City two years ago, and it was an uplifting experience. The audience applauded over and over again for the orchestra, both for their excellent renditions of classical music and for the very idea that they could play together.

 Although the film purports to be evenhanded in expressing the “narrative” of both the Palestinians and the Israelis, it is heavily critical of Israel and the occupation of the West Bank. We see the difficulties and humiliations that the Palestinian musicians have to face at the checkpoints in order to arrive at the auditions which are being held in Tel Aviv. And we witness racial and nationalistic profiling against Palestinians who are seen as terrorists by the young Jews in the orchestra.

Without offering a spoiler, I will permit myself to say that the filmmaker is commenting on the fact that Jews and Germans have succeeded in building a bridge and living together in this post-Holocaust era.  Does this imply that Israelis and Palestinians could also reach some sort of understanding, even after all the terrible atrocities which have been perpetrated by both sides against each other?


Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Human Factor by Dror Moreh

The following posting is by a guest reviewer, my husband, Ron Kronish.  We both had the opportunity to view The Human Factor (documentary, 75 minutes, 2019), directed by Dror Moreh (known for his important documentary, The Gatekeepers, 2012).

 As part of the online Jerusalem Film Festival this week, I viewed the depressing and also insightful film on the history of the failures of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process of the last 29 years, from the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 until the phony “deal of the century” of the current American administration.  It is a very sad history of many missed opportunities, and manifold major misunderstandings, which have left us in Israel and Palestine with virtually no solution in sight, almost 30 years later.

 With fabulous archival photos and footage of all the main players in the attempts to create a comprehensive peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians during the past three decades, Dror Moreh weaves together a tapestry of the efforts of many diplomats, politicians and advisors which ends in tremendous tragedy – the missed opportunity in achieving genuine peaceful relations between Israelis and Palestinians. According to Moreh and many of the spokespeople in this film who were advisors on “the peace team” for so many years, the main reason for this is the neglect of the human factor. There was too much blustering and politicking too often and not enough relationship-building which could have engendered the trust necessary to conclude a comprehensive peace accord.

 However, there were some exceptions to this rule.   The most important one was the relationship that developed between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat during the negotiations that conclude with the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s.  After Rabin was elected Prime Minister in 1992, he made a very conscious shift from confrontation to negotiation in a serious attempt to resolve the conflict. One of the key advisors to the “peace team”, Dennis Ross, recalled this vividly. When he met with Rabin in 1992, “Rabin told me clearly that he wants to go for a full deal with the Palestinians!” Another key advisor on the “peace team”, Daniel Kurtzer, who later became ambassador of the USA to Israel, talked warmly about Rabin’s visit to Washington D.C. in that year, when he met with the “peace team” for a serious discussion about the possibilities of peace.

Some of the advisors recalled some behind the scenes stories about Rabin and Arafat that were very enlightening about how their relationship began and developed. For example, Martin Indyk, who had served as American ambassador to Israel and was Clinton’s advisor on the Middle East and therefore a key member of the “peace team”, revealed in the film the inside story that led to the famous handshake between Rabin and Arafat at the signing of the Declaration of Principles” (Oslo I) on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993. Rabin set forth three conditions—that Arafat would not carry his gun, that he would not wear his military-looking uniform and that there would be no kissing! Indyk also remembered how he coached President Clinton in advance to orchestrate the handshake! In the end, it worked out for the best. Even though Rabin was uncomfortable about the handshake, he did it! And Arafat was beaming on that occasion.

Later on, in September 1995, at the signing ceremony of the Oslo II Accords in Washington DC, which gave 40% of the West Bank to the Palestinians, which they believed would be the core of their future state, Dennis Ross remembers that the relationship between Rabin and Arafat had grown and developed and was much stronger. They had clearly moved from being adversaries to being partners in peace.  On that occasion, Ross recalled that Arafat actually gave a very positive speech and Rabin responded that Palestinians need a state, so Israelis can separate from them out of respect, not out of hatred.

After the assassination of Rabin (November 4, 1995), it became clear that the peace process was severely hindered. But it did limp on for many years.  When Netanyahu was elected in 1996, we saw that he did not treat Arafat with dignity the way Rabin had, and this led to the breakdown in negotiations after the Wye River summit in 1998.

Similarly, the very pompous and problematic personality of Ehud Barak comes off very poorly in this film. After he is elected in 1999 on a peace platform, he was very insistent that President Clinton host a summit because he believed that it was the only way that another peace agreement could be achieved. The American advisors on the “peace team” were very skeptical, but eventually they went along with it. It turned out to be a huge failure, mostly due to the “human factor’. Barak did not treat Arafat as a human being. Rather, he constantly humiliated him. President Clinton kept trying to re-inject the human factor into the negotiations through his powerful and persuasive personality, but it was not enough.

 Near the end of this film there is a beautiful collage of photos of demonstrations, violence, and peace negotiations for a few minutes without words. It made me think of how many people and how much time was invested in “the peace process” to no avail. Too often the human dimensions of the conflict –the suffering and despair on both sides—were ignored by the politicians and the diplomats who were too busy playing with pieces of paper (there is a great photo of Barak’s room at Camp David II, strewn with yellow pads and pieces of paper all over the place).

In the end, several of the members of the “peace team” ---who devoted many years of passion and commitment to trying to bring peace to Israel and the Palestinians—were soberly reflective about the whole process. Marin Indyk called it “a history of missed opportunities”. Aaron David Miller felt that “peace” was the wrong word for what they did since it raised too many expectations. On the other hand, Dennis Ross was insistent that “the whole Middle East might have been different if we had made peace”. And Jamal Hallal, another advisor on the peace team, felt that all of their attempts at peace accords did not stop people on both sides from demonizing the people on the other side. After all these years, there is still no real acceptance of the humanity of the people on the other side. Instead, we see each other as enemies.

As someone who has been involved in peacebuilding efforts between Israelis and Palestinians for many years, I found this film to be depressing and somewhat disappointing. By focusing only on politicians and diplomats—who specialize in formal negotiations rather than dialogue—it underscored the limits of politics and “Track One” diplomacy. From this point of view, I was sorry that the filmmaker totally skipped over the 10 months of informal discussions as part of “Track Two diplomacy” during 1993 in Norway, which led to the successful Declaration of Principles of September 13, 1993, that was based on hundreds of hours of genuine relationship-building and the creation of mutual trust.

Finally, I think that this film should send a message to the politicians and diplomats who may try again one day (perhaps with the help of President-elect Biden’s new team) to restart the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. Don’t forget the human factor this time! Remember that we are dealing with human beings on both sides, not just pawns in a puzzle. Keep in mind that it is important to relate to the other in these negotiations with dignity and respect. This is a message worth remembering.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Sublet by Eytan Fox

Last night, I had the chance to view Sublet, directed by Eytan Fox, which was the opening film of the Jerusalem Film Festival (which is currently taking place on-line).  Filmmaker Eytan Fox is well-known for his many films, including Walk on Water, Yossi and Jagger, Bananot (Cupcakes), Song of the Siren.

Sublet is the story of an attraction between two gay men. One is young in his 20s from Tel Aviv and one is middle-aged from New York. Michael is a NY Times travel writer who comes to Tel Aviv for five days for his work.  He sublets an apartment from Tomer, an aspiring filmmaker in his 20s. Tomer is messy, whereas Michael is neat and super-organized.  Tomer says he doesn’t want to be tied down to one partner, whereas Michael says that the love of one partner is what makes life worth living.  Tomer is making horror films and says he doesn’t like happy endings, whereas Michael is crazy about Hollywood musicals.  Tomer drinks, smokes weed, and orders in sex like he’s ordering pizza, whereas Michael is shocked at this lifestyle.

There are many things that Michael doesn’t understand about young Israelis.  In fact, he is especially surprised to learn that large numbers have moved to Berlin and he asks bluntly, how can they do that when Germany is the place that symbolizes Jewish tragedy?

Instead of seeing the tourist attractions of Tel Aviv, Tomer convinces Michael to visit the “real” Tel Aviv.  He takes him for good food, to see an expressive and political dance event, to connect with the vibrant and pulsating night life of Tel Aviv (which is weird to see in these days of covid-19).  Michael meets some of Tomer’s friends, and watches as he navigates the city.  What are Michael’s conclusions?  Tel Aviv, he says, is intense and chaotic yet laid back; it is full of contradictions. 

Sublet is an honest look at these two men and their differing lifestyles.  It is a bit disappointing in its lack of complexity and depth.  But as a study of a relationship, it is fascinating to watch.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Devorah Omer

Rain in Her Eyes, directed by Ron Omer, is a prizewinning documentary that provides a look at the life and prolific writings of Devorah Omer (1932-2013).  Winner of the Israel Prize, Omer wrote 98 children’s books in her lifetime.

Devorah Omer grew up on Kibbutz Maoz Haim in the Beit She’an Valley. The film talks about the difficulties of her childhood, especially the apparent suicide of her mother and her anger at her father for not being there for her since he was away trying to save children survivors of the Holocaust at that time.  We learn about her first attempt at getting published – the publisher turned her down with very rude comments about how this book wouldn’t be of interest to anyone! She submitted the manuscript to another publisher, and as they say, the rest is history! This first book was called Tamar’s Diary and was published in 1959. 

Omer would talk at home about the character she was developing and writing, as if he or she was a real person.  According to her husband, Shmulik Omer, it was as if there was another person living in the house!  The author said once, When I write a story, “I have to feel that I care, that it hurts me, that it’s interesting to me.”

Have you ever read the book about Sarah Aaronson called Sarah: The Heroine of Nili?  It was a fabulous historical novel meant for an elementary school age reader, which came out in 1967.  Of course, we all know that the true story included a painful story of suicide, which was a part of Omer’s life also.  But the fact that Omer’s mother committed suicide was never proven, and late in life, Omer learned that the story was not actually true. 

I am proud to say that I sit on the committee of the Film and Media Collaborative, a joint effort of the Avi Chai Foundation, the Maimonides Fund, and the Gesher Multicultural Film Fund, and we provided funding toward the production of this film.

Rain in Her Eyes is a compelling and compassionate documentary film (59 minutes, 2020) about a prolific children’s author who has helped to create some of the mythic and historical heroes of our day! The film, written and directed by Devora Omer’s son, won Best Debut Film at DocAviv and the Israel Academy Award (Ophir prize) for Best Documentary film in 2020.


Friday, October 30, 2020

Jerusalem Sam Spiegel Film School

The Jerusalem Sam Spiegel Film School, established in 1989, celebrated its 30th anniversary last year.  In honor of that event, they put together a collection of their best student films, produced during these past 30 years.  I was proud to participate in the choosing of the best films.  These wonderful short films can be viewed on VOD. 

All of the films are really great, but take a special look at The Red Toy by Dani Rosenberg (2004).  It’s brilliant!

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

The Success of a Grassroots Movement

Within the framework of the streaming DOCAVIV festival, my husband, Ron, and I had the opportunity to view the documentary film Four Mothers, directed by Dana Keidar Levin and Rephael Levin.  This is the second film about Lebanon that we have seen this week in this festival, which confirms the fact that twenty years later, the withdrawal from Lebanon—and the ongoing crisis with our neighbor to the North – are very much on our minds, and certainly on the minds of Israeli filmmakers.

As is well-known within Israeli society, the term Four Mothers refers to two things. The first thing that it relates to is a movement of women which was formed in 1997 to try to end the War in Lebanon and force a unilateral withdrawal from the so-called security zone.  These women are generally credited with catalyzing the government to finally pullout all IDF soldiers from Lebanon, just over twenty years ago, in May 2000. The second reference is to the four matriarchs, as we sing in the popular Passover Seder song, Who Knows One? Four are the matriarchs, three are the patriarchs, two are the tablets, and one is God above the heaven and the earth! 

These women, not surprisingly, are strong and articulate figures—like their Biblical forebears-- who come across as passionate about their subject, even two decades later.  The film provides a fascinating look at what it meant for these remarkable women to create a mass movement from a small personal protest — while overcoming many major obstacles -- and to finally achieve their goal, which became the goal of Israeli society as well. Following the terrible tragedy of the crash of two IDF helicopters in February 1997, which killed more than 70 soldiers — the largest military accident in Israeli history -- Eran Shachar, a member of Kibbutz Palmachim, wrote a stirring op-ed in the kibbutz newspaper, demanding to understand why Israeli mothers sanctify the ritual of army sacrifice.  He asked “why don’t they stand up and shout: don’t take my son!” After this article appeared, Rachel Ben Dor, who became the best-known of the four women, contacted Shachar to tell him that she agreed with him.  He proposed a meeting with a small group of women who were like-minded.  It was just before the holiday of Passover, (hence the reference to the matriarchs), and thus a protest group was formed to try to get our soldiers out of the mud of Lebanon, in which they had been stuck since the beginning of the Lebanon War in 1982!

The original four, Rachel Ben Dor, Miri Sela, Ronit Nahmias and Zahara Antebi, organized demonstrations on the highways and at intersections every Friday, but there was a terrible price to pay in public opinion.  People yelled at them, accusing them of not understanding anything, condemning them for being women who shouldn’t enter the arena of security and the military, and for harming the morale of our soldiers serving in Lebanon.  People shouted, “Go back to the kitchen,” which was meant to be the ultimate put-down.  However, slowly but surely people from all over Israel joined them, people with deeper backgrounds and wider perspectives, and they began to publish educational materials for the Israeli public and for Israeli “leaders”. In these materials, they explained the rise of Hizbollah and the Shi’ites which was a result of Israel’s presence in southern Lebanon.  Previously, Lebanon had been ruled by Maronite Christians, as an inheritance from French colonization. Also, the PLO, who are Sunni Muslims had taken root in Lebanon after they were expelled from Jordan in September 1970, were a major player in the civil war which raged for 15 years, causing much chaos in Lebanon. In one of their meetings with the head of the IDF at the time, Rafael Eitan, they had to correct him after he told them that the Hizbollah fighters were Palestinians! In fact, they are Shi’ites. These women revealed how shocked they were to discover how ill-informed some of our leaders were (and are?!) about who we are really fighting against and why in Lebanon.

In 1998 and 1999, after more than 16-17 years of our soldiers getting slaughtered almost daily in the mud of Lebanon, their movement gained momentum and became more and more relevant to Israeli society.  The Four Mothers became a large grassroots movement and when Ehud Barak ran for the post of prime minister on behalf of the Labor Party, in May 1999, he was elected on a platform to withdraw our soldiers from Lebanon within a year, a promise he made good, to the overwhelming satisfaction of the citizens of Israel, who had experienced daily traumas from this war of attrition for so many years.

Four Mothers is a superb documentary film that lets the women speak for themselves.  It moved us to want to learn more about this movement -- and especially about these “ordinary” women who expressed themselves so poignantly and forthrightly throughout the film, and who became unbelievably committed to their cause. These women actually succeeded in taking on the military establishment while organizing and implementing the most successful anti-war movement in Israeli history!  This film also has some fabulous home footage shot by IDF soldiers themselves, and wonderful archival material. 

This is an inspirational story about women standing up for what they believe in our society and, as a result, causing a major change.   Indeed, other grassroots organizations today, such as the ones who are trying to topple Bibi, have a lot to learn from the inspirational and effective voluntary movement of these women and all their colleagues. The film (78 minutes) is available from Go2Films.

Monday, September 7, 2020

The Story of How Israel Became Embroiled in the Mud of Lebanon

My husband and I have been watching documentary films from DOCAVIV (via streaming) these past few days.  The festival is a wonderful Israeli film event that usually takes place in the springtime at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, but this year, due to the pandemic, it is currently streaming till Sept. 13th.  In addition to some great international docs, we watched the premiere of the first two episodes of a five-part Israeli TV series called Lebanon: Borders of Blood, directed by the prolific Israeli documentary filmmaker, Duki Dror, and we also “participated” in a discussion with the filmmakers. 

This fascinating and extremely well-documented and well-researched TV series includes an historical chapter, and then delves into the complicated issues of modern Lebanon.  According to Duki Dror, Israelis are used to thinking about Lebanon purely as an issue of defending ourselves against terrorist attacks in the north, but through a TV series such as this one, we are able to see that it is much more complicated than that!  In a DOCAVIV interview after the screening, the filmmaker stated that the working assumption of those who conceived, produced and directed this film is that if we can understand Lebanon in all of its strange diverse components, then we can understand the Middle East, and perhaps even ourselves.

Episode 1, entitled the Lebanon Kaleidascope, offers an historical overview, beginning with the artificial creation of the country in the 1920s.  The country was made up of opposites and developed into a Western paradise quite quickly, offering extraordinary culture and exciting nightlife.  But things rapidly deteriorated in Lebanon after King Hussein drove  the PLO leadership from Jordan in 1970 during what became known as  “Black September”.  My husband and I were here in Israel as students that year, and we remember the news reports of this traumatic event.

 The Lebanese were forced by the Arab world to provide a southern swath of territory to the armed PLO “freedom fighters”, which included  Palestinian refugees who arrived after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, and those who arrived following the outcome of the Six Day War. At this time, during the 1970s, the Christians living in Lebanon began to feel endangered, and this marked the beginning of the civil war.  It also marked the beginning of terrible terror attacks by the PLO against Israel, when a school bus on the northern border was hit by an RPG.  Prime Minister (at that time) Golda Meir demanded that Lebanon crack down on the terrorist groups, and thus things began to heat up within Lebanon. Palestinians massacred the Christians living in a village called Damour.  The Christians retaliated and killed literally thousands of Palestinians at Tel El-Zatar.  Then Syria entered the conflict by financing and arming the PLO.  The violence continued to escalate, and the cycle of civil war and killing got worse and worse.  Since the Christians felt that the entire Arab world was against them, they turned to the state of Israel for support and in 1976 then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed to equip the Christian Phalangists, creating a new alliance, that eventually became stronger and stronger.

Episode 2 added much more to the viewer’s understanding of the complexity of Lebanon which at that time included Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, many different sects of Christians, with the Maronite Phalangists being the most well  known, and then the PLO  fighters and Palestinian refugees are thrown into the mix.  Historically, the Maronite Christians ruled Lebanon and made up the elite with other Christian groups and Sunni Muslims.  The Shi’ite Muslims lived in the south and were humiliated, discriminated against, and even persecuted.  The Palestinian refugees who came to Lebanon from Israel are Sunnis and didn’t get along with the Shi’ites or the Christians in the south.  It was an anarchic situation for a long time, with one persecuted group hating another persecuted group, engaging in violent reprisals against each other constantly. Today, the Hizbollah, who are Shi’ite, are supported by Iran and Syria.  During the Civil War (which lasted 15 years approximately), Muslims killed Christians and Christians killed Muslims and Christians killed Christians.  And, eventually, it brought Israel into the “Lebanese Mud.”

As the citizens of Israel suffered  more and more terrorist attacks in the north of Israel, and the Phalangists, who became the Pro-Israel  SLA (South Lebanon Army) tried to protect their Christian villages in South Lebanon and to stop the PLO fighters from infiltrating into Israel, the situation went from bad to worse. The constant escalation catalyzed  then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin (who had just made peace with Egypt in 1979) to appoint a hawkish defense minister, Ariel Sharon, and, as they say, the rest is history!

The Israeli soldiers who were interviewed for this series who participated in the 1982 incursion into Lebanon admitted on camera that they had virtually no idea about the complex and diverse ethnic, political and religious divisions in Southern Lebanon.  In an attempt to be even-handed and to show both sides of the narrative, this excellent documentary series reminds us that the young Israeli soldiers who were fighting, suffered from the cruel and violent images of repeated terrorist attacks by the PLO at that time.  Similarly,  the  young Palestinian fighters were motivated by their perceptions of their people’s sufferings from 1948, 1967 and into the 1980s.

According to the filmmakers, there were more than 100 people interviewed for this series, including Israeli, PLO, Phalangist and American speakers, providing different points of view.  Due to the fact that the TV series is an Israeli-German-American co-production, with international crews, they were able to locate and interview people who would not usually cooperate with Israeli filmmakers.  This enabled the film to truly be a kaleidoscope of multiple contradictory points of view, helping the viewer to get a deeper understanding of the complexity of the situation in Lebanon that we still confront to this very day, as opposed to usual simplistic black and white, us vs. them view of this very messy situation on our northern border.

The TV series, Lebanon, Borders of Blood, is produced for broadcast on KAN, the Israeli public TV station, and we watched the Israeli version.  A different version will be edited for viewing abroad.