"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, September 14, 2017

A Family Drama

Antenna by Arik Rothstein is a compelling family drama which mixes comedy, family relations, and tragedy.  All mixed in one. 

Combining issues dealing with Holocaust memory, divorce, family loyalty, relations with the neighbors, illness, and intermarriage, the film tells the story of one typical Jewish Israeli family -- elderly parents and their three grown sons. 

The parents live in a two-family house, and the father discovers that his neighbor has rented out his part of the roof to a cellphone company for the installation of an antenna.  Believing that the radiation from the antenna is the cause of all of his aches and pains, the father develops an obsession with the antenna and begins to wage a war against his neighbor. 

His three sons and their partners – all portrayed in a complex manner and all very different from each other -- become involved in the struggle against the antenna -- Itzik, a career army officer, is married with three kids; Leon, divorced, teaches Holocaust literature at the university; and Effi, involved with a non-Jewish woman from Germany, is dealing and smoking grass.

The subject of the antenna might make you think that this film borders on the absurd.  Rather, it is a serious and authentic story about a family and the cellular antenna represents more than just a neighbor’s greed – the father is a Holocaust survivor and we begin to see that his paranoia is due to shadows from his past.

Contact Transfax Films for distribution information.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Foxtrot by Samuel Maoz

Israel’s Minister of Culture, Miri Regev, has been trying desperately to censor Israeli films and filmmakers.  Her latest attempt included heavy criticism of Samuel Maoz’s new award-winning film, Foxtrot, which she admits she hasn’t seen!  Due to the controversy over the film, I decided to go see it right away, in order to show support for it and also to see it before it is removed from Israeli screens. 

Foxtrot is a serious, strangely compelling and fascinating film, well-worth seeing!   And just today we heard the news that the film is the winner of the Silver Lion award at the Venice Film Festival!

The film is about bereavement, military service, the humiliation imposed on Palestinians at the checkpoints, the boredom and tension that the young soldiers who man the checkpoints have to deal with, and how the occupation is eating away at our soul.  Foxtrot portrays a family tragedy in a society in which tragedy is so randomly distributed among the population, as we see in the opening sequence. 

Michael Feldman is an architect (played by Lior Ashkenazi) married to a wonderful wife, with two great kids, a beautiful apartment, and a bit of a chip on his shoulder.  His son, Yonatan, is serving in a small unit (whose call name on the military radio is “foxtrot”) somewhere on the moonscape of the West Bank where they are manning a lonely and somewhat surrealistic checkpoint. 

The film is filled with metaphors and symbols.  For example, the unit’s pre-fab hut is crookedly falling into the mire of the lunar terrain, something that one of the soldiers is measuring every night, desperately worried that one day they will all disappear into the muck.  For a long time, a camel has symbolized the majestic yet lumbering and lazy Middle Eastern Arab – here it ultimately brings about our undoing. And the enormous bulldozer, which everyone associates with one of the major tools of the occupation since it is used to destroy Palestinian homes, is the instrument of a major military cover-up of tragic events at a checkpoint.  The film also offers a Holocaust allegory which highlights the terrible feelings of survivor's guilt in the second generation (the generation of the soldier's father). And the foxtrot itself -- you dance around and around but always return to the same spot.
This is not an easy film to watch.  It is hard-hitting and stylized, using a lot of shots from above, a perspective which makes the viewer stand back and take note.  But it is also brilliant in many ways, using the cinematic medium to portray and criticize, something that the filmmaker should be credited for and not censored! In a democratic society, this type of film which looks critically at our contemporary reality is important for raising public awareness and potentially bringing about political change.  

Foxtrot is the story of a society that is exhausted from bereavement -- smoking marijuana or simply engaging in denial are some of the major ways of coping, according to this filmmaker.  It is a brilliant and provocative film which offers a shocking and effective cinematic criticism of the military establishment.

Samuel Maoz previously directed the prize-winning film, Lebanon, about a tank unit during the early days of the War in Lebanon in 1982 and is based on Maoz's own combat experiences during that war (previously reviewed on this blog).  

Foxtrot is available from The Match Factory.

Friday, September 8, 2017

A Tender Story -- The Cakemaker

The Cakemaker (העופה מברלין), directed by Ofir Raul Grazier, tells a compelling and surprisingly tender romantic story about a German man named Thomas who runs a coffee shop in Berlin.  

He has an affair with Oren, an Israeli man, married with a six-year-old boy, who travels to Berlin monthly for his work.  When Oren dies in a car accident back in Jerusalem, Thomas is left bereft.  He travels to Jerusalem, searching for evidence of his love.  He is a simple man – he states early in the film that he has so much in his life – his coffeeshop, his apartment, and his love for Oren.  Thomas searches out Oren’s wife and obtains a job working for her in her Jerusalem coffee shop.  He starts out washing dishes in the kitchen, but eventually his work expands as his talents for baking become apparent.

This is a human story, a story about loneliness and finding love and losing it.  The gay baker from Berlin and the grieving widow work together in the same coffee shop.  He is very conscious of their love for the same man, but she is unaware of their peculiar relationship.  It is a bit slow-moving, and the dialogue is minimalist.  But so much is told visually.  For example, we often watch Thomas’ hands kneading the dough, working hard, in a therapeutic and sensual way.

Jerusalem and Berlin are also main characters in the film, making the film all the more authentic illustrating how it brought together two men, across a huge divide.  And what seems to link us together across this divide?  Two things – love for the same man, and Thomas’ wonderfully successful cakes and beautifully decorated cookies.  

There is also narrative tension built through the religious theme – what does it mean to hire a non-Jewish worker in a kosher establishment?  And Shabbat becomes a major player – the Shabbat siren, Shabbat Kiddush blessings, Shabbat food, invitations to Shabbat dinner, the town crier yelling “shabbes” to signify the beginning of the day.

The Cakemaker is a beautifully made romantic film, well-worth seeing, a feature debut for filmmaker, Ofir Raul Grazier. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

A New Romantic Comedy -- And Then She Arrived

And Then She Arrived (ואז היא הגיע) directed by Roee Florentin, is a romantic comedy, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  Dan is a 30-year-old good-looking lawyer from an Ashkenazi family, who loves music and the Haifa Hapoel soccer team. He is engaged to marry his high school sweetheart. Then he meets Meirav.

Different in every way from his fiancée, Meirav is filled with life, dreams and is so much more compelling than his strait-laced girlfriend.  But falling in love is not so simple and there are clear obstacles along the way. It’s as if they live in separate worlds – Haifa and Jerusalem, educated and uneducated, Ashkenazi and Mizrachi, spicey food and tasteless food, and more.

The Mizrachi-Ashkenazi divide is portrayed here up front and center.  Meirav is from a Kurdish background and lives in an old building which houses Jews from a wide variety of exotic places.  She’s uneducated – but she has flair and designs fantastic clothes.  Her mother is an overly-expressive and wonderful ethnic character, currently involved in a court case with an equally expressive upstairs neighbor! 

Both Dan and Meirav are already emotionally committed to other people.  Meirav’s boyfriend is Argentinian – he says being a Latin lover is just like being Mizrachi – it’s the same thing!  Dan’s fiancée notices that something is awry and puts things on hold, freeing him to pursue Meirav. 

This is a feel-good, low-brow film, filled with good music, and a fair amount of superstition and charm.  Gidi Gov, in a cameo appearance, plays the judge in one of Dan’s court cases, who helps Dan figure out how to know if this girl is the “one”. 

And Then She Arrived is available from Israelifilms

Monday, July 31, 2017

Troubled Youth

Doubtful by Eliran Elya, which premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival last week, tells the story of Assi, a screenwriter and poet.  Forced to do community service after having hurt someone in a drunken driving accident, he is sent to work with a bunch of problem juveniles in Beersheba.  There he forms a special bond with one of the troubled youth, named Eden, who lives with his single Mom. The older Assi and teenage Eden form a fascinating and somewhat ambivalent relationship.

Most of the film takes place in bleak and dark spaces – in a community center room in Beersheba, in Eden’s poverty neighborhood apartment, on buses and trains, in Assi’s apartment in Tel Aviv, and in Tel Aviv low-scale restaurants – nothing colorful or visually interesting.  In addition, I was disappointed because the film did not have enough depth and the characters were not well-developed. 

Eden is a compelling young man, but we don’t know enough about him, but one thing we know for sure – he is catapulting toward a violent end.   But how will Assi’s involvement be part of what happens?

The film is distributed by Go2Films. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Scaffolding by Matan Yair Wins a Big Award

Scaffolding, directed by Matan Yair (and previously reviewed on this blog) won the award for best Israeli feature film at the Jerusalem Film Festival, this past week.  The film also took the prize for Best Actor and garnered an honorable mention for Best Cinematography.

Scaffolding world premiered in Cannes’ ACID Selection and is distributed internationally by New Europe Film Sales.

The jury commented that the award was given for the following reasons: "For a film that combines the reality of a group of teenagers and the will of questioning cinema and the role of filmmaking. For its capacity of capturing the tenderness sometimes behind these kids' violence, their capacity for love, their surprising imagination, in a society that places them in a marginal role forever."

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Lingering Trauma of Deir Yessin

Born in Deir Yessin, directed by Neta Shoshani, is a new documentary film that premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival last week.  This stark and disturbing film tells the Israeli version of a dark stain on Israeli history of the War of Independence -- the story of Deir Yessin, the Arab village on the outskirts of Jerusalem that was conquered by the Lehi and Irgun, and the ensuing massacre that took place there.

Now, years later, we hear from the Lehi and Irgun perpetrators, the Haganah intelligence operatives who were sent to check out what actually transpired, and the Jerusalem teenagers who were sent to bury the corpses.  The stories include how grenades were thrown into houses and entire families were killed, and how people were lined up and shot against the wall.

The filmmaker pushes the perpetrators to remember the past.  They talk about their memories and their rationalizations. One says: “We fought so that the next generation would take the state for granted.” And another one states: “It was a dirty job but it achieved an important objective.” 
Some of the veterans of these Jewish extremist groups who were interviewed are portrayed by the director of the film as stark raving lunatics. This is a veiled reference to similar extremists in today's Israel who commit unspeakable deeds.

During the early 1950s, the abandoned village of Deir Yassin was closed off to the public and the Givat Shaul psychiatric hospital was built on the ruins.  In a fascinating way, a parallel story is offered in the film.  In the 1960s, a Jewish boy named Dror was born in the hospital, and sent away to be brought up apart from his mother, who spent most of her life in the asylum. Today, he returns to request his mother’s medical records and he reads about the traumas and the suffering of a woman whose baby was taken from her.

The metaphor is quite clear – we are all victims of our past and Deir Yassin represents a stain on our history, a part of our past which is kept closed away in the archives.  We cannot escape who we are and what elements from our past have influenced us.  And some of us have become completely insane from the ongoing cycle of violence which continues to haunt us. In some eerie way, the filmmaker is suggesting to us that we all live in an insane existence on the ruins of this village!

This is a particularly stirring and well-presented documentary film about one side of the story.  It does not try to tell the Palestinian narrative about the suffering, the individuals who were killed, the women and the children or the wild exaggerations that were used in the Arab world to inflate the size of the massacre, causing many Palestinians to flee their homes.  Rather it focuses on the ongoing Israeli struggle to come to grips with such a tragic part of our past.

Born in Deir Yessin (documentary, 63 minutes) can be obtained from Rotem.faran@gmail.com