The Israeli film industry has achieved so many “firsts” in recent years: seven Oscar nominations in five years, first Israeli film to win the top prize at Venice, and so many others. Here’s another first: the first Israeli movie about a pole dancer – Pole, Dancer and a Movie – a documentary by Isri Halpern.
The film, which took the top prize at the highly competitive DocAviv International Documentary Festival’s Israeli program earlier this spring, is being shown throughout the month at the Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv cinematheques.
Pole, Dancer and a Movie is a portrait of Neta Lee Levy, the founder of Israel’s first pole dancing studio, as she goes about her daily routine in preparation to take part in the European Pole Dance Championship.
Levy, a feisty, independent woman from a Moroccan background, defies the stereotype of a pole dancer as a sex object and victim, “and that’s why I chose her to be the focus of the film,” says Halpern. “She’s a perfectionist and a control freak. At first she liked seeing herself in the film, then she hated it, now she loves it.”
Halpern became aware of the art of pole dancing when he started dating a woman who teaches pole dancing at Levy’s studio. Pole dancing, it turns out, is far more athletic and demanding than people whose only awareness of it comes from seeing snippets on TV shows like The Sopranos realize.
This is just one of many facts you will learn about pole dancing, which started “when strippers started wearing really high heels in the 1980s and had to have something to grab onto,” explains Halpern.
He is proud of the DocAviv honor, especially since the film “is very different from most Israeli documentaries. It’s not about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he says.
He’s gotten very positive responses from audiences.
“Women are intrigued with the whole idea of pole dancing and who the dancers are, while men come to see the pole dancers and then get some feminism from the movie.”
Pole, Dancer and a Movie is one of a number of Israeli documentaries showing at the cinematheques throughout the month, all of which represent the richness and variety of Israeli documentary filmmaking. Other documentaries being shown this month include Super Women , directed by Yael Kipper and Ronen Zaretzky, about five cashiers in a supermarket who try to change their working conditions and their lives; Shkhuna , directed by Ilan Yagoda, about four elderly women who watch the changes in their neighborhood; Dana Idisis’s Turning Thirteen , about her autistic brother’s preparations for his bar mitzva; Before the Revolution by Dan Shadur, a look at the Jewish community in Iran before 1979; and Yehonatan Indursky’s Ponevezh Time , about the elite ultra- Orthodox yeshiva.
Halpern, formerly a newspaper photographer who studied filmmaking in New York at City College, has made a number of acclaimed documentaries on a wide variety of subjects. They include Psychedelic Zion , about the rave scene in Israel; Boys Do Cry , a very personal film about how he was a rape victim as a child and how, as an adult, he confronted the rapist; The Last Leopard of Judea , about a search for that elusive creature; and Father’s Rights , a movie about divorced fathers who fight for equal rights for their children, a film that generated a great deal of controversy.
Halpern is currently at work on his next movie, in which he looks at the trauma and destruction that southern Israel has suffered due to the barrages of Kassam rockets from the Gaza Strip, but in an unusual way.
“I’m following the inspectors from Mas Rehush [the property tax authority] who go to inspect the damage after a Kassam hits and decide on the compensation,” he says. “It’s a good angle to look at the emotions that are stirred by these attacks.”
Still, even as he shoots the film, he is not sure what tone the finished product will have.
“Every documentary is a journey,” he says. “You know where you start, but you never know where you will end up.”