"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.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Palestinian Arab Citizens of Israel

Did you know that the Arab citizens of Israel, including Christians, Muslims, Druze, and Bedouin, make up 20% of the population?   

In the documentary film, My Home, filmmaker Igal Hecht raises a lively discussion about the racism that exists within Israeli society and, notwithstanding this reality, he shows that many of these Arabs citizens are loyal to the state of Israel.  We meet a diverse group of articulate  people, all of whom are seriously working towards coexistence and understanding, some of whom have served in the army, and all of whom support the State of Israel. 

Following Ariel Sharon's famous pilgrimage to the Al Aqsa compound (Temple Mount) in 2001, there was rioting among the Arabs of the Lower Galilee.  The violent response by the police against these rioting citizens caused the death of 13 young men.  In a democratic country, police do not usually open fire on their own citizens even if they are part of an active and even violent protest movement.  According to one woman, this destroyed something in the social fabric and the goodwill in the Galilee.  But she still lives a life which reflects her desire for coexistence.   

It cannot be denied that there is a certain amount of racism and discrimination smoldering -- sometimes below the surface, sometimes more blatant -- against the Arab citizens of Israel. Even the Druze and Bedouin, who serve in the army and believe in supporting the state, admit this and say that things must change.  We also hear from a young man whose father was a soldier in the Southern Lebanese Army (SLA).  After having been granted asylum in Israel,  they live in Acre and this young Christian man finds that he identifies with Israel and is thankful to Israel for having saved his family.  

The film also gives voice to other opinions, to people who are Palestinian Arab citizens and are very critical of how Arabs are treated in Israel.  For example, there are Arab members of the Knesset -- Ahmad Tibi, Ayman Odeh and Haneen Zoabi -- who are all very critical of the discrimination that Arabs suffer within Israeli society.  In addition, they speak out forcefully against the Occupation. 
Perhaps one of the things that points more than anything else to the xenophobia within the country is that a day before the 2015 elections, Bibi Netanyahu made a plea to Likud voters to come to the polls by announcing that "the Arabs are coming out in droves."  He was trying to ensure the election of his right-wing government.  It was a terribly shocking comment which drew a lot of criticism and he was forced to apologize for it.

The film My Home, directed by Igal Hecht (documentary, 52 minutes), is a fascinating documentary which reveals the complexity of life in Israel for its Arab citizens.  The film is available from Ruth Diskin Films.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Jewish Art: Mixing the Sacred and the Mundane

At the age of 60, Jo Milgrom became an assemblage artist, collecting junk from Jerusalem trash pails ("the discards of everyday life") and recycling her finds into new works of art. In a short documentary, Torah Treasures and Curious Trash, directors Paula Weiman-Kelman and Ricki Rosen offer a portrait of this learned and artistic woman and her unique vision of Jewish art.  

Today, Milgrom is 87-years-old and her Jerusalem home is decorated with dozens of pieces of her art. Years ago, she received a collection of abandoned ritual objects from a funeral parlor in San Francisco.  Instead of letting them bury these objects in a geniza, she recycled them into works of art which are meaningful and extraordinary.  Using tefillin boxes and torah mantles, and mixing them with ordinary junk, she creates art which is provocative, both religiously and politically, a type of visual midrash.   

For example, a few of her pieces deal with the sacrifice of Isaac, and one piece in particular is a political statement about our sons in uniform and how they are being sacrificed on the political altar.  In another piece, she uses phone wires and attaches them to a tefillin box to show "voices" coming out of the box. 

Jo Milgrom is a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.  She is also an articulate and provocative artist who recycles everyday materials into new "works of creation." 

Torah Treasures and Curious Trash offers an extraordinary portrait of an iconoclastic woman who challenges the traditional uses of religious objects by imbuing them with new life.  The film (24 minutes) is being screened this summer at the upcoming San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and is available from 7th Art Releasing.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Peter the Third

When was the last time you saw a feature film that didn't include vulgarity, crime or murder?  Or an Israeli film that's not about the Holocaust or the "situation"?

Here is something that might surprise you -- Peter the Third, directed by Tommy Lang, is a gem of a comedy about inter-generational friendship and family rapprochement.   

Peter is a retired actor at Habima, and spends his days with his quirky friends at a coffee shop where Alona is their waitress.  Peter is more than 30 years Alona's senior, but that doesn't stop them from becoming friends -- and from teaming up to help each other with issues in their lives.  Alona, a head-strong young woman,  is currently without a place to live, so Peter invites her to stay with him.  In order to help Peter obtain his pension, together they start a political party which will create a vacation resort for widows and widowers.  A fair number of amusing scenes ensue and their eccentric friends in the coffee shop, a group called the "parliament", create a humorous backdrop throughout.  A feel good and funny film.  

Peter the Third (81 minutes) is available from Ruth Diskin Films.

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