Mirror in the Face

28th Haifa International Film Festival, 29 September – 8 October 2012: Israeli Films Competition

  • Six Acts

    The matter of selecting the best actress in a leading role was quite intriguing in this year’s Israeli film competition. The choice was between the role of a young orthodox woman, an MP investigator, an anxious mother from Jerusalem and that of a girl with difficulties to say no. The award finally went to Sivan Levi in Shesh Pe’amim (Six Acts), a film which holds up a particularly unflattering mirror in the face of our young society here and now. The award for artistic achievement, granted by out FEDEORA jury, went to another wonderful actress, Asia Naifeld, for her role in Heder 514 (Room 514).

    As for the male role, then of course there is the eternal Moshe Ivgy, who remains peerless. He was given the award for best actor for his role in the lackluster and uninspiring Menateck Ha’maim (The Cutoff Man). The best film award went, as expected, to Lemale et Hachalal (Fill the Void) and also, rather surprisingly, to Alata (Out in the Dark), primarily for reasons of political righteousness. The award for best cinematography went quite justly to Assaf Soudry for Fill the Void. The sweetest film in the Festival, which tells a story of personal as well as national suffering, was the children’s film Igor Umasa Ha’agurim (Igor and the Cranes’ Journey).
    Heder 514
    The awards went to films which stood out most in this year’s competition, the second batch of films produced by the Israeli film industry. (The first being the one shown at the Jerusalem Film Festival.) This is actually nothing more than a matter of what was produced when… But in Haifa as in Haifa, the majority of the films, either intentionally or unintentionally, had a woman as their principal character. The program showed eight new features and five and a half female leading roles – with the exception of one children’s film in which the main characters were a mother and child. And last but not least is the fact that the festival is, as always, headed by Lady Cinema Pnina Blayer.

    The locations in which these films took place ranged from a big city like Moscow to cities like Jerusalem, Nahariya, Herzliya and Ramallah, from an Arab village in the Galilee to the orthodox section of Tel Aviv, from towns in the north to an MP interrogation room. Our Minister of Culture has been quite vocal about the need to have what we refer to as ‘the periphery’ represented more in Israeli cinema, but as always the industry is already way ahead of her.

    The films, first impressions:
    Fill the Void
    Fill the Void – Rama Burshtien’s film arrived at the competition in Haifa with seven Ophir awards (the Israely Film&Tv Academy) and a best actress award received at the prestigious Venice Film Festival to its credit, as well as a very effective campaign of public relations. No wonder that the theater was jam-packed more than usual.

    The film tells the story of an 18-year old Hassidic orthodox woman who is about to be married off to a young man her own age. When her beautiful older sister dies at childbirth, she is pressured by her family to stand in for her dead sister and marry her brother-in-law instead, so as to prevent him from marrying a Belgian orthodox woman and taking the baby with him.

    Burshtein’s point of view is from within the closed orthodox world whose rules are diametrically opposed to those of the secular society around it, and which blindly obeys each of the Rabbi’s rulings – from matters of marriage to the purchase of a kitchen stove. As a woman, the director naturally focusses on the women in the family who have to navigate in a male-dominated world — the girls’ dominant mother, a crippled aunt, an even older sister who cannot find a spouse. In its slow pace, impassioned silences, poignant frames which accentuate the light coming in from the outside and impressive performances by the entire cast, the film succeeds in justifying much of the superlatives that have been showered on it. Let’s hope that Rama Burshtein will fare better than other first-time feature directors who, like her, laid out their own world, the one they were familiar with, and then vanished in their second effort.
    Room 514
    Room 514 – the corrupting force of power and the excessive use thereof, as well as the capriciousness of fate, are the subjects which Sharon Bar-Ziv deals with in his debut movie. Reality toys with the fates of the protagonists, the visible and the invisible alike, in this morality tale which takes place in a single location, the interrogation room of the military police. Room 514 is ruled by Anna, the military police investigator, whose quest for the truth will cost everyone involved dearly.

    It starts with an excessive use of force on the part of an officer of an elite squad towards an old Arab at the entrance to the latter’s village, It then shifts to the force exercised by the sergeant investigator, first vis-à-vis a low rank soldier in the unit, and then his officer, in an attempt to find out what had happened. Then, following the tragic outcome, it is the general who uses excessive force towards the investigator. Each of these characters is clearly quite insignificant in the great scheme of things, finding themselves in a situation that is forced upon them, as it is upon us all.

    There is an underlying political statement here to the effect that this could not have happened in a different political, social and military reality. Such incidents are impossible to avoid, and the characters are faced with a situation where they have to choose between their duty and their world outlook, leaving them with the ability to use irresponsibly the power they had been given.

    This is a tight small-scale drama which presents us with a moral dilemma. It forces the spectators into a small room together with the characters whose presence is felt even when they are not in it. The film is shot in piercing close-ups, making it difficult for the actors to fake their reactions, as is demonstrated by Asia Naifeld’s wonderful performance.
    Six Times
    Six Times – this film is the surprise of the competition and possibly the most significant in its depiction of the reality we live in. Jonathan Gurfinkel paints a harsh but faithful picture of the grim conditions in which today’s youth live and function. European and American movies have already dealt with the subject, but the fact that we are witnessing it here makes the experience all the more upsetting.

    The film shows the narrow, abusive, heartless world of youngsters not yet 18 with no real set of values, in which no adult or authority play any part. This is a portrayal of a hedonistic world of pleasure-seekers that is shaped in clubs, pubs and public toilets, where casual, offensive and rough sex is practiced under the influence of light drugs. This is a world in which economic privileges allow for physical self-indulgence on the one hand and the crushing of the weaker on the other.

    The film follows a group of youngsters from both sides of the track in the town of Herzliya. There are the rich kids who have everything – a fancy house, dad’s posh car, unlimited means to have a good-time and the desire as well as the ability for instant and short-lived conquest of the other sex. And then there is the new girl on the block from the projects, who cannot or maybe is unable to stand up to the rich kids and their caprices but whose company she seeks and wants nothing more than to be like them.

    The film is composed of six chapters in each of which the girl takes part, either voluntarily or against her will, in a sexual encounter, just so as not to be excluded from the group which uses her quite cynically. Gurfinkel and his young screenwriter Rona Segal penetrate the world of these shallow youngsters with their unintelligible mumblings (the film will probably have Hebrew subtitles), and clueless and uninvolved parents, in which the existential threat is always present, being only slightly disguised by the leaders’ rhetoric.
    Igor and the Cranes Journey
    Igor and the Cranes’ Journey – in the framework of a children’s legend, Evgeny Ruman offers us a delightfully sweet story about an 11-year old boy who has to rebuild his life in a new country due to a family crisis. He uses a fable from the world of birds which describes the journey of a crane from the steppes of Russia to the north of Israel.

    Igor’s father, a doctor of ornithology who specializes in cranes, is separated from his wife and is joined by his son, once a year, on a research trip. On one such trip they come across a couple of cranes and their new-born. The son, lovable and smart for his age, proposes his father to open a web-site in which they will document the journey of the three cranes from icy Russia to warm Africa.

    In the meantime, Igor’s mother is offered a job and decides to immigrate to Israel, so the boy has to build himself a new life in a cruel and unforgiving society. Like the baby crane, whose parents perished on the way, the boy has to forge his own fate and does so in a unique way being an intelligent lovable boy in a well-written script…

    This heart-warming legend unfolds on the screen as such legends do, by bringing story-lines to their proper conclusion, by satisfying our sense of justice and by having us tear up from time to time.
    The Cutoff Man
    The Cutoff Man – world cinema, and European one in particular, has in recent years offered quite a few movies of this type, namely with no plot, slow paced and long-winded, that wish, however, to create credible moments that arouse both interest and feeling. This cinema hovers between the feature film and the documentary, touching here and there upon random moments in the lives of its protagonists.

    In his first feature, Idan Hubel, follows the same guidelines with one major difference. While the other movies rely mostly on the anonymity of their actors to enhance credibility and so as to fit into the grey area between the two genres, Hubel takes Moshe Ivgy, one of the best known and universally acclaimed Israeli actors for the lead, probably for artistic reasons but just as much for commercial ones.

    There is very little here besides Ivgy’s well-intentioned support for young cinema. We are asked to follow the leading character, whose job is to cut off water supply to customers for a firm that provides this service to municipalities, going from one water gauge to another and coming home with aching feet at the end of the day. He goes to the occasional soccer game in which his son plays, sits down listlessly and in silence to supper prepared by his wife and in the morning goes out again to do this thankless and tiresome work. That’s all there is.

    Long silences, woeful looks and no plot do not an artistic film make. What could have perhaps been a reasonable 15-minute long movie should not have been drawn out to a 76-long-minute long movie that generates jaw-breaking yawns.
    Inheritance – this could have been a little comedy about a family in a Galilee village whose members await the death of their rich father so as to resolve their financial problems. But in her heavy-handed and tendentious treatment, first-time director, actress Hisham Abbas, has turned it into a predictable social drama, offering neither interest nor suspense, whose moral implications are presented against the background of a distorted picture of reality with heavy nationalistic undertones.

    Abbas takes us to an arab village on the north of Israel near the Lebanese border during the latest war, when falling hundreds Hizballah rockets on the Israeli side disrupt everyday life. It was during this war that the Arabs of the Galilee felt rather confused as far as their national/ethnic allegiance was concerned, their moral compass shaken. They were victims of Hizaballah missiles just as much as their Jewish neighbors, so this could have been an extraordinary opportunity to touch upon the issue of their ties to the place, the state and their brethren on the other side of the border. Such a debate had in fact taken place and many Israeli Arabs felt torn and ambivalent, but Abbas opted for a superficial treatment of the issue to the point of enraging oversimplification – missiles are falling and the public keeps silent. The movie only hints at the identity of the element launching the missiles but provides no clear answer, only the Israeli air force planes keep roaring above.

    The beloved father of the family suffers from a heart attack and the eldest son who has a wife and two daughters, one on the eve of her wedding, is in deep financial problems and tries to put his hands on the money. Another son, a doctor, turns out to be infertile, and yet another is a lawyer who runs for the office of head of the village under the auspices of the corrupt and ugly Israelis. There also is a sister who devotes herself to taking care of the ailing father and a young sister, a student, who is in love with her art English teacher, thereby compromising the family honor. What emerges here is an inter-generational conflict between tradition and modernity which divides not only the family but the entire Arab village. Abbas fails to offer a single original moment in a film fraught with platitudes and stereotypes. The film’s redeeming quality is the credible acting of Makram Khoury, who is wonderful as always, of his daughter Clara, Ali Suleiman and Ghazi Al-Buliwi.
    Out in the Dark
    Out in the Dark – this is yet another film which touches deep into the roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but this time from the point of view of the individual. Michael Meir does not settle for this predicament so he adds another, having his two gay protagonists cope, together and individually, with this problem in the places each of them lives.

    For Roy, the young Israeli Jew, things are somewhat easier, even though his wealthy parents, his father is a lawyer and his mother the wife of a lawyer, are not too happy about his coming out of the closet, and when he invites Nimer, the Palestinian student, to dinner, the mother lashes out. For Nimer, on the other hand, this is a matter of life and death, as he must keep his sexual orientation a secret from his family in Ramallah, in particular from his angry mother and terrorist brother.

    Things get complicated when the Security Service gets involved and pressures Nimer into cooperating, asking him to give up names under the threat of revoking his residence permit and suspending his academic studies. The drama which begins as a light love story ends abruptly in mid sea drowning in shallow waters as so many other spy movies we’ve seen .

    Despite the complexity of the story and plot, the film falls into the familiar traps of the teary melodrama and lacks both authenticity and originality.
    Present Continuous
    Present Continuous – this film by Aner Preminger, which opened the competition of Israeli feature films in Haifa, is the most bewildering of them all. It attempts to show how an Israeli mother, or any mother for that matter, might act in an extreme existential predicament. During the second Intifada when bombs keep exploding daily in Jerusalem, Ruthy, the mother and the leading character, chooses to deal with the situation by locking the doors of her apartment and insulating the family from the outside world. However, both director and screenwriter have failed to render this surreal situation believable and to create credible and fully-developed characters, as a result of which it is but an amateurish and verbose work with no real feeling.

    Gidi Orsher, Israel
    (english translation: Judith Kidron)