"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.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Junction 48 by Udi Aloni

The prizewinning film, Junction 48, directed by Udi Aloni, is a great film of complexity and political depth, with lots of good music and talented young singers.  The film provides insight into the issues of Palestinian Israelis in the contemporary reality and is very critical of how the Palestinians of Israel are treated -- both socially and by the authorities.  

The story takes place in Lod, a mixed Jewish-Arab city in central Israel, where drugs abound together with poverty.  There is resentment against the Israeli authorities, tensions between different groups of Palestinians and Bedouin, and also between the local Jewish and the local Palestinian young people.

Karim's parents perform as a musical team, but Karim's music is different -- he does Arabic rap and the lyrics are biting and critical.  He performs with his brother and some other friends.  One of his friends lives in an old shack, which they are desperately trying to save from demolition  by government bulldozers.  Another friend is involved in the sale of drugs.   Karim's girlfriend, Manar, who also sings with Karim's rap group, is being pushed by her family to get married since she lives what they consider an immodest and dishonorable lifestyle.  

This is a film about the frustrations of living in a divided society, and about the meeting point between Israelis and Palestinians within Israeli society.  Uri Klein (in his Ha'aretz review of the film this past week) calls this the collision and interaction between Israelis and Palestinians. When Karim's rap group gets a gig to perform in a Jewish rap club in Tel Aviv, there are tensions between the Jews and the Arabs.  The burly Jewish host rapper, trying to provoke Karim and his friends, is similar to the real-life provocative and extremist Israeli rapper, who goes by the name "The Shadow". 
The film is filled with irony. For example, when asked about the performance in the Jewish club, Karim responds in his witty style, "oh fine, they apologized for 1967 and also for 1948." Many other critical and sarcastic comments can be found throughout the dialogue and in the rap songs of the dynamic Palestinian rap group, which help the viewer understand the feelings and thoughts of Palestinian Israeli young people.  

The language of the film is almost completely Arabic, which itself is unique and powerful for the many audiences which will view it. It is a demonstration of cultural respect on the part of the filmmaker and is a reflection of the fact that there is heightened interest in Israel today in learning and speaking Arabic.  

Junction 48 is an important film.  It is well-written with fast pacing, and it works  successfully in a number of different genres -- there is great music, a touching love story, and much social criticism. 

Udi Aloni's previous feature film, Forgiveness (2006) also provided a strong political comment.  It was about an idealistic American Jew who comes to Israel, joins the army, and becomes emotionally traumatized after killing a child during his military service in the West Bank.  He is brought to a mental hospital at Givat Shaul that is built on the ruins of Deir Yassin (an Arab village outside of Jerusalem where hundreds of Arabs were slaughtered by Jews in 1948).  The other patients at this mental hospital are Holocaust survivors.  Strangely, a patient/survivor becomes involved in his treatment. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Kapo in Jerusalem

Uri Barbash is well-known for his artistic honesty, leading the circle of Israeli filmmakers interested in a critical look at Israeli political issues and dealing with issues of contemporary reality in a harsh and uncompromising fashion.  He is best known for the prizewinning and popularly acclaimed Beyond the Walls (1984), an unrestrained portrayal of Arab-Jewish relations in the brutal environment of an Israeli prison.  Also a prize-winning film, One of Us (1989) takes place against the background of the first intifada and deals with an army cover-up.  His dramatic TV mini-series Kastner Trial (1994) was also a prize-winner.  

Barbash's latest film, Kapo in Jerusalem, sheds light on a complex moral dilemma.  The film is made in a minimalist style, using talking heads.  The script and acting are superior, but the film in its entirety is a bit drawn out and even a somewhat tedious.  

Based on a true story, Bruno is a medical doctor, who was chosen to be the kapo of a block at Auschwitz.  He speaks to the camera from his Haganah outpost before the 1950 battle for Ramat Rachel.  His wife, Sarah, speaks to the camera from their modest Jerusalem apartment, with their little baby in her arms.   Others tell their stories also -- a postman, a butcher, a doctor and more—with much pathos and persuasiveness.

In this own reflections on what he went through Bruno felt that he tried his utmost to save people, to lessen their suffering, to help those that he could.  But he often resorted to tough measures to keep discipline in his block.  The stories that are told show the difficult decisions that he had to make.  For example, he rationed the food as fairly as possible, even though some would have wanted it otherwise, such as a famous poet who demanded extra food for himself.  In addition, Bruno had a shoemaking workshop set up in his block because he knew that without sturdy shoes his men would succumb very quickly.   

After the war, Bruno found and married his sweetheart, Sarah, who had been  a pianist in Warsaw before the war, and they come to Jerusalem.  Life was not easy for them because so many people recognized him from that period.  She becomes pregnant and he eventually joins the Haganah, but her life is filled with awful anxiety and depression, given all that she had gone through and continues to suffer as a Holocaust survivor who is not easily accepted and integrated into the emerging Jewish society in Israel in the early years of the state.  

This is a film which raises many issues dealing with morality at a time when morality was not so clear-cut.  Bruno is very blunt and honest in talking about those years.  In fact, near the end of the film, he says he wanted to save people from their own fears and humiliation.  Kapo in Jerusalem is a hard-hitting film about the impossible choices that an ordinary Jew was forced to make during a terrible time.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A modern-day adaptation of "The Dybbuk"

In honor of Yom HaShoah here in Israel, my husband and I went to see a new feature film, Demon, directed by Marcin Wrona, which presents a hard-hitting and effective story about Holocaust memory in small town Poland.  

The following review of this film is written by my husband, Ron, and myself together.

A young Jewish man comes from London to marry his sweetheart and they are going to live in the old rural homestead of her grandparents.  Their wedding day becomes a terrible nightmare when a frightening secret from the past is discovered on their property.  In a modern interpretation of the well-known play, The Dybbuk by Shalom Ansky, this secret drives the man insane.    

As the immediate family is trying to deal with the crisis, helping the man who is slowly deteriorating before their eyes, and searching for the evidence of the secret on the grounds of the house, the wedding guests are rollicking and partying in the background, getting more and more drunk and largely oblivious and uncaring when it comes to the troubles of the Jewish man. 

What is the terrible secret?  The Jewish man has found bones in the garden --  the corpse of Hannah, a Jewish teenager whose family was the previous owner of this home.  The implications about how the bride's grandfather obtained the house from Hannah's family are obvious.  The bride's father, trying to belittle the findings and trying to save the day at his daughter's wedding, says, so what if there are bones in the garden, the entire country is strewn with corpses.  When this line is stated, the viewer realizes that this is a story of the murder of Jews in their homes, and also a story of the complicity of so many Poles during the Holocaust. 

Filled with quirky characters -- the doctor, the priest, and the bride's family members -- the film provides a fascinating glimpse at how modern-day Poles are dealing with their recent past.  Some Poles prefer to continue to exist with denial of any responsibility for what happened, and therefore ignore Polish complicity with the Nazis. Other Poles appear to see the whole thing as just  one long nightmare, and they prefer the route of apathy. And others are coming to grips with their responsibility and their failure to act to protect Jews during the Shoah, and are facing their past forthrightly towards the goal of reconciling with the Jewish people who live in Poland today as well as with Jews who visit Poland from all over the world.

It was especially appropriate for us to view this film in preparation for Yom HaShoah. We in Israel face similar challenges in dealing with the period of the Holocaust. Some Jews prefer to still not talk about it, to ignore it, or to see it as one long nightmare. The majority simply follows the national customs and mark Yom HaShoah in a perfunctory manner by standing silent for two minutes during the siren that is heard all over the country on the morning of this day.  And yet others are seeking ways to find humanistic and universalistic messages that emanate from this tragic period in our history via more intimate educational and spiritual gatherings.

The film, Demon, is a Polish-Israeli co-production.  The Israeli production company is Transfax Films. 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Family Reconciliation

Saar Maoz is a 40-year-old gay man living in London.  He grew up on a religious kibbutz in the Beit Shean valley, served in the paratroopers, and now works for Apple in London.  He sings in the London Gay Men's Choir and discovers that he is HIV positive.  More than anything else, he seems to crave a reconciliation with his family back in Israel. 

Along comes a filmmaker team, Tomer Heymann (who recently directed Mr. Gaga, previously reviewed on this blog) and his brother Barak Heymann, who work together to create a soul-searching documentary, Who's Gonna Love Me Now? about Saar Maoz.  This is a hard-hitting film filled with both joy and sadness, and much drama.
Saar talks about how he was thrown out of the kibbutz where he grew up and his bitterness at the fact that his parents didn't fight the decree.  We meet his parents -- his mother comes to London to visit him and we see that she is trying very hard to fight her earlier shock and antipathy to her son's homosexuality. 

Then we meet his siblings.  One of his brothers is worried about letting his brother, Saar, who is HIV positive, come close to his children.  In an extraordinary scene, sitting in a coffee shop, he is explaining his feelings to Saar, and we see that he has it all neatly worked out.  Sitting quietly next to him, however, is his wife who suddenly chimes in and says -- I am the mother of those same children and I want to say that I'm not worried! Saar's father is old-school macho, still living his triumphant Six Day War memories, and obsessed with how his oldest son has let him down. 

These are just some of the family members with whom Saar must come to terms if he wants to reconcile with his family.  What makes them particularly interesting is the fact that they are religious Jews and, therefore, they are finding it particularly difficult to come to terms with the reality of Saar's lifestyle.

Living in London, Saar sings in the London Gay Men's Choir and we have the delightful opportunity to watch rehearsals and performances which are stupendous!  They add a wonderful dimension to the film, providing not only musical interludes but also a wonderful respect for the talents and charm of this particular group of men.  

Who's Gonna Love Me Now? (documentary, 85 minutes) is available from Heymann Brothers Films.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Ronit Elkabetz

I was saddened to learn today that actress and film director, Ronit Elkabetz, has passed away.  She was an amazingly iconic figure in the Israeli world of cinema.  As both an actress and director, she has been a major force, making award-winning films, garnering international acclaim.  

Born in 1964 in Beersheba, she worked as an actress of stage and screen, both in Israel and in France. Her most impressive roles as an actress in Israeli films include the demonic Lilith character in The Appointed,  the mentally-challenged sister in Sc'chur, the mistress in Late Marriage  and her tour-de-force performance as the owner of a cafe in small town Israel in The Band's Visit.  
During the last decade, together with her brother, Shlomi Elkabetz, she put her hand to film directing.  Together they made a trilogy of films which are critical of the traditional Moroccan Jewish community and its restrictive nature vis-a-vis women.  The most recent film of this trilogy is Gett,  which is also critical of the rabbinical establishment and how it treats women seeking a divorce.  

So often you hear of actors talking about how they had to study in order to prepare themselves for a special role.  In the case of Ronit Elkabetz, I remember, years ago, her talking about how each and every role that she played became part of her and helped to form her being.  This is a thought that has stayed with me as I think of the importance of the role of the actor in filmmaking, and also the importance of the roles that each actor plays.  

Ronit Elkabetz was a strong and dominant woman with an extraordinary personality -- a personality that was formed by so many of the diverse and hard-hitting roles that she played throughout her career.  May her memory be a blessing.