On screen: The special role of women

Women are so often the victims of violence, abuse and humiliations. On the other hand, women have incredible strength and determination.

A woman picks lemons from a tree (Lemon Tree) 370 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
A woman picks lemons from a tree (Lemon Tree) 370 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
While attending DocAviv this past week in Tel Aviv, I saw films about women in conflict situations – one about the Central African Republic and how rape was used there as a tool in wartime; about women struggling to obtain an education in Syria; and about Palestinian women desperately trying to earn a living. It’s not exactly news, but it is certainly clear that women are so often the victims of violence, abuse and humiliations perpetrated by men. On the other hand, women have incredible strength and determination.
As a result, instead of accepting abuse that is dished out, women can have a special role within difficult situations – they have the ability to take risks on a human level; they can reach out to each other, joining hands for common cause; and they can encourage human understanding and reconciliation.
In analyzing Israeli and Palestinian feature films of recent years, unique roles for women have often been depicted.
In this article, I will analyze two films on a political level and two on a human level in which women play strong central roles and demonstrate their unique abilities.
In Eran Riklis’s The Lemon Tree (2008), a Palestinian woman and a Jewish woman, who live on different sides of a grove of lemon trees, try to communicate across the divide. The Palestinian woman, Salma, is in a position of weakness politically and socially, but is strong in her determination and her courage. The Jewish woman, Mira, on the other hand, is in a position of strength politically, but she is weak in the face of the platitudes that her husband spouts.
Although she does not want to be a party to the uprooting of her neighbor’s lemon trees, she is unable to stop it.
According to Riklis, Salma is an Erin Brockovich character, going on a legal journey for what is right. She is also a woman linked to Mother Earth, a fertile woman – as a mother and grandmother, and more symbolically, she is tied to the fruit of the land, her lemon grove.
The two women look out at each other’s homes, across the divide. They are both victims of the male leadership of their societies that keep them apart, victims of the conflict, and also victims of their roles within their own society.
In addition they are silenced by issues of security which seem to trump all other human needs and considerations.
But they both undergo change as a result of their non-verbal communications.
Similarly, in Palestinian films, women have been portrayed as having a unique role, one that enables them to break through certain situations in ways that men could never do.
In Elia Suleiman’s award-winning Divine Intervention (2002), for example, the main role is played by a woman who offers determination and ultimately victory. In a striking scene, she strides confidently through a checkpoint, making eye contact with the soldiers. The soldiers are mesmerized by the welldressed and self-confident woman, lowering their guns. This shakes the foundations of the checkpoint, which slowly begins to fall over.
The filmmaker is showing that when women use their wiles and strengths – exploiting their female potential, showing determination, demonstrating selfconfidence – they can make a powerful impact, more powerful perhaps than guns and checkpoints.
On a more human level, and different from the critical and political nature of the previous films, women are also capable of taking risks and making matters right when it comes to issues dealing with those who are close to them.
Ayelet Menahemi’s Noodle (2007) is a dramatic and sensitive story about an El Al flight attendant named Miri, who tries to offer assistance to a foreign worker and her child. Miri’s Chinese housekeeper is suddenly deported, leaving Miri with the woman’s six-year-old boy. As a childless woman, Miri quickly becomes very attached to the child, and, as a result, she becomes determined to take great risks to bring him home to his mother.
Most of the time, we shirk our responsibilities by denying the capacity of each and every one of us to do tikun olam, to heal the world. Yet, here an amazing woman risks her career and her life to make the world a better place through caring and compassionate action for the child of a foreign worker. She is one woman who demonstrates clearly that women can make a difference. According to Menahemi, taking a risk and reuniting the boy with his mother was a redemptive act.
Eran Kolirin also makes a comment about the role of women on a more human level in his acclaimed The Band’s Visit (2008). Here a lonely woman is able to assist the members of the Egyptian police band who mistakenly end up in her small town on the edge of nowhere. Although this is not a situation of conflict per se, it is a metaphor for the greater Arab-Israeli conflict.
Through her humanity, kindness and sensitivity to the needs of others, she is able to create a human encounter for people who pass in the night, providing them with the unique opportunity to both give and receive.
These are just a small sample of films about women in Israeli society that have been made over the past decade.
More will continue to be made since it is clear that women play unique roles – through their caring, compassion and deep commitment – dealing with many social and political issues that affect Israeli society.
Perhaps if we were to learn from the determination, capacity for taking risks and making a difference, and the success in human encounters – all made possible by women – we would be able to bring about greater change in our part of the world.
The writer is the author of two books on Israeli film and frequently lectures on the subject.