A story of three Arab-Israeli women who live together in Tel Aviv, this at its best feels effortless and modern. The linchpin is Leila (Mouna Hawa), a lawyer and party animal who has a blithe abandon to living her life which is delightful to watch. Salma (Sana Jammelieh) is her lesbian housemate, an aspiring DJ who takes work in a bar and hides her sexuality from her traditional (Christian) parents. They take in Nour (Shaden Kanboura) as a houseguest, a cousin’s friend who wears a headscarf and has a more traditional Muslim family. Thus is the set-up for the rest of the film, and it’s a venerable one at that, mined for plenty of films and especially television sitcoms. I really wanted it to be more upbeat, but plenty of stuff happens to the three that’s not exactly cheerful (thanks, traditional religious cultures and the patriarchy), and it moves towards a very much downbeat denouement, as the three regroup — not without hope, but at least a little knocked back. Still, picking up on one of the most commonly cited comparisons (Girls), I’d happily watch an entire TV series about these women because their lives seem set to continue apace.
There’s a powerful intensity to the presentation of this film, which is essentially a courtroom drama. Partly that comes from the fact that it is pretty much confined to a single room, where wife Viviane (co-writer/director Ronit Elkabetz) is attempting to obtain a divorce agreement (or gett) from her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian). The room has a bland, clean starkness, and there are only a few camera set-ups possible to capture the two benches where Viviane and Elisha sit with their respective counsels, and the three judges who sit listening to their arguments. But a lot of the intensity is to do with the mismatch between the unchanging solemnity of this bureaucratic setting and the absurdity of Viviane’s situation, which unfolds over five years, with frequent titles indicating the passage of months between appearances. It’s not just that divorce seems normalised to modern Western viewers, it’s that the religious demands of the Israeli society within which the Amsalems live place all the burden onto the wife, with the husband largely unpunished for making little effort to mount a defence. There are no grandstanding speeches (when Viviane’s lawyer or she herself attempt anything of this nature, they are quickly shut down by the stern men who sit in judgement), it just quietly goes about documenting the manifest absurdities of the process, meanwhile hinting at details of the couple’s life together and the reasons for her actions.
FILM REVIEW Directors/Writers Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz | Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie | Starring Ronit Elkabetz, Simon Abkarian | Length 115 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Sunday 3 January 2016
This screening at the UK Jewish Film Festival was introduced by a programmer, and there was a Q&A afterwards. I didn’t stay for this, as I couldn’t stomach the idea of politicians bickering with journalists about Arab-Jewish relations and the wider regional conflicts the film engages with.
The treatment of refugees by the governments of developed nations has been a big topic for some time, and continues to crop up in all kinds of discussions (whether related to refugees or not; the last few days have seen that they provide a convenient figure of blame in all kinds of crises). The recent conflict in Syria has seen a huge influx into mainland Europe, but Israel has had its share of refugees too, primarily coming overland from North Africa via the Sinai peninsula, as revealed in this documentary. The ‘hotline’ of the title isn’t really a telephone call centre, but an NGO dealing with the plight of refugees, and the statistics presented by its charismatic and outspoken director Sigal Rozen reveal that Israel has granted refugee status to virtually nobody since 1951. Rozen and her staff are seen helping the refugees to navigate the tedious bureaucratic processes from their small Tel Aviv office, as well as stumping for them in community meetings and in parliamentary committees. The film largely opens with one such meeting, where Rozen is almost literally attacked by the aggrieved residents, to whose vicious taunts and hate speech she can only counter by repeating her message that this is a problem created by politicians and that needs to be addressed by them; her office can only try to help the migrants to settle where the government allows. In the process, we get plenty of this kind of head-to-head (or head-to-brick-wall) conflict over matters of basic human decency, but we are left with a picture of how difficult it is in modern democracies to really deal with such urgent matters when there is no political will to do so. Of course it’s a complicated subject, and though the film engages with some entrenched and specific local issues that exist in this part of the Middle East, one can imagine the same events taking place in small underfunded offices across Europe.
This screening at the UK Jewish Film Festival was introduced by a programmer, reading from the festival brochure.
This recent Israeli film makes a fascinating companion piece to The Diary of a Teenage Girl, released earlier this year. I loved that film intensely, but there’s definitely another side to that film’s coming-of-age story. Whereas Diary hardly depicted a healthy set of relationships (whether between the protagonist Minnie and her mother, Minnie and her mother’s boyfriend, or between the two adults), the film via its narrator seemed intent on locating some kind of power within these, however tenuous. In Princess, Adar (Shira Haas) is also alienated from her studies and starting to show interest in a wider society, particularly latching on to the androgynous Alan (Adar Zohar Hametz), but the persistent attentions of her mother’s boyfriend Michael (Ori Pfeffer), which begin innocuously and even playfully, are by several orders creepier and more difficult for her to repel than in the US film. Still, for all its similarities in set-up (and even the actors have a broad physical resemblance; at many junctures I could imagine Kristen Wiig in the same role as played here by Keren Mor), this is a quite different film in tone. There’s a persistent thread within the film of gender-fluid identities, recalling the French films of Céline Sciamma. Alan and Adar are filmed at times interchangeably, such that you’re not entirely sure at the start of the scene who we’re watching, given their broadly similar shape and hairstyle. Meanwhile, Michael teases each with gender-swapped names (he uses “Prince” for Adar). There’s a languid narrative and filmic style, as the film builds its characters incrementally, only slowly introducing the full of extent of Michael’s abusive relationship with the younger characters, and the way that Alma isolates herself from this. There may be no easy way forward for Adar, and no easy way for the film to conclude, the nurturing relationship between her and Alan does at least provide some small window of hope.
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: UK Jewish Film Festival Director/Writer Tali Shalom Ezer | Cinematographer Radek Ładczuk | Starring Shira Haas, Keren Mor, Ori Pfeffer, Adar Zohar Hanetz | Length 92 minutes || Seen at Everyman Hampstead, London, Wednesday 11 November 2015
Fitting into the same general category as The Gatekeepers of a few years back, this new film to grapple with Israeli politics does so through the prism of the ‘Six-Day War’ of 1967, in some ways the foundational conflict of the state of Israel as it’s known today, in which a combined attack from neighbouring Arab states was repelled and new territory annexed. The film draws on recently released audio recordings with young Israelis involved in the fighting (including a young Amos Oz), many of whom were conscripted, and who are distinctly less than gung-ho after the decisive conclusion of the conflict. In order to give the film some visual impact, those same people, now rather old, sit next to the tape recorders and the camera watches their faces as their youthful words are summoned. Amongst this is interwoven archival footage which touches on what’s being discussed (even if, obviously, it’s not precisely of the situations being described). It’s useful once again to be given a sense that a range of democratic opinions are available in Israel, though the legacy of the conflict — an ongoing militarisation in response to a (perhaps not unreasonable) paranoia of being attacked — is not dwelt upon, except as a sort of shadow that lurks in the background. Indeed it’s clear from the final words, when these older participants are given a chance to reflect on their younger selves, that some have hardened in their opinions. However, for its (relatively brief) running time, Censored Voices provides an interesting perspective on a key 20th century conflict that continues to resonate in the region.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Mor Loushy | Writers Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan | Cinematographer Avner Shahaf | Length 84 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 19 October 2015
There are certainly plenty of documentaries dealing with World War II, the Nazis, the Holocaust and its legacy, so it’s sometimes unclear what new perspective can be added. The Decent One focuses on Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and one of the most senior Nazi figures, the one probably most responsible for the Holocaust, so the title at one level is of course bitterly ironic. And yet the film takes its material from his personal letters and archives found at his home, which indicate he was (at times) a loving and respectful father, even if not the most constant husband. Actors read from these documents in chronological order, with title cards giving some context, while on the image track we see archival footage which illustrates the ideas being discussed, or hint at significant events that were happening at the same time. It’s a straightforward and restrained means to present an insight into what inevitably draws one’s mind to Hannah Arendt’s quote about “the banality of evil”, as tender letters to his wife cede over time to discussions of his role within the Party, or quotidian bitterness towards Jewish members of the community. A sense of the growing unease within the country during the 1930s comes as Himmler responds testily to requests from his father to look into summary arrests of friends and local community members around their home in Gmund. The chief manipulation that the filmmakers seem to have made here is to add sound effects to the documentary footage, which I’m sure opens up all kinds of professional arguments, but does at least make the footage a little more immediate (even if at times it seems in bad taste, as when we see grainy footage of mass executions). It’s never really possible (maybe it’s just not possible at all) to get a sense of the magnitude of what Himmler and the Nazis did, but The Decent One does give a small sense of how apparently easy it was for ideological motivations within everyday life to become dangerously twisted.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Vanessa Lapa | Writers Vanessa Lapa and Ori Weisbrod | Cinematographer Jeremy Portnoi | Length 94 minutes || Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Monday 27 April 2015
FILM REVIEW || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 5 August 2014 || My Rating excellent
It’s fair to say that Israel’s relationship with Palestine has always been a hot topic issue, but rarely moreso than now. Of course, anyone who engages with social networking even a little bit — whether online or with other human beings in what we call real life — will probably be weary of hearing further opinions on the conflict. There’s a lot of them out there, and most are backed up by very little historical context or understanding of the region, so needless to say, I’m not going to offer mine. However, what this recent documentary provides is a fascinating insight from within the leadership of one of Israel’s most shadowy organisations, the Shin Bet — their internal security service (presumably a bit like MI5 in the UK, or the FBI in the US). Six of its former leaders speak to camera about their experiences during their tenure, which cover the last 30 years of the region’s history. Being in such a politicised role, as basically the only publically identified representative of the organisation, each is understandably eloquent in recounting their viewpoint, though for the same reason surprisingly candid in their assessments of the situation. There’s some head-on engagement with the dubious morality of a lot of their work, and a frank appreciation of the need to constantly engage with and find a compromise with Palestine (a stance not always appreciated by hardliners within Israel, whose response to the Oslo Accords of the mid-1990s and to their architect, Yitzhak Rabin, is one of the issues covered). As a documentary, it follows the talking heads format fairly closely, but intercuts archival footage (including some rather raw aerial footage of ‘terrorists’ being targeted on the streets and in their homes) as well as animations illustrating some key situations for which only still photos exist. What elevates it is the perspective its subjects offer, which is particularly interesting mainly because their tone is so far removed from the more breathless reportage that most media sources offer (this is not simplistic one-sided pro-Palestine or pro-Israel hectoring). The measured words and outspoken criticisms of these lifetime spooks is a rejoinder to any simple-minded analysis of the region’s issues, making one hope (even as such hope seems particularly stretched at the moment) that some resolution can someday be found.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Rama Burshtein | Cinematographer Asaf Sudri | Starring Hadas Yaron, Yiftach Klein, Irit Sheleg | Length 91 minutes | Seen at Phoenix, London, Thursday 19 December 2013 || My Rating very good
It’s not infrequently that I watch films set amongst cultures other than my own; I greatly enjoy seeing communities portrayed on screen of which I will never (or can never) be a part. Every group of people — whether a national culture, a religious group, or some other sub-set (such as a prison, or a workplace, or wherever) — has its own etiquette surrounding the ways its members interact with one another, some more rigidly and formally defined than others. I was very conscious while watching Fill the Void, for example, that such customs are deeply ingrained amongst its Orthodox Jewish characters, and although I wasn’t always certain of what form they took (there are no didactic speeches or condescending explanations), it became increasingly clear when the characters depicted were cleaving to them. In that respect it’s not unlike watching the formal pairings in, say, a Jane Austen film adaptation — depicting another society that I am quite removed from (in time, if not geographically, but it amounts to much the same thing). In fact, the Jane Austen comparison was in my mind during the film, so it was no surprise to see an explicit link to Austen being made by the filmmaker (and by critics in their responses to the film) that I’ve read since watching it. In this case, though, the rituals are within a group of people very much in the same world as us, a group for which the director (being herself Orthodox) has a great deal of respect, and it is this that for me provides the film its fascination.