San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, 2010 Film Diary

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August 9, 2010

I must admit that whenever I receive a word of an approaching film festival, I brace myself for evenings of frustration and boredom, redeemed only by the all-too rare film that will make the whole experience worthwhile. That being said, the curators of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival rank high in my books for doing a better job than many others in separating the wheat from the chaff of the annual crop of Jewish films.

In particular, for years the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival has been one of the main platforms (alongside the LA Israeli film festival) for new Israeli films that otherwise get little exposure in the United States. The growing critical and commercial success of Israeli films, while a reason for celebration, is thus also a source of difficulty—for the San Francisco Festival as well as for other festivals around the country. Now that Israeli films are warmly welcomed at major general film festivals (Tribeca, Sundance, Toronto, and more) and even purchased for commercial distribution, Jewish film festivals are left with fewer choices from which to make a selction. Sometimes, it is true, one find gems at Jewish film festivals that had less appeal for the bigger, general-audience festivals. However, this year, that is not the case. Against the background of the decisive cinematic achievements of Ajami and Lebanon the two most successful Israeli films this year, the four Israeli feature films that appeared at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival this year were particularly weak. Yet, even in this collection, two Israeli dramatic shorts, one truly magnificent, washed my disappointment away and made me ready for the next batch of films.

The full length features first. Niv Kleiner’s Bena tells the story of Amos Shmuel Vilozni, whose business it is to track down mentally ill people and commit them to the nearest psychiatric hospital. At home, Amos conceals from the welfare authorities his own son, Yorik (played by the rising star of the Israeli screen Michael Moshonov) who suffers from a mental disturbance—the exact nature of which is hard to determine—that manifests itself also in violent outbursts. In the home of an affluent man he is assigned to institutionalize, Amos discovers Bena (Rachel Santillan), a pretty foreign worker who is the man’s caretaker. With no place to go and in fear of the immigration police, Bena accepts Amos’s offers to find “asylum” in his apartment. Yet her arrival disturbs the delicate relationship between Amos and Yorik: both fall for her and move to pursue her, each in his own way, with tragic results.

Kleiner’s intention, so it seems, was to stage a nuanced chamber drama about mental illness and the way it troubles the relationship between father and son, as well as to offer an allegory about the fate of foreign workers in Israel. Notwithstanding Vilozni’s and Moshonov’s decent performances, however, the film as a whole remains mystifying. On the one hand, it fails to explore truly the relationship between father and son; indeed, the characterization of the two never moves beyond psychological platitudes. On the other hand, the allegorical story fails to convince in its sincerity. Given the number of twists and complications, Bena’s travails seem forced and even spurious; more damning, however, is that Bena’s behavior throughout the film seems improbable, undermining the credibility of her character. What remains in the end is an age-old Orientalist story in its current Israeli version, of Israelis’ attraction to their beautiful—physically and spiritually—foreign workers. This attraction both blinds Israelis to the physical and emotional suffering of these workers and, even worse, releases in Israelis violence that is directed, first and foremost, against these workers. What disturbs is that the film seems to share the Orientalist attraction of its male characters to Bena rather than explore and challenge it.

Surrogate, Tali Shalom Ezer’s “provocative” film, likewise falls into the pitfalls of psychological platitudes. I put “provocative” in quotation marks because of the film’s manifest theme, surrogate sex therapy. Eli (Amir Wolf), a young man incapable of physical intimacy, is referred by his therapist to Hagar (Lana Etinger), a surrogate. The film oscillates between the impersonal apartment where Hagar endeavors to teach Eli how to touch and be touched, physically and emotionally, and Eli’s family residence, where he interacts with his mother, sister, and beloved nephew. The more the treatment progresses, the more Eli opens up to Hagar, the more he becomes attached to her and the more he is finally able to acknowledge to her as well as to his mother that he was sexually abused as a child.

Shalom Ezer does not shy away from showing much of the intimate physical interaction between Eli and Hagar, including the full frontal nudity of both, as befitting her subject matter. Through such graphic images, she endeavors to illuminate how such a treatment interweaves the sexual and the psychological. Indeed, her film is most successful in tying sexuality to psychology, as well as imparting a sense of the violence latent in the treatment, violence waiting to erupt. The impact of the treatment scenes, however, is marred by the lack of charisma of Wolf in the role of Eli. Eli’s scenes with his mother and sister suffer even more by Wolf’s anemic presence, and his initial aloofness as well subsequent reconciliation with his mother lack emotional depth. Yet what hurts the film most is its banality. Notwithstanding its “provocative” content, Surrogate offers little that is not already available in other mainstream films that deal with sexual abuse and psychological/psychoanalytical treatment (such as Martin Ritt’s Nuts). When all is said and done, the film simply rearticulates rather straightforwardly the well familiar story of abuse, of romance between therapist and patient, and of delivery provided by modern psychology.

The failures of Jorge Gurvich’s Mrs. Moscowitz and the Cats are somewhat different. A declared adaptation of Yehoshua Kenaz’s novel The Way to the Cats, the film focuses on Yolanda Moscowitz (played by the wonderful Rita Zohar), a retired French teacher who spends her lonely evenings in front of the television, watching French quiz shows. When she slips one night down the stairs of her apartment building and breaks her hip, she is consigned to a geriatric rehabilitation ward. Distressed by the radical change in her circumstances, she has to come to terms with her new predicament: once solitary, she now finds herself surrounded by people at all times of the day and the night; once independent, she now is completely dependent on others, even for very mundane tasks. Yet, as Yolanda slowly makes her way towards recovery, she also finds new life: she makes new friends and, when she encounters Shaul (played by Moni Moshonov), a former soccer player, a romance buds.

Gurvich’s film raises the question of its relation to its putative literary source. Kenaz’s book is a grotesque account of the ravages of old age; its portrayal of the betrayal of the aged body and the bitterness and anxiety in the face of the physical decay are heart wrenching. What is more, Kenaz offers his characters no refuge from the terrors of their predicament. Mrs. Moscowitz and the Cats, by contradistinction, is a film about regained hope, dignity and self-worth. This in itself would not necessarily fail a film, for films can betray their literary source completely and still succeed as films. Sadly, that is not the case here. For even as Gurvich has changed the tenor of the story, he has maintained many of the incidents and characterizations of decrepitude and despair so central to the original text; these, however, make little sense in the new context of the director’s (mis-) rendition of the novel. How can one believe Rita Zohar as Yolanda when she protests that the head nurse is a witch who joys in the sight of her suffering aged patients, when Zohar is never once allowed to look truly neglected and ravished by the combination of her age and injury? How are we to relate to Yolanda’s anguish (or to that of the other patients) when the film in fact belittles that anguish to turn attention to her romance and emotional and physical recovery? As the film moves between a general sense of self-assertion and inexplicable moments of bitterness, we, the viewers are left baffled.

Keren Yedaya’s Jaffa is the most interesting of the four Israeli full-length features, though like the other three it is not quite successful. In part, the disappointment this film induces is predetermined by the great artistic and ideological success of the director’s previous film, Or (My Tresor)). As a study of prostitution in the big city, the latter derived much of its strength from its modernist aesthetics, an aesthetics that resisted big melodramatic gestures. In Jaffa, by contradistinction, Yedaya moulds the fraught relationship between Jews and Palestinians in Israel into a melodramatic form; as her source of influence she notes Egyptian and Turkish melodramas, a popular television item in Israel among certain sectors, from the 1970s through the 1990s. At the same time, she does not give up on the modernist aesthetics that had served her so well in the earlier film, aesthetics that bear the marks of European masters like Antonioni and Godard. Jaffa fails to convincingly weld the two approaches together into a coherent whole.

The film takes place in the mixed Jewish-Arab town of Jaffa, where Reuven (Moni Moshonov) owns a family-run car repair workshop: his daughter Mali (Dana Ivgy) administrates, while his son Me’ir (Ro’i Assaf) acts as a foreman. Me’ir, however, resents the workshop and, in particular the two Palestinian workers, Toufik (the newcomer Mahmud Shalaby) and his father Hassan (Hussein Yassin Mahajne), who do most of the work at the workshop. Tension thus mounts not only between Meir and the two Palestinians, but also between him and his parents. There is particular tension between Me’ir and his self-centered mother Ossi (played by the veteran Ronit Elkabetz), who is exasperated by his refusal the become a responsible adult. All the while, Mali makes secret preparations to travel to Cyprus with Toufik—with whom she has been having an illicit affair—so they can get married. As expected of a melodrama, emotions explode and the delicate balance between the characters breaks down.

The melodramatic form allows Yedaya to remove the story from the realm of ethno-politics and class to the realm of desire and anxiety. Consequently she is fruitfully able to avoid the banalities that haunt so many films that have sought to address the Israeli Palestinian strife. Yet it seems that the director did not feel completely at ease with this move, as the uneven treatment of her characters evinces. Dana Ivgy, one of the best Israeli actresses to be working at the present, delivers a nuanced and muted performance that befits Yedaya’s modernist aesthetic sentiments. Ronit Elkabetz’s performance, on the other hand, is so extreme that it moves beyond the melodramatic and turns into an annoying caricature of itself. The three male characters all pale by comparison. That’s unfortunate, as the director loads on them much of the ideological weight of the movie, as they are to point at the “bigger picture,” i.e. the political and social framework at the background of the story. Yet, their one-dimensionality undermines their ability to do so, and, thus, undercuts the critical edge of the movie as a whole. Ultimately, the imbalance between the characters reinforces the tension between Yedaya’s aesthetics and genre of choice, and renders the movie as a whole unsatisfying.

Two Israeli shorts stand in stark contradistinction to these four features: Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnun’s Lost Paradise and, in particular, Benjamin Freidenberg’s Guided Tour. Lost Paradise is a modern rendition of the biblical expulsion from the Garden of Eden. A naked couple is making love, but their moment of grace ends when they get dressed. The film presents a simple and delicate allegory about human relationship, faith and politics with very few words. Guided Tour has won the prize for Best Short at the 2009 Jerusalem International Film Festival, and deserves every compliment. Indeed, it is one of the best Israeli shorts that I have ever seen. Its opening seems anything but promising: against shots of the holy sites in Jerusalem, a voiceover rearticulates familiar stock phrases commonly uttered by tourist guides. Freidenberg, however, uses these banalities to initiate a different, emotional tour of the city, of loneliness and alienation, following his anti-hero protagonist Eytan, a young man whose job it is to paint dividing lines on Jerusalem’s streets. His only true interaction with other humans seems to come through the conduit of chat-lines. The film wanders between such phone conversations and Eytan’s internal monologues, between reality and illusions (or is it delusions?).

The power of Guided Tour, however, lies not in its thin storyline but, rather, in the cinematic language that the director has developed. The film is mostly made of very clean and simple shots, where movement is not of the filmed object, whether animate or inanimate, but of the zooming or panning camera. Freidenberg thus creates a static city, were movement is in the eye of the beholder, that is, in the eye of the camera, and not the result of live action. In such a world, the chasms between humans can perhaps be glimpsed by the camera, but the camera movement only puts into relief the failure of humans to bridge these chasms. Of all the Israeli features, this is the one you must see.

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