"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.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Tel Aviv -- the city that never sleeps

Tel Aviv is an amazing and vibrant city that is almost impossible to define or describe.  But filmmaker Nellu Cohn does an amazing job of capturing what is unique and special about the city in Tel Aviv Live (documentary, 50 minutes).  This is a stupendous film about art and artists and about the culture of a city.

Tel Aviv is a city of festivals, dance, music, theater, opera, cinema, beach parties, night life, literature, concerts and parades.  This film provides some historical context for all of these art forms, and at the same time, permits us to hear from some of the greatest artists themselves.  Menashe Kadishman, painter and sculptor, talks about some of the early influences on his work.  Author Etgar Keret says that you can find in the local art a search for what it means to live in Tel Aviv.  Singer Noa (Achinoam Nini) talks about how you can see, in Tel Aviv, the roots in people's art, but also their need to break free. She says that Tel Aviv "offers progress, release, joy!"

There is also a discussion of the role or place of politics in cultural expression.  Graphic artist and designer Tartakover focuses on the fact that the Occupation influences absolutely all cultural expression in this country. Obviously fringe theater deals head-on with political complexity, but repertory theater quite blatantly ignores political expression.  Etgar Keret admits that his writings offer a reflection of human complexity and less so deal with political issues.  Noa, on the other hand, talks about her collaboration with Palestinian singer, Mira Awad, as a form of political expression. She knows that most popular singers do not express political opinions but she feels obligated to do so.

This is a superior film dealing with artists and cultural expression, which captures the essence and vitality of a city.  Tel Aviv Live  is available from Ruth Diskin Films. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Pilot and Artist

Amir Har-Gil's newest award-winning documentary film, Uri in the Sky, tells the thrilling story of Uri Gil, who served as a combat pilot for more than 40 years till the age of 60.  Produced with the consent of the Israel Air Force, this film provides a fascinating and intimate look at a modest man who doesn't brag about how many MIGs he has downed in his career.  Rather, he talks about the need for level-headedness in times of pressure and how he thrives in these situations.


Uri has just recently retired from his career in the airforce with the rank of Brigadier General (reserves) and he will now work full-time as a painter and a grandfather.  At his retirement ceremony, he asked What have I done with my life?  And his response to his own question was very hard-hitting --  "I belong to that small group that has created the airforce ethos to which the enemy has yet to find the response."

He talks about how pilots who have refused to bomb cities makes society stronger, and how he has worried about bombing innocent civilians as a result of human error.  But, he himself is against insubordination and feels that acting upon orders that you receive is a moral responsibility.  His strong sense of morality, however, permits him to be critical of certain government policies and he is not afraid to voice those criticisms.

Uri says that a pilot must be ready for anything, capable of thinking fast in moments of stress.  For Uri, our most important weapon is our flexibility and motivation.

Uri in the Sky is available from Amir Har-Gil --  amirhar-gil@yakum.co.il

Sunday, June 19, 2016

A Story of Heroism during the Shoah

During the last 20 years, we have seen many films of Holocaust survivors taking their families to learn about their roots in Europe, reminiscing and talking about their growing up and telling stories of their survival.  This one is especially compelling and historically fascinating, produced with graphics and tremendous research, telling a personal story that is different from other stories.  This is a tale of two sisters who were deported to Auschwitz very late in the war -- and lived to tell the tale.

A Story in the Third Person, directed by Yarden Karmin, relates the story of a Slovakian woman named Zuzi, now 86-years-old, who returns to the town where she grew up, together with her Israeli family.  She talks of the importance of "memories" and tells the story of how, together with her older sister, Agi, she survived the dark years of the Holocaust. 

They lived in a town called Kosice which was annexed by Hungary in 1938.  The family name was Weisz -- father, mother, and two daughters named Agi and Zuzi.  They had an idyllic childhood and there are beautiful family photos, especially a striking one of the two teenage sisters in 1943, on the eve of the destruction of Hungarian Jewry.  

The Jews of the town were first placed in a ghetto and later deported to Birkenau.  From Birkenau, Zuzi, together with her mother and her sister, was transported north to Estonia and then sent on a death march to Latvia.  Their mother was murdered by the Nazis during this march.  Zuzi was only 17-years-old at the time, but she was capable of so much bravery in order to save her sister who was sick with typhus near the end of the war.  After 19 months of terrible suffering and agony, there is the closing of the circle and they finally return home to their family's apartment in Kosice.

This is a family story of wonderful memories, a tale of tremendous bravery, a story told by a woman looking back on her life.  Surrounded by her family, Zuzi relates the details of her story in a matter-of-fact way which I found strangely compelling.  She  explains that she tells the story with objective distance, "in the third person", as if it were the story of someone else.  This is her coping mechanism. 

The film, in Hebrew and Slovak with English subtitles, was produced by Elishava Braun-Lapidot, Zuzi's adult daughter.  A Story in the Third Person (documentary, 74 minutes), is available from Ruth Diskin films.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Hebrew poet: Tirza Atar

In recent years there have been many biographical films about figures from the world of Israeli culture and music (for some examples, see the series Culture Heroes).  A new and stunning documentary film, Bird in the Room, directed by Ari Davidovich, would fit perfectly into a program on Israeli culture and cultural icons. 

This film presents the life story of the Hebrew poet, Tirza Atar (1941-1977) -- her writings, the crises of her life and the stranglehold that her relationship with her father had on her life. 

Tirza's father was Nathan Alterman, a cultural icon in Israel of the 1950s.  Alterman is known for many popular and successful poems and songs (for example, he wrote "Shir HaEmek" about Emek Yizrael that was written for the early Zionist film, Land of Promise), but he also wrote about death, about being prepared to die -- this was his dark side and this heavily influenced the young Tirza.  In addition, she was only 6-years-old when the Altalena was blown up in the Tel Aviv harbor but it affected her and her writings immensely.

As a young actress, she fell in love and married Oded Kotler, also a young actor at that time.  It was the early 1960s and they went together to New York to study theater, but it was very hard for her to be cut-off from home and she returned home in a terrible state.  Eventually she was able to rebuild her life and she returned to acting, married again, had two children, and became a prolific writer of children's books, poetry, and lyrics for popular songs. 

This is the story of an artist, a well-known cultural figure, and it makes use of wonderful re-enactments, recollections, songs, poetry, photos from family albums and provides a striking English translation of the poetry.

The film Bird in the Room (documentary, 66 minutes) is available from Maya Weinberg -- mayafilmfest@gmail.com

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Romantic Comedy

Yeled Tov Yerushalayim, directed by Roee Florentine,is a new Israeli romantic comedy.  I saw it in a Jerusalem movie theater this week and when the film was over, everyone around me was buzzing about how much they enjoyed themselves!

When Adi was a young boy, his father's parting words before going off to the War in Lebanon were to exhort him to be a good boy, not to be a trouble-maker, and to take care of his mother.  His father never returned from that war, and as a result, little Adi becomes not only a goodie-two-shoes, but eventually someone who lets others walk all over him.  At work, we see that someone else obtains professional advancement on his achievements.  Even his wife and adolescent son learn to take for granted the things he does for them, and as a result, they treat him like a doormat. 

This is the story of how a chance encounter with Natalie, a dog-walker, transforms Adi's life.  Not only does he begin to relax, let go, and smile, he learns to stand up for himself, and most importantly, to enjoy life.  Natalie teaches him to see life differently, to appreciate the little things, and to learn to value himself. 
But Adi is apparently ill and things are always more complex than they seem at first.  

Although filled with clich├ęs, this is a charming film which includes humor and just enough romance to make it special!

Yeled Tov Yerushalayim was produced by United King.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Junction 48 by Udi Aloni

The prizewinning film, Junction 48, directed by Udi Aloni, is a great film of complexity and political depth, with lots of good music and talented young singers.  The film provides insight into the issues of Palestinian Israelis in the contemporary reality and is very critical of how the Palestinians of Israel are treated -- both socially and by the authorities.  

The story takes place in Lod, a mixed Jewish-Arab city in central Israel, where drugs abound together with poverty.  There is resentment against the Israeli authorities, tensions between different groups of Palestinians and Bedouin, and also between the local Jewish and the local Palestinian young people.

Karim's parents perform as a musical team, but Karim's music is different -- he does Arabic rap and the lyrics are biting and critical.  He performs with his brother and some other friends.  One of his friends lives in an old shack, which they are desperately trying to save from demolition  by government bulldozers.  Another friend is involved in the sale of drugs.   Karim's girlfriend, Manar, who also sings with Karim's rap group, is being pushed by her family to get married since she lives what they consider an immodest and dishonorable lifestyle.  

This is a film about the frustrations of living in a divided society, and about the meeting point between Israelis and Palestinians within Israeli society.  Uri Klein (in his Ha'aretz review of the film this past week) calls this the collision and interaction between Israelis and Palestinians. When Karim's rap group gets a gig to perform in a Jewish rap club in Tel Aviv, there are tensions between the Jews and the Arabs.  The burly Jewish host rapper, trying to provoke Karim and his friends, is similar to the real-life provocative and extremist Israeli rapper, who goes by the name "The Shadow". 
The film is filled with irony. For example, when asked about the performance in the Jewish club, Karim responds in his witty style, "oh fine, they apologized for 1967 and also for 1948." Many other critical and sarcastic comments can be found throughout the dialogue and in the rap songs of the dynamic Palestinian rap group, which help the viewer understand the feelings and thoughts of Palestinian Israeli young people.  

The language of the film is almost completely Arabic, which itself is unique and powerful for the many audiences which will view it. It is a demonstration of cultural respect on the part of the filmmaker and is a reflection of the fact that there is heightened interest in Israel today in learning and speaking Arabic.  

Junction 48 is an important film.  It is well-written with fast pacing, and it works  successfully in a number of different genres -- there is great music, a touching love story, and much social criticism. 

Udi Aloni's previous feature film, Forgiveness (2006) also provided a strong political comment.  It was about an idealistic American Jew who comes to Israel, joins the army, and becomes emotionally traumatized after killing a child during his military service in the West Bank.  He is brought to a mental hospital at Givat Shaul that is built on the ruins of Deir Yassin (an Arab village outside of Jerusalem where hundreds of Arabs were slaughtered by Jews in 1948).  The other patients at this mental hospital are Holocaust survivors.  Strangely, a patient/survivor becomes involved in his treatment. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Kapo in Jerusalem

Uri Barbash is well-known for his artistic honesty, leading the circle of Israeli filmmakers interested in a critical look at Israeli political issues and dealing with issues of contemporary reality in a harsh and uncompromising fashion.  He is best known for the prizewinning and popularly acclaimed Beyond the Walls (1984), an unrestrained portrayal of Arab-Jewish relations in the brutal environment of an Israeli prison.  Also a prize-winning film, One of Us (1989) takes place against the background of the first intifada and deals with an army cover-up.  His dramatic TV mini-series Kastner Trial (1994) was also a prize-winner.  

Barbash's latest film, Kapo in Jerusalem, sheds light on a complex moral dilemma.  The film is made in a minimalist style, using talking heads.  The script and acting are superior, but the film in its entirety is a bit drawn-out and even somewhat tedious.  

Based on a true story, Bruno is a medical doctor, who was chosen to be the kapo of a block at Auschwitz.  He speaks to the camera from his Haganah outpost before the 1950 battle for Ramat Rachel.  His wife, Sarah, speaks to the camera from their modest Jerusalem apartment, with their little baby in her arms.   Others tell their stories also -- a postman, a butcher, a doctor and more—with much pathos and persuasiveness.

In his own reflections on what he went through, Bruno felt that he tried his utmost to save people, to lessen their suffering, to help those that he could.  But he often resorted to tough measures to keep discipline in his block.  The stories that are told show the difficult decisions that he had to make.  For example, he rationed the food as fairly as possible, even though some would have wanted it otherwise, such as a famous poet who demanded extra food for himself.  In addition, Bruno had a shoe-making workshop set up in his block because he knew that without sturdy shoes his men would succumb very quickly.   

After the war, Bruno found and married his sweetheart, Sarah, who had been  a pianist in Warsaw before the war, and they came to Jerusalem.  Life was not easy for them because so many people recognized him from that period.  She becomes pregnant and he eventually joins the Haganah, but her life is filled with awful anxiety and depression, given all that she had gone through and continues to suffer as a Holocaust survivor who is not easily accepted and integrated into the emerging Jewish society in Israel in the early years of the state.  

This is a film which raises many issues dealing with morality at a time when morality was not so clear-cut.  Bruno is very blunt and honest in talking about those years.  In fact, near the end of the film, he says he wanted to save people from their own fears and humiliation.  Kapo in Jerusalem is a hard-hitting film about the impossible choices that an ordinary Jew was forced to make during a terrible time.