"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.


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Fading Chauvanism

Two major Israeli feature films from recent years which seemingly have little in common thematically – Time of Favor and Walk on Water – actually both have a great deal in common. They both deal with gender issues and how they affect our perspective on war and peace.

The highly acclaimed Walk on Water (2003) ללכת על המים was a tour de force for director Eitan Fox and for his life partner and scriptwriter, Gal Uchovsky. Over the decades there have been many Israeli films which deal with the ongoing struggle of Israeli citizens to live in the shadow of war, and in recent years, this theme has commanded the attention of Israeli filmmakers once again. This film is mainly about the emotional damage or baggage that Israeli men carry as a result of living in a society at war. For example, Israeli men find it difficult breaking through their hard shells and dealing with their emotions. Alex (Knut Berger), visiting from abroad, asks the film’s hero: “Is it true that Israeli men have trouble expressing their emotions?” Our hero responds jokingly, “I don’t know, I don’t like to talk about it.” Already, the viewer realizes that Israeli men are not the perfect hunk, as we like to think! On top of this the film adds a number of additional themes – understanding homosexuality more personally and more openly; and our obsession with Holocaust memory and with hunting Nazi murderers.

The film tells the story of a Mossad agent, a trained killer, named Eyal (Lior Ashkenazi), whose assignment is to befriend a German tourist, Alex, in the hopes of finding and assassinating his aging Nazi grandfather. The complex script brings Eyal to Berlin where he is shocked to find himself in a fistfight protecting a group of cross-dressers, causing him to suddenly sees things from a different perspective altogether. Later on, still in Berlin, Eyal is invited by Alex (who really likes Israeli dancing) to his home for a family get-together. Alex gathers all of his stuffy, upper crust relatives and family friends into a circle, and teaches them a dance! Both the proper Germans and Eyal, their hardened Israeli guest, obviously have a lot to learn from Alex's open-minded, flexible and multi-cultural perspective. It takes quite a leap of faith to open up, see things differently and "walk on water"!

The film has an explicit message – it is time to learn to express what we are feeling so that we can end the cycle of hate and the cyle of killing. This is a new message, one that is overtaking the old macho message of earlier Israeli films which tended to portray the Israeli approach to war in black-and-white, simplistic and chauvinistic terms.

The Pioneering Ethic of Self-Sacrifice
In the classic, He Walked Through the Fields (הוא הלך בשדות (1967, the film’s hero (Assi Dayan) is a brash, unsentimental fellow. Although originally he is ambivalent about serving his country, eventually he is recruited to the cause. When he leads a dangerous mission, he tells his wife that their personal concerns must be secondary to his responsibilities in leading his men on a mission that can be fateful for them and for the direction of the war. In contrast, in today's post-modern times, we have begun to reclaim our personal lives, putting them back on the top of our list of priorities. We are no longer eager to sacrifice our lives and those of our family members for the greater good of the collective society. But can our choices really be so black and white? Living in Israel in this period, we must find a compromise path, one which will let us have both individualism and self-sacrifice; soldiers who can deal with their emotions and feelings, even when serving in defense in their country.

The Land of Israel is built on Self-Sacrifice
Nowadays, self-sacrifice is also demanded in the area of life on a settlement. In Joseph Cedar’s Time of Favor (ההסדר (2000, there is a mention of the Talmudic saying, “The land of Israel is built on self-sacrifice.” (This saying was considered motivational during the 1930's when the pioneers were working so hard to drain the swamps, build the roads, and defend themselves and their families. ) In this contemporary film, the young army officer, Menachem (Aki Avni), looks out at the landscape, and comments how beautiful it is – a direct reference to the majesty and awesomeness of the land of the Bible. It is the rabbi’s daughter (Tinkerbell) however, living on the settlement, who is able to look at the landscape and realize that people need more than "landscape" in their lives, that it is not enough to dedicate your life to the land of the Bible. There must be more to life than that. Not only is she is critical of the settler’s obsession with sacrificing for the land, she is also critical about how they “admire” each other so much, following the path set out for them, without questioning and considering things for themselves.

I once asked the filmmaker, Joseph Cedar, why he put the voice of criticism in the mouth of a young woman, after all, this is a film about modern orthodox young men learning at a yeshiva in the West Bank, serving together in the army in their own religious company. He told me: “In a militaristic and chauvinistic society like that of the settlers, the voice of criticism can only be from an outsider.” This young woman is not exactly an “outsider”, but her gender permitted her to have a different perspective than that of the all male club of yeshiva students and soldiers. Later in the film, we see her as a strong character, capable of taking matters into her own hands, and preventing an enormous tragedy as a result. Notwithstanding the fact that she has grown up within the settler movement, she is capable of thinking for herself and making her own decisions, even in contrast to what is expected of her.

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