Cinefile: More personal than political

Israel's ninth annual Docaviv - one of the world's finest documentary festivals - kicks off on March 24.

hippie masala 88 (photo credit: )
hippie masala 88
(photo credit: )
As Hollywood has gone to impersonal formulaic big-budget blockbusters, gifted independent filmmakers have started working with documentaries. Increasingly, well-made, heartfelt films that can evoke emotions are documentaries and not features. That's why Israel's ninth annual Docaviv, the international documentary festival at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque (and several other venues around the city) that runs through March 24 is one of the most exciting in Israel, and is known as one of the world's finest documentary festivals. The festival features both an international and an Israeli competition, shorts, student films, special screenings and tributes to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and IDFA (Amsterdam) - the world's largest documentary film festival. IDFA's Ally Derks, who has run that festival since its inception, leads the distinguished list of documentary filmmakers, critics and archivists who are this year's guests. Interestingly, although this has been an especially turbulent year in many places, filmmakers here and abroad are moving away from politics toward social and personal issues. From this perspective, filmmakers are often able to make comments on politics in a way that's more effective than sloganeering. One example of this trend is Nima Sarvestani'sIranian Kidney Bargain Sale. If you've grown tired of seeing Iranian features about cute, spunky kids, then you'll be fascinated by the harrowing side of Iranian life shown here. Although it's not in any way an explicitly political movie, you might be interested to know that while the Iranian president is investing heavily in a nuclear program, Tehran's impoverished residents are often forced to sell their kidneys to make ends meet, in a flourishing trade that is not only legal but actually run by the state. The going rate for an Iranian kidney, according to this movie, is just $3,000, unless you have a rare blood type. A state agency that has the feel of a Kupat Holim clinic brokers agonizing deals between donors and recipients, and there are scenes of parties negotiating a price, the buyers knowing that if the deal falls through, they will likely die (and the sellers trying not to think of how the organ donation may compromise their own health). Many of the sellers are in debt to loan sharks. One divorced woman describes being sexually harassed when she tried to borrow from banks. As I watched the film, I was struck - as I often am in films set in Iran - by how much Tehran resembles Jerusalem. In one scene, as the sides bicker over a $500 difference in fees, a man comments: "This country's problems can never be solved." This is one of a number of movies that focuses on offbeat sides of Third World life. If you're worried that someone you love is planning to become a Goa raver, then you might want them to see Ulrich Grossenbacher and Damaris Luthi's Hippie Masala: Forever in India, a look at the few hippies who went to India in the Sixties and Seventies and stayed on. One Dutch painter married an Indian woman and is doing well, but some of the others live in glassy-eyed poverty, and their interest in the proper pronunciation of Sanskrit chants is as dull (or duller) than any aspect of Western life. Mark Verkerk's Buddha's Lost Children is a moving and gorgeously photographed account of a monk and former boxer who opened an informal and unconventional clinic for drug users and abused children in northern Thailand. A Chinese orphanage where children from a Muslim minority study the art of tightrope walking is the subject of Petr Lom's On a Tightrope. The Israeli movies are also an eclectic mixture of personal stories and headlines. Nurit Keidar's Wasted, like Joseph Cedar's new feature film, Beaufort, is based on Ron Leshem's novel about the last days of IDF presence in Southern Lebanon, but she has another take. She mixes dances by the Bat Sheva Company with testimony from soldiers of their battle memories in that region. Nitzan Gilady's Jerusalem is Proud to Present examines the controversy surrounding last summer's gay pride parade in Jerusalem. Other films look at daily life in new ways. If you ever dreaded going to school (or if your children sometimes do), you'll be fascinated by Duki Dror's Sidewalk, a look at Israeli children from different backgrounds and areas on their way to and from school. Roni Aboulafia's Perfect Family will resonate with anyone who has ever felt frustrated with just how difficult it can be to live an ordinary life in Israel. It follows three families who attempt to realize their dream of buying a house in a nice neighborhood. It goes without saying that this simple wish turns into an ordeal. I've often felt that every Israeli over 70 has an incredible story to tell, but Speaking of Love, Dan Wolman's touching film about his parents' 70-year romance, set against the turbulent history they lived through, is far more unusual and engrossing than most. His father, who grew up and received medical training in Mussolini's Italy, emigrated to Palestine, where he joined the British army and went to Ethiopia with a force led by Orde Wingate. Eventually, the elder Wolman became personal physician to Emperor Haile Selassie. The movie is a seamless blend of interviews, archival footage and home movies (his mother's family had a movie camera back in the Twenties), and allows the viewer to spend some quality time with a fascinating and charming couple. The festival includes a number of panels on subjects that include new media and documentary film editing, as well as master classes with Derks and director Jennifer Fox, creator of the six-episode series, Flying - Confessions of a Free Woman. For information, or to order tickets, go to the festival Web site at or call (03) 606-0817.