"World Cinema: Israel"

Upcoming speaking tour in the USA - I will be available from after Succot until Nov. 9th. Please be in touch if you would like to invite me to speak about Israeli cinema in your community!


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, October 19, 2016

Sand Storm by Elite Zexer

The new Israeli feature film that everyone is talking about is Sand Storm (Sufat Hol), directed by Elite Zexer.  This film is about those Bedouin who live in small villages, many unrecognized, dotting the hills of the northern Negev.  Some live in shacks, and some live in small homes, all without basic infrastructure provided by the government.  Those who can afford it have generators which provide electricity for basic needs such as small refrigerators and washing machines.  This is a patriarchal and traditional society. 

The film tells the story of a mother and daughter in one family within this closed society.  Layla, the oldest daughter, is attending a nearby college.  Her father obviously indulges her and, in the opening scene of the film, he is teaching her how to drive.  She is independent, bright, and in love with a lovely Bedouin young man from another tribe, whom she met at school. They want to marry.  

Her mother, Jalila, on the other hand, is suffering humiliation and unhappiness as she prepares the wedding feast for her husband who is taking a second wife.  The story of these two women, mother and daughter, provides the basic narrative structure for this film.

The dancing at the wedding celebration shows Jalila celebrating with a forced smile.  Because there are no men at this celebration, she is wearing a false mustache, creating a striking image.  But her face also shows a mix of pain, determination, and mostly worry about her daughter who she knows will never be permitted to marry the man she loves, a man from outside the tribe.
The characters in the film are compelling, even the father whose actions, in dealing with these two strong women in his life, are based on what seems to be at first unclear motivations.  It eventually becomes clear to the viewer that he is mostly conforming to what is expected of him and makes all of his decisions based on what other men in their world would say.   

This is a gritty and authentic picture of life for the women, a hard-hitting emotional and psychological study.  These women live very difficult lives and they desperately need to believe that things might change for them and that their family conditions might improve.  You might think that the position of the new second wife is actually to be envied.  But the viewer gets a glimpse at her own humiliation at not having been able to catch a young husband who would make her his first wife.
Sand Storm was a prizewinner at the Sundance festival, and more recently, the winner of multiple Israeli Ophir awards, including best directing and best film, which makes this film the Israeli entry for the Academy Awards.  Debut filmmaker Elite Zexer was originally drawn to the world of the Bedouin of the Negev via her mother who is a photographer and had long ago made personal connections with this community.  Zexer is to be commended for her success as a Jewish filmmaker looking in at Arab society.  This film is a tour-de-force in its emotional power, effective script and visual strength.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Child Brides

Child Mother, directed by Yael Kipper and Ronen Zaretzky, is a compelling documentary film made in a minimalist style, which tells an extraordinary story.  This is a film about Israeli women, today in their 80s, who were married off at very young ages.

Esther, born in Morocco, 84-years-old, sits in her apartment in Jerusalem, telling her story to her daughter Sima.  She was 12-years-old when her father married her off.  At first, she thought it would be fun – new clothes and a big celebration.  But when she realized what her new husband wanted from her, she ran away.  When he found her, he took her by force.  

Naomi was born in Yemen.  Hana was born in Morocco.  Ziona, from Yemen, had 12 children and lost her first child in childbirth. 

These women talk of loveless marriages, of painful memories, of multiple miscarriages, of husbands who were 40 years older.  When they came to Israel, their husbands were already older men and, as a result, the women had to work hard to support the family.  One woman cleaned houses, away from home for days at a time.  Another worked planting trees for the JNF.

These are painful stories of tragic childhoods, of motherhood at young ages, of little girls forced to live with cruel mothers-in-law, of living in fear of their husbands.  In many cases, these are stories that were never told – mothers keeping their stories secret from their children out of shame and a deep-seated need to forget. 

One grown daughter, now 60-years-old, begs her mother for a hug and a kiss.  But her mother tells her that she was never hugged or kissed as a child and as a result does not like to be touched.  Through tears, they are finally able to cling to each other. 

Child Mother was the winner of a Special Jury Mention at the Doc Aviv film festival.  According to the jury:  "The film Child Mother delicately reveals the harsh story of women who, as young girls, were given to much older men and enslaved by them, in the name of tradition. The filmmakers succeed in portraying a complex, complicated and important story – through multiple layers of concealment, denial and shame. A story that echoes and has existed from ancient times to our own days."

Child Mother (documentary, 89 minutes), is available from Michael Treves JMT Films.
Watch the trailer! 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Opening the Gates of the Soviet Union

Operation Wedding by Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov is a documentary thriller about refuseniks, leaders of the struggle to leave the Soviet Union.  In 1970, the filmmaker’s parents were leaders of a group of Soviet Jewish dissidents who planned to hijack a plane in order to escape from the USSR.  It was called the Leningrad Hijacking and they were all caught by the KGB.

They were refuseniks, having tried legal means to leave a land of tyranny, they were forced to resort to desperate means. The Russians saw them as terrorists, but human rights activists in the West saw them as heroes. The filmmaker’s parents were Jewish heroes of the 20th century, fighting for freedom.   Sylva Zalmanson was sentenced to 10 years in prison and Edward Kuznetsov was originally sentenced to death.

In this film, we see them today as compelling individuals.  Edward Kuznetsov, a greater-than-life figure, has a wonderful sense of humor, even after all that he lived through.  And Sylva Zalmanson shows us charm – as she waltzes and smiles on a visit back to the prison where she was held – and bravery for having pronounced loud and clear, at her KGB trial, “Next Year in Jerusalem”. 

The film includes startling period footage of the refuseniks, the KGB, “Let My People Go” demonstrations, and American news coverage of the KGB show trial.  The film also includes the story of Golda Meir and the behind-the-scenes international diplomacy that saved the lives of the two ringleaders who had been sentenced to death. 

While in prison, Edward Kuznetsov wrote two books about the struggle against an oppressive government, both of which were smuggled out to the West where they were published. 

This is the story of two people who, through the brave risks that they took, were able to help pressure the Soviet Union to open its doors for thousands to emigrate in the future, thereby playing an enormous role in the unfolding of Jewish history in the contemporary period.

The film Operation Wedding (documentary 62 minutes) is available from Go2Films.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Biblical Motifs

 It is interesting that so many films over the last decade in Israel have included major biblical motifs.  For example, three films that referred to the Akedah story (sacrifice of Isaac) were Footnote, My Father My Lord, and Trumpet in the Wadi.

In honor of the upcoming holiday of Rosh Hashanah, on which we read from the Torah about Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 21), I have chosen to write about a feature film, Harmonia by Ori Sivan, based on that story.    

You might remember that the biblical story is about Abraham and Sarah and Hagar.  Abraham and Sarah are unable to have a child.  Together with Hagar, Abraham fathers Ishmael.  But after her own child, Isaac, is born, Sarah becomes jealous of Hagar and Ishmael and insists that Abraham send them away.

The blowing of the shofar (ram’s horn) on this day is meant to remind us of the ram that was found in the bushes providing Abraham with an alternative sacrifice instead of his son, Isaac.  In a study session with Avrum Burg, however, I learned that the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah also reminds us of Hagar’s crying out for help in the desert, after she has been exiled together with her son, Ishmael. 

The contemporary version of the story, as seen in the film Harmonia, tells about three people in the Jerusalem Symphony Orhestra. Sarah is the harpist, her husband Abraham is the maestro, and Hagar from East Jerusalem is a young French horn player.  After Sarah and Hagar form a special friendship and Hagar is present at Sarah’s miscarriage, she offers to her friend to have a baby for her, together with her husband Abraham. 

[photo: courtesy of Inosan Productions]

Although the film is rather slow-paced, it is nevertheless a beautiful study of three people, and how they manage their relationships.  It is also about their two sons – Ishmael and Isaac – both of whom become accomplished musicians.  A concluding and dramatic musical encounter makes this film particularly poignant and relevant for today.

We, the children of Isaac and Ishmael, need to learn to live together in this supposedly "holy" land. This film hints at the importance of the descendants of these forefathers coming to grips with reality and learning to live in coexistence.

Harmonia is available from Go2Films. 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Religious Fanaticism

The Women’s Balcony is a debut film by Emil Ben Shimon, about the dangers of religious fanaticism.  This is a charming and joyous story of a small Sephardi synagogue in Jerusalem, where the women are an integral part of the religious community.  This is a tolerant community, led by a wise and understanding rabbi, who offers a moderate brand of orthodoxy.  One Shabbat morning during a bar mitzvah, the women’s balcony collapses.  When the dust clears, it becomes apparent that the rebbetzin has been badly hurt and, as a result, the rabbi falls into a state of confusion and despair.  The community becomes paralyzed at the prospect of rebuilding their synagogue, especially without the leadership of their beloved rabbi. 
Along comes a charismatic, young rabbi who steps in and offers to takes charge.  He immediately sets his hand to getting permits and renovating the synagogue.  His renovation, however, does not include the rebuilding of the women’s balcony.  He also makes additional changes -- he convinces the men that their wives must be modestly dressed and must cover their heads.  This causes a rift among the women – some accept this and others refuse to.

The women decide to take matters into their own hands and they begin a fundraising campaign to rebuild their balcony inside the synagogue. They are a strong part of the community and the new rabbi’s mistake is that he tries to brush their needs aside.

The film includes wonderful characters – both the men and the women.  There is the owner of a spice shop in the souk and his smart and loving wife.  Then there is the younger generation – a woman involved in a budding romance with one of the charismatic rabbi’s yeshiva students, who himself begins to realize that his rabbi is willing to compromise his ethical standards, all for the advancement of halacha (Jewish law).   

The Women’s Balcony is a fast-paced film, full of quirky characters, lots of good food, all set on the backdrop of the winding alleyways of the old neighborhoods of Jewish Jerusalem -- a film about the empowerment of women and about fighting back against religious extremism.  The film is available from United King.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Through the Wall by Rama Burshtein

Through the Wall, directed by the religious filmmaker, Rama Burshtein, is a new comedy drama, an impressive film about providence, faith, matchmaking, and a woman’s desire for marriage, all on the backdrop of life within the haredi (ultra-orthodox) community in Israel.   Michal is a 32-year-old single woman, religious-by-choice, living within the haredi community and hunting for her intended already for many years.   She is obviously a unique person since she makes a living by traveling around in her little mini-van, taking her petting zoo to birthday parties.  This gives a quirky feel to the entire film!

When Michal’s new fiancĂ© changes his mind about their engagement, instead of cancelling the hall and the wedding dress, she declares that her faith in God tells her that she will have a groom on the date originally planned. 

Of course, you can’t leave things to chance, or to God’s providence, you have to help a bit, and she sets out looking for her groom.  First she seeks out help from a religious woman who offers a superstitious ceremony in order to help Michal find her intended. Instead of becoming a ridiculously comic scene, it takes a turn for the serious when the woman forces Michal to admit what it is she’s looking for.  This scene provides a series of wonderful and touching revelations and we discover that, in addition to the obvious things -- marriage, love, and companionship – she is also looking for status as a married woman within the community and for the opportunity to entertain others at her own Friday night dinner table.   

Don’t you feel sorry for those young haredi men on the street who keep their eyes down and are unable to look at women passersby?  Michal goes on dates arranged by matchmakers and one of the dates is with a seemingly lovely young man, but he is unable to look at her.  He explains that the woman he marries will be more beautiful because she will be the only woman he looks at!  Michal is appalled at this.

She even travels as far as Oman.  While praying and crying at the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, a surprising experience brings her some hope.  You might think that Michal is willing to marry just about anyone, as long as he will agree to show up on the date planned, but it’s not true.  She is apparently quite careful, and turns so many men away as a result of her sense of humor, her insight and her biting tongue.

To those who remember Rama Burshtein’s award-winning debut film, Fill the Void, this is similar in that it is a feel-good story that takes place within the haredi community.  It is also about marriage and matchmaking, and it has wonderful pacing and a complex story.  This film differs from the other in that Fill the Void was a serious drama and Through the Wall is a comedy drama.  The main characters, and even some of the secondary ones, are portrayed in a compelling and in-depth manner, but some are comic characters. The script has quirky elements and you just love Michal and her sisters. 

Through the Wall is available from The Match Factory.

Monday, September 19, 2016

My Favorite Classics

If you have missed any of these Israeli film classics, the upcoming holiday season might be a time to catch up!  This is NOT an all-inclusive list, but it does provide you with one-stop shopping!  All of these classic Israeli films are highly recommended.

These great classics are available from the National Centerfor Jewish Film 

  • ·        Blind Man’s Bluff, Aner Preminger, 1993 – the story of a professional young woman who must learn to live not only by the expectations of others but also according to her own needs.
  • ·        House on Chelouche St., Moshe Mizrachi, 1973 – the story of a teenage boy coming of age, set against the background of tension and conflict during the period of the British Mandate, immediately before the War of Independence.
  • ·        I Love You Rosa, Moshe Mizrachi, 1972 – nominated for an Oscar, a love story set during the late 19th century in Jerusalem.
  • ·        Kazablan, Menahem Golan, 1973 – fast-paced, full-fledged musical, highlighted by scenes of marvelously choreographed frenetic dancing, which tells the story of an immigrant from Morocco living in the old slum of Jaffa.

In addition, I recommend these one-hour films also from the collection of the National Center for Jewish Film
  • ·        Documentary: Green Dumpster Mystery, Tal Haim Yaffe, 2008 -- In an ostensibly light tone, which balances the serious subjects in the film -- history and memory, Holocaust and bereavement -- the film tells the story of the director himself, who as he rode his scooter through south Tel Aviv, found a stash of old photographs in a dumpster.  In the wake of this find, he sets out on a quest to find the people in the photos. 
  • ·        Short Drama: As If Nothing Happened, Ayelet Barger, 1999 – hard-hitting film about what happens in one family following a terrorist attack.

These are available from the IsraeliFilms website

  • ·        Cup Final, Eran Riklis, 1991 – takes place during the 1982 War in Lebanon and explores the themes of male bonding during wartime, and the relationship between captor and captive.
  • ·        Fictitious Marriage (Marriage of Convenience), Haim Bouzaglo, 1988 – explores issues of identity and distrust between Arabs and Jews, a satire containing humorous caricatures of people who want to be what they are not. 
  • ·        Halfon Hill Doesn’t Answer, Assi Dayan, 1976 – featuring the Gashash comedy trio, this is a comedy about reserve duty.
  • ·        He Walked Through the Fields, Yosef Milo, 1967 – Originally presented as a stage play in 1948, tells the story of the heroism of the Palmach generation and the pioneering ethic of self-sacrifice. 
  • ·        Late Summer Blues, Renen Schorr, 1987 – a sensitive coming-of-age story which portrays the issues of graduating from high school in an atmosphere of ongoing war. 
  • ·        Life According to Agfa, Assi Dayan, 1992 – Set in a Tel Aviv pub, this apocalyptic satire portrays a violent nightmare that takes place as a result of society’s ills.
  • ·        Passover Fever, Shemi Zarhin, 1994 – authentically evoked drama about the dysfunctional family that one might find anywhere at holiday time. 
  • ·        Summer of Aviya, Eli Cohen, 1988 – internationally acclaimed drama about a child growing up with a mother who is forever tortured by her Holocaust memories, and its sequel, Under the Domim Tree, Eli Cohen, 1995—portrays the painful struggles of a group of survivor children all living together in a boarding school. 
  • ·        A Tale of Love and Darkness, Natalie Portman, 2015 -- based on the autobiographical book by Amos Oz about his growing up in Jerusalem during the end of the British Mandatory period and the early years of the state. 
  • ·        Tel Aviv Stories, Ayelet Menahemi and Nirit Yaron, 1992 – three short stories about women.  The third story, Divorce (Get), is about a woman willing to resort to desperate means in response to anachronistic rabbinic laws.
  • ·        The Troupe (Sing Your Heart Out), Avi Nesher, 1979 – a musical comedy about the army entertainment troupe.
  • ·        The Wooden Gun, Ilan Moshenson, 1979 – a deep psychological struggle is portrayed through the games of children, on the backdrop of the period following independence.
  • ·        Walk on Water, Eytan Fox, 2004 – internationally acclaimed film about the emotional baggage that an Israeli Mossad agent carries as a result of his ongoing work. 
  • ·        Yana’s Friends, Arik Kaplun, 1999 – takes place against the backdrop of the Gulf War, portrays a variety of quirky characters and reflects the difficulties of new immigrants in a foreign land.