"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, May 1, 2014

Assi Dayan - Actor and Filmmaker

Assi Dayan, Israeli film director and iconic actor, died today at the age of 68.  Born in Nahalal in 1945, he was the third child of Ruth and Moshe Dayan.  After his military service in the paratroops, Dayan studied philosophy and English literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, following which he worked as a theater actor.  He quickly switched to the screen and has appeared extensively in both international and Israeli cinema. 

During his early film directing, Dayan was known for his light "ethnic" films and his social parodies -- Saint Cohen (which won the Special Jury Prize at Bergamo, 1975), which is about a poet in the Galilee who attempts suicide, and the cult film, Halfon Hill Doesn't Answer (1976), which is a sharp parody of reserve duty.  The latter is a brilliant satire on the absurdities of army service.  Starring the popular comedy team, the Gashash Trio, the film pokes fun at army discipline, international diplomacy and traditional family values.  The story focuses on a young man, called up for reserve duty at a remote outpost in the Sinai desert, and his young girlfriend, who runs away from home to follow him to the base.  The girl's father goes after her and is taken hostage by the enemy en route.  In order to get him back, the others kidnap an Egyptian soldier, dress up as UN observers and effect a hostage exchange.  Full of slapstick humor, the film is still popular today with Israeli audiences.

The Individual in a Decaying Urban Society
By the early 1990s, Dayan's filmmaking changed.  In a rebellion against the self-sacrificing image of his war hero father, Dayan's filmmaking has come to portray heroes and antiheroes who stubbornly maintain their individuality and unabashedly look inward.  He focuses on issues of the decaying urban society with Life According to Agfa (1992), which shocked the Israeli public by actually depicting the "apocalypse," a violent nightmare that takes place in a Tel Aviv pub. 

The film, a serious portrayal of society's ills -- loneliness, alienation, despair, suicide, discrimination and callous relationships -- won Honorable Mention at Berlin (1993).  The film takes place during the course of one evening in a Tel Aviv pub, a microcosm of contemporary Israeli society.  The film can be seen as a parallel with the classic Casablanca (USA, Michael Curtiz, 1943).  The Humphrey Bogart character (Gila Almagor) is a weary pub-owner suffering from unrequited love.  Her piano player is a left-wing poet (Danny Litani) who writes soulful songs and dedicates them to individuals passing through the pub during the course of the evening.  The local police officer, lurking at the bar all evening, is similar to the police chief at Rick's Cafe in that he is full of self-importance; a cold and smug individual, he cares nothing for the suicidal young woman who is clinging to him as her last connection to life.

Reminiscent of the final scene of Casablanca, in which Rick sees the woman he loves walk off into the mist with her husband, Agfa's pub owner watches as her lover, sick and dying, departs with his wife.  The major difference between the 2 films is that the earlier film classic portrays a romanticized version of life in which faithfulness and honor are higher values than personal happiness, while Dayan's Life According to Agfa presents a tough political satire leading to an apocalyptic and chilling ending. 

The pub in Life According to Agfa features a cross-section of Israeli nightlife -- a young waitress sniffing coke, a Palestinian kitchen worker, a suicidal young woman reaching out for a relationship, a group of macho soldiers following a dangerous and bloody military mission, and boorish, boozy, attention-demanding ethnic characters.  The extremism portrayed in this film is seen as the product of the continuous military, economic and societal tensions of life in Israel. 

Dayan's film An Electric Blanket (1994, Best Film, Valencia), a black comedy about prostitution and drugs, also presents Israeli society heading in the direction of extremism and violence.

As one of the provocative and outspoken filmmakers of Israel, Dayan also won Israeli Academy Awards for Life According to Agfa, Mr. Baum, and An Electric Blanket. It could be said that Dayan's troubled life -- battling against addiction and growing up in the shadow of a greater-than-life national figure -- provided him with a special perspective on Israeli society, thereby permitting him to make critical comments of great depth and insight.

The Memorable Faces of Assi Dayan
Dayan's special talent as an actor can be seen in many of his own films and also in the memorable roles that he has played in films by other directors.  His first major role was as the brash, young soldier in He Walked through the Fields (Yoseph Millo, based on the novel and play by Moshe Shamir, 1967). The film is told in flashback as a young soldier reflects on the story of his parents -- his father, Uri (Dayan), is a young kibbutznik and his mother, Mika, is a new immigrant.  The story centers around Uri, who returns to his kibbutz having graduated from Kadoorie, a well-known agricultural school (one which trained many leaders of the pioneering generation) to discover that his parents are no longer living together and that there are tensions between the old-timers and the new immigrants.

Unlike the nationalistically motivated hero in Moshe Shamir's novel, the film character of Uri is brash, unsentimental, moody and apparently uninterested in political and nationalistic considerations.  This major character alteration reflects the fact that the film was made almost 20 years and 3 wars after the book was written.  Uri seems to be concerned mainly with his romance with Mika, a refugee from Hitler's Europe, who is different from Uri in every way -- she is sensitive, sentimental and a dreamer.

Eventually Uri faces up to his nationalistic obligations and leaves Mika to join the Palmach, the elite troops of the newly forming Israel Defense Forces.  As Uri moves from his personal concerns to an heroic willingness to sacrifice for his homeland, we realize that he reflects a complex type of new Israeli, one that did not exist earlier.  Uri's personality reflects the new emphasis, developing during the 1960s, on the individual in Israeli society, combined with the heroism and the self-sacrifice demanded during the period of the Six Day War.

Dayan will also be remembered for the more recent roles that he played -- as the conscientious objector in Beyond the Walls (Uri Barbash, 1986), as the extremist rabbi who incites his yeshivah students to violence in Time of Favor (Joseph Cedar, 2000), and as the sensitive therapist who is grappling with his own issues and those of his patients in the wildly successful TV dramatic series In Treatment

Dayan was also a scriptwriter, newspaper columnist, a poet and a novelist.  He was awarded recognition by the Jerusalem Film Festival (1998) and was the recipient of a special homage by the Israeli Ministry of Culture for his contribution to Israeli cinema (1990). 

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