‘In Jerusalem, you go looking for a cook, and you find a woman from Egypt,” says Anat Zuria, the director of the new documentary, The Lesson, which will be shown at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on February 14 at 9 p.m. and February 20 at 6 p.m.
The film, which won the Best Documentary Award at the Haifa International Film Festival last fall, is also being broadcast throughout the month on the YES Docu Channel.
Zuria’s explanation of how she met Layla, the subject of The Lesson, may sound like a non-sequitur but it reflects the complexity of this surprising and moving film. It’s quite simple: Zuria wanted to learn to prepare healthier food for her family, asked around for someone who gave cooking lessons, and then met Layla, the intriguing woman at the center of The Lesson.
“The Lesson is about the fate of a city, reflected in the fate of this woman,” says Zuria. Layla is an Egyptian-born woman in her sixties who married as a young teenager, had six children, and moved to Israel with her husband, also an Egyptian, who decided to relocate to the Beit Jalla area.
Her husband, a violent and unpredictable man, threw her and her children out in a rage. She had to struggle to survive, and managed to make sure all her children got an education, sending them to the best schools she could find. Now, several of her children have married Jews and Christians. The film intersperses footage of Layla’s seemingly endless driving lessons with her efforts to reclaim the house her husband threw her out of, as well as the time she spends with her Hebrew-speaking daughter Hagar, who is about to marry a Jewish man.
“We filmed for two years,” says Zuria. “When we started, Layla had taken 200 driving lessons. By the time we finished, she had taken about 400. But she never passed the test. I wanted to take a local story of a woman learning to drive, and take something small – an activity that happens in every city every day – and to bring out this very specific drama.”
Layla’s driving instructor, Nimar, a Palestinian, draws her out during the course of their lessons and the story of her life unfolds gradually.
“The car becomes a kind of confessional as she takes her lessons. I wanted to make a film that was character-driven, a very dramatic story,” says the director, 51. A Jerusalemite for many years and the mother of five children, Zuria is known for her trilogy of films about women and Judaism: Purity (a look at the laws of family purity), Sentenced to Marriage (about the injustices women suffer in the rabbinical divorce courts), and Black Bus (the story of two observant women who oppose sex-segregation on buses).
While these were stories Zuria felt she had to tell, she found herself looking for a subject that was “more cinematic. The Lesson is influenced by Asian cinema, and by the films of [Iranian director Abbas] Kiarostami.”
Kiarostami’s film, Ten, which particularly influenced Zuria, features a woman driving different people around Teheran and speaking to them as she drives.
Although Zuria thought of having several women taking driving lessons in her film, soon she was so captivated by Layla, she knew “Layla had to be the center of the film.... She’s a super-intelligent woman, she’s suffered a series of blows like the 10 plagues. If a screenwriter wrote the story of her life, you wouldn’t believe it. She completely sacrificed herself for her children. Everything fell on her shoulders. But the film is about how she reinvents herself and tries to reclaim her life. She’s not the traditional victim. She suffers from loneliness and she has lost a great deal but she continues to struggle.
She doesn’t give up.”
Her struggle to master driving is a metaphor for her other challenges. In fact, she needs to learn this skill because of a new political reality. The house she has been forced out of and that she tries to maintain is in between the Gilo neighborhood and Beit Jalla.
While once she could walk there, now it is on the other side of the security fence, and getting to it requires that she drive.
And, while she wants her children to be happy, Layla, a Muslim who prays every day, cannot conceal her despair that her daughter is marrying a man outside her faith.
“She did everything for her children, and the price she pays for that is that her grandchildren will be strangers,” says Zuria. But there are no easy answers and Zuria is sympathetic to Hagar as well.
“Hagar represents many young people who are open to the world, who don’t want to be held back by old conflicts.”
Zuria, who started out as a painter, is now contemplating making her first feature film. Passionate and energetic, she is pleased to report that it is no longer such a challenge for her to find financing for her films.
“When I started out, it was hard to make films about women in Israel. You could only make documentaries about three subjects – war, the Holocaust and the Palestinians. But my films broke new ground and now it’s easier.”