By Rory Winston
As the Other Israel Film Festival began its tenth anniversary celebrations in NY, there was one film that had not only lived up to the singularity inherent in the event’s alluring title but one that had managed to imbue the very idea of ‘otherness’ with an existential quality unsurpassed since Emmanuel Levinas first described the qualities of “l’autre.” The cinematic tour de force in question is Beyond the Mountains and Hills. As for the auteur who wrested the ‘wisdom love’ from the love of wisdom, it is none other than Eran Kolirin, the director responsible for the highly acclaimed comedy, The Band’s Visit (2007). For both Kolirin and Levinas ‘the other’ is not knowable – he/she can’t be reduced into an object of study. Likewise, for both the philosopher as well as the filmmaker, the idea of ‘objectivity’ is not an end in and of itself but a means of discovering the truth. Truth is far more than objective fact, it evolves from responsibility: how much do we understand, what is our level of empathy into another’s plight, and what are we willing to do about it once we know.
In Kolirin’s universe, characters revolve around their own complexes and guilt while simultaneously rotating around the bigger issues engendered by their society. They are pulled and thrown by different forces and pass one another like remote planets caught within their own troubled orbits. At times, the sheer weight of their problems pulls another planet into their orbit; at other times they pass each other almost silently without so much as stirring an emotion. One such planet is David Greenbaum (Alon Pidut) who in his frustration – wrought by career and marital uncertainties – fires off a bullet into the empty hills one night in order to let off some steam. But the hills are not empty and his bullet has inadvertently hit a target whose butterfly effect will boomerang its way back into his own life. The fact is his bullet has struck an Arab student, the peaceful younger brother of a Palestinian on the cusp of militancy – one who will soon befriend David’s own daughter (Mili Eshet). As for David’s wife (Shiree Nadav-Naor), she is a schoolteacher who it has been discovered may have been seduced into an affair with one of her high school students, a classmate of her own son (Noam Imber).
Is David’s consuming guilt about his own crime the very ingredient capable of making him overlook his wife’s infidelity and making him identify with her sense of isolation? Is this as close as we get to getting a glimpse of his own sense of isolation? Is David’s ability to side with her genuine and morally justified or is it merely a means of forgiving himself by seeing her transgression in relative terms? Does David’s crime also make him responsible for anything that may now go wrong with his daughter as she befriends her dead friend’s militant relative? Is his first responsibility to respect the privacy of his daughter and not betray her relationship to the Israeli secret service which is monitoring her interactions with the Palestinian boy? Or, on the contrary, does his responsibility for his daughter’s well-being entail selling her out so that the secret service can keep her out of harm’s way? And, finally, is it David’s empathy and inaction that inadvertently creates a situation where David’s own son decides to silence gossip about his mother by seeking vengeance on another student whom he suspects has been spreading rumors?
David’s family are dark unfamiliar masses that act upon one another in the silence of deep space. They tug, repel, exert force upon another before silently whizzing off to continue their own orbits. Their trajectories are altered by their interaction but, often, not in the manner of either parties choosing. There is an odd sense of unity in the alienation felt by each member of the family. Their private little solar system exists precisely because of the many competing and hidden forces at work. The case could be made that it is this dualism – the dynamic tension between their desire to empathize with one another and their inability to truly understand one another – that has kept their microcosmic world alive. If not for the lack of true unity and the misunderstandings, they would have succumbed to entropy long ago. Likewise, if not for an undefined but present love, they would have fatally collided or drifted off into their own dark voids.
Kolirin’s masterful use of space is a choreography of alienation and loss. Likewise, when it comes to music, his approach has few antecedents since he neither uses music for enhancing a given mood nor does he use it to call attention to the dissonance between what we expect and what we are getting. Eschewing the stereotypical approach of ‘helping along’ a scene with a tear-jerking soundtrack, Kolirin refrains from emotionally underlining any event with superimposed emotional content. Nor does he use music as Kurt Weilian mechanism of alienation (i.e. purposefully distancing the audience from the event’s mood or calling attention to the oddity of the scene being witnessed).
Neither romantic nor trendily deconstructive, Kolirin music is a character in its own right rather than a background ingredient. It enters a scene and, often enough, even the characters can’t ignore its presence. Take for instance a moment where father and daughter have such stifled emotions that they rely on the very artificial means of playing a pop song on a car radio in order to communicate with one another. In what comes off as a peculiar ‘Karaoke for the soul,’ two very remote creatures – each inhabiting a mutually uncomfortable body – manage to speak to one another thanks to something that can pass for an arbitrary Israeli FM playlist classic.
In another scene, we have music leading up to a pivotal event while the actual crescendo is marked by utter silence and the sudden intrusion of the real world sounds. In a sense, music is exempt from the internal unrest of the characters who experience it. It is a friend in whose company an alienated character can make ‘public sense’ of his own voice. Working closely with the highly prolific and gifted composer Asher Goldschmidt – renowned from Cannes winner White God – this film shows us a family as though it were a silent isolated monolith hovering in deep space. The one remaining window that our monads have left is the turbulence that surrounds them and forces them to speak.
The question of identity, legitimacy and what it means to be a woman within the context of different societies are all central issues in Tova Ascher’s A.K.A Nadia, a fascinating drama whose genre runs the gamut between sociological/psychological study and nuanced thriller. Maya (played with brilliant subtlety by Netta Spiegelman) is a successful choreographer working on a new piece whose theme is devoted to the ongoing dialogue of Arab-Israeli tensions and hopes. One of those deciding over whether or not she receives funding turns out to be Nimer (Ali Suliman), her ex-lover who once knew her when she went under the name of Nadia and was a Palestinian activist. Having spent years living as a Jewish woman with her Jewish husband, Yoav (Oded Leopold) she must now confront her past – a past that included running to the UK, altering her identity and returning to the land of her birth in a different role. With all the delicious tension of Daniel Vigne’s classic the Return of Martin Guerre and all the sharp turns of Atom Egoyan’s Remember, Ascher’s A.K.A Nadia is a thoughtful and thought-provoking thriller that begs the question ‘when does our (and especially a woman’s) socially constructed identity become no more than excess baggage for the individual living somewhere beneath?’
Another film that takes up a similar theme about unearthing truths is Miya Hatav’s Between Worlds, a riveting story that takes place when a terror attack which leaves a young man badly injured in a hospital draws visits from close very orthodox relatives and an unknown Palestinian interest. Like Anthony Harvey’s Richard’s Things where a wife and a secret lover are drawn into an awkward but mutually necessary relationship with one another after seeing one another at the graveside of the man who had meant so much to both, Between Worlds does justice to its inherent human story. In addition, the film manages to open a Pandora’s box of concepts on what it means to be an Israeli and a Palestinian but more importantly, a woman and a mother.
If you can imagine an unlikely setting for a comedy, think of two Palestinians having a lovers spat at an Israeli checkpoint as Tarek (Dorald Liddawi) refuses to openly acknowledge Maysa (Maisa Abd Elhadi) as his girlfriend after seeing her for three months. Then imagine a mechanic (Amer Hlehel) being offered a role in an American film while his friends suspiciously grill him, wondering if he’ll be playing the Arab terrorist and in so doing abetting the Western stereotype of Palestinians. As for the elderly couple Nabeela and Saleh (Sanaa and Mahmoud Shawahdeh), they can barely stand each other in Nzareth but are planning a ‘romantic getaway’ to Sweden where their son lives. These vignettes make up the engrossing world of Maha Haj’s Personal Affairs. As a former set designer of Palestinian filmmaker Eliel Suleima, Haj’s debut feature shows a kind of comic vision that is not only easily translatable for an international audience, but one that is good enough to ensure we pay close attention to her evolution as a unique voice in cinema.
The biblical story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar is given new life in Ori Sivan’s touching film, Harmonia, where a Jewish couple – an infertile harpist, Sarah (Tali Sharon) and a conductor, Abraham (Alon Aboutboul) – are given a new lease in life by a young Muslim horn-player (Yana Yossef) from East Jerusalem whose love for the harpist is so great that she is willing to be impregnated by the conductor in order to give them a child. Though the horn-player quickly departs from the scene, it is an angst-ridden adolescent that incites a reunion twelve years later.
Winner of the Berlin Film Festival’s Panorama Audience Award for 2016, Udi Aloni‘s Junction 48 is an international coproduction that moves like an American bullet train telling the story of young Palestinians whose weapon of choice is hip-hop. With names like Oren Moverman (The Messenger, Love and Mercy) credited as co-writer and James Schamus (Brokeback Mountain, Indignation) as an associate producer, it’s little wonder that the film starring Palestinian rap sensation Tamer Nafar is getting a lot of attention. With great pacing, verve and all the visual and vocal hooks the genre allows for, Junction 48 is a poignant Hollywood updated rendering of Anat Halachmi’s brilliant documentary Channels of Rage (2003).
With the visual approach walks a thin line between Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, Philip Ridley’s Passion of Darkly Noon and Heartless, the story – detailing the mythological world of army brats – is all Lord of the Flies. From the cold blooded murder of animals to the calculated killing of two real deserters, the children who feed a hungry monster with ever newer victims are the real monsters in Yaniv Berman’s Land of Little People. Engrossing, chilling and politically insightful, Berman manages to get top notch performances from relative unknowns who even happen to be children. Of course, the level of menace these kids evoke not only make us forget their age but makes us worry for the “poor innocents” (unwary and otherwise cold soldiers) who fall into their path.
Elite Zexer’s Sand Storm takes us into the otherwise unknown world of Bedouin women – a world where a woman is forced into hosting the marriage of her husband to a much younger wife while her own daughter has broken from tradition entirely by having a secret love affair with a boy from her university. The changing role of women in this cloistered world is carefully scrutinized in this complex and extraordinarily well researched film.
Besides feature fiction films, the festival is also a venue for some really brilliant documentaries such as Nurit Jacobs Yinon’s Nazareth Cinema Lady, a struggle of an Arab woman who trieds to create Arab movie theater in Israel, Katharina Waisburd’s Holy Zoo – a biblical zoo in Jerusalem where Muslims and Jews set differences aside while tending to the animals. In addition, there is Eyal Halfon’s Mockumentary 90- Minute War where Israelis and Palestinians settle their differences once and for all in a winner-take-all soccer game, as well as Shay Capon’s brilliant The Writer TV series pilot where Kateb (Sayed Kashua), the hero of the hilarious TV series Arab Labor goes from being a celebrity ‘Model Arab Citizen of Israel’ into a man with a midlife crisis – one who is bored by being a prototype for successful integration.
The movies in this festival are, indeed, part of that Other Israel – the non-politicized Israel, the Israel of real people with real issues; this is a universal Israel – one that bypasses headlines, causes and agendas and allows us to see a remote world that is, paradoxically, very much like our own. If the Other Israel Film Festival is indicative of anything it is that the country has reached a point where films can do what they were always meant to do: communicate even the most idiosyncratic of emotions and concepts in a uniquely personal and cinematic way. No longer having to accommodate a position for or against the establishment, no longer having to come to grandiose conclusions about society, Israeli filmmakers have evolved to the point where they recognize – in the words of Moscow on the Hudson – “From this day on you are no longer a subject of a government but an integral part of the government, a free man.” In a sense, the Other Israeli Festival is a kind of Jerusalem on the Hudson – a multicultural world where directors are free to do and say what they please, and have no obligation to espouse any values beyond those demanded by the art form itself.