"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.

My next speaking tour to North America will be in October 2015! Contact me if you are interested in my speaking in your community. My contact info: amykronish@gmail.com

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

My Michael -- a landmark literary adaptation

This week, the Jerusalem Cinematheque is offering a retrospective of the films of Dan Wolman.  The opening event, which was held on Jerusalem Day, featured the screening of My Michael (1975), a landmark literary adaptation of the celebrated novel by Amos Oz, one of Israel's best-known contemporary writers.

Filmmaker Dan Wolman, one of Israel's most talented and creative filmmakers, was born and grew up in Jerusalem.  Two of his major films feature the city of Jerusalem as a major element in the narrative -- Hide and Seek (1980) and My Michael -- not to mention his documentary, To Touch a City (1978).

My Michael is set in early 1950s Jerusalem, which was divided in 1948 into an Arab sector and a Jewish sector, an event that split friendships and neighborhoods.  A reflection of the divided city in which she lives, Hannah, the heroine, becomes melancholy, isolated, and filled with conflict and tension. 

Hannah (Efrat Lavie) is a Hebrew literature student at the Hebrew University, a young woman of sensitivity and desire.  She is married to Michael (Oded Kotler), a reticent, sympathetic, hardworking geologist.  However, she is unfulfilled by the peaceful, humdrum, conventional life that they are leading.  She is melancholy, unhappy in her marriage, writing a diary.   Hannah slowly abandons herself to a world of dreams in which both her past attraction to and fear of Arab twin boys, with whom she played as  a child, play a major role.  As the film develops and the Arabs grow into mature men, her fantasies take on more erotic characteristics and, at the same time, become more violent, hinting at terror. 

The film is remarkable in many ways.  Firstly, much of it is filmed through windows, as we see people behind the window bars, giving the viewer a sense of peeking in at the lives of the people we are watching.  Secondly, the film, although filmed in 1974 Jerusalem, provides a look at life in the city of the 1950s.  It was a period of economic difficulty and things were basically dull and depressing -- before economic prosperity, with the city divided, before the era of museums, concert halls, theaters, and shopping malls.   

Hannah is a woman imprisoned by her husband's inarticulateness, by his reticence to tell her how he feels about things, and by her attraction to others.  When one of her neighbors has a mental breakdown and is sent to a nearby sanatorium, Hannah goes to visit and meets a woman who is a reflection of herself.  She whispers "sh, sh", and then screams frantically.  

The film concludes with Hannah finally breaking down, clanking her teaspoon back and forth on her teacup. This is a fascinating conclusion, offering a rhythmic allusion to the sound of the Arab stone masons, chipping away at a block of Jerusalem stone. According to Dan Wolman, it was Amos Oz's idea to end the film in this way. 

At the screening, Wolman told the audience how difficult it had been to find an Israeli distributor for this film because it was the post-Yom Kippur War period and people didn't want to see melancholy films.  Finally, the film was picked up by a local distributor and it had a very successful run in Israeli cinemas. 
Wolman also told the audience that while he is happy about this retrospective of his films, he prefers to look forward, rather than backward, and is indeed working on a new film!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Israeli films starring the city of Jerusalem

Yom Yerushalayim is approaching.  It is the day that the government has chosen to celebrate the unification of Jerusalem in 1967.  For me, it is much more a day to consider the issues and challenges of coexistence in this city.  In honor of this day, I am sharing an annotated listing of films dealing with Jerusalem! 

A few years ago, a film fund was established in Jerusalem.  As a result, there have been a large number of high quality feature films in which the city of Jerusalem plays an important role.  I recommend the following feature films, all of which have been reviewed on this blog --

  • Footnote by Joseph Cedar -- a film which portrays life in Jerusalem, from the streets and sites of the city, to cultural events and mostly academic life and political back-biting at the Hebrew University.
  • Hill Start by Oren Stern -- a quirky comedy on the subject of the family.
  • Sweets by Joseph Pitchhadze -- a satire on the spiraling violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
  • Hunting Elephants by Reshef Levy -- a comedy about a bank heist which includes a lot of nostalgia and melodrama.
  • Wonders by Avi Nesher -- a thriller about a rabbi who works wonders and foretells the future.
About women in crisis --
  • Self Made by Shira Gefen -- about two women living parallel lives, not very far away from each other, but separated by a checkpoint.
  • Present Continuous by Aner Preminger -- about a woman having difficulty in letting her children become independent during a terrible period of bombings in Jerusalem.
  • Fragile by Vidi Bilu -- set in Jerusalem of 1966, this is a study of a lonely woman.
Adaptations of literary works by David Grossman --
  • Someone to Run With by Oded Davidoff -- a story of two adolescents, one of whom has the strength and courage to fight back against the world of drugs and teen exploitation -- two young people who are able to make a difference.
  • Intimate Grammar by Nir Bergman -- a film about adolescent turmoil, set in Jerusalem of the 1960s.
In addition, I highly recommend two feature-length documentaries --
  • Footsteps in Jerusalem (previously reviewed on this blog), 87 minutes, contemporary vignettes produced by graduates of the Sam Spiegel Film School, somewhat based on the classic documentary, In Jerusalem, by David Perlov.
  • Ron Havilio's documentary, Fragments: Images of a Life in Jerusalem (1983-94) -- an epic film, not a documentary in the conventional sense, rather it is an ongoing diary of a filmmaker's personal impressions.  The film shows the filmmaker's attraction to the old neighborhood of Mamilla near the Jaffa Gate built along the divide between old and new, east and west, Arab and Jew.  Most of the old buildings of the neighborhood have now been torn down, replaced by upmarket housing and a fancy outdoor shopping mall.  But Havilio's images remain for future generations.
The following short films are also worth attention (also reviewed on this blog) -- 

  • From Man to Man - We Pass Like Strangers by Daniel Gal -- 23 minutes, about the diversity of the people of Jerusalem.
  • Day and Night by Sivan Arbel -- 51 minutes, the story of the Weingarten school in Jerusalem, which was established in 1902 as the first orphanage for girls in Israel.
  • The Beetle by Yishai Oren -- a quirky Jerusalem mosaic about people, places, a young couple, and the history of their car.
  • Jerusalem Moments, a series of short films from Ir Amim (2008) -- a collection of ten short films, which provide diverse perspectives on difficult issues about living together – Israelis and Palestinians – within the same city.

Some of the better older classics that take place on the background of Jerusalem include --

  • Hide and Seek by Dan Wolman (1980) - about living in a society in conflict during the British Mandate period.  The film contains beautiful photography of Jerusalem and an authentically evoked period setting which portrays the conformity and loyalty required by a society under siege.  Wolman has used the theme of a Jew with an Arab lover, a well-known motif from Hebrew literature.  Setting his story in a difficult period in the history of the nation and adding a tale of homosexual love, he successfully interweaves the private anguish of an individual with the external pressures and political events of the time.
  • Three Days and a Child by Uri Zohar (1967) - an adaptation of A B Yehoshua's well-known novel. This is the story of a stereotypical sabra -- tough and cynical on the outside, yet vulnerable on the inside, who encounters himself as he confronts the child of the woman he loves. 
  • My Michael by Dan Wolman (1975) - an adaptation of the celebrated novel by Amos Oz. The setting is 1950s Jerusalem, a city divided.  A reflection of the divided city in which she lives, and unfulfilled by her peaceful and conventional life, Hannah abandons herself to a world of erotic fantasies and dreams in which both her past attraction to and fear of Arab twin boys, with whom she played as a child when Jerusalem was undivided, play a major role.  Wolman has created a work of art which illustrates the effect on people's lives of having to cope with the tensions of geographical and psychological divisions.
  • Hill 24 Doesn't Answer by Thorold Dickinson (1954) -- which combines in-depth characterization and elements of romance and melodrama with authentically evoked historical incidents.  One of the vignettes is about a foreign volunteer fighting for the Old City of Jerusalem during the War of Independence.
  • Moments by Michal Bat Adam (1979) -- the story of the meeting between a pensive young writer and a French tourist, both women, who develop a complex, intense relationship.  Having decided to book into the same quaint and luxurious Jerusalem hotel, the two women spend a few intense days together.  Shot at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, this setting lends a feeling of beauty to a film in which sensitivities and emotions are of the utmost importance.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Yom HaShoah

Tonight, Yom HaShoah is commemorated in Israel.  I want to review here some of the most important films, made in Israel, which honor the memory of those who perished during that time.

The large masses of immigrants who arrived in Israel from Europe during the years following the Second World War altered the earlier image of the pioneering "new Jew”  which had been so prevalent in Israeli society and in Israeli film.  These Holocaust survivors, who were once stigmatized and learned to be silent about their wartime experiences and traumas, eventually began to share their memories.  The first groundbreaking film which altered our view of the Holocaust survivor was the award-winning Summer of Aviya (Eli Cohen, 1986, fiction) and its sequel, Under the Domim Tree. The stories of survivors are now honored and heard in numerous films.   

Young Israelis, perhaps suffering from over-exposure to Holocaust stories and commemorative events, or from what some have called “Holocaust fatigue”, have learned to grapple with the importance of memory – one through the use of rock music (Due to that War, Orna Ben Dor, 1986, about singer, Yehuda Poliker and his lyricist, Yaakov Gilad, both children of survivors), others through the use of black humor (Babcha, Micky Zilbershtein,1998), and another through a chance encounter with a survivor at Dachau (Martin, Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, 1999). Holocaust consciousness has permeated every aspect of contemporary Israeli culture – film, literature, politics, music and television, and Israelis continue to live in an ongoing shadow of the Shoah.   

Often, the Arab enemy has been compared to the Nazis – out to wipe all Israelis and Jews from the face of the earth (Hill 24 Doesn't Answer, Thorold Dickinson, 1954).  More recently, however, some Israelis are tired of seeing Nazis in all of their enemies, and they are standing up and saying: I'm finished with fighting the Nazis; let's get on with life as normal (in Eitan Fox and Gal Uchovsky's  enormously successful, Walk on Water,  2003). 

In addition, I want to draw attention to the following documentary films which offer some of the most important expressions of memory -- you can find reviews of all of these on this blog --
  • Bureau 06 by Yoav Halevy
  • The Flat by Arnon Goldfinger
  • Six Million and One by David Fisher
  • A Film Unfinished by Yael Hersonski
  • The Green Dumpster Mystery by Tel Haim Yoffie
  • The Hangman by Netalie Braun 

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Kindergarten Teacher

The Kindergarten Teacher ,  הגננת  ,  directed by Nadav Lapid, is about whether or not we appreciate poetry and poets in our society. This is a subject that could have been of interest to the film-going public, but this film does not succeed in gripping us sufficiently so that we can empathize with this issue.

The story is about a kindergarten teacher, Nira, who becomes obsessed with a 5-year-old boy who writes poetry.  Nira notices that Yoav, one of her pre-school children, goes into a trance every now and then, paces back and forth, and begins to recite poetry.  She becomes fascinated by this, begins to favor the child, tries to teach him special things, and copies down his poetry.  Nira is married with two grown children and is attending a poetry workshop where she presents Yoav's poems as her own.  Her obsession enters every aspect of her life -- for example, she answers a phone call from Yoav so that he can tell her his newest poem,  even as her husband is trying to make love to her (even his full frontal male nudity does not seem to distract her from this phone call)!

Poetry in the film is portrayed as sensitive and artistic, versus the heroic and masculine virtues of our society. We see this in two scenes -- when Nira's son's army officer congratulates them on making their son into "a soldier, a human being, a man" and at the Chanukah celebration when the children sing about Judah the Maccabee as the heroic "redeemer of the nation."  Yoav's father, a successful businessman and restauranteur, is obviously against his little boy becoming a poet and he does not want to encourage it, since he feels that poets are unappreciated in our society.

According to Uri Klein, the film critic for Ha'aretz, this is the best Israeli film of the past year!  But I choose to differ. 

I got tired of the film when it began to enter into the realm of political statements.  Nira takes Yoav to the beach and teaches him a poem about Ashkenazim and Sephardim, trying to radicalize him and teach him about societal issues.  Not only does this seem inappropriate for a little boy, but it seems to be derailing the narrative construct. 

Mostly, I felt that the pacing was drawn out and the camerawork was always drawing attention to itself.  The  camera lingered too long on each face, on each moment, on each scene, creating a self-indulgent, troubling, uneasy feeling, and creating too much sexual innuendo.  When Nira showers the little boy because he got sandy in the sandbox, the camera watches her every movement so closely, creating exaggerated sexual tension and making us feel terribly uneasy.

According to the filmmaker, Nadav Lapid, the film is semi-autobiographical, in that he was that little boy who wrote poetry.  I much preferred his previous film, The Policeman (previously reviewed on this blog). 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Lia van Leer -- In Memory

Lia van Leer was a unique individual who succeeded in establishing new institutions, inspired by her own vision and passion. In a country where film had been primarily seen as a form of entertainment or a means of propaganda, van Leer, through her untiring efforts, has helped change that image and raise filmmaking and film appreciation to a new level. As a result, film is now seen as an expression of culture and art, and is funded as such by government agencies.

She passed away last night at the age of 90. May she rest in peace.

I worked for Lia for 15 years.  During that time, I learned a tremendous amount from a greater-than-life woman who was obsessed and committed to her work.  She especially expressed interest and encouragement in two big projects which I curated -- the Yiddish Film Festival (in cooperation with the National Center for Jewish Film in Waltham, Massachusetts) and the establishment of the annual Jewish Film Festival.  She always saw Jewish and Yiddish film as a commemoration to her parents who she lost in the Shoah. 

Winner of the Israel Prize for her contribution to the field of cinema in Israel, she is remembered for establishing the Haifa Cinematheque, the Jerusalem Cinematheque, the Israel Film Archive and the Jerusalem International Film Festival.

Please see the biography that I wrote about her for the Jewish Women's Archive on-line. 

[the text of this biography was approved by Lia when it was written about 10 years ago]

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Lost Scrolls of Deuteronomy

This fascinating documentary film, Shapira and I (directed by Yoram Sabo), unfolds like a detective story, layer by layer.  This is the story of  Moses Shapira who sold ancient manuscripts in a shop in the Christian Quarter in Jerusalem's Old City during the latter half of the 19th century. During those years, Shapira had in his possession ancient scrolls of the Book of Deuteronomy but experts at the British Museum decided that the scrolls were a forgery.  Shortly thereafter, Shapira committed suicide and the scrolls disappeared.

Filmmaker Yoram Sabo, together with cinematographer Yoram Millo, take us on a compelling journey searching for this lost treasure -- the ancient scrolls of Deuteronomy.  As the story unfolds, we meet historical researchers, book dealers, and even a British psychic!  We visit a dusty collection of historical artifacts in a London basement.  We learn that Shapira converted to Christianity and joined Christ Church in Jerusalem.  We read from a book by one of his daughters who describes her father's shop in the Old City.  And most importantly, we begin to realize why researchers today believe that these scrolls of the Book of Deuteronomy were actually authentic.

If you are a connoisseur of Jewish history and find meaning in the Dead Sea Scrolls, then this fascinating story of Moses Shapira will certainly interest you!  

Shapira and I (documentary, 57 minutes) is available from Ruth Diskin Films.