FEMALE EMPOWERMENT in ‘Calendar Girls.’ (photo credit: Love Martinsen)
FEMALE EMPOWERMENT in ‘Calendar Girls.’ (photo credit: Love Martinsen)
Israeli film fest takes a look at the world beyond the headlines

There has got to be more to the world than we get from the media, right? That means the actual tangible printed stuff, website data and incessant bombardment of social network flashes.

But doesn’t all information, to some degree or other, come with some kind of agenda, political – with an uppercase or lowercase p – or commercial? Even if we are not conscious of it, our own ideas about the world around us and the best way to manage it color our behavior and the content and manner of the information we disseminate.

That mindset has informed the annual Anthropological Film Festival since its founding 12 years ago and runs through the program of the 11th edition – one was lost in the coronavirus shuffle – which takes place at the Jerusalem Cinematheque November 29 to December 1.

The political line is something artistic director Nurit Kedar and director Tamar El-Or have constantly endeavored to sidestep, if that is at all practicable. Both bring impressive credentials to the programming fray. Prof. El-Or heads the Sociology and Anthropology Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which has collaborated with the Cinematheque on the festival from the outset. Meanwhile, Kedar is an award-winning documentarist with a hefty portfolio of cutting-edge works to her name and numerous screenings around the globe.

During the course of the three-day program, the public will be able to watch 14 documentaries that offer an incisive view of an aspect of life in some country or other. The story lines come from the farther reaches of Europe, rural Africa, China, Peru and provincial America. The movies portray narratives that don’t make it to the front pages, major online news outlets or CNN bulletins. They convey a sense of street-level reality that does not seem to interest most TV station honchos or journalists. All of which adds to the allure of the intriguing festival roster.

 NURIT KEDAR: For us it is important that the films we take are cinematic. (credit: ADI ORNI) NURIT KEDAR: For us it is important that the films we take are cinematic. (credit: ADI ORNI)

There seems to be a bunch of common themes to some of the works, such as feminism; the confrontational interface between the wishes of the individual and the authorities; the dreams and challenges of youth; the seesaw relationship between the natural world and 21st-century progress and mores; ecology; and gender roles.

Truth be told, overall many of the documentaries do not tell happy-ever-after stories, and there are dark shades aplenty in, for example, Tolyatti Adrift. But there are also rays of sunshine in the mix, too, with female empowerment front and center in Calendar Girls.

The former provides a stark look at the lay of the social land in a former car manufacturing-based Soviet city and, in particular, how the collapse of the USSR and the ensuing demise of the local source of employment continue to affect the prospects and quality of life of youngsters there. Like many of the movies in the lineup, it is a bittersweet affair, with moments of abject despair interspersed with glimmers of hope and youthful insouciant fun and adventure. Sounds a little like life itself.

The only American contribution to the program leaves you with a palpable sense of classic New World frontier spirit, spiced up with some emotive passages that tug robustly on the heartstrings. This is not Hollywood-style melodrama, fortified by an orchestral soundtrack. This is a look at the way things really are, at least as per the filmmaker’s subjective viewpoint.

It's all about art and the story line

As far as filmmaker Kedar is concerned, it is all about art and the story line.

“We don’t go for things, for example, about someone running for election,” she says. “That is of less interest to us.” She may have added that it is the sort of thing that generally gets an abundance of media coverage anyway. 

“For us, it is important that the films we take are cinematic. They shouldn’t be like news reports.” The visual is, naturally, also an important factor in the selection equation. “There should be attractive shots and scenes,” Kedar continues. “This is cinema. We want the viewers to enjoy themselves and get a good cinematic and storytelling product. We don’t have agendas like they have on social networks. Why, for example, did we go for something like the story about the Amazon River? What has that got to do with social networks?”

“This is cinema. We want the viewers to enjoy themselves and get a good cinematic and storytelling product. We don’t have agendas like they have on social networks. Why, for example, did we go for something like the story about the Amazon River? What has that got to do with social networks?”

Nurit Kedar

The Peruvian slot is a compelling case in point. The Veins of the Amazon is an elegiac offering replete with long takes that get us to patiently absorb all the details and aesthetics on the screen rather than rushing on to the next action-filled frame. The narrative gently unravels and is complemented and enhanced by the observed and inferred ebb and flow of the mighty river, as well as the motley characters that people the scenes. A relaxed viewing experience appears to be in the offing for festivalgoers, and one that imparts a sense of the local culture and way of life in a respectful, non-interventionist and generous manner.

The festival blurb explains that the documentaries are of an ethnographic nature. That much is evident. It goes on to say that the films “describe the complexities of the lives of individual and communities around the world, through cinematic means, and the relationship between the human and the non-human.”

That last bit stumped me a bit, so I asked El-Or if she could help me out.

“Anthropology in general, based on its tradition, which is also based on the life sciences, the natural sciences and archaeology, invests great effort in contextualizing the human experience in the general domain – the geographic space, topography, the fauna and flora. And human beings are always another factor – a significant factor – in this domain,” she explains.

So far so good. But, it seems, there are plenty of dynamics at work within that broad expanse.

“In recent years, a highly significant change has occurred from a philosophical standpoint in the approach to researching the relationship between the human and the non-human,” El-Or continues. “With scientific progress, we are discovering that an increasing number of attributes we thought were exclusive to the human species are also found in other species, such as communication, the transfer of information, solidarity, delegating work, making tools and all sorts of similar things.”

Animals communicating with each other and sticking together did not come as a surprise to me, but I found some of the rest pretty astounding. “As a result, contemporary research in all areas of science does not focus on the exceptionality of humankind, which was a prominent feature of humanist research – relating, possibly, to kindness and grace, and also violence, of humankind. Instead, it considers more the similarity and entanglement and connections that exist among all the species. That is very much at the forefront of research in the world today.”

As it so happens, this year’s festival program includes what El-Or describes as “a clear example” of interspecies relationships.

“There is a documentary called Vedette. The entire film centers on the life of a cow in the Alps which belongs to two women who have just a handful of cows. It is not an industrialized cowshed at all.” The said bovine is a special creature on various counts. “Vedette is an alpha cow, and we get to know her very well,” El-Or adds. We do indeed.

As a vegan and someone who is concerned about the cruelty that the industrialized world inflicts on animals, I found certain parts of the film distasteful, but the majority of the story line follows the natural lifestyle of Vedette and some of the other members of the compact herd. As the film unwinds, we see her circumstances change dramatically and drastically, and she gets to spend a lot more time with the few humans around her. It is a far cry from conveyor belt, unnatural, profit-driven conditions in which the vast majority of “farm” animals live and produce edibles for humans.

“We get to know Vedette, her characteristics and her relationship with the women who care for her, and we follow her all the way through her life,” El-Or notes. And the gorgeous, often breathtaking bucolic settings do nothing to mar the visual end product. It is a fascinating and endearing film to watch.

There’s more in the lineup where that came from, but in the main the movies highlight the human condition in a wide range of circumstances, some more trying than others.

Raise the Bar, from Iceland, for instance, prompts all kinds of question marks in various areas of life. Are girls capable of succeeding in a male-dominated world? Should they even try? Parental control and the growing independence of their offspring also come into the thematic equation as does personal ambition.

The latter is a recurrent ingredient across the program, particularly when it comes to youth. Again, Tolyatti Adriftis a prime portrayal of that area of life.

The fallout of the corona era may also come into the lineup considerations. After being incarcerated and having our freedom of movement restricted for long periods, many of us are still looking to “get back to normal.” That may explain the rush for plane tickets to all destinations and the supply-and-demand fueled price hike, and also a thirst to catch a story or two from some previously unknown spot on the globe from the comfort of our own homes.

“There are people that very much enjoy the [anthropological documentary] genre,” says El-Or. “The English like it – armchair theater – which allows you to see anything from all over the world without moving.”

Isn’t that what the likes of YouTube are for? What is the added value of going along to the Jerusalem Cinematheque to watch a 90- or 120-minute documentary?

“These films offer a slightly different encounter and a more protracted view. Of course, you can access wonderful documentary series, like the ones by [iconic British naturalist-TV presenter] David Attenborough. But that is not the point here. This is about focusing on a small group, an individual, or a family or a single story which offers an intimate look at things.”

Cultural identity and divides, and a sense of belonging and alienation, are also front and center in a couple of movies, most noticeably in Norwegian director Emilie Back’s No Place Like Home, and Golden Land by Finnish filmmaker Inka Achté. Both films address displacement and alienation and what motivates us to dig through our back story strata to get a better handle on our DNA and what, possibly, informs our psyche, relationships and the way we relate to our surroundings.

That and plain old fortune seeking anchor the story of Mustafe in Golden Land. El-Or proffers the Somalian-born, Finnish-bred character as an exemplar of the sense of disquiet that underscores the thought processes and emotional well-being of many an émigré – naturally, including refugees – around the world. “We get to know people in different places, like the man who was taken to Finland, from Somalia, during the war in Darfur. He grew up as a black Muslim man in a white adoptive Finnish family. He married a black woman from Somalia, they were very religious, and one day he hears a rumor that the land in Somalia that belongs to his family contains precious metals.”

That prompts a move back to Mustafe’s country of birth, together with his wife and Finnish-born children. 

It also sparks friction as the children struggle to deal with the religious constraints on their freedom and the dramatic change in lifestyle. It is a story of personal transition and of intercultural clashes and differences. With the ongoing movement of Syrian and other refugees to Europe, a story of reverse migration sparks the curiosity.

There is also a classic slot in the program with a screening of Lionel Rogosin’s groundbreaking 1956 documentary On the Bowery. The film introduces viewers to the despair, joy, grime, comradeship and poetic lyricism of laborers on skid row in 1950s Manhattan. It is an exclusively male domain.

Kedar sees clear parallels between New York of almost seven decades ago and 21st-century life.“The movie only addresses men, and women have no say there,” she notes, returning to the theme of feminism which runs through many of the festival films. “The photography of the film is exceptional, and the characters live miserable lives. I think it’s pretty much the same today. We still have the same social problems.”

Be that as it may, there is much to see, marvel at and ponder in next week’s Anthropological Film Festival. ❖

All screenings will be preceded by a talk in Hebrew by a specialist in the relevant area of study. Some of the non-English language films have only Hebrew subtitles. For more information: https://jer-cin.org.il/en/lobby/11th-anthropological-film-festival

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