(photo credit: BOAZ YEHONATAN YAAKOV)
Tsivia Barkai Yacov’s Red Cow (aka Para Aduma) is an award-winning film that opens throughout Israel on January 10 and is likely to stir controversy. It tells a powerful and unusual coming-of-age story about Benny, a young woman who lives with her father in an ultranationalist messianic Jewish community in the Silwan neighborhood of east Jerusalem, and who rebels when she falls passionately in love with a woman.
The movie, which won the Haggiag Award for Best Israeli Feature Film at the Jerusalem Film Festival this summer (a prize it shared with The Dive), as well as awards for Best Actress (Avigail Kovari) and Best First Feature, features very erotic scenes of its heroine Benny’s sexual awakening with her lover, Yael (Moran Rosenblatt), a young woman from a tough background who has come to study at the messianic enclave.
The simmering conflicts between the father (Gal Toren) and daughter reach a crisis when he learns of her romance, and he rededicates himself to caring for the calf that he believes is the mythical red heifer that heralds the coming of the Messiah.
Barkai Yacov doesn’t deny that many elements of the film are autobiographical, but insists that she made the film to tell a story and not to make a point – political, religious or otherwise.
“The film was made out of love and not out of something dogmatic,” she says.
Still, Barkai Yacov, who was raised in a nationalist Zionist family in Beit El, admits, “I grew up with a sadness in my heart, feeling that I had to suppress who I was.” She knew that telling her parents she was a lesbian would be difficult. “[This community] was too narrow for me; I didn’t find myself in this world of Jewish law.”
Eventually, she revealed her sexual identity to her family.
“I had a girlfriend for eight years. They accepted it but did not approve,” she says. But she is quick to point out that the intransigent father in the film, who is so obsessed with biblical prophecy that he neglects his only daughter’s emotional well-being, is not based on her own late father, but is an amalgam of different people she has known.
The complex relationship between Benny and her father is at the heart of the film.
“He is in despair because he is losing his daughter.... But because of his rigid beliefs, he gives up on Benny, the most important person in his life. He can’t relate to her except through his worldview, which says that what she is doing is wrong.”
Barkai Yacov decided to study film after doing National Service, as many religious girls do rather than join the army. First she took a film course at a seminary in the West Bank settlement of Ofra, then transferred to the Jerusalem Sam Spiegel Film School. At Sam Spiegel and later at the Jerusalem International Film Lab, run by the school, she began developing the story that became Red Cow.
While Red Cow may be seen by some as a critique of religion, Barkai Yacov’s own life is a testament to her flexibility. Although she had stopped being religiously observant, she was drawn to the cinematographer on Red Cow, Boaz Yehonatan Yacov, who, ironically, grew up secular and has become religious. The two married and have a baby. His own directorial debut, Redemption, features Kovari, the actress he discovered in Red Cow.
“We’re both between two worlds,” she says. “Everyone is in flux, everyone is dynamic.”
While she is currently developing other ideas, she and her husband are both focused on their new family.
Red Cow has played in festivals around the world, including the Berlin Film Festival, but this Israeli opening is especially meaningful for Barkai Yacov.
“I want people who grew up with me to see it,” she says. “I know some of them will have a hard time seeing it, but I think it’s a good way to start a dialogue.”
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