I'm an extreme person," activist-filmmaker Keren Yedaya said.
So extreme that she shot her stark anti-prostitution drama, "Or," without ever moving the camera, enhancing the claustrophobic milieu. The film revolves around Or (Dana Ivgy), a teenager whose struggle to survive echoes the Dardenne Brothers' "Rosetta." While Or's hooker mother, Ruthie (Ronit Elkabetz), smokes on the couch like a haggard odalisque, the 18-year-old washes dishes in a fast-food restaurant, collects recyclables and unsuccessfully tries to keep mom from turning tricks. But as bills pile up and Or is overwhelmed by her responsibilities, she considers following her mother onto the streets.
Although more minimalistic than other recent movies involving prostitution, such as Amos Gitai's "Promised Land," "Or" has become perhaps the most honored Israeli film in history, winning five awards at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, including best first feature.
"Keren is very precise about where she puts the camera and about composition, so the action unfolds realistically and you're in the moment all the time," said Tzipi Trope, an NYU film professor and Israeli Oscar-winning director. "And she doesn't let her characters evade who they are. She confronts them, revealing their inner worlds in an uncompromising way."
Yedaya, who has worked with prostitutes for more than a decade, did not have accolades in mind when she shot "Or."
"I wanted to show that prostitution is one of the worst forms of slavery that exists," she said. "Israelis are much more willing to deal with rape victims, because everyone agrees that's terrible. So I go to the place no one else is willing to go."
Yedaya, 32, spoke from her apartment in Jaffa, where she moved to learn about Arab culture. As the Muslim evening call to worship wailed in the background, the blunt director described spending the day cleaning the room an ex-prostitute shares with her 4-year-old daughter. Yedaya helped the woman escape the streets by paying all her expenses; she said she's donating her "Or" proceeds toward building a shelter for such women, since none exists in Israel.
Before "Or," Yedaya spent years lecturing against prostitution with her short films on the subject, supporting herself by teaching cinema and cleaning houses. Yet she found the right tone for her debut feature only upon viewing 1999's "Rosetta."
"At that moment, I understood I should create an atmosphere of someone fighting for her life, like an animal," she said.
Her decision to keep the camera static during long takes was vintage Yedaya: both political and aesthetic.
"I'm trying to learn the language of cinema, because filmmakers today use that language like retards," she said. She believes directors aim to please the Hollywood audience, which Yedaya compares to the gluttonous plant in "Little Shop of Horrors" -- perpetually hungry for snazzier stories and special effects. "But I want to provoke viewers by saying I have no intention of satisfying their needs," she said.
The message parallels her attitude toward the johns in "Or," who care only about their own desires.
"The [rigid] frame also works well emotionally because Ruthie is always in the center of the picture, and Or is on the periphery, without space for herself, which reflects their relationship," the director said.
The frame often fragments parts of Ruthie's body -- capturing close-ups of her cellulite-dimpled behind, for example -- "because that is what her life is like," Yedaya said. "Someone cuts her everyday, just as some very cruel frames slash her body."
Yedaya's Cannes acceptance speech proved cutting for many observers when she dedicated the movie "to all those living in slavery," including the Palestinians.
"People tell me, 'Or' is not a political film, so why did you talk about the Palestinians?'" she said. "But how can I be empathetic to the suffering of women and not the Palestinians? I love my country, but I feel like s--- living here. I'm in Jaffa but I can't be happy knowing I took someone else's house."
Thus it's no accident that Or's Arabic co-worker is a mensch and that a soldier character is obnoxiously aggressive.
"The message is to help the 'other,' and to give a damn," Yedaya said of her film.
"Or" opens today in Los Angeles.
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