بر بحر‎ Bar Bahar (In Between, 2016)

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.

In Between film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Maysaloun Hamoud ميسلون حمود; Cinematographer Itay Gross איתי גרוס; Starring Mouna Hawa منى حوا, Shaden Kanboura شادن قنبورة, Sana Jammelieh سناء جمالية; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Wednesday 8 March 2017.

גט – המשפט של ויויאן אמסלם‎ Gett: Ha’mishpat Shel Vivian Amsalem (Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, 2014)

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.

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Ronit Elkabetz רונית אלקבץ and Shlomi Elkabetz שלומי אלקבץ; Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie; Starring Ronit Elkabetz רונית אלקבץ, Simon Abkarian Սիմոն Աբգարեան; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Sunday 3 January 2016.

Hotline (2015)

UK Jewish Film Festival logoThis 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.

Director/Cinematographer Silvina Landsmann; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Phoenix, London, Thursday 12 November 2015.

פרינסס Princess (2014)

UK Jewish Film Festival logoThis 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.

Princess posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Tali Shalom Ezer טלי שלום עזר; Cinematographer Radek Ładczuk; Starring Shira Haas שירה האס‎, Keren Mor קרן מור‎, Ori Pfeffer אורי פפר, Adar Zohar Hanetz אדר זהר נץ; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Everyman Hampstead, London, Wednesday 11 November 2015.

שיח לוחמים Censored Voices (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.

Censored Voices film poster CREDITS
Director Mor Loushy מור לושי; Writers Loushy and Daniel Sivan דניאל סיון; Cinematographer Avner Shahaf אבנר שחף; Length 84 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 19 October 2015.

Dancing in Jaffa (2013)

I can’t really say very much about this documentary film except that it’s sweet-natured and just a little bit ingenuous, perhaps too much so given its Israeli setting and that it deals with that contested relationship between Jews and Arabs — or maybe it’s exactly right, for that very reason. It takes as its central character the dancer (now dance teacher), Pierre Dulaine, born in Jaffa to a Palestinian mother and now after many years bringing his teaching method to the local primary schools. His aim is to get Israeli Jews dancing with Israeli Arabs, and that’s the arc the film tracks, flitting from school to school with colour-coded labelling. It starts with some initial tentative encounters (where Dulaine comes off as just a little too single-mindedly wedded to heteronormative pairings), to growing enthusiasm communicated via a series of individual portraits of children learning to enjoy their experience, to the climax of an inter-school dance competition. There are small delights and certainly there are some heart-warming scenes, but it can be mawkish at times. However, that said, it does reveal plenty of ingrained hostility and imparts some sense of the cultural, ethnic and religious divisions in its very indirect way.

Dancing in Jaffa film posterCREDITS
Director Hilla Medalia הילה מדליה; Writers Philip Shane and Medalia; Cinematographer Daniel Kedem דניאל קדם; Starring Pierre Dulaine; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Monday 2 February 2015.

שומרי הסף Shomrei Hasaf (The Gatekeepers, 2012)

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.

The Gatekeepers film posterCREDITS
Director Dror Moreh דרור מורה; Cinematographer Avner Shahaf אבנר שחף; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 5 August 2014.

למלא את החלל Lemale et ha’chalal (Fill the Void, 2012)

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.

It helps of course that the film is made so well, and I do hope the director Rama Burshtein moves on to other stories. There is a serene sense of watchfulness, with scenes allowed to unfold without melodramatic prompting, using the minimum of gestural acting — quite often just awkward glances or barely perceptible movements. I suppose this may make it seem slow to some viewers, but I found the style quite transporting. The cinematography itself is burnished by lots of soft focus and very shallow depth of field, at once giving the characters a warm glow and isolating them from their surroundings — effective particularly at moments of heightened emotion, of which there are plenty, even if they are nonetheless quite subtly conveyed.

After all, this is a film dealing with some major checkpoints in life (which is to say, death and marriage) — times when, even for those of us who do not follow any particular faith, religious rituals (or those derived ultimately from religious belief) are more involved. (They are also the kinds of events that make up the domestic fictions of Austen, which probably occasions the comparison.) The protagonist is Shira (Hadas Yaron), whose heavily pregnant sister has just died in childbirth, leaving her husband Yochay (Yiftach Klein) compelled by his community to find a new wife and mother for his child. It is Shira’s mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg) who is the one to push her other daughter towards nuptials with Yochay, the ramifications of which are dealt with in the bulk of the film. This then is the kind of scenario which to an outsider would probably occasion damning criticism, and although it’s hardly embraced wholeheartedly here, it is at least handled with some delicacy. It’s never really certain whether we as viewers are supposed to want the match to succeed or not, and that ambiguity is part of the film’s dramatic power, and may affect whether you find the denouement heartwarming or not. In either case, the film allows us enough empathy with the characters that the outcome is warmly affecting even so. The director certainly seems aware of the outsiders’ perspective: when the rabbi asks Shira how she feels about the match, she replies that it’s not about feelings but the rabbi counters that “in fact, it’s only about feelings” — in other words, Shira has a choice and no decision is forced on her.

The acting is excellent, certainly. Yaron has a difficult role to play effectively — a modest, earnest and inexperienced young woman who finds herself rather out of her depth — but does so very capably, never making Shira seem weak; she could easily be seen as a pawn to patriarchal forces, but never quite does. Equally, Klein’s devout husband is able to convey an essence of generosity even within a role that requires him to act in ways that do not always seem fair or just. A lot of work is done through glances and very tiny expressions, which means that the film’s occasional use of extreme close-ups on the protagonists’ faces are dramatically necessary.

The subject of devout religious belief is one that lends itself all too frequently to easy judgement and exaggerated condemnation from filmmakers and commentators. It’s good then to see a perspective such as this one, which works from within to achieve at least a modicum of understanding of a complex subject. The film would therefore have some value if it were just this, but the fact that it’s a sensitively and well-made drama that can warrant comparisons to the work of Jane Austen, is only to its further credit. It certainly fills a void at the heart of mainstream depictions of religious communities, and I look forward to further works from this director.

Fill the Void film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rama Burshtein רמה בורשטין; Cinematographer Asaf Sudri אסף סודרי; Starring Hadas Yaron הדס ירון, Yiftach Klein יפתח קליין, Irit Sheleg עירית שלג; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at Phoenix, London, Thursday 19 December 2013.