"World Cinema: Israel"

My book, "World Cinema: Israel", is available from Amazon on "Kindle", with an in-depth chapter comparing and analyzing internationally acclaimed Israeli films up to 2010.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A modern-day adaptation of "The Dybbuk"

In honor of Yom HaShoah here in Israel, my husband and I went to see a new feature film, Demon, directed by Marcin Wrona, which presents a hard-hitting and effective story about Holocaust memory in small town Poland.  

The following review of this film is written by my husband, Ron, and myself together.

A young Jewish man comes from London to marry his sweetheart and they are going to live in the old rural homestead of her grandparents.  Their wedding day becomes a terrible nightmare when a frightening secret from the past is discovered on their property.  In a modern interpretation of the well-known play, The Dybbuk by Shalom Ansky, this secret drives the man insane.    

As the immediate family is trying to deal with the crisis, helping the man who is slowly deteriorating before their eyes, and searching for the evidence of the secret on the grounds of the house, the wedding guests are rollicking and partying in the background, getting more and more drunk and largely oblivious and uncaring when it comes to the troubles of the Jewish man. 

What is the terrible secret?  The Jewish man has found bones in the garden --  the corpse of Hannah, a Jewish teenager whose family was the previous owner of this home.  The implications about how the bride's grandfather obtained the house from Hannah's family are obvious.  The bride's father, trying to belittle the findings and trying to save the day at his daughter's wedding, says, so what if there are bones in the garden, the entire country is strewn with corpses.  When this line is stated, the viewer realizes that this is a story of the murder of Jews in their homes, and also a story of the complicity of so many Poles during the Holocaust. 

Filled with quirky characters -- the doctor, the priest, and the bride's family members -- the film provides a fascinating glimpse at how modern-day Poles are dealing with their recent past.  Some Poles prefer to continue to exist with denial of any responsibility for what happened, and therefore ignore Polish complicity with the Nazis. Other Poles appear to see the whole thing as just  one long nightmare, and they prefer the route of apathy. And others are coming to grips with their responsibility and their failure to act to protect Jews during the Shoah, and are facing their past forthrightly towards the goal of reconciling with the Jewish people who live in Poland today as well as with Jews who visit Poland from all over the world.

It was especially appropriate for us to view this film in preparation for Yom HaShoah. We in Israel face similar challenges in dealing with the period of the Holocaust. Some Jews prefer to still not talk about it, to ignore it, or to see it as one long nightmare. The majority simply follows the national customs and mark Yom HaShoah in a perfunctory manner by standing silent for two minutes during the siren that is heard all over the country on the morning of this day.  And yet others are seeking ways to find humanistic and universalistic messages that emanate from this tragic period in our history via more intimate educational and spiritual gatherings.

The film, Demon, is a Polish-Israeli co-production.  The Israeli production company is Transfax Films. 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Family Reconciliation

Saar Maoz is a 40-year-old gay man living in London.  He grew up on a religious kibbutz in the Beit Shean valley, served in the paratroopers, and now works for Apple in London.  He sings in the London Gay Men's Choir and discovers that he is HIV positive.  More than anything else, he seems to crave a reconciliation with his family back in Israel. 

Along comes a filmmaker team, Tomer Heymann (who recently directed Mr. Gaga, previously reviewed on this blog) and his brother Barak Heymann, who work together to create a soul-searching documentary, Who's Gonna Love Me Now? about Saar Maoz.  This is a hard-hitting film filled with both joy and sadness, and much drama.
Saar talks about how he was thrown out of the kibbutz where he grew up and his bitterness at the fact that his parents didn't fight the decree.  We meet his parents -- his mother comes to London to visit him and we see that she is trying very hard to fight her earlier shock and antipathy to her son's homosexuality. 

Then we meet his siblings.  One of his brothers is worried about letting his brother, Saar, who is HIV positive, come close to his children.  In an extraordinary scene, sitting in a coffee shop, he is explaining his feelings to Saar, and we see that he has it all neatly worked out.  Sitting quietly next to him, however, is his wife who suddenly chimes in and says -- I am the mother of those same children and I want to say that I'm not worried! Saar's father is old-school macho, still living his triumphant Six Day War memories, and obsessed with how his oldest son has let him down. 

These are just some of the family members with whom Saar must come to terms if he wants to reconcile with his family.  What makes them particularly interesting is the fact that they are religious Jews and, therefore, they are finding it particularly difficult to come to terms with the reality of Saar's lifestyle.

Living in London, Saar sings in the London Gay Men's Choir and we have the delightful opportunity to watch rehearsals and performances which are stupendous!  They add a wonderful dimension to the film, providing not only musical interludes but also a wonderful respect for the talents and charm of this particular group of men.  

Who's Gonna Love Me Now? (documentary, 85 minutes) is available from Heymann Brothers Films.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Ronit Elkabetz

I was saddened to learn today that actress and film director, Ronit Elkabetz, has passed away.  She was an amazingly iconic figure in the Israeli world of cinema.  As both an actress and director, she has been a major force, making award-winning films, garnering international acclaim.  

Born in 1964 in Beersheba, she worked as an actress of stage and screen, both in Israel and in France. Her most impressive roles as an actress in Israeli films include the demonic Lilith character in The Appointed,  the mentally-challenged sister in Sc'chur, the mistress in Late Marriage  and her tour-de-force performance as the owner of a cafe in small town Israel in The Band's Visit.  
During the last decade, together with her brother, Shlomi Elkabetz, she put her hand to film directing.  Together they made a trilogy of films which are critical of the traditional Moroccan Jewish community and its restrictive nature vis-a-vis women.  The most recent film of this trilogy is Gett,  which is also critical of the rabbinical establishment and how it treats women seeking a divorce.  

So often you hear of actors talking about how they had to study in order to prepare themselves for a special role.  In the case of Ronit Elkabetz, I remember, years ago, her talking about how each and every role that she played became part of her and helped to form her being.  This is a thought that has stayed with me as I think of the importance of the role of the actor in filmmaking, and also the importance of the roles that each actor plays.  

Ronit Elkabetz was a strong and dominant woman with an extraordinary personality -- a personality that was formed by so many of the diverse and hard-hitting roles that she played throughout her career.  May her memory be a blessing.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Portrait of a Cultural Hero

Safaa Dabour is a cultural hero within the Arab community in Nazareth.  For decades, the Israeli Arab community did not have movie theaters and cultural centers, then along came Safaa Dabour who established the first cinematheque to serve that community.  She is a strong and independent woman, the mother of two grown sons, a religious Muslim woman, a widow. The award-winning documentary portrait, Nazareth Cinema Lady, directed by Nurit Jacobs-Yinon, masterfully tells her story -- integrating the personal with the story of the Nazareth Cinematheque, which she established in 2003. 

Dabour talks about how people laughed at her when she said she wanted to establish the first movie theater to screen Arab films for Arab citizens.  She desperately wanted her children to be proud of her, but it's a complicated and frustrating business for a woman in the international world of film.  Sensitively produced and dramatically portrayed, we see her story take shape, as she talks about her difficulties with distributors, how she travels to Amman to collect films, her stormy relationship with her sons, and her traumatic attempt to expose corruption. There are battles that she wins, succeeding in screening films to fully sold-out audiences -- and battles that she loses, such as her fight with the franchise restaurant owner who insists on serving alcohol in the building of the cinematheque. 

This is a portrait of a charming, yet somewhat stubborn and immensely courageous, woman who sets her sights on fulfilling her vision for the Arab community of Nazareth.  
Nazareth Cinema Lady (documentary, 52 minutes) is available from JMT Films.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Firebirds by Amir Wolf

Israeli filmgoers know that living in the shadow of the Holocaust is still an important subject within Israeli society.  The latest Israeli feature film to open in Israeli cinemas, Firebirds, directed by Amir Wolf, is a murder mystery, dealing with Holocaust survivors.   (The erroneous English title being used in Israeli newspapers is Sandbirds.)  

The film opens with an unidentified body found stabbed, partially submerged in the Yarkon River in north Tel Aviv.  The victim has a number on his arm.  A police detective who has been in disgrace is called back to the force and assigned to this case. The story moves back and forth between past and present as the detective discovers clues that help him identify the man and eventually the killer.  We slowly discover that despite his age, this man was still good looking and charming and exploiting Holocaust survivor widows, taking advantage of their loneliness, telling  fabricated stories from the past, building on their neediness and taking their money. 

The pacing is a bit slow and even stilted for a crime drama.  Perhaps the film should have been billed as a psychological drama.  As the detective, who is himself the child of survivors, discovers that the tattooed number on the arm of the victim is relatively new, we ask ourselves, what would make anyone tattoo a number on his arm, faking his identity as a Holocaust survivor?  

This is an intriguing story told on the background of the Holocaust, about aging survivors living in Tel Aviv today.  According to an interview with the filmmaker, Amir Wolf, on Reshet Bet Radio, the film began from this simple story, on the background of the Holocaust, and moved from there to a homage to the three women playing the survivors in the film.  The three women are Gila Almagor, Miriam Zohar and Devorah Keidar and the main character is played by Oded Teomi.  

Firebirds is available from Israeli Films.