Movie Review: 'Self Made'

A loose screw leads to absurdity in ‘Self Made .’

April 28, 2015 17:13
3 minute read.
‘Self Made’ film

‘Self Made’ film. (photo credit: PR)


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Hebrew title:
Written and directed by Shira Geffen
With Sarah Adler, Samira Saraya
Running time: 89 minutes
In Hebrew and Arabic.
Check with theaters for subtitle information.

Shira Geffen’s film Self Made is a surreal look at the often surreal experience of life in Israel. It’s a black comedy/drama about an Israeli and a Palestinian woman who switch identities, played for its emotional rather than literal reality.

Geffen previously co-directed the film Jellyfish, which won the Camera d’Or Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. Here, she refines and develops the style she first exhibited there.

The first half of Self Made sets up the two heroines. Like Jellyfish, it stars Sarah Adler, an Israeli actress who has worked with Jean-Luc Godard, as Michal, a conceptual artist who lives in Jerusalem. It draws us in early on with one of the most universally frustrating experiences of modern life: Michal is trying to assemble a bed from Etaca (an obvious stand-in for IKEA) and finds that she is missing a screw she needs to finish it. In the opening scene, her old bed falls apart with a bang. She gets a bump on the head that gives her a kind of amnesia, and the broken bed clearly represents aspects of her life and her marriage that are broken. The Hebrew title of the film is Boreg, which means “screw.” When she calls customer service to say she is missing a screw, it has the same connotation as the English, “I’ve got a screw loose.” This phone call is the equivalent of Alice falling down the rabbit hole.

A German film crew shows up to interview Michal, quoting extreme, shallow and attention-getting slogans she has uttered, that now bewilder her. It turns out that Michal is an internationally renowned conceptual artist who has taken a vow to remain childless and even promised to have her uterus removed and made into a purse to exhibit at the Venice Biennale. Her husband is off on a business trip, but a laptop reveals evidence of his porn habit, and soon a huge shipment of “refund gift” furniture arrives from the company, complete with the missing screw, packaged like an engagement ring. And then Michal starts the wandering that leads her to an army checkpoint.

There is a parallel consequence of Michal’s phone call: Nadine (Samira Saraya), a Palestinian woman whose job it is to count screws and put them in packages, is fired. Nadine, who listens to rock ‘n’ roll with an mp3 player concealed in her hijab, also has a screw loose in the eyes of the society in which she lives. She is spacy and single, uninterested in marrying the man in Kuwait her family is trying to set her up with. After she is fired, her life takes some strange new turns.

The centerpiece of the film is the sequences at a checkpoint, where Michal and Nadine sit next to each other and where their identities are mistaken. These scenes bring to mind Elia Sulieman’s Divine Intervention and Talya Lavie’s Zero Motivation. Part of them are choreographed like a waltz, but at other times they are chaotic; and much of this chaos stems from a Barbie-doll like blonde soldier whose mind is on celebrating a birthday with her boyfriend. As the plot races towards its conclusion, it becomes increasingly symbolic.

At the core of the film are the two women, and one resonates much more strongly: Michal. Geffen knows Michal inside and out, and the character is more vivid and her sequences funnier and more on target. While I imagine Geffen did research into the kind of Palestinian women who might work in a furniture factory, Nadine does not feel as authentic as Michal. There may be women just like her, but her character doesn’t come to life as Michal does.

Another issue that shifts the balance to Michal is that I sense Geffen is utterly comfortable making fun of Michal as a ridiculous, self-centered, alienated artist but does not feel at ease poking fun at Nadine in the same way. For the film to work as intended, there has to be a symmetry between the two; but the way it plays out, there isn’t.

Still, the film is darkly funny, and Geffen takes a hard look at the absurdities of Israeli life that most of us have trained ourselves to ignore.

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