February 22, 2007
IFF: Personal, not political stories drive lineup
Israeli-Palestinian conflict takes backseat to tales of family strife
"Frozen Days" is not detached from current events. Set in Tel Aviv, amid the suicide bombings of the second intifada, the film, directed by first-time feature director Danny Lerner and starring Anat Klausner, portrays a young woman's search for her lost identity after surviving a terror attack outside a nightclub.
One might claim that "Frozen Days" is an "Israeli political thriller." But is it?
The sounds and sights of Israel are easy to detect in the drama "Things Behind the Sun," about a dysfunctional family whose every member is going through a significant life change: The dad is coming to terms with his estranged father, who is dying in a hospital; the mom is about to fulfill a dream of opening her own exhibition; the daughter is slowly coming out of the closet as a lesbian; and the son cannot find his place in the world, so he is spending all of his time smoking pot. And so one might claim that "Things Behind the Sun" is an "Israeli social melodrama." But is it?
In both cases, the answer would have to be no. Or, at least, not really. Both movies are among the 12 feature films to be screened in the Israeli Film Festival coming to Los Angeles March 7-22, and both were shot in Israel, performed in Hebrew and feature seasoned Israeli actors. Yet they portray situations that could be found in other countries, with slight plot changes. The suicide bombs in "Frozen Days" are certainly not shown as a political statement, nor as an integral part of the movie's plot. They are simply the events that establish the tone. The hero could have suffered the same amnesia in Europe or America as a result of a car accident or a fall from a high ladder.
The family in "Things Behind the Sun" is not right or left; Likud or Labor; for or against immigration from Russia, foreign workers, pension plans, education reforms, settlements or any other topic in the Israeli newspapers these days. In fact, they seem indifferent to politics altogether.
And this is the case in many of the films being made in Israel these days. "Israeli filmmakers are not interested in politics," said Katriel Schory, the head of the Israeli Film Fund. "The Israeli-Palestinian conflict doesn't entice them as writers or directors, and they do not want to deal with the harsh social problems in their country. I can say with certainty that among the 800 to 900 scripts that passed through me in the fund in the last few years, only a handful have addressed current events. Most of the films deal with the close circle: me, my home, my parents, my family."
The lives of second- and third-generation Israelis is a beloved topic in Israeli cinema these days. In "Sweet Mud" (more appropriately called "Crazy Soil" in Hebrew) -- the most celebrated Israeli film these days and winner of the Sundance Best Foreign Film award -- the director Dror Shaul turns his camera to his own family's sad and very private story, which takes place on a strict kibbutz in the 1970's.
Although the movie can be seen as a harsh indictment of the kibbutz and what it stands for, it is first and foremost a very personal movie about a boy longing to help his ailing mother.
"I put a flashlight on things I wanted to show [in my life]," Shaul said in an interview with Haaretz recently. "'Sweet Mud' is not a true story in the sense that it did not happen only to one kid, and yet most of the events I didn't have to invent. They are based on my childhood, memory and dreams that I gathered into one story."
So are we seeing a trend?
"Absolutely," said film critic Yehuda Stav, who has written regularly about cinema over the last four decades for Yediot Ahronot, an Israeli daily newspaper. "The focus on personal rather than on the public is part of a strong trend in the last decade that can be labeled as going back to the roots, to the family."
"The '80s were the era of exploring Israeli manhood through army service. The Israeli sabra and his place in modern society, in reserve military service and in uniform seemed to be the main subject," he said. "The '90s brought a temporary halt in cinematic achievements, due to the lack of public funding. And since the end of the '90s we are bombarded with films about 'me facing my family.' All the big Israeli films in the last few years were about that: 'Late Wedding,' 'Turn Left At The End of The World,' 'Broken Wings' and 'Aviva, My Love'" (the last of which will open the Israel Film Festival this year; see story Page 32).
The reasons vary widely.
"But the main one is a kind of egoism developing in our society," Stav explained. "We don't care so much about what surrounds us anymore. We don't care anymore about the complications of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We all seem to agree there should be a solution -- but to write movies that correspond with it? That's a different story. Even the few films that pretend to be political, such as the upcoming 'Bufor' [based on the successful book by Ron Leshem, about the tough battle in the first war in Lebanon] is only political in title."
"In reality it is not dealing at all with our long stay or withdrawal from Lebanon, except sporadic by-the-way references," he said. "And when someone finally does a movie about an Israeli bomber in the settlements, the bomber is acting out of sheer madness, not ideology. Again -- the personal overpowers the political or social."
Not everyone agrees. Veteran filmmaker Dan Volman's film, "Tied Hands," portrays a young homosexual dancer, who is dying from AIDS, and his mother's journey in hallucinatory Tel Aviv to acquire marijuana to ease his pains. Volman said that trying to put Israeli films into categories is a useless activity: "I keep reading about trends, but I don't think that as a creator I change every 10 years or so. Some of the subjects I deal with in 'Tied Hands' have been dealt with in my early films in the '60s and the '70s."
Some say that political agendas don't sell very well at the box office, and that the crowd prefers a good melodrama over a film that waves social and political flags. But the track record elsewhere tells a different story. European movies frequently deal with contemporary social problems and political issues, as well as national historical dilemmas, with great success.
In England, directors Mike Lee ("Secrets and Lies"), Steven Frears ("The Queen") and Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland") are considered among the top filmmakers and garner respect and awards for films that explore social dilemmas and political eras (Frear's "The Queen," with six Oscar nominations, is by far England's most important entry to the Academy Awards this year). In Germany, films like "Sophie Scholl" and "Downfall" keep reminding German audiences that World War II will always be part of their lives. And it was a Palestinian director, not an Israeli, who managed to enter a movie about suicide bombers in the Oscars race last year. When was the last time an Israeli film tried to take a fresh look at the Yom Kippur War or the Israeli forefathers?
Both Stav and Schory are critical of this situation.
"Although I am proud of the courage that Israeli filmmakers show in telling their personal stories, I am thirsty for some recruited cinema," Schory said. "And I don't care if it is right or left, liberal or conservative, religious or secular. All I'm asking is: Give me some ideology."
But Volman said he believes that sometimes what appears to be personal is in fact thought provoking politically or socially.
"Many of my movies deal with the place of old people in our society," he said. "And I think that as a filmmaker I tend to show mercy for the weak -- the old, the different and the immigrant. These ideas of social justice can be shown through personal stories, without recruitment and without slogans."
Schory admits the Israeli Film Fund is searching for films that can actually stir emotions because they are controversial.
"I'm proud we decided to fund and promote 'What a Wonderful Place,'" he said. It "dealt bravely with the open wounds of the foreign workers phenomena, and had no problem hearing that some of the Jewish audience in America was offended by the portrayal of Israelis behaving badly. Conflict is good for art and we should not shy away from it."
Stav is not hopeful for any change soon, though.
"The liberal left in Israel is spoiled, and most of the filmmakers are among them. All they want is to sit in bars, drink vodka and [complain] about how bad the situation is," he said. "They are too hedonistic to get out there and shout against or pro anything. They simply prefer to stay in their own guarded bubble."