ON A CHILLY WINTER evening during the Berlin Film Festival, not far from the red
carpet on Marlene-Dietrich- Platz where smiling actresses in haute couture
evening gowns posed for the paparazzi, the Palestinian protagonist of the
Israeli documentary “Susya” arrived at the premiere dressed in a different
fashion and with a more solemn expression on his face. Elderly Muhammad Nawajah,
supported by a cane and donning a keffiya and traditional Arab jalabiya robe,
walked onto the movie theater stage, accompanied by director Dani Rosenberg and
cameraman Yoav Gross, an activist with the B’Tselem human rights NGO.
“Susya,” Rosenberg shows Nawajah and his son visiting lands of disputed
ownership, south of Hebron, where Nawajah used to graze livestock during the
summer. Part of the area has been turned into an archaeological site. Rosenberg
and Gross suggest to Nawajah that he pay the 16 shekel ($4.50) admission fee and
go inside. The filmmakers follow him as he tours the site where an audio-visual
exhibit emphasizes the presence of a Jewish settlement during Roman times. A
group of young soldiers are surprised to see Palestinians present, and the
disquieting confrontation that ensues fills the rest of the film.
the question-and-answer session, when a member of the audience asked Nawajah to
comment on how the political developments in the Arab world were affecting the
Palestinians, he declined to reply. “I’m just a simple farmer interested in
peace and I’m not here to talk about politics,” he said in Arabic, with Gross
translating into English.
But it was politics – in heavy, contentious
doses – that seemed to preoccupy the Israeli filmmakers who were selected to
show their new films at the festival in February. With the exception of Guy
Nattiv, whose touching film “Mabul” deals with what happens to a family when an
autistic child returns home after the institution where he is cared for closes
down, the other Israeli filmmakers were intent on keeping the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the agenda.
In his feature film “Odem”
(Lipstick), Jonathan Sagall uses a sexual encounter between an Israeli soldier
and a Palestinian woman as the basis for an exploration of how events can be
remembered in different ways.
Michal Aviad weaves the Middle East
conflict, albeit clumsily, into “Lo Roim Alaich” (Invisible), a feature film
about two women confronting the trauma of rape. And if there wasn’t enough
political commentary in Tomer Heymann’s documentary “The Queen Has No Crown,” he
and his brother, the film’s producer Barak Heymann, made sure to insert their
own criticism about Israeli society in the comments they made at the post-screening press conference.
Which was a
pity. More often than not, the political discourse within the films interfered
with the storytelling, while the political drum-beating after the showings would
have been more relevant if directed at an Israeli audience.
THE UNBALANCED picture these filmmakers paint of Israeli society is
a showcase event as well-attended and prestigious as the Berlin Film
or Berlinale as it is commonly called. Initiated by the American
1951 to bring Western culture into sequestered Berlin during the Cold
Berlinale has evolved into one of the world’s largest film festivals.
more than 300,000 tickets were sold and a staggering 3,900
the press attended.
Filmmakers from around the world vie for a slot in
one of the festival sections, as they know that just being accepted by
Berlinale selection committee paves the way for international exposure.
those films that do win awards, or receive an honorable mention as “Lo
Alaich” did in the Panorama section for “art-house films telling a
story in a passionate way,” can be expected to be widely distributed
“Lo Roim Alaich,” written and directed by Aviad, is based on the
true story of a serial rapist who raped about 30 women in the Tel Aviv
1978. The rapist became known in the Israeli press as “the polite
because of the way he would force his victims to talk with him during
attacks, often getting the women to “gently stroke his back so that he
feel that they liked him,” as Nira, one of the characters in the film,
Twenty years after being raped, Nira (Evgenia Dodina), a TV
reporter, runs into Lily (Ronit Elkabetz), a political activist, at a
demonstration on the West Bank supporting Palestinian olive growers.
remembers that Lily was present at the same police lineup in which the
was identified when he was finally caught.
The encounter leads Nira to
search for all she can find out about the rapist and his victims.
shares the information she gathers from archives and conversations with
victims with Lily, who has repressed the trauma. A warm friendship
between the two who try to help each other get over the painful
experience that continues to haunt them.
documentary filmmaker, in her debut as a feature filmmaker, tells her
story in a
somewhat awkward way, using a pseudodocumentary shaking-camera style in
that often makes the film hard to watch.
However, both Evgenia Dodina and
Ronit Elkabetz turn in strong performances, as they bond together over
of vodka and confront their personal memories of the rape.
They are far
less convincing, perhaps because of the stereotyped scripting, in their
respective portrayals of a journalist and an activist.
One episode that
Aviad presents in an interesting and unconventional way is a sex scene
Lily meets a lover for a one-night stand in a hotel room. Aviad films
the scene in a way that keeps viewers from seeing Lily’s naked body,
camera lingers over Lily’s male lover in bed beside her in a shot that
exposes his sexual organs.
The protection of Lily’s body from the
audience’s gaze, the film seems to suggest, reflects the way that Lily,
several empowering meetings with Nira, is starting to get over the
the same time, the exposure of a nude male body is a subversive reversal
tendency to treat women’s bodies as sex objects. This subtle, visual
is especially poignant, coming as it does after Nira has recounted rape
complaints about the insensitive and indifferent way they were treated
officers and court officials.
One victim, Nira notes, was accused of
being “some kind of nymphomaniac.”
More than the imagery however, it is
the actual real-life facts of the story that speak the loudest. Nira and
become enraged when they find out that the rapist was released after
only ten years in jail.
“That’s just three months for every rape,” says
Nira who is unimpressed by the fact that the court took into
he was the father of three children and that his wife, a high school
vice-principal, indicated her support for him. They are especially
the judge who upheld the early release was Aharon Barak, whom Lily talks
wanting to “roast on a skewer” along with other men who oppressed or
to rape victims.
The script does not elaborate on who Judge Barak is – he
later became the president of the Supreme Court and a well-known
individual rights – but including him in the film’s list of villains
suggest just how pervasive the lack of justice and concern for rape
have been in Israeli society.
But what about today? Has Israeli society
changed in its treatment of rape victims during the last 30 years? Aviad
given a chance to comment on that topic when an Israeli journalist asked
her in the
press conference for her opinion about the conviction of the “impolite
former president Moshe Katsav.
Aviad, a diminutive woman with a serious
expression, dwarfed on the stage by her tallish actress stars standing
her, began her answer by referring to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict
saying that “as you can see in the film I am very critical of many
Israel. But when it came to his [Katsav’s] conviction, though it
it also made me feel very proud,” she said succinctly, passing up the
opportunity to emphasize that his conviction was recent, while the
described in her film took place about 30 years ago.
One questioner, a
Canadian journalist, asked Aviad why it was so hard for people to get
“Why do people who have been raped, and I include myself, not seem to
able to get over it, even after many years?” she asked. Aviad replied by
agreeing that it was not something that would ever go away and that it
something that one learned to live with. “I know this because I was one
victims [depicted in the film],” she added.
ANOTHER ISRAELI FILM
COMpeting in the Panorama section was “The Queen Has No Crown,” directed
Tomer Heymann. The documentary is based on footage Heymann has compiled
own family during the last ten years, with Heymann’s personal narration
connect his personal life with social and political issues.
As the main
characters in the film are Heymann, his friends, his parents, his four
and their families, the film is really just one big home movie – but a
entertaining and provocative one.
Heymann is uncompromising in showing
his family’s most vulnerable moments and highly skilled in the use of
technique, especially music, in order to illuminate topics close to his
One of those topics happens to be homosexuality.
before a Pesah Seder Heymann decides to come out of the closet and tell
family that he’s gay. His mother is accepting, his father is not. His
difference of opinion paves the way for their subsequent divorce.
does all of his own camera work, in a very vivid and loquacious way,
viewers to the Tel Aviv gay scene and to his boyfriends, vividly zooming
their bodies, in an uninhibited way that is as unconventional as the sex
in “Lo Roim Alaich.”
Turning his personal odyssey into an examination of
how different sectors of society relate to homosexuality, Heymann joins
Pride parades in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and later moves into an
apartment in an
Arab neighborhood in Jaffa. At the Tel Aviv event he and his fellow
are festively received, while at the Jerusalem parade he is castigated
ultra-Orthodox woman. “You ought to be sent to a concentration camp,”
screams at him.
In Jaffa, he spends time befriending the children in his
apartment building, but when word gets out that he is gay, he wakes up
his car windows smashed and tires slashed.
Heymann returns to the
family’s annual Seder, from one year to the next, to show the changes
at the family homestead at Kfar Yedidya, an agricultural settlement, in
center of the country, where his parents and German-born grandparents
farmed the land since the 1930s. As Heymann’s brothers begin to have
we observe how the clan at first grows in numbers but then begins to
from one year to the next for a reason that is the other core subject
in the film – the emigration of Israelis abroad.
Ironically, at one Pesah
Seder, after three of the brothers and their families have left for the
States and with Tomer’s parents now divorced, the only intact couple
Tomer and his boyfriend. Tomer’s mother is heartbroken by the distancing
Her tears and diehard Zionism contrast expressively with her
sons’ nonchalant insistence to go where they find better economic
It is a theme that many Israeli viewers will find familiar.
captures in a compelling way the transformation his niece undergoes over
years when her family moves to Portland, Oregon, where her father
academic position. Precocious and articulate, she morphs from a brash
Hebrew-speaking tot into a slangsavvy, English-speaking American
Heymann reinforces scenes dealing with the subject of the
family leaving Israel with a poignant version of the Hebrew song “Shuv
(Come Back Home) sung by Rona Kenan. Following the Berlinale screening
Queen Has No Crown,” Kenan appeared on stage and performed the song. The
melancholy music and Kenan’s nightingale voice seemed to touch the
largely-German audience deeply, leaving many with moist eyes, even if
didn’t understand the words.
But sentimentality was not what Heymann’s
brother, Barak, had in mind, as he spoke to the audience right
afterwards. Referring to the film’s opening scene that shows his
grandfather talking about fleeing Germany during the 1930s after a
swastikapainting incident, he tried to draw a comparison with the rise
in present-day Israeli society.
The preponderance of political
commentary, in and surrounding the Israeli films, didn’t surprise Renen
a member of the Berlinale’s international jury judging the films. Asked
explain the phenomenon, Schorr, who heads the Sam Spiegel School of Film
Television in Jerusalem, tells The Report that Israeli cinema, operating
government-funded and non-commercial framework, had evolved into “an
cinema that attracts filmmakers who have strong feelings and feel a need