“One needs courage in order to say, ‘We also have problems at home,’ but without courage there is no real art.” So said screenwriter Hanna Azulay Hasfari about her 1994 film Shchur (widely credited as the first “important” film about Mizrachi family life in Israel). Jewish Americans already know that Israelis have tremendous physical courage, but every new batch of films brings fresh evidence of artistic courage as well. The 18 films scheduled for this year’s Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema, which plays in the Chicago area from Oct. 18-28—run the gamut. I found some excellent and others less so, but all were interesting and worthwhile.
Keep in mind as you watch that many of these films had their first public screenings at the 2006 Jerusalem Film Festival last July, just when Israel’s border with Lebanon was erupting into flames. So these “pre-war” films all depict internal conflict: souls in torment; families in crisis. Maybe next year we’ll get some comedies, and sometime after that some films about Lebanon, but this year’s schedule deals with addiction (Salt of the Earth), betrayal (Aviva My Love and Miracle), drug abuse (Someone To Run With), homosexuality (Paper Dolls and Things Behind the Sun), mental illness (Sweet Mud), and the painful consequences of failures to communicate (Pesya’s Necklace, Sisai, Three Mothers and Tied Hands).
The Holocaust has never been a big theme for Israeli filmmakers. Thus I was surprised to see Holocaust-themed films in each of this year’s three categories: Dear Mr. Waldman (in the feature category), Pesya’s Necklace (in the shorts category), and The Ashkenazi (in the documentary category). I called Dani Dothan in Tel Aviv to learn more. Dani is co-director of The Ashkenazi along with his wife and partner, Dalia Meyerovich, and he gave me two compelling answers: self-reflection in response to Mizrachi demands for greater political participation, and the integration of more Russian immigrants into mainstream society.
The star of my top pick for 2007 (Dear Mr. Waldman) is Rami Heuberger, someone best known in Israel for his television roles (although he had a bit part in Schindler’s List very early in his career). After receiving an Ophir nomination for his Waldman role as “Moishe,” a Holocaust survivor living with his second family in Tel Aviv, he was cast in the American adaptation of Amoz Oz’s novel The Little Tailor, which premiered last month at the Haifa Film Festival. So I’m probably one of many who expect to see more of Rami in the future.
I predict we’ll also be seeing a lot more from Adi Refaeli, the talented director of the narrative short Empathy. Adi began her directing career in community television. She attended Kineret College School of Film, and Empathy was her graduate film. The premiere was held at last year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, and also was shown at Israel’s International Women’s Film Festival in Rehovot. It has now reached America, where Empathy recently won the Judges Award for Best Short from the Red Rock Film Festival in Utah. It has also received positive reviews after film festival screenings in Boston, Indianapolis, Manhattan, and Syracuse, N.Y.
My favorite feature film this year is Dear Mr. Waldman, written and directed by Hanan Peled. (This is Peled’s directorial debut; he already is well known in Israel as a screenwriter.) He’s clearly telling a semi-autobiographical story very close to his heart. Moise (Heuberger) and Rivka (Jenya Dodina) are both survivors. Rivka is determined to move on with her life, but Moise is more of a dreamer. They have two sons, Jonathan (Roy Mayer), who’s brusque and practical like his mother, and Hilik (Ido Port), who has his father’s more creative temperament.
The film is set in the early 1960s; posters advertising Kirk Douglas as Spartacus are plastered everywhere, as if in deliberate counterpoint to testimony from the Adolph Eichmann trial (always playing in the background on family radios). Hilik is a smart boy, and he’s aware that his father is no Spartacus. Although Rivka and Jonathan refuse to acknowledge his vulnerability, Hilik can see that Moise’s defenses are crumbling, so he steps up and takes the weight onto his young shoulders. Can he find a way to protect Moise, and maybe do something to make him happy?
Peled does an excellent job of containing the emotions. Watching the film, I felt transported. Hilik reminds us of the mindset of all those who asked themselves to be heroes in the nascent Jewish state.
This theme is carried over in my favorite documentary, The Ashkenazim. To become Israelis, the children of survivors had to bury their own fears and support their parents’ attempts to build new lives. Emotions were suppressed along with Diaspora languages, habits, and customs. As we learn from watching Dear Mr. Waldman (and The Summer of Aviya), neighbors did not want to hear the woes of survivors, and talking about the past was taken to be symptomatic of mental illness.
In The Ashkenazim, Dothan and Meyerovich focus on a new generation. These 30-somethings feel empowered to ask their grandparents questions that their own parents never dared to ask. Israelis in this “third generation” (the second generation to be born in Israel) are now reaching back to reclaim Eastern European culture; they’re cooking old foods and singing old songs, all of which are new to them.
Is this symptomatic of “post-Zionism”? In a way, yes. As Yosefa Loshitzky says in her insightful book, Identity Politics on the Israeli Screen, Zionist ideology assumed that everyone had “come to Israel voluntarily driven by ideological (Zionist) motives.” Today many Israelis are acknowledging that “the Jewish state of Israel is basically a multicultural society of immigrants dominated by ethnic diversity and social polarization.” Because most Jewish Americans are Ashkenazim, this film can be our entryway into fascinating and uniquely Israeli issues.
Empathy, my top pick in the shorts category, takes all of these complex dynamics for granted. It’s sort of an Israeli version of Crash, but I actually think it’s much better. Empathy’s special achievement is to balance the scenes so that you come to see each unique point of view. There are Ashkenazi characters, Mizrachi characters, Russian characters, Palestinian characters, and each one is presented with empathy. The individuals in this film are remarkably well depicted; writer/director Adi Refaeli makes us understand why they all do the things they do, even when specific actions are reprehensible. One chain of events represents the whole, and the urgent plea of this novice filmmaker is obvious: before lashing out at “the other” think through the consequences—not just how you might impact them but what damage you could do to your own soul in the process.
Finally I recommend Little Heroes, which is about a group of kids who band together to save a couple injured in a car accident. Each member of the cast is endearing. Even though I knew from the get-go that everything would work out OK, I still suffered with them and worried about them, holding my breath until everyone was safe and homeward bound.
Two of my favorite performances this year are given by relative newcomers: Rami Heuberger (who plays Moise in Dear Mr. Waldman), and Adva Bulle (who plays Tali in Empathy). The other top performances are given by two of the greatest actors working in Israel today.
Vladimir Freeman plays a man named “Valera” in a profoundly moving short called Miracle. Vladimir has become ubiquitous in recent Israeli cinema, to the extent that almost every time the script calls for a Russian doctor, there he is. (Two of the best of these roles were in Broken Wings and The Schwartz Dynasty, both now available on DVD.) Typically a supporting actor, in Miracle he plays the lead. It’s wonderful to see him stretch himself to fill the screen.
No one on the 2007 schedule compares to Gila Almagor, the queen of two films this year: Three Mothers and Tied Hands. These roles are completely different and equally eloquent. Gila is at the very top of her game in Tied Hands, a heartbreaking drama about the mother of a young man dying of AIDS. You may think you don’t want to see something so downbeat, but if you don’t go you’ll be cheating yourself; her performance is magnificent.
Gila began her screen-acting career in the 1960s, but her international breakthrough came in 1988 when she starred in The Summer of Aviya (playing a character based on her own mother). She received the Silver Bear in 1989 at the Berlin International Film Festival, which she shared with Kaipo Cohen (the actress who plays Gila herself as a girl). She also wrote Aviya’s screenplay and five years later she wrote a sequel called Under the Domim Tree (also staring Kaipo Cohen and also available on DVD). One of the most remarkable things about Gila is that she’s equally compelling as Ashkenazi characters (in Aviya and Tied Hands) and as Mizrachi characters (in Shchur and Three Mothers). When Steven Spielberg needed someone to play Eric Bana’s mother in Munich, she was the obvious choice. She has earned her place as an Israeli icon.
*************With a possible Oscar on the line, two Israeli films are duking it out -- read Tom Tugend's recent column on "The Band’s Visit,” and “Beaufort”.