Jewish Journal

Final Day at Sundance:  The Israelis

by Larry Mark

January 25, 2009 | 7:35 pm

A scene from "Bait"

By Larry Mark

Park City’s Main Street is now home to a hummus and nouvelle-Israeli cuisine restaurant, which was so filled each evening during Sundance, that one was unable to get a reservation prior to 9 p.m.  It had previously been located a few miles from the town center.  Main Street was also home to several Israeli films and shorts, as well as a place to visit for other filmmakers with Israeli roots.

“The Messenger,” which premiered here this week, is an American war story by Oren Moverman, who was born and raised in Israel and moved to the United States after his army service. The film stars Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster as two soldiers affected and scarred by their service, and currently working towards redemption as “messengers” who must inform next of kin that their loved ones have been killed in action. Working for the Casualty Notification Office is an honorable but stress-filled assignment that is guided by specific, unbreakable rules and methods.  Between notifications, these two soldiers form a bond that helps them as they struggle to get back to “normalcy.”

At the premiere, Moverman said that no matter how noble their task, the role of these soldiers is among the toughest in the army; he likened it to serving as “two angels of death.”  Soldiers would rather be in combat than in this assignment, which is currently being transformed by the Pentagon. 

The film is not about the actual casualties, but the people who must continue living after a loved one is killed.  One the of soldier characters, who is looking for a new reason to live after surviving the death of his friends, faces a dilemma when he is attracted to one of the young widows, now a single parent.

Producer Alessandro Camon developed the idea for the film in response to the lack of information on the real messengers who bring the consequences of war to families. 
Moverman, who co-wrote Todd Haynes’s Bob Dylan biopic, “I’m Not There,” and collaborated with Ira Sachs on the films “Married Life” and the upcoming “The Goodbye People,” took on “The Messenger’s” directorial duties after Ben Affleck bowed out of the project.

Moverman said the script was a way to deal with his own “military experience demons” from Israel, where he was aware of casualty notifications, but never personally experienced them. The late Sydney Pollack, whom Moverman praised as a “one of a kind, real teacher,” was initially involved with the project because he liked its taboo love story, but bowed out as the plot began to focus more on the relationship between the two soldiers.

Viewers who watch closely will notice that one of the families notified of a husband‘s death, the Cohens, display a mezuzah on their front door.

Another Sundance premiere was “Zion and His Brother,” an Israeli-French production that deals with social issues rather than war.  As mentioned in an earlier posting, this sibling drama by Eran Merav (“Underdogs”) revolves around 14-year-old Zion (Reuven Badalov), who is constantly fighting with his 17-year-old brother, Meir (Ofer Hayun).  The boys live in a poor area of Haifa with their 35-year-old mother, Ilana (Ronit Elkabetz of “The Band’s Visit,” and “Late Marriage”); they wait each week for a call from their estranged father at a neighborhood pay phone.  Also present is Ilana’s current boyfriend, who is pressuring her to choose between him and her children.

A train passes behind the neighborhood buildings every 20 minutes, but no one ever waits for it, and it never stops. The weather is hot and sticky, and the sun mercilessly parches the landscape. When an even lower-class son of Ethiopian immigrants, an outsider living among outsiders, is killed in an accident, Zion must decide whether he should keep certain details about the incident a secret. This coming-of-age film has created a good amount of “buzz” for its story and cinematography; the atmosphere of isolation is enhanced by images of identical apartment buildings cutting residents off from the sea.

Merav attended both the Camera Obscura and Sam Spiegel School of TV and Film and is an alumnus of the Sundance Lab, which helped him to hone his screenplay and directorial skills.  He filled his script with real-life conversations he remembered overhearing while growing up in the poor area of Kiryat Yam; because that neighborhood has since been gentrified, he said he shot the movie in a decrepit area north of Haifa.

After his first three Sundance screenings, no one asked any political questions, which surprised Merav.  He had expected at least a query or two about the current situation in Gaza, and was prepared to lend his opinions, but the questions instead focused on the movie’s production, casting, and the phenomenon of brothers in general.

Merav said he intends the movie to tell a universal story of an alienated immigrant society filled with despair and on the edge of economic catastrophe.  “It has no specific place of language,” he said.  “It could take place in any country of the world.”

“Bait,” a 12-minute short by Michal Vinik, was selected to screen with Merav‘s film at Sundance.  The short revolves around about a tomboy named Nitzan, who plans to go out for a day of fishing near her home in the environs of Ashdod—but ends up accompanying her sister to the beach.  They hitchhike and are given a ride by a Filipino guest worker who is heading to a nearby moshav.  He joins them for an afternoon of swimming, tanning and more. The audience if left to determine exactly what Nitzan is fishing for.

Vinik graduated from the Film and Television Department at Tel Aviv University and now teaches screenwriting at Tel Aviv University’s Minshar School of Art and the Beit Berl Academic College

She told me she also prepared for questions about Gaza at the screenings.  But none came.  She did, however, have several private conversations at parties and welcomed those opportunities because they provided time to discuss and get her point across.  Because both “Bait” and “Zion and His Brother” are coming-of-age stories about teens, I asked Vinik if she saw this as a trend in Israeli cinema.  Her answer was “No.” The emerging trend, in her opinion, is the phenomenon of Israeli women obtaining more work as writers and directors.

While nearly all American Jewish film festival programmers know about the short films from Camera Obscura, the Sam Spiegel School of TV and Film, and the Ma’ale School, fewer are aware of the student films from Tel Aviv University.  A representative from that school, Rachel Wallach, visited Sundance this year in an effort to improve the awareness of the program, which is called the Yolanda and David Katz school.  She was also a figure on Main Street, distributing flyers and pamphlets about the program.

For more information contact the Sundance site.


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Danielle Berrin writes the award-winning Hollywood Jew blog, a cutting edge, values-based take on the entertainment industry for jewishjournal.com. A Los Angeles Times profile...

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