"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, October 20, 2008

Images of Sisters

Ever since my colleague and friend, Monique Schwarz, wrote and directed the documentary film, Mamadrama, which has been broadcast numerous times on TV in Israel, she has continued to research issues of gender as seen on the screen. Mamadrama is about the diverse and complex images of the Jewish mother in American and Israeli feature films. Here, in this posting, she shares with us some of her thoughts on the relationships of women, specifically the topic of sisters in different Israeli films.

Here is her posting –

Israeli films are often surprising, taking on unusual themes, characters and stories. The role of women in Israeli films is particularly interesting and women’s stories and characters occur frequently, often with great sensitivity. Within this context the role of the sister is noteworthy. The sister relationship has a special place in Israeli cinema, since it takes center stage and it occurs in many films.

In all these films the relationships between the sisters is very close, almost symbiotic. It borders on the maternal as the sisters nurture each other, look after each other’s welfare and involve themselves in every aspect of each other’s lives, including marital behaviour and careers.

Recent films such as Nina’s Tragedies and Aviva My Love are particular examples of this very close and special relationship between two sisters. In both cases the sister relationship is depicted as positive and central to the life of the main characters, and the narrative of the film.

Nina’s Tragedies, by Savi Gabizon (2003), stars Ayelet Zurer(Nina) and Anat Waxman (Alona) as the two sisters of the story. Although Nina’s Tragedies tells its story from the point of view of Nadav, a 14 year-old teenager who goes to live with his Aunt Nina after the death of her husband, the central driving narrative of the film is Nina -- her life, relationships with men and especially her relationship with the mother of Nadav and Nina’s sister- Alona. Alona is there for Nina at all times, she helps her emotionally after the death of her husband, with childbirth and with daily life. She encourages Nina to live her life to the full.

Aviva My Love, screenplay and direction by Shemi Zarhin (2006), with an excellent cast which includes Assi Levy(Aviva Cohen) Rotem Abuhab (Anita) and Dror Keren Aviva, is a middle aged woman with two teenage children who works as a hotel cook in Tiberias. For years she has been writing meticulous notes about the daily events of life, and transforming them into stories which she hopes will be published some day. To this end, her sister, Anita introduces her to a novelist, Oded, who promises to help her achieve her dream. Aviva’s life and dreams unravel as she struggles to fulfil her life’s destiny. Anita is intrically involved with Aviva. The sisters find it hard to live without each other.

Shiva, written and directed by the sibings Ronit Elbabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz (2008), stars Ronit Elbabetz as well as a large cast of well known Israeli actors including Moshe Ivgy, Alon Abutbul, Hanna Laszlo, Albert Iluz and Ruby Porat Shoval. The sister relationship depicted here differs from that seen in Aviva My Love and Nina’s Tragedies. It is a more problematic, although just as close and entangled relationship. Shiva exposes the tensions that pull apart a large Moroccan family of two sisters and six brothers through the course of Shiva, the seven days of mourning, for one of their brothers. The film displays the rivalries, secrets, resentments, grievances and loves between all the family members and is set against the background of the Gulf War. The relationship of the sisters is central in this display of a rather dysfunctional family, where the two sisters are locked in an intense and overpowering bond.

Three Mothers, Noodle and Aunt Clara also depict the close and central bond that sisters have, but in each case there is also the added extra involvement and intensity created by some shared responsibility for the well being of a child.

Aunt Clara (1977), written and directed by Avram Heffner, stars the wonderful Hanna Moran. The film tells the story of three sisters -- Clara, Rouga and Leah. Only one sister has a child, which is shared by all the sisters in a truly extended household. The family runs along strictly matriarchal lines, with Aunt Clara at the head. With good intentions she directs the lives of all around her, her sisters and their husbands and of course her niece.

Three Mothers (2006), directed by Dina Zvi-Riklis, stars a stellar cast which includes Miri Mesika, Gila Almagor, Rivka Raz, Raymond Amsalem, Tali Sharon, Tracy Abramovici, Dana Zilberstein and Yehezkel Lazarov. The film, loosely based on some autobiographic material from Dina Zvi-Riklis’ life, tells the story of a set of girl triplets born to the wealthy palace midwife in Alexandria, Egypt in 1942. The Hakim sisters, named after flowers -- Rose, Yasmin and Flora, lead a wonderful life until their mother dies and then in 1956 King Farouk dies, and Jews are no longer welcome in Egypt, at which time they flee to Israel.

In Israel, Rosa seeks to become a cabaret singer, Flora a midwife like her mother and Yasmin has no particular ambitions. The sisters are totally bonded, and are the most important person in each others lives. They veto each others boyfriends and all get married on the same day. One sister (Rose) has a child, one is pregnant with twins (Yasmin) and one is permanently childless (Flora). The film moves backwards and forwards in time and place. From the present in Tel Aviv to the past in Alexandria, as it slowly unravels the dark family secret about the set of twins born to Yasmin many years earlier. Through the different narratives of each sister we discover that when the babies were born, Yasmin felt compassion for her childless Flora, and gave her one of the twins. She chose love for her sister, over love for her child. As Rosa tells her daughter Rucha “we were much better sisters than mothers”.

The third sister film involving children is slightly different. The child in this film, Noodle, is not biologically connected to the sisters, but nevertheless their own lives change as they develop ties with him. Noodle (2007), directed by Ayelet Menahemi, has a wonderful cast which includes many very well-known Israeli actors as well as the most charming Chinese child actor Baoqi Chen. He almost steals the show. The Israeli cast includes Mili Avital, Anat Waxman, Alon Aboutboul, Iftach Klein also putting in fabulous performances. Noodle tells the story of Miri (Mili Avital), a twice widowed El Al flight attendant who is left unexpectedly to look after the six year-old child of her Chinese cleaner, who has been deported back to Beijing from Israel.

Together with her school teacher sister, Gila (Anat Waxman), and Gila's estranged husband, Izzy (Alon Abutbul), and an assortment of other characters, they try to work out what to do with the child, nicknamed Noodle. It turns out that Noodle is an illegal migrant, and that there is no record of him within the Israeli bureaucracy. Through personal contacts in Beijing, Miri and Gila find out where Noodle’s mother lives. They concoct an audacious plan to return Noodle to his mother. Through the course of the film, the relationship between the sisters unfolds, as we see their closeness and their dependence one upon the other, as they embark on this remarkable journey.

In all of these films, the sister role is central, in fact, being a sister is as strong a position as being a wife, lover, girlfriend or a mother. The sisters do not compromise on each other’s well being, and there are no holds barred between them.


Ellen said...

The time frame for all the action in Nina's Tragedies is nine months, corresponding to the nine months of Nina's pregnancy with her dead husband's baby until the baby's birth. These nine months are filled with strange happenings --- from peeping perverts (of which our 14 year old narrator, Nadav, nephew to Nina, is one) to inappropriate love affairs of both Nina and her sister Alona; from the death of Nadav's father, estranged from Alona, due to lung cancer to the birth of Nina's baby and her romantic entanglement with a married man. The film is written from the point of view of a boy's coming of age story, but Nadav never actually grows up. The best part of the film is the sisters' relationship, Nina and Alona. Alona is the one constant, the one factor of normalcy, in Nina's life. The film's failing is that we never get a glimpse of Nina being Alona's helpmate, so Nina never becomes a fully realized person for us.

Amy Kronish said...

Avi wrote about Nina's Tragedies --

Nina is like a muse – she is a beautiful creature, sort of a Madonna-like character – her nephew has a crazy adolescent crush on her, and Avinoam also has a crazy crush on her – sort of like having a woman on a pedestal – he still loves his girlfriend and marries her – but he has an obsession with Nina. This is making a statement about how beautiful women are looked upon in Israeli society.