‘Down Under,’ down South

The Petah Tikva Museum of Art’s current exhibit uses documentary film to engage with the intimacy and verity of everyday life.

Israel Art Map 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel Art Map 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"I could put on an exhibition about flowers…” Drorit Gur Arie ventures doubtfully when I ask her about the challenges she faced in curating her current exhibition, Down Under, at the Petah Tikva Museum of Art. A cinematic exploration of the southern periphery of Israel, it isn’t exactly mainstream commercial fare, something she acknowledges.
Then she grins. “It is a choice. But I think that is something that really needs to be done.” Down Under: A Cinematic View of the South of Israel, is on exhibition until the end of October. It seeks to explore the multifaceted nature of life in the south of Israel, sidestepping the sound bites and generalizations that characterize the region and, rather, using documentary film as a tool to engage with the intimacy and verity of everyday life away from the gaze of journalists and other professional voyeurs locked into the unrelenting news cycle.
The exhibition is book-ended by two significant events in Israel’s recent geopolitical history – the start of the second intifada in 2000 and Operation Cast Lead in 2009 – and the films are linked by the common thread of “exploring the fragility of existence in the threatened region along the seam line between Gaza and Sderot.”
At the entrance to the exhibition a short film plays.
Actor Alon Abutbul reads from a poem, his words the sound track to some short, shaky, handheld camera imagery. The lens drifts in and out of focus as it lingers along tanks amassed on the fault line, preparing for the offensive into Gaza at the beginning of Operation Cast Lead.
Intones Abutbul, portentously: “Between Life and Death/ This is where we are permitted to be.”
To one side of the camera, an anonymous observer remarks, wryly, “They know that some of them will not come back.”
The short video – a trailer of sorts for the exhibition, fitting into a conscious effort to mimic the layout of a cinema foyer at the entrance to the museum – serves as a prelude to Matador of War, directed by Avner Faingulernt and Macabit Abramson and forming the centerpiece of the exhibition. Unscripted and unstaged, the installation has two distinct perspectives.
On the main screen, the filmmakers speak with outsiders and spectators drawn to the region by the conflict across the border. Middle-aged men and women gather on a hilltop, watching through binoculars and applauding when targets are struck by bombs; individuals speak in terms of unwavering certitude about the superiority of the Israeli forces.
This stands in marked contrast to six short films, unmediated statements by residents of the area, displayed on small television screens scattered about the main hall.
In contrast to the bombast on the main screen, these contributions are collectively defined by a sense of uncertainty, a reluctance to categorize the conflict in clearly defined tones of black and white, right and wrong.
The voices are not saying the same thing; there are varying degrees of support and dissent from the ongoing offensive.
An elderly farmer from Moshav Yachin says that anyone talking of peace must be dreaming; another, formerly of Gush Katif and now living in “refugee camp Nitzan,” talks about the “Americanization” of conflict, ineffective in the face of guerrilla action.
A peace activist from the Migvan urban kibbutz in Sderot muses on whether it is insanity to bring up children in Israel: “It’s crazy, your child is born and becomes the property of the state.”
BUT NONE of the talking heads – residents rather than visitors, on the fault line and not just passing through – pretend to have the definitive answer to the violence and tensions they have experienced. The underlying edge in the installation lies in the manner in which the filmmakers themselves avoid direct comment on the passions of the conflict.
It becomes easy for the viewer to be critical of some of the opinions expressed; but then, if one merely views without becoming engaged and committed oneself, one is as culpable as those whom one criticizes.
Down Under, while pointedly political, does not align itself with any specific ideology or point of view.
Rather, the common factor in the films is their human element, an active interest in the subjects of the films as individuals rather than as loosely aggregated representations of a particular worldview.
“Some of the films may not fit with my personal political worldview,” Gur Arie elaborates, “but it is impossible not to be affected, not to be moved by some of the stories that the films tell. My intention was to provoke a range of emotions; it’s like the situation (in the south), it’s all mixed together.”
Emotion plays a strong role in the films. Hadar Bashan’s 2007 film, In Freiman’s Kitchen, captures the anguish of the eponymous family on the eve of the withdrawal from the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip in 2005. Poignant and touching, it is impossible to remain unmoved by the authenticity of the pain felt by the film’s subjects. The pathos is complemented by Bashan’s tactful cinematography, candid without being intrusive.
In a different vein, Ruby Elmaliach’s Hula and Nathan portrays the pain and alienation of everyday life in a different context, an endearing, tragicomic portrait of two characters – in every sense of the word – who seemingly wish to withdraw from a world they feel alienated from, but cannot at the same time find the path that will allow them to sever the connection with dignity.
Humor is an often overlooked aspect of the documentary genre in Israel, where the emphasis is more often placed on gritty verity. This at times creates an artificial dichotomy at odds with the presumed intent of presenting the complicated reality of life without an overabundance of editorial mediation.
Ronen Amar’s Family Pizza, pleasingly, works against this trend in documenting the quixotic attempt of Maxim – the filmmaker’s older brother – to open a pizza parlor in Netivot.
Maxim sees his work as that of an artisan (“I am not supposed to strain my hands… they are delicate!”) and is apparently addicted to sleep; inexorably, his family are sucked into the venture. Maxim’s demands strain family ties (“Where are our men?” Maxim’s mother grumbles. “One makes movies, one lives in a movie and the third lives in a bubble”), but there is humor too, the film an affectionate portrait of family life.
Under Gur Arie’s stewardship, the Petah Tikva Museum has staged several exhibitions centering on the cinematic medium.
Gur Arie’s stated intent is to create a two-way dialogue by removing films from their traditional cinematic structure, whilst maintaining a connection to the fundamentals of narration and documentation. In this tradition, Gur Arie says that she wants Down Under to “bridge the gap between the cinematic medium and the museum space, generating a dynamic dialogue between space, medium and viewer.”
What does this mean in practical terms? “I want to hold a mirror up to the viewer,” Gur Arie replies. The goal is not prescriptive; “I want the viewer to deal with the reaction for themselves.”
With the exception of Tamir Zadok – whose subversive mock-documentary, Gaza Canal, in imagining a utopian separation of the Gaza territory from mainland Israel challenges the common distinctions between documentary, truth and fiction – all the filmmakers live and work in the south of the country.
The exhibition itself is a product of an ongoing collaboration between the Petah Tikva Museum and the Department of Cinema and TV Arts at Sapir College in Sderot. Students from the college also contribute to the exhibition, in the form of a collection of one-minute films produced in a master class led by photographer and director Nurit Aviv.
Gur Arie notes that this was particularly important.
“I wanted, above all, to capture everyday life, the everyday events that take place on the margin of newsworthy events,” she says.
As a whole, Gur Arie has no illusions about the capacity of the exhibition itself to effect change.
“I’m not stupid, I cannot change things in the government simply by putting on an exhibition.” But she thinks that it can play an important function nonetheless.
“We try to make people think about the subjects… people live in Sderot; it isn’t just a spot on a TV screen.
Life goes on after the conflict; I don’t want the viewer to forget this.”