Tel Aviv is sometimes referred to as “the bubble,” meaning that its residents live in a different reality from the rest of Israel, but in fact Tel Aviv, like all cities, is many different bubbles, and two of those collide in Idan Haguel’s intriguing movie Concerned Citizen, which opens throughout Israel on December 8, and which will be available in parts of Europe on HBO.
Concerned Citizen mixes dark comedy and drama in its social commentary about a young gay couple living in a neighborhood in south Tel Aviv that is home to many migrants, both legal and illegal.
Ben (Shlomi Bertonov) and Raz (Ariel Wolf) embody the kind of well-educated, liberal urban dwellers who are willing to put up with certain inconveniences to be able to afford their own apartment.
Well-educated liberal urban dwellers in South Tel Aviv
South Tel Aviv is full of streets where upscale boutiques, bars and performance spaces that cater to couples like Ben and Raz sit alongside crumbling tenements populated by foreign workers. This part of the city is in flux, and tensions are inevitable, as the workers, who have multiple jobs doing the city’s dirty work, know they will soon be priced out of the only part of town they can afford by their new neighbors.
Ben and Raz have fixed up their apartment, which is full of plants and light. Each morning, they awaken to the sound of relaxing music they have programmed to play as their robot vacuum starts cleaning. Theirs is a life that many would envy. They both have good jobs, and they are planning to have a baby with a surrogate.
They cheerfully coexist with their African neighbors most of the time, and when homeless people occasionally leave filth in the lobby, they are upbeat as they deal with it. Ben even plants a tree outside to beautify the neighborhood. But his concern over this tree leads to a conflict with some of his African neighbors, who don’t care about it. They ignore his warnings and lean on it, damaging it. Frustrated, one night when Ben sees them there, he calls the police, and when they arrive, they brutally beat a young migrant. Ben watches but does nothing to stop the beating.
His guilt over his inaction changes his life, gradually poisoning his relationship with Raz and dimming his enthusiasm for having a child.
It’s interesting how a single moment that brings something in the shadows to the forefront of someone’s consciousness can transform so much of his life.
While we may want to condemn Ben, the director puts us into his character’s mind so well that we can identify with him, knowing we might not act so differently if we were tested.
There’s also a subtext that is hard to deny – that it is extremely difficult for most Israeli young people to buy a place of their own, if they don’t have family money. Those with wealth can stay out of these borderline slum neighborhoods and avoid the issues raised by the film, but people like Ben and Raz can’t, like so many others.
Eventually, the tone shifts into something jokier, which is jarring, as the story lurches toward some kind of a happy ending.
In his director’s notes for the film, Haguel describes it as a “white guilt trip dark comedy,” but it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of that description. The beating is just too realistic to allow you to laugh much later. It’s as if the director, like his characters, didn’t quite know what to do with the problems inherent in the situation.
Israeli filmmakers are just beginning to look at the conflicts that gentrification is bringing to Tel Aviv. Tomer Shushan’s Oscar-nominated short film, White Eye, also looked at these issues, as did Noam Kaplan’s Manpower. Surely there will be others.
Concerned Citizen is a carefully told, well-acted slice of life, but it could have been much more than that.