On screen: The special role of women
Women are so often the victims of violence, abuse and humiliations. On the other hand, women have incredible strength and determination.
A woman picks lemons from a tree (Lemon Tree) Photo: REUTERS
While attending DocAviv this past week in Tel Aviv, I saw films about women in
conflict situations – one about the Central African Republic and how rape was
used there as a tool in wartime; about women struggling to obtain an education
in Syria; and about Palestinian women desperately trying to earn a living. It’s
not exactly news, but it is certainly clear that women are so often the victims
of violence, abuse and humiliations perpetrated by men. On the other hand, women
have incredible strength and determination.
As a result, instead of
accepting abuse that is dished out, women can have a special role within
difficult situations – they have the ability to take risks on a human level;
they can reach out to each other, joining hands for common cause; and they can
encourage human understanding and reconciliation.
In analyzing Israeli
and Palestinian feature films of recent years, unique roles for women have often
In this article, I will analyze two films on a political
level and two on a human level in which women play strong central roles and
demonstrate their unique abilities.
In Eran Riklis’s The Lemon Tree
(2008), a Palestinian woman and a Jewish woman, who live on different sides of a
grove of lemon trees, try to communicate across the divide. The Palestinian
woman, Salma, is in a position of weakness politically and socially, but is
strong in her determination and her courage. The Jewish woman, Mira, on the
other hand, is in a position of strength politically, but she is weak in the
face of the platitudes that her husband spouts.
Although she does not
want to be a party to the uprooting of her neighbor’s lemon trees, she is unable
to stop it.
According to Riklis, Salma is an Erin Brockovich character,
going on a legal journey for what is right. She is also a woman linked to Mother
Earth, a fertile woman – as a mother and grandmother, and more symbolically, she
is tied to the fruit of the land, her lemon grove.
The two women look out
at each other’s homes, across the divide. They are both victims of the male
leadership of their societies that keep them apart, victims of the conflict, and
also victims of their roles within their own society.
In addition they
are silenced by issues of security which seem to trump all other human needs and
But they both undergo change as a result of their
Similarly, in Palestinian films, women have
been portrayed as having a unique role, one that enables them to break through
certain situations in ways that men could never do.
In Elia Suleiman’s
award-winning Divine Intervention (2002), for example, the main role is played
by a woman who offers determination and ultimately victory. In a striking scene,
she strides confidently through a checkpoint, making eye contact with the
soldiers. The soldiers are mesmerized by the welldressed and self-confident
woman, lowering their guns. This shakes the foundations of the checkpoint, which
slowly begins to fall over.
The filmmaker is showing that when women use
their wiles and strengths – exploiting their female potential, showing
determination, demonstrating selfconfidence – they can make a powerful impact,
more powerful perhaps than guns and checkpoints.
On a more human level,
and different from the critical and political nature of the previous films,
women are also capable of taking risks and making matters right when it comes to
issues dealing with those who are close to them.
Ayelet Menahemi’s Noodle
(2007) is a dramatic and sensitive story about an El Al flight attendant named
Miri, who tries to offer assistance to a foreign worker and her child. Miri’s
Chinese housekeeper is suddenly deported, leaving Miri with the woman’s
six-year-old boy. As a childless woman, Miri quickly becomes very attached to
the child, and, as a result, she becomes determined to take great risks to bring
him home to his mother.
Most of the time, we shirk our responsibilities
by denying the capacity of each and every one of us to do tikun olam, to heal
the world. Yet, here an amazing woman risks her career and her life to make the
world a better place through caring and compassionate action for the child of a
foreign worker. She is one woman who demonstrates clearly that women can make a
difference. According to Menahemi, taking a risk and reuniting the boy with his
mother was a redemptive act.
Eran Kolirin also makes a comment about the
role of women on a more human level in his acclaimed The Band’s Visit (2008).
Here a lonely woman is able to assist the members of the Egyptian police band
who mistakenly end up in her small town on the edge of nowhere. Although this is
not a situation of conflict per se, it is a metaphor for the greater
Through her humanity, kindness and sensitivity to
the needs of others, she is able to create a human encounter for people who pass
in the night, providing them with the unique opportunity to both give and
These are just a small sample of films about women in Israeli
society that have been made over the past decade.
More will continue to
be made since it is clear that women play unique roles – through their caring,
compassion and deep commitment – dealing with many social and political issues
that affect Israeli society.
Perhaps if we were to learn from the
determination, capacity for taking risks and making a difference, and the
success in human encounters – all made possible by women – we would be able to
bring about greater change in our part of the world.
The writer is the
author of two books on Israeli film and frequently lectures on the subject.