"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.

amykronish@gmail.com

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Joseph Cedar's New Film -- Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

Joseph Cedar’s new film, Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, opened this week in Jerusalem.  This is the story of Norman Oppenheimer, a New York Jew, who makes a living by hustling, putting together deals and selling influence.  He’s lonely and is desperately seeking some self-importance. The role is played by Richard Gere, who we would usually expect to play a completely different character – someone who radiates self-confidence.  Here, he is challenged to play the eager-to-please Norman, and he does it magnificently! And his charming personality makes it easier for him to gain access to places where he wants to be seen as one who takes pleasure in helping others. 
Norman befriends Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), a deputy minister in the Israeli government.  Courting a person who might one day be in power, Norman buys him an expensive pair of shoes.  According to the filmmaker, these shoes represent “something that doesn’t evaporate, something that the character walks through life in.”  And then when Eshel reaches power, Norman cashes in, obtaining a certain amount of status from his position as someone who knows the new prime minister of Israel.  But the prime minister can’t be seen as accepting gifts, and thus we wonder when will it be necessary for him to just cast his friend aside.
At the Israeli premiere of the film last night, sponsored by the Times of Israel, filmmaker Joseph Cedar had an opportunity to discuss his film with the audience.  He described the film as “a love story between two people, that starts out with a gesture and ends up with one sacrificing himself for the other.”  The gesture is the purchase of the pair of shoes, a symbol of the corrupt and greedy Israeli politician whose willingness to accept an expensive gift shows his own moral failings. 

According to Cedar, the movie is about one American Jew and one Israeli, and also about American Jews collectively.  He also called it a "fairy tale." However, I didn't see it this way. Rather, it seemed to me that this film is a very real satirical and sarcastic portrayal of American Jewry, and a hard-hitting look at the relationship between American Jewry and the political leadership of Israel.  American Jewry in the archetypal character of "Norman" is seen as a bumbling, not-too-aggressive fellow, begging for an opportunity to be seen near the seat of power – the way the leadership of American Jewish organizations grovel at the feet of Israeli politicians, wanting nothing more than to be in their presence and to be of service to the cause, without any critical thinking.

In particular, the film makes fun of AIPAC, which is called "AIPAL " in the film (hinting that all that these Jews want is to be pals with the Israeli leadership). The Israeli politicians don’t provide anything in return; rather, they require the sacrifice of each and every American Jew for the sake of their personal agendas which they define as the agendas of the very survival of the state (a very direct hint to the current leadership in Israel!).

Joseph Cedar certainly knows how to make complex narrative films.  His previous award-winning films include: Footnote, Beaufort, Campfire, and Time of Favor.  I especially loved the way that New York City can be seen as a major character in the film.

But I am troubled by Cedar’s simplistic view of American Jews as groveling in the face of aggressive and confident Israeli politicians.  Notwithstanding this criticism, I really liked this film – the parallel to the “court Jews”, the deviousness, the intrigue, the influence peddling, and above all else, the depiction of both the leaders and their American Jewish followers as morally compromised. 



Friday, February 24, 2017

New Film by Eran Kolirin

Beyond the Mountains and Hills, directed by Eran Kolirin, is the story of a dysfunctional family on the background of life in Jerusalem.

David spent 27 years as an officer in the Israeli army.  Having reached the grade of lieutenant-colonel, he is now retiring.  This film is the story of how he and his family cope with the changes.  David has to learn to adapt to the business world, to being at home with his family, and to learning to like the things that his wife likes.  But it turns out that things are not so easy.  His wife is a high school teacher who is attracted to one of her students; his daughter is involved with left-wing causes; his son is socially awkward; and he has his own frustrations. 

Every scene makes you stand back and feel emotional distance.  There is no warmth between the characters.  In fact, there is suspicion, stilted dialogue, and physical distance – all of which adds to the implied discomfort of the characters, and thence the discomfort of the viewer.  This is a not-so-subtle technique for criticizing dysfunctional elements of Israeli society.  The school teacher is ridiculed by her students.  One army officer is apparently screwing his unit’s young social worker.  The Arabs are seen as terrorists by the security services and the viewer can’t help but see them as potential rapists.

The most difficult criticism of Israel is in the story told by the motivational speaker at David’s attempted entry into the business world.  My interpretation of this story is that you have to do some tough things in a tough world.  In other words, Israel is located in a bad neighborhood, and as a result, is forced to make some difficult choices.  


There is just enough betrayal, revenge, illicit sex and personal frustration to make this an interesting story.  But something is missing in the delivery.  You probably remember that Eran Kolirin also made the Band’s Visit.  But this new film has none of the charm or in-depth characterization that you loved in the Band’s Visit.  

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Religious Fanaticism and Animosity towards Christianity

A Quiet Heart,לב שקט מאד  , directed by Eitan Anner, is a new feature film about life in Jerusalem.  In this film, there is a clear criticism of religious fanaticism and the haredi animosity towards Christians and Christianity. 

Naomi is a pianist who leaves her parent’s home in Tel Aviv to come to Jerusalem – to get away from the pressures of being a highly talented pianist and her fear of imperfection, and in search of solitude.  She gets a job at the radio station archives and rents a run-down apartment in the haredi part of Kiryat Yovel, where she is surprised to find a child prodigy who sneaks into her apartment every morning to play the piano that has been left there by the previous tenant. 

Not so far away is the community of Ein Kerem, where she stumbles upon an organ being played in a monastery, and feels the solitude and quiet of the church atmosphere.  As a result, she begins to take lessons on the pipe organ from one of the Italian monks. 

The best part of the film is the main character herself (played by Ania Bukstein).  The rest of the film is slow-paced and disappointing.  The secondary characters are stiff and stereotyped, especially the woman leading the struggle against the haredim in Kiryat Yovel and also Naomi’s father who comes from Tel Aviv to rescue her from the perils of life in Jerusalem.


Saturday, January 28, 2017

Brothers, Sisters and Heroes on a Journey

My husband, Ron, recently had the opportunity to view the film, My Hero Brother, directed by Yonatan Nir (documentary, 77 minutes).  Here are his thoughts --

I was pleased to have been able to view My Hero Brother last week at a special event hosted by Nefesh B'Nefesh, a group that brings new Jewish immigrants to Israel, and Shutaf, a wonderful organization dedicated to inclusion of young people with disabilities in Israeli society.
This was one of the most beautiful and inspiring documentary films that I have seen in a long time. Superbly filmed and edited -- with many heart-warming interviews, a great sense of humor, and magnificent views of the Himalayas of northern India — this film, directed by Yonatan Nir, told the story of 10 siblings from all over Israel who took their brother or sister with Down Syndrome on an amazing trek to the mountains.  These siblings, who were all ordinary people who simply decided to join this adventure for personal reasons, developed or strengthened the bonds between them and their brother or sister, in beautiful and transformative ways.

Following the screening, in a discussion with one of the producers of the film, Enosh Cassel, (Enosh is the Hebrew/Biblical word for "human being"), we learned about the origins of the film. He had taken his brother Hanan, a young man with Down syndrome to Nepal on a trek in 2011, to the mountains of Nepal. His brother loved the trip, and they discovered that both of them loved being in motion. When they returned to Israel, Channel Two became interested in their trip and made a short documentary film about it. Little by little, siblings with brothers or sisters with Down syndrome began to contact him and it took him 2 years to put the group together:  9 Down Syndrome young adults and their siblings (usually 1, but in one case 2 brothers) and 1 married couple (with Down). He contacted Itamar Peleg, who guides these kinds of treks to the mountains in many places in the world, and they put the trip together.

The film focuses on the stories of 3-4 siblings and their Down syndrome brother or sister. These stories are very real and very human. They show profound love for brother and sister, which is deeply strengthened by this trek, despite all the obstacles and difficulties inherent in such an adventure.  According to Enosh Cassel, the relationships between the siblings totally changed after this project. And, the group continues to meet. In March, they will go together to the Hermon mountains in northern Israel.

As I viewed this film, I could not help but think about so many other films (and newspaper reports) that I have seen about "the ugly Israeli", the one who litters on nature tours, the one who steals towels and faucets from hotels in Turkey, the one who is engaged in corruption and gross materialism, and more. In contrast, this was a film about beautiful people, and I don't mean their external looks. It was about wonderful and genuine people who are doing God's work in healing rifts between brother and brother, and sister and sister, and who show in simple yet profound ways the power of love and dedication that can emerge when brothers and sisters take risks and are prepared to engage in a life-changing journey.

I loved this film, and had a good cry or two. Everyone in the audience walked away inspired and in awe of the power of simple acts of love and compassion of those who dedicate their lives to their brothers and sisters.


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Break-dancing

Break-dancing is a fascinating form of creative expression for young men.  In the film, Babylon Dreamers, directed by Roman Shumunov, we meet a group of break-dancers, living in Ashdod, immigrants from the FSU.  Their world is one of poverty, family crises, and alienation from the surrounding society. 

The film follows them as they go through rigorous training, win a nation-wide breakdance competition, and travel to a European competition in Germany.  There are some exciting and talented scenes of dancing, mixed with some very difficult family stories.

We get to know the dancers -- “Mixer” works at the port.  In the afternoons, he teaches young boys to do break-dancing.  His Mom is dysfunctional and he is trying very hard to take care of his younger siblings.  “Potter”, who is in the army and living at home with his mom, must undergo knee surgery.


Babylon Dreamers (90 minutes, documentary) offers a compelling look at a social group which has found itself on the periphery of Israeli society.  The film is available from JMT Films.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Palestinian Israeli Women living in Tel Aviv

In Between (Bar Bahar), the debut film by Maysaloun Hamoud, is a compelling story about three Palestinian Israeli women, who are caught between their traditional society and the allure of the independent and open lifestyle of Tel Aviv.

Layla is a sophisticated lawyer.  She dresses beautifully and enjoys smoking, drinking, drugs and partying.  When she finally meets the man of her dreams, a handsome Arab filmmaker, it becomes obvious that he is not willing to bring her home to meet his parents unless she dresses like a traditional Muslim.  But Leila is not willing to change who she is and how she behaves for anyone.

Salma works as a barman in Tel Aviv, and comes from a conservative Christian family.   She and Layla host some of the best parties!  Salma’s parents are trying to find a suitable mate for her and are aghast to discover that their daughter is living a non-normative lifestyle. 

Nur is the most traditional of the three, wearing a hijab, and engaged to marry a religious man.  But she is disappointed to discover that he wants his wife to be a stay-at-home mom, even though Nur is completing her degree in computer science at Tel Aviv University.

These three women, although very dissimilar, are facing similar dilemmas about moving from the traditional requirements of life in the village to a more modern life in the city.  One of the highlights of the film is the way that the filmmaker makes these three apartment-mates work together in common cause, even though they are so different from each other.  They are all looking for a suitable partner and they are fluent in Hebrew and would almost pass in Israeli society except for the fact that they are proud Arabic speakers and never hide it.  In one humorous scene, a shopkeeper makes a face when she hears them speaking Arabic.  One of the girls says, don’t worry, we don’t bite! 

The filmmaker has chosen to portray men in this film in a very critical light.  The most compelling male figure turns out to be Nur’s very traditional father, who is loving and understanding of his daughter in the time of a crisis.  But, as part of the filmmaker’s criticism of the Arab patriarchal society, the other male characters are stereotypes of Arab men.  In fact, in a recent column in Ha’Aretz, Sayed Kashua wrote about how people from the Muslim city of Um el-Fahm are critical of the film. He explains that this is because one of the major male characters is a religious Muslim man from Um el-Fahm who turns out to be a chauvinist and a rapist.

In Between includes a lot of wit and charm.  Variety called it Sex and the City for Palestinian Israeli women living in Tel Aviv.  Although there is an extreme amount of smoking, drinking and drugs, I found it enormously enjoyable mainly because it provides a window into the problems of women trying to move from a traditional family life to a more independent one.




Monday, January 16, 2017

Family Relationships

Personal Affairs, debut feature film by Maha Haj, is about family relationships and loneliness, made with humor and charm.  Although it is slow-moving, and many sequences have a lot of quiet, the tone of this award-winning film is surprisingly compelling.
  
The story is about an older Christian couple, living in Nazareth.  The father is obsessed with the internet, the mother with her knitting and her soap operas.  They have three grown children, all of whom have moved away. Their daughter is married and almost ready to give birth, living in Ramallah.  Their two bachelor sons -- one lives in Sweden, another in Ramallah.  The vignettes are about relationships – between the parents, between the daughter and her husband, between one of the sons and the object of his love with whom he is incapable of making a commitment. 



At a premiere screening, last night at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, the filmmaker explained that she chose to use humor, because humor crosses borders.  She acknowledged that she shows moods and situations, but hesitates to provide answers as to what will happen or to offer a standard ending.  It is the situation, rather than the narrative, that is important.  She also said that she moves between imagination and reality, as does the film.

According to the filmmaker, the scenes of a dysfunctional family break the stereotype of the warm and supportive Arab family.  In fact, parts of the film border on the absurd, and the elderly grandmother provides comic relief. There are also subtle political comments in the film, and a strong feeling of claustrophobia, especially reflected in the son-in-law’s obsession with seeing the sea for the first time in his life.

This is a film about checkpoints and reality, but it is mostly about daily routine and dreams, about the dissatisfactions of everyday life, and the need to resolve inter-personal issues.

Personal Affairs was screened in Un Certain Regard category at Cannes and was the winner of the award for best Israeli feature film at the Haifa Film Festival.  Beginning March 2017, the film will be available from Sophie DulacDistribution.