The Cutoff Man
Hebrew title: Minatek Ha’mayim
Directed by Idan Hubel
With Moshe Ivgy, Tom Yefet, Na’ama Shapira
Running time: 76 minutes
In Hebrew. Check with theaters for subtitle information.
Idan Hubel’s The Water Cutoff Man is a relentless, detailed depiction of poverty in Israel. It is told through the story of one person, Gaby (Moshe Ivgy), an unemployed man in Nahariya who takes the unenviable job of disconnecting the water pipes of people who haven’t paid their bills – for the paltry sum of NIS 11 a disconnection. The filmmaker seems to have been influenced by the working-class sagas of the Dardenne brothers but, unlike the Belgian directing duo, Hubel is not able to infuse his story with the grace that would make it more than a lesson in how the humiliations of being poor lead to alienation.
The film opens as Gaby visits an unemployment office. There is little dialogue – and less affect – in the story of how Gaby takes the job disconnecting the water. There are many moments that show Gaby unscrewing the water meter and taking it away, as well as scenes of people pleading with him to turn the water back on or even threatening him as some gallant neighbors of one desperate single mother do.
As Gaby spends his days taking away one of the basic elements of human life, he spends his evenings eating silently with his family. At night, he lies awake, presumable wracked with guilt. The only time he seems happy is when he watches his son (Tom Yefet) at soccer.
The closest the film comes to developing a plot is when Gaby has to cut off the water at the house of a wealthy family that sponsors his son’s soccer team. This time, not only does Gaby feel pangs of conscience for what he has done, but he worries that it will affect his son’s future in sports. The malevolent father of this wealthy family doesn’t offer any explanation for why he hasn’t paid his bill, and it seems a bit bizarre. It isn’t clear how this family – who own a white horse that may be a symbol for something, although I wasn’t sure what – can manage for what seems like days or weeks without water.
There is very little dialogue, but the script is very specific when it comes to money matters, and those details speak volumes, especially the NIS 11 that Gaby receives each time he completes a disconnection. But when his son wants soccer gloves, Gaby shells out NIS 785, and it raises several questions, such as How can soccer gloves cost so much, and what do the shoes cost if the gloves are NIS 785? Is this meant to show that in Israel, people will do anything to keep up with the Joneses (or the Cohens) and that this is the cost of living in a globalized, materialistic, brand-conscious society? Or is it simply that Gaby feels he needs to buy his son’s love? The script does not offer any real clues.
The one joy that this film allows viewers is the chance to marvel at Moshe Ivgy’s presence and acting.
He is Israel’s busiest actor, but it’s been a few years since he’s given a performance this good. In the opening scene, his face and body language say as much as anything that follows. He could be a man sitting in an unemployment office anywhere in the world, and his look of despair and helplessness could be the emblem for this global economic downturn. The Israel that the director shows is block after block of anonymous apartment buildings. There is no beauty here, nor is there anything uniquely Israeli. Gaby is just a man trying to survive, and Ivgy conveys this well.
But other than Ivgy’s performance, this minimalist anthem to working-class despair has little to offer other than to confirm the fact that it is awful to be poor. As I was leaving the screening, I overheard a man saying, “I’m going to go home and pay the water bill now,” which is certainly the sanest response to this bleak film.