Filmmakers with an Agenda

At the Berlin Film Festival, Israel's cultural entries are saturated in politics.

Lo Roim Alaich (photo credit: Courtesy: Michal Aviad)
Lo Roim Alaich
(photo credit: Courtesy: Michal Aviad)
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.
In “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.
During 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.
IN ADDITION, THE UNBALANCED picture these filmmakers paint of Israeli society is amplified at a showcase event as well-attended and prestigious as the Berlin Film Festival, or Berlinale as it is commonly called. Initiated by the American government in 1951 to bring Western culture into sequestered Berlin during the Cold War, the Berlinale has evolved into one of the world’s largest film festivals. This year more than 300,000 tickets were sold and a staggering 3,900 representatives of 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 the Berlinale selection committee paves the way for international exposure. And those films that do win awards, or receive an honorable mention as “Lo Roim Alaich” did in the Panorama section for “art-house films telling a personal story in a passionate way,” can be expected to be widely distributed around the world.
“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 area in 1978. The rapist became known in the Israeli press as “the polite rapist,” because of the way he would force his victims to talk with him during his attacks, often getting the women to “gently stroke his back so that he would feel that they liked him,” as Nira, one of the characters in the film, recalls.
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. Nira remembers that Lily was present at the same police lineup in which the rapist 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.
She shares the information she gathers from archives and conversations with other victims with Lily, who has repressed the trauma. A warm friendship develops between the two who try to help each other get over the painful experience that continues to haunt them.
Aviad, a documentary filmmaker, in her debut as a feature filmmaker, tells her story in a somewhat awkward way, using a pseudodocumentary shaking-camera style in places that often makes the film hard to watch.
However, both Evgenia Dodina and Ronit Elkabetz turn in strong performances, as they bond together over glasses 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 where Lily meets a lover for a one-night stand in a hotel room. Aviad films and edits the scene in a way that keeps viewers from seeing Lily’s naked body, while the camera lingers over Lily’s male lover in bed beside her in a shot that fully 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, after several empowering meetings with Nira, is starting to get over the trauma. At the same time, the exposure of a nude male body is a subversive reversal of the tendency to treat women’s bodies as sex objects. This subtle, visual commentary is especially poignant, coming as it does after Nira has recounted rape victims’ complaints about the insensitive and indifferent way they were treated by police 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 Lily become enraged when they find out that the rapist was released after serving 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 consideration that he was the father of three children and that his wife, a high school vice-principal, indicated her support for him. They are especially incensed that the judge who upheld the early release was Aharon Barak, whom Lily talks about wanting to “roast on a skewer” along with other men who oppressed or were unfair 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 champion of individual rights – but including him in the film’s list of villains seems to suggest just how pervasive the lack of justice and concern for rape victims may 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 was 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 rapist,” former president Moshe Katsav.
Aviad, a diminutive woman with a serious expression, dwarfed on the stage by her tallish actress stars standing beside her, began her answer by referring to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict and saying that “as you can see in the film I am very critical of many things about Israel. But when it came to his [Katsav’s] conviction, though it surprised me, it also made me feel very proud,” she said succinctly, passing up the opportunity to emphasize that his conviction was recent, while the events 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 over rape. “Why do people who have been raped, and I include myself, not seem to ever be 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 was just something that one learned to live with. “I know this because I was one of the victims [depicted in the film],” she added.
ANOTHER ISRAELI FILM COMpeting in the Panorama section was “The Queen Has No Crown,” directed by Tomer Heymann. The documentary is based on footage Heymann has compiled of his own family during the last ten years, with Heymann’s personal narration used to connect his personal life with social and political issues.
As the main characters in the film are Heymann, his friends, his parents, his four siblings and their families, the film is really just one big home movie – but a very entertaining and provocative one.
Heymann is uncompromising in showing his family’s most vulnerable moments and highly skilled in the use of cinematic technique, especially music, in order to illuminate topics close to his heart.
One of those topics happens to be homosexuality.
Just before a Pesah Seder Heymann decides to come out of the closet and tell his family that he’s gay. His mother is accepting, his father is not. His parents’s difference of opinion paves the way for their subsequent divorce.
Heymann does all of his own camera work, in a very vivid and loquacious way, introducing viewers to the Tel Aviv gay scene and to his boyfriends, vividly zooming in on their bodies, in an uninhibited way that is as unconventional as the sex scene in “Lo Roim Alaich.”
Turning his personal odyssey into an examination of how different sectors of society relate to homosexuality, Heymann joins Gay 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 participants are festively received, while at the Jerusalem parade he is castigated by an ultra-Orthodox woman. “You ought to be sent to a concentration camp,” she 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 to find 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 happening at the family homestead at Kfar Yedidya, an agricultural settlement, in the center of the country, where his parents and German-born grandparents have farmed the land since the 1930s. As Heymann’s brothers begin to have children, we observe how the clan at first grows in numbers but then begins to dwindle from one year to the next for a reason that is the other core subject examined 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 United States and with Tomer’s parents now divorced, the only intact couple present is Tomer and his boyfriend. Tomer’s mother is heartbroken by the distancing of her family.
Her tears and diehard Zionism contrast expressively with her sons’ nonchalant insistence to go where they find better economic opportunities. It is a theme that many Israeli viewers will find familiar.
Heymann captures in a compelling way the transformation his niece undergoes over several years when her family moves to Portland, Oregon, where her father obtains an academic position. Precocious and articulate, she morphs from a brash Hebrew-speaking tot into a slangsavvy, English-speaking American teenager.
Heymann reinforces scenes dealing with the subject of the family leaving Israel with a poignant version of the Hebrew song “Shuv Habeita” (Come Back Home) sung by Rona Kenan. Following the Berlinale screening of “The 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 they 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 of racism in present-day Israeli society.
The preponderance of political commentary, in and surrounding the Israeli films, didn’t surprise Renen Schorr, a member of the Berlinale’s international jury judging the films. Asked to explain the phenomenon, Schorr, who heads the Sam Spiegel School of Film and Television in Jerusalem, tells The Report that Israeli cinema, operating in a government-funded and non-commercial framework, had evolved into “an artistic cinema that attracts filmmakers who have strong feelings and feel a need to express them.”