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.
It caused quite a commotion on its original release, but this adaptation of a 1955 novel by Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, is relatively restrained, all things considered. It asks us to imagine if Jesus Christ had lived a regular life instead of being crucified (had, in other words, given in to the temptation to avoid his fate), and uses that as a way to get inside the duality of Christ as man and as divine figure of grace and redemption. Then again, obviously there are a lot of people with a lot of knowledge on the subject, and a lot of opinions either way, so I can’t really say much beyond that it’s a compellingly made film with some excellent performances (not least Willem Dafoe in the title role), and beautiful cinematography from veteran lenser Michael Ballhaus. Harvey Keitel’s shock-headed Judas is a surprise, and not always a welcome one, and in general Jesus’s band of disciples seem more Brooklyn than Judaea, which can be troublesome when they’re set alongside the cast of local extras (it was filmed in Morocco), but the racial issues are left unexamined here. Instead, it’s a morality play with a very human leading performance, which is at least a change from most depictions of Jesus on film.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Martin Scorsese | Writer Paul Schrader (based on the novel O Teleutaios Peirasmos by Nikos Kazantzakis) | Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus | Starring Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Harry Dean Stanton | Length 162 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 27 December 2015
I think it’s reasonable to hold the things you love when you’re a teenager to a different set of critical standards. People who got into Star Wars back when that was first out can sometimes be unreasonably dogged in defending it, even though, well, it’s not really all that good (the first one has a sort of camp enjoyability to it, I’ll admit). Life of Brian comes from that same era, and even features a short sequence that nods towards the recent popularity of that aforementioned space-set blockbuster, and needless to say it was a common fixture on the television during my formative years, at which time I found it to be pretty great — though I always liked Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) more myself. I haven’t seen any of the Python output in decades, though, so it was interesting to revisit this foundational text as part of my Criterion-watching project, and for all that I want to say it’s still a shining beacon of 1970s British comedy (and maybe it is; I don’t know much of the era’s competition), it has sadly not aged all that well for me. Sure it’s always worthwhile to take aim at misplaced religious zealotry — something that I’m sure we’re all aware continues to be relevant today — and Brian takes some good shots at this kind of small-minded thinking by having its not-very-Messianic figure hounded to his death. However, it’s still ultimately a group of middle-class Oxbridge graduates being sophomorically silly about the Bible; I don’t believe that’s a case for any kind of censorship, it’s just not always as funny as it thinks it is (and these lads, particuarly Terry Jones, playing women continues to grate). Still, there remain some classic comedy sequences, the best of them skewering po-faced 1970s socialist groups, as in the ‘what have they ever done for us?’ debate chaired by John Cleese’s Reg (of the People’s Front of Judaea, not to be confused with their mortal enemies the Judaean People’s Front), or an ‘action’ committee he chairs near the end. I suppose one’s reaction to this is dependent on the level of nostalgia you cling to around the Pythons, but I do honestly wonder how the kids of today find this stuff. Ultimately, it feels very much of its era.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Terry Jones | Writers Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin | Cinematographer Peter Biziou | Starring Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam | Length 93 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 15 November 2015 (and many times at home on VHS, Wellington, in my youth)
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
A Nos Amours, a collective dedicated to the highest ideals of cinema as art, has been screening month by month over the past few years all the works of Chantal Akerman, of which this was the penultimate instalment. So it was hugely saddening to hear of her death since I saw this film only a week ago. She will always be remembered for the great Jeanne Dielman (1975), not to mention her other major films of the 1970s including Je tu il elle (1976) and Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978), a personal favourite. Her newest film, No Home Movie, will be screening on 30 October (I already have my tickets) and there’s a major installation/exhibition at Ambika P3 starting on that date also, so there remains a chance for film lovers to celebrate her work here in London.
I don’t think there’s any easy way in to Akerman’s work, but Down There probably isn’t it. It makes very few concessions to audience pleasure, but it is after its fashion very rigorous about what it presents. The film consists mostly of fixed views from within a Tel Aviv apartment, shot on a grainy video through the close-set blinds of the apartment, both showing the world outside (neighbouring apartment blocks and these vague glimpses we get of their residents going about their lives) at the same time as presenting an idea of entrapment. It’s a personal essay film, dealing with Akerman’s time living in Israel and her relationship to that country, which can at best be said to be ambivalent. Periodic voiceovers have Akerman musing on her situation, on what’s been happening outside her apartment block (a recent explosion) and on her family history, while we also hear her take phone calls and brush people off. It makes for a suffocating sense of (self) imprisonment only lifted towards the end by a brief sequence on a beach, and some shots that aren’t taken through the blinds. Down There may not be the easiest film to approach, but it feels like a very intimate, artistic take on personal history and Jewish identity.
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
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Monday 2 February 2015
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.
CREDITS || Director Hilla Medalia | Writers Philip Shane and Hilla Medalia | Cinematographer Daniel Kedem | Starring Pierre Dulaine | Length 90 minutes