Africa, Oren Gerner’s graceful film about an older man coming to terms with inevitable changes in his life, is a feature film but it has a quasi-documentary feeling. That is because the director’s father, Meir Gerner, plays a character named Meir Gerner and the entire cast consists of nonprofessionals playing themselves. That makes this simple story about the sadness of aging feel very real, but it also gives it the authentic slow pace of real life, which may not be lively enough to keep some viewers entertained.
Oren Gerner used himself and his parents in a short film, Greenland, in which he played a young man packing up the things he keeps at his parents’ place so he can move in with his girlfriend. Here, although he makes an appearance, the movie concentrates on Meir, who gives a compelling performance in which he shows his frustration at having to take a step back from some important aspects of his life as he grows older. Although many films use nonprofessional child actors to play themselves, it’s rare that an adult actor can carry an entire movie like this. Gray-haired and gray-bearded, slightly heavy around the middle, Meir looks like someone who could almost be cast as a biblical patriarch. You can see how he would have been a formidable father and he makes for a great grandfather, pretending to hunt blue lions with his grandsons in the backyard of his modest house in a small Israeli village. Maya, his wife, also played by the director’s mother, is a psychotherapist who practices out of their house. She manages to stay a bit more engaged in the world than Meir, as women often seem to be able to do. Meir is retired and still has a carpentry workshop, but people don’t turn to him the way they used to, now that he is in his late 60s. He is not a contemplative or intellectual man and if he is not busy, he is nothing. Africa is the story of him not wanting to become nothing.
Africa, which won Best Movie in the Israeli Competition at the Haifa International Film Festival in 2019, as well as Best Debut Film – this is Gerner’s feature-film directorial debut – and Best Actor for Meir Gerner, weaves in some video clips of Maya and Meir’s trip to Africa, which was especially exciting for both of them. Meir still listens to a CD of the African music they bought there in his car.
That trip, it seems, represented a kind of last hurrah for him in terms of having an adventure. After a clip of the two glimpsing an elephant on their African jaunt, the film opens as Meir learns that he will not be involved in doing the carpentry and other aspects of preparation for their village’s anniversary celebration. An officious woman in charge of the ceremony tells him they wanted to relieve him of the obligation – which has been given to a group of young people – but he did not want to be relieved of it. Realizing he cannot fight her, he makes up various face-saving excuses. When he learns that his daughter is going to buy one of his grandsons a bed at Ikea, he protests. He made his other grandson a bed and he can make another one. She tells him he really doesn’t need to but he persists and she gives in. Instead of feeling triumphant, his face shows that he himself doubts his ability to deliver.
He tries to act as if nothing is changing, but it’s clear there are problems. The stents his doctor put in are not working that well. Instead of talking this over with his wife, he insults her psychotherapy work. When he is doing a security patrol with a neighbor, he comes up to a group of teens having a bonfire and, suspicious that they have stolen wood from his workshop, gets into a fight with one of them. He even loses patience with his dog, a beautiful German shepherd that steals every scene she is in. Every time he passes the center of the village and sees the preparations for the anniversary going on without him, his heart sinks.
One of the high points of the movie is his interview with his grandson for a roots project. The boy asks him a series of questions, about his life as a child, whether he was in love as an adolescent, if he fought in wars, what he has been doing with himself since he retired and other matters of both great and small importance. In some cases, he gives stock answers. One of the more predictable responses is that he liked a couple of girls but never fell in love until he met his wife. But when he starts to speak about war, he comes alive and starts to talk about being a commander and seeing his men killed. We can glimpse stories that he rarely thinks about or tries not to think of as he talks. But his grandson cuts him off. There is only room for short answers. Grandfathers only get one page. That could be a metaphor for the entire story about Meir, that he was once in the center of life but now only merits a page.
This is an accomplished debut, carefully put together, with fine work by all the actors and good visual storytelling that builds slowly and ultimately tells a moving and universal story.