Tagged: Israeli Cinema

Films From the South #2: Man Without a Cellphone (Bidoun Mobile, Palestine/Israel/Fra/Bel/Qatar 2010)

Jawdat (Razi Shawahdeh) uses his phone in the field by the mast as his father Salem (Basem Loulou) looks on.

This witty and sharp little film (only 78 mins) is one of several recent productions from Arab filmmakers that defy easy categorisation in institutional terms. Director Sameh Zoabi was born in a village close to Nazareth in 1975 and took a joint English and Film degree at Tel Aviv before completing a Masters in Film Direction at Columbia University in New York. This is his first feature after critical acclaim for his 2005 short film Be Quiet at Cannes. Supported by two Israeli Film Council backed funding bodies plus French and Belgian funding as well as support from Sundance and the Doha Film Institute, Man Without Cellphone pokes at the sore issue of Palestinian identity within Israel’s declared borders – Palestinian land first occupied after 1948, rather than in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

In a personal statement on the Memento Films website, Sameh Zoabi tells us:

Growing up, our own communities and schools are not integrated into the larger Israeli society. After high school, many young people flock to universities and the work place where they must interact with the larger Jewish-Israeli population for the first time. Leaving home is a major transition and time of self-discovery for young adults across all cultures, but it is particularly unique to Palestinian-Israelis, who come to realize their status as second class citizens with full force. In the media, the struggle for equal rights is overshadowed by the larger political milieu of the region, and is lacking in personal stories of everyday people.

In finding a way to explore these ‘personal stories’, Zoabi hits on a number of ideas that have also turned up in two other productions from the region, the Israeli film The Lemon Tree and the Palestinian film Rana’s Wedding. In this case it is not a Palestinian lemon orchard but an olive grove that sits next to an Israeli development. The new development is a mobile phone mast which improves the reception of the villagers (both Arab and Jewish communities) but angers the older farmers including Salem who owns the olives and believes the mast is sending out radiation to give the Arab villagers cancer and to ruin the olive crop. But his 20 year-old son Jawdat enjoys the new reception and is more interested in dating girls – Muslim or Christian Arabs, or even Jewish or Russian. The twist is that Jawdat has no real future because he keeps failing the Hebrew entrance test for university – unlike his sister who is already there. The plot requires Jawdat to be reconciled with his father in order to galvanise the community fight to have the phone tower removed and this is achieved (i.e. Jawdat does help) by that standby of Palestinian films, the need to get permission to cross into the West Bank (thus the link to Rana’s Wedding, a serio-comic film narrative about organising movement between Jerusalem and Ramallah). I won’t spoil the narrative pleasure of Man Without a Cellphone any more, suffice to say that the narrative device works well. I should also note that the interaction of the men and women (old and young) in the village is treated in ways similar to that in the Nadine Labaki film we saw yesterday.

I enjoyed the film very much. There are plenty of laughs and Jawdat and his friend Muhammad are very likeable characters. But the dig at both generational conflicts within the Palestinian communities and the unjust treatment of Arabs in Israel is clear throughout. I hope the film gets widely seen. My only concern is the length. ‘Short’ features like this often fail to get distribution or are shunned by audiences. I felt that some elements of the narrative could have been extended – but perhaps budget constraints were the problem.

Go here to see the ‘pitch preview’ of the film on the website of the Doha Film Institute.

Ajami (Israel/Germany 2009)

Malek and Omar in Ajami

This was a film I was eager to see having watched an item about its making on a YouTube clip from Al-Jazeera. I confess that about a third of the way through the screening, I began to wonder if I was going to be disappointed because I was finding the story hard to follow and the rough and ready camerawork was not offering me much visual pleasure. But when I finally grasped how the narrative was working I found everything to be much more rewarding. I’m still not sure about some aspects of the film, but I can see why it has won so many awards, including a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Plot outline (no major spoilers)

In the fashion of several recent films such as Gomorra, Crash (US 2004) or Amore Perros, Ajami offers several overlapping stories which are retold from different perspectives. Misleading ‘chapter’ headings suggest a linear narrative and for a moment I had the feeling that the reels were being projected out of order (except that I knew that it was a digital print!).

The title refers to a district of Jaffa, the now Israeli port city which has been almost swallowed by Tel Aviv. The district has a predominantly Arab population, but also a Jewish minority – the city is Jewish overall. The Arabs are both Muslim and Christian. The narrative begins with a feud between an Arab Muslim family and a Bedouin family from the Negev. After a series of tit-for-tat shootings, a ‘negotiator’ organises a financial settlement. This leaves Omar, the surviving oldest member of the Ajami family, with the task of finding a large sum of money in a short time. Inevitably, 19 year-old Omar is forced to turn to drug smuggling to raise money quickly. The story is narrated by Omar’s younger brother Nasri and the separate plotlines are linked via the restaurant/transport business where Omar works. Malek is a young man from the West Bank working in the restaurant illegally. His mother is seriously ill and he needs money for her medical care. ‘Binj’ is a chef with a Jewish girlfriend and Dando is a Jewish police officer. The restaurant is owned by a Christian Arab, Abu Elias, who helps both Malek and Omar – but Omar risks all in conducting a secret relationship with his boss’s daughter Hadir.

Commentary

The film has a low budget and a cast of non-professional actors who attended workshops set up by the two writer-editor-directors, one Jewish, Yaron Shani and the other Arab, Scandar Copti. Copti also plays the role of Binj. The whole process took around seven years to prepare, workshop, shoot and edit. IMDB suggests that it was shot on 35mm, but the definition of the print I saw suggests that it was digital or Super 16. The shooting and directing style appears to echo Ken Loach with an observational camera and non-professionals required to react to certain dramatic actions not directly explained in a script that is otherwise quite carefully fashioned.

The interest in the film is explained by three things, I think:

  • the acting style, camerawork and editing all contribute to a ‘gritty’ authentic feel;
  • despite the obvious antagonisms between different cultural groups and occasional asides about the occupation, the film doesn’t ‘take sides’ as such and is seen by several commentators as ‘even-handed';
  • the use of familiar genre conventions such as family feuds, drug deals, over-strict fathers, exploitation of illegals etc., means that despite the non-linear narrative the film is still accessible to a wide audience (even if the subtitles and low budget will keep it out of multiplexes).

These three factors make this a film that could be used with 16-19 students in the same way that City of God/La haine and other youth crime films have proved so successful. Unfortunately, I don’t think it will develop a sufficiently high profile to attract teachers. It would also need a fair amount of work to explain the background to the plot (even Sight and Sound‘s subs make a mistake in referring to ‘Berbers’ rather than Bedouin).

Overall, it is clearly the work of young talents and can’t directly compete with City of God/La haine etc. I think it is perhaps 10 minutes too long, but still fails to deliver on some aspects of the narrative. However, it does offer something fresh. I’m glad that I saw it  and I look forward to further work by this pair.

Here’s the UK trailer (which strangely overplays the political narrative):

The US trailer is perhaps a better intro to the film:

Press Pack

Seen at Cubby Broccoli Cinema, Bradford, 1/8/2010

Lebanon (Israel/France/Germany 2009)

The view from the tank in Lebanon

This is the third highly celebrated Israeli film set during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon to have appeared in recent years. It follows Beaufort (2007) and Waltz With Bashir (2008) and in 2009 it won the Golden Lion at Venice, the biggest prize so far for the ‘new’ Israeli Cinema.

This seemed to me to be the ‘hardest’ of the three, the most focused on ‘war really is shit’ and the least compromised by Israeli ideologies. It’s unfortunate then that a) I had to watch it during another week when the Israeli Defence Forces have killed Palestinians and aid volunteers on a Turkish ship in international waters and b) that it found itself at the centre of the boycott of the Toronto International Film Festival’s ‘Tel Aviv focus’ in 2009 (a boycott which I would have supported). Lebanon should be judged on its own merits even if the overall Israeli government policy should be condemned.

The film is unique in that apart from the opening and closing shots, the narrative is presented as either taking place inside a tank or as viewed through the tank driver’s or commander’s eyepiece. This intensely claustrophobic location is an important element in the story. Writer-director Samuel (Shmulik) Maoz was himself the gunner in a tank like this during the invasion and it has taken him more than 25 years to tell his story. Waltz With Bashir was made on a similar basis, but compared to Lebanon seems almost lightweight. I’m sure it isn’t, but in cinematic terms that’s how the comparison feels to me.

The plot outline of Lebanon is very simple. A tank with its crew of four – three who know each other and a new guy – is ordered to advance into Lebanon and join a small group of paratroopers. The paras officer is in overall charge and he leads the combined group into a village which has been bombed by the IDF (the ironically named Israeli ‘Defence’ Forces). But something has gone wrong in the planning and instead of a few Lebanese villagers, the group meets fierce resistance from Syrian soldiers. Can the Israelis extricate themselves – with the help of a couple of Phalangists (Lebanese Christians allied to the Israelis) as guides?

What follows is hard to watch but never less than engrossing. Conditions in the tank are awful but are made worse by the conscripts’ lack of discipline and professionalism. These films generally get criticised for their portrayal of young Israelis under pressure and the absence of any detailed representation of the Arab ‘other’ they are fighting. I don’t think that charge stands against Lebanon. We feel for both the solders inside the tank and those killed or made homeless by its actions. The ‘view from the tank’ becomes a powerful device on at least two occasions – the first when an elderly Arab man stares defiantly straight at the camera in close-up while next to him his companion at a café table lies with his head in a pool of blood and the second when a woman staggers out of a building and comes up to the soldiers. I confess at this point that I wondered if she was suddenly going to plant a bomb on the tank. The film teeters on the edge of a Hollywood-style narrative and a realist humanist representation. The latter wins out and the finest moments are those when the confines of the tank force actions of humanity onto the soldiers – such as helping a shackled prisoner to pee in a can. I’m reminded of my favourite piece of writing about war when, in Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell writes about seeing an enemy soldier running along his trench lines. Orwell knows that he should shoot him but when he sees that the man is trying to hold up his trousers and is clearly suffering from the runs, he asks himself “How can you shoot someone with their trousers round their ankles?”

Lebanon has had some mixed reviews. On IMDB, war movie fans and ex-soldiers complain that the film isn’t realistic in the depiction of the procedures the tank crew follow or don’t follow – which rather misses the point. This a representation of a nightmare. It isn’t about ‘winning’, it explains nothing about why the tank is there, it doesn’t set out to critique policies or politicians or military commanders. It uses a restricted cast and location to tell us something about the nightmare. What I think I will remember, as much as the stifling physical confines of the tank, are the noises – the hydraulics of the turret turning, the viewfinder changing its zoom setting, the roar of the engine and the explosions and screams outside, the orders barked over the radio and the occasional use of music. All of these should, I think, be experienced in the cinema. I suspect much will be lost on a TV set.

Beaufort (Israel 2007)

Soldiers from the fort prepare to deal with a roadside 'explosive device'

Beaufort is set at the time of the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon in 1999-2000 after 18 years of military occupation. The title refers to a hill-top observation post manned by a small group of IDF (‘Israeli Defence Forces’) soldiers and built in the ruins of a Crusader fort first established in the 12th Century and occupied by successive groups of soldiers ever since (including the PLO in the 1970s up to the Israeli attack in 1982). Writer-director Joseph Cedar is a Jewish- American who grew up in a Zionist family and lived in a settlement in Occupied Palestine for two years whilst writing one of his two earlier Israeli films, Time of Favour (2000) (as he explains in an interview in Cineaste Vol XXXIII No 2 in 2008). All three of Cedar’s films (Campfire (2004) about Zionist settlers is the third) have been hits in Israel and Beaufort was the official Israeli Oscar contender in 2008, receiving a Nomination as Best Foreign Language Film – it won a Silver Bear at Berlin.

In many ways the film is a classic Hollywood B movie ‘combat picture’ about the grunts who find themselves effectively abandoned by the their military chiefs. Robert Aldrich and Sam Fuller come to mind. Cedar himself says he was inspired by Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill (1959), Malick’s Thin Red Line, Petersen’s Das Boot and Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. I have to say that visually and in terms of the fort’s defenders’ behaviour, I was strongly reminded of several science fiction films. The poster below shows a shot that occurs several times and uses the strange mise en scène created by the prefabricated living quarters and tunnels connecting the various parts of the base. Given the cumbersome kit the soldiers carry and their helmet camouflage, they at times resemble astronauts on a space station under attack from an unseen enemy. They observe the world much of the time through video cameras and the only evidence of the enemy is the barrage of incoming missiles.

One of the striking aspects of the IDF is the age of the soldiers. The commander of the fort is a Lieutenant who is only 22. Although there are a couple of older men, most of the fort defenders seem to be late teens, early 20s. I understand that the IDF mainly comprises conscripts who have three years of service starting at age 18 (for men – women only have to do two years and this won’t usually be front-line service) followed by annual possible reserve call-ups up to age 49.

I confess that when I first watched the film, I thought it was going to be an anti-war statement, but on reflection I’m starting to find it a more disturbing piece – especially after I read a critical commentary that I found very convincing (an excellent resource on the film from a US Israeli Studies scholar). The main conflict in the film is not so much offered by the Hezbollah missiles which rain down on the Israelis with ever-increasing accuracy, but the mismatch between the experience of the ‘grunts’ in the bunkers of Beaufort and the political machinations of the army chiefs and politicians. The focus for the conflict is the young base commander Liraz. He is himself on the edge of some kind of breakdown. He isn’t the greatest military commander and at one point he has a complete funk when he fails to drag a comrade out of danger. But he feels for his men and he generally tries to do what is best for them. At the climactic point in the film he rails against the top brass who order that the troops must stay in the firing line (with extra protection) when everyone knows that a few days later they will retreat anyway. Liraz seems like a riposte to the heroic young commander from earlier Israeli war films and the whole group on the base are portrayed as disintegrating as a disciplined unit.

The film is very much associated with a siege mentality and I was intrigued to read an essay by  Nitzan Ben-Shaul in 24 Frames: The cinema of North Africa and the Middle East on an earlier Israeli war film, Kippur (2000) written and directed by Amos Gitai. Ben-Shaul describes it as a ‘siege film’ and this seems to fit several Israeli films, including Beaufort. The argument is that the siege mentality is built into the Israeli psyche. It comes from religious doctrine, from the history of Zionism and from the recent history of the conflict with the Palestinians. The sense of siege becomes acute in films after 1980 and Ben Shaul argues:

“War is posited as the sole origin of a society that is morally, emotionally, aesthetically and mentally corrupt. Society is represented as anxious and suspicious, its members being malicious and violent, or naive and therefore lost, confused and in despair. This confusion, anxiety and despair are supported by disjointed story and plot lines, articulated within a closed narrative space.” (op cit p.214)

I’m not sure all of that is applicable to Beaufort, but much of it is. The other important point to note is that like the other recent Israeli war film released in the UK in 2008, Waltz With Bashir, Beaufort never shows the enemy and never properly explains the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. The suffering brought about by occupation is thus represented by the effects on Israeli soldiers – not the Lebanese and Palestinians.

Beaufort needs to be analysed and mulled over for the reasons outlined above. Having said that, it is still worth watching for its representation of the futility of most military actions.

Ushpizin (Israel 2004)

Malli (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand) and (Moshe (Shuli Rand) admire the 'perfect citron', an essential part of the Sukkoth celebrations in 'Ushpizin'

What do we expect from Israeli Cinema? The 10 or so films produced each year in Israel all tend to benefit from ‘soft money’ – funding from public sector organisations in Israel or for European co-producers. Many of the films tend to be ‘internationalist’ in outlook so that they are accessible to film festivals and arthouse distributors around the world. These tendencies have been criticised as leading to a ‘formula’ in terms of style and to a focus on what are seen as ‘peripheral’ subjects – meaning not that the subjects are unimportant, but that the stories are about Israeli Arabs, contact with Palestinians, ‘marginal’ figures in Israeli society etc. I’ve seen Ushpizin described as belonging to this group, even though, for those outside Israel, it looks on the surface as if it is offering a glimpse of a specifically Israeli community. In fact (like many films) it is both ‘local’ and ‘universal’ and the characters it depicts are both ‘marginal’ and ‘only human’.

‘Ushpizin’ refers to ‘visitors’ who should be welcomed in during the Orthodox Jewish festival of Sukkot which commemorates the period spent in the wilderness by the Jews after the Exodus from Egypt. Families erect temporary huts in outside yards where meals are taken and families will sleep for a week. Visits to the synagogue must be made with the men carrying four items (‘four species’) symbolising the resources available in the wilderness – myrtle, palm, willow and citron. There is much symbolism in all of this, explained in detail on various Wikipedia pages.

The film focuses on a couple living in a Hassidic community in Jerusalem (references are made to ‘Breslau’, which my research suggests actually refers to a town in Ukraine, not the German/Polish city, as the origin of the particular style of the rituals in the film). The couple have run out of funds, since as tradition demands, the man is studying and the woman is not allowed to work outside the home. They fear that they won’t be able to celebrate Sukkot and that their prayers for a child will not be answered. However, two pieces of good fortune provide both a temporary dwelling for Sukkot and the funds to buy food and the ‘four species’. They also receive an unexpected visit from two men, only one of whom is known to the husband. This visit proves the catalyst for a series of events which will transform the couple’s life together.

Once I got past the details of the Orthodox life-style – which wasn’t as unfamiliar as I expected – I realised that this was actually a well-known narrative premise. I was reminded of the Jewish stories that have come out of Eastern Europe and seeped into Anglo-American literary culture. The focus on the citron (devout Jews are supposed to buy the most ‘perfect’ specimen they can find within their means) seems to fit many such stories. The ‘visitors’ are characters from many plays and films – seemingly sent to the couple as a ‘test’ of their beliefs and integrity and their self-knowledge. The same story could have taken place in many communities. The ‘authenticity’ of this particular representation lies partly in the fact that the couple are played by a real-life couple who like the characters in the film are relatively recent converts to the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. Shuli Rand who plays Moshe, the husband, retired from his acting career when he converted and presumably returned for this role (he also wrote the script) because he believed it would promote understanding. The director, Giddi Dar, is, I think, a secular Jew according to the reviews.

I enjoyed the film and it certainly kept my interest as an unusual drama with touches of social comedy. I was also intrigued by the various reviews I found. Mainstream critics and reviewers tended, I think, to be a little condescending to the film, giving it quite high ratings but not really attempting to explore what it meant. Jewish audiences seemed very grateful that somebody had put such a story on the screen. I’m not sure what I think about it as an Israeli film. It is set in Jerusalem (which was the pilgrim city for the original celebrations) and Orthodox communities are gradually moving into the city with the possible outcome that there will be clashes with other communities, especially in the old city. But there are relatively few references to the details of Israeli life today, except for mention of one location in the city as being ‘where the Iraqis are’. Moshe is said to come from Eilat which is down on the Red Sea. I find these little sociological details fascinating, but I guess it is wrong of me to want more of a sense of what other, secular, Israelis make of communities like this – and how different or similar they are to Orthodox communities in the UK and North America.

Broken Wings (Knafayim Shvurot, Israel 2002)

Dafna and Yair on the Mt Carmel underground funicular railway

Dafna and Yair on the Mt Carmel underground funicular railway

As a contrast to the overtly political films (in the sense that they directly address the Israeli-Arab conflict in some way) Waltz With Bashir and Lemon Tree in recent posts, I thought it might be a good idea to look at a different kind of Israeli film.

Broken Dreams looks at first like a familiar social realist family drama. Its distinctiveness is at first apparent only because of its setting. After a short while, however, it is clear that the film looks and feels different. Its soundtrack and cluttered mise en scène draw on the youth picture and the family melodrama as we meet the members of a dysfunctional family in the port city of Haifa. The narrative plunges straight into a series of crises involving each of the family members without feeling in any background so that we must struggle to understand the situation. 17 year-old Maya is enjoying the last night before the start of a new school year. She is scheduled to sing her own composition in a competition for young bands, but finds herself called home to look after her younger brother, Ido (10) and sister 6 year-old Bahri because her mother Dafna is on the night shift as a midwife in the local hospital. The morning is chaos as Maya tries to get the children to school. Her other brother Yair is no help at all – summoned to see the school ed psych because of his refusal to attend classes and truanting to give out leaflets for a night club dressed as a giant mouse. Dafna lurches from one missed appointment to another in her battered car that won’t start. Things can only get worse.

Eventually the audience wakes up to the fact that not only is the father missing, but that we don’t know what happened to him. Besides the two brothers there are three other males in the narrative. Maya has a classmate who thinks he is in love with her and an older boy whose band she deserted the night of her big break. Meanwhile Dafna runs into Valentin, a doctor at the hospital who has just returned from California. Valentin could be a surrogate father figure, but he is introduced as a clumsy man and doesn’t immediately impress as being able to sort out the mess.

I’ve no wish to give away plot details for what is a well-acted and affecting little melodrama (only 80 mins). For a first time writer-director, Nir Bergman does an impressive job in getting performances out of his young cast and creating an air of tension and fragile hope for a better tomorrow. Several commentators have reported that the film made them ‘blub’ and I understand this. Like most audiences, I took the film to be non-political, but I did spend time trying to think what made the film ‘Israeli’. I was struck by the physical appearance of the actors. Maya Maron is incredibly pale with raven hair and in the open scene is still wearing the angel’s gossamer wings from her abortive singing debut (a reference to Olivia Hussey in Baz Luhrman’s Romeo+ Juliet?). (Presumably the film’s title refers to the difficulty the children have growing up – their wings appear to be broken.) Yair seems to be a typical young Israeli man – even down to his skill with a basketball. With his cropped hair and wire-framed glasses I can see him on Army service. Dafna and Valentin look like they might be descended from Russian immigrants (according to Wikipedia, a significant element in the population of Haifa). But apart from this there is only the tension and fragility created to a large extent by the editing that suggests the story is set in a country which might have experienced recent direct conflict. We do find out what happened to father – but his disappearance is not the result of any kind of conflict.

I might have been satisfied just to enjoy the melodrama, but I did a bit of digging and discovered the missing ‘link’. According to Jan Lisa Huttner, an American blogger who interviewed the director, the missing father is symbolic:

 

JLH: When Broken Wings begins, a mother and her four children are in mourning. The father is dead, but we don’t see any pictures of him, or any flashbacks that tell us who he is. I think “the father” is Yitzhak Rabin [the Israeli Prime Minister who was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish zealot in 1995]. Am I wrong about this?

Nir Bergman: No, no, you are not wrong at all. In a lot of ways this film is personal to me. It came from personal materials (about my parents divorce). But in the process of making the film, it became clear that this family can give you a picture of our world today. Since this murder, Israel is an orphaned country. Rabin’s death influenced me very strongly.

(View the whole interview here.)

I remember the Rabin assassination but I had to look up the details. Is Bergman making a political point? I think so, even if not directly. Thinking through the film and replaying it with the family as a metaphor for a secure Israel at peace is revealing. I watched the film on a UK DVD, admittedly from the bargain bin, but there must be copies around. It dates from the time when BBC4 TV in the UK was attempting to support international cinema. It should do this more often.