strength to strength.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
While many Israeli filmmakers have examined recent history in their films,
director Dan Wolman looks back to a much earlier time in Gei Oni (Valley of
Strength), his latest film.
Based on a novel by Shulamit Lapid, the film
looks at a young woman who comes to Palestine from Russia during the First
Aliya. But while the period may not be contemporary, the story certainly
is, as Wolman makes what could have been a typical story of a plucky new
immigrant overcoming obstacles into a psychological drama about how a woman
learns to overcome trauma and a stigma to build a new life for
“She marries, but she can’t touch or be touched,” says Wolman
over coffee at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, one of several theaters and
cinematheques throughout Israel where Gei Oni
is showing. “She starts out
crippled because of her trauma, she feels foreign. But then she learns
how to feel at home with her body and at home in her new
Wolman, 69, is one of Israel’s veteran directors. But while he
made a name for himself in the 1970s, unlike many Israeli filmmakers of that
period, he continued to develop as a filmmaker and has done some of his best
work in the past decade. His movies show an unusual variety in style and subject
matter. When he was a young man, he burst onto the Israeli cinema scene in 1970
with The Dreamer
, a story about a young man who works in an old people’s home
and is torn between his work there and a young woman he meets. In recent years,
Wolman has made films that examine the lives of foreign workers in Israel and
their Israeli employers in Foreign Sister
(2000), and AIDS sufferers and their
families in Tied Hands
focuses on Fania, a young mother
who arrives in Jaffa after surviving pogroms in Russia. This shy 17-year-old
finds herself responsible for the remnants of her family who accompany her: her
baby, her frail uncle and her mentally challenged brother. She meets a
man from Gei Oni, the settlement that eventually became Rosh Pina, and agrees to
marry him after knowing each other for only three days. She has little choice –
she has no money and can’t find work. But the film shows how she finds herself
by coming to terms with a secret that holds her back and by learning to love the
land where she lives and her new husband.
Wolman is mindful of the fact
that the film may strike some as a patriotic love poem to Israel, and that
doesn’t bother him.
“The love of Israel is not Right or Left,” he says.
“I am connected to this place. The fact that I made a movie about the suffering
of a Jewish woman from the First Aliya doesn’t mean I don’t care about the
suffering of Palestinian women and children today.”
He sees his movie as
documenting a specific moment in the history of that period, when there was a
shift among the early immigrants: “The film documents the conflict between those
who wanted to make their own living by farming and those who were comfortable
living on charity from abroad.”
At an emotional screening, he showed the
film to residents of modern-day Rosh Pina.
“People cried and clapped.
There were a lot of questions. They asked. ‘How did you make a movie so original
about that period?’” he recalls.
One element that gives the film its
contemporary feel are the actors, particularly the two leads. Tamar Alkan as
Fania is a revelation. Appearing in nearly every scene, she manages to
convey strength and vulnerability in equal measures, a challenge for any
But finding this newcomer wasn’t easy.
“At first I was looking for a
nursing mother who spoke Russian and played piano,” says Wolman, only half
joking . But after seeing 200 actresses, he heard about Alkan from her acting
teacher and met her in a café, where she read him a key scene. “I was in tears,”
Zion Ashkenazi, another young actor, plays the role of her
husband, and they are supported by the more established actors Levana
Finkelstein, Ya’acov Bodo and Ezra Dagan.
In addition to its Israeli
release, the film has been traveling the world. It has been shown in America, of
course, at such places at the American Film Institute, the Washington Jewish
Film Festival and the Palm Beach Film Festival. But Wolman has also chosen to
bring the movie to audiences in Asia, including festivals in Cambodia (Phnom
Penh), India (Goa) and China (Chengdu).
“I want people to see it all over
the world,” says Wolman. “It’s a movie that can touch audiences, whether they
are in Israel or Cambodia.”