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Jewish Journal

Israel Film Festival explores unfamiliar territory

by Tom Tugend

April 10, 2013 | 2:28 pm

“Sharqiya”

“Sharqiya”

Among its other benefits, the Israel Film Festival takes even those of us familiar with the country to places and people we know only superficially, or not at all.

Three of this festival’s movies — “Fill the Void,” “Sharqiya” and “Zaytoun” — go everywhere from inside an ultra-Orthodox community to a ramshackle Bedouin village in the Negev to a Palestinian refugee camp.

“Fill the Void” was last year’s most honored Israeli movie, made by and about the Charedim (ultra-Orthodox) living not in pious Jerusalem but in hedonistic Tel Aviv.

The central character is Shira (Hadas Yaron), at 18  the youngest daughter of the family, about to be married to a promising young man of the same age and background.

Then tragedy strikes. Shira’s 28-year-old sister, Esther, dies while giving birth to her first child, and amid the mourning, Shira’s match is put on hold.

Esther’s husband, Yochai (Yiftach Klein), now a widower responsible for a newborn baby, realizes he will have to remarry eventually, and a matchmaker comes up with a prospect: a devout widow in Belgium.

When Shira’s mother finds out that Yochai, and worse, her only grandchild, might leave the country, she seeks to forestall this calamity by having Shira marry her late sister’s husband.

Contrary to frequent stereotypes of the Charedi community, the young Shira is not just a passive bystander as her parents decide on her future mate. Her father, especially, makes clear that while they hope she will marry Yochai, the decision is up to Shira herself.

Torn between attraction to the younger prospect and her devotion to her parents, Shira ultimately has to choose.

The director and writer of “Void” is Rama Burshtein, born in New York in 1967, who became increasingly religious while attending film school in Jerusalem. Upon her graduation in 1994, she decided to focus her career on making films about and for the Orthodox community, including some with viewers limited to women.

 “Void” is Burshtein’s first feature film and in the director’s notes accompanying the movie she explains what motivated her to undertake a picture at this time that is aimed also at a wider secular audience.

Burshtein avoided setting the film in an ultra-Orthodox town, choosing instead to focus on the lesser-known Charedi segment of Tel Aviv.

“I set out on this journey out of a deep sense of pain,” she wrote. “I felt that the ultra-Orthodox community has no voice in the cultural dialogue. You might even say we are mute. It’s fine for someone on the outside to interpret us as long as someone on the inside is telling a story.

“Our political voice is loud — even boisterous — but our artistic and cultural voice remains muffled and faint. I’m not good at agendas and politics. What I am good at is telling a story. I’m good at telling about those things I’m passionate about, and what can I do? They are all tied to the ultra-Orthodox world of observance.

“ ‘Fill the Void’ has nothing whatever to do with the religious-secular dialogue. … The film opens a peephole into a tiny story taken from a very special and complex world. By its very definition, it avoids making any comparison between two worlds. … I believe the only way to bridge these two worlds is through unprejudiced honesty. If there is such a bridge, it must emerge from a common denominator that can be found in the heart.”

Burshtein’s favorite novelist is Jane Austen, and she sees a close parallel between Austen’s world and her own.

“Both take place in a world where the rules are rigid and clear. The characters are not looking for some way to burst out of that world. Instead, they are trying to find a way to live within it,” she observed.

In recent years, Israel’s entries in the Academy Awards competition for best foreign-language film have set a remarkable record in placing among the five finalists, though the top prize has so far eluded the country’s vibrant film industry.

Although this year’s Oscar winner in this category, “Amour,” was probably unbeatable, the few American critics who had seen “Void” gave it a good chance to add to Israel’s prestige by making the first cut of nine semi-finalists, and then the second cut of five finalists.

Instead, “Void” didn’t even make it past the first cut. Granted, the reasoning behind the choices of the selection committee judging foreign-language films is often opaque, but in this case, the makers and distributors of the Israeli film did little to advance their own cause.

While entries from countries ranging from Afghanistan to Vietnam made their films readily available to critics and set up interviews early on for their directors and top stars, “Void” was kept under wraps like a top-secret national security asset.

Now that the film will screen at the Israel Film Fest (April 21, 7 p.m., at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills), and later at other venues, hopes are rising that it will receive more widespread recognition.

If few outsiders have a real understanding of the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, even fewer note — or care — about Israel’s Bedouins.

Some 200,000 Bedouins live in Israel as an Arab minority within an Arab minority, and most have abandoned their traditional nomadic way of life.

A photogenic, if slow-paced, introduction to the tribe is offered by “Sharqiya,” set in a Bedouin “village,” not far from Beersheba, consisting of three tin shacks, a handful of people, a dozen goats and a donkey.

The forlorn scene amid sweeping desert views could be taken from a biblical painting, maybe with tents instead of tin shacks, except for the television set and DVD player, both given to frequent breakdowns.

Kamel Nadjer (played by Ednan Abu Wadi) is a young Bedouin and self-taught appliance fixer, who otherwise doesn’t get much respect.

In his job as a security guard at the Beersheba Central Bus Station, he is well liked but relegated to the least important assignments, while at home he is constantly bullied by his older brother Khaled (Ednan Abu Muhrab).

Kamel’s only friendly relationship is with his brother’s young wife, Nadia (Misa Abd el-Hadi), who desperately longs for an education.

“Fill the Void”

Among his few possessions, Kamel prizes a photo of himsvelf with fellow soldiers serving in the Israeli army.

Looming over this precarious existence is a demolition order of the “unrecognized” village by Israeli authorities, who want to acquire the land, demolish the shacks, and resettle the inhabitants to a nearby Bedouin town.        

Kamel turns to officialdom for relief, pleading that his father and his grandfather had worked this piece of land before him.

A woman clerk asks him for documents to prove his claim, and when Kamel can’t produce them, the clerk shrugs her shoulders and notes that she can’t do anything else to help him.

Frightened and fed up with his life, Kamel conceives a plan to turn himself into an instant hero, respected by all.

He will hide a dismantled mine in his backpack, leave it near a bench at the bus station, then “discover” the pack, raise an alarm to “prevent” a massive explosion, and win the admiration of his bosses, his family and even the Israeli television stations covering he event.

Kamel gets his brief moment in the limelight, but not his expected rewards, and the film ends on a dark note of bureaucratic dysfunction by Israeli authorities and a high note of Bedouin resilience in the face of devastation.

What is appalling in this film, as with many others by Israeli directors sharply critical of their own countrymen, is not that the authorities are Nazi-like sadists who get their kicks out of harassing and demeaning society’s outsiders; rather it is the bureaucratic coldness and indifference of the authorities in destroying a family’s home and livelihood, as depicted in “Sharqiya.” Impressive, however, on the other side is that this movie, like all other Israeli films, was subsidized by the government-financed Israel Film Fund.

The movie’s title is Arabic for “East Wind” and, according to the film’s production notes, “refers to a literal and metaphysical wind buffeting the Bedouins.”

Israeli director Ami Livne guides the impressive nonprofessional cast, and explains the genesis and goal of his first feature film.

“We began this movie from nothing, we filmed on an almost nonexistent budget, and it is amazing that we made it. I hope it will get enough exposure, perhaps even bring about a change in attitude concerning the Bedouins living here and help make Israel a better place to live in for everyone.”

“Sharqiya” is set for four screenings: April 21, 1 p.m., at the Town Center in Encino; April 24, 7:15 p.m., at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills; April 25, 7:15 p.m., at the Town Center; and May 1, 9:30 p.m., at the Music Hall.

If the United States had won the equivalent of Israel’s stunning victory in the Six-Day War, Hollywood would have responded with a rash of films in which a John Wayne type single-handedly wipes out half a dozen Arab armies.

Yet, there have been no chest-beating Israeli movies glorifying this feat of arms. By contrast, the country’s best directors have been probing the dubious moral and military dimensions of the first Lebanon War, which started in 1982 and dragged on for 18 years.

Joseph Cedar’s “Beaufort” and Ari Folman’s “Waltz With Bashir” were both critical, international successes that viewed the conflict from the perspective of the battle-weary Israeli soldier.

“Zaytoun,” which is the closing presentation of the Israel Film Festival, looks at the run-up to the Lebanon war and its opening salvos through the eyes of a Palestinian refugee boy and an Israeli fighter pilot.

The 13-year-old Fahed, streetwise and resourceful beyond his years, and the handsome Yoni comprise the odd couple so beloved of filmmakers — two protagonists who hate each other on first sight but through a period of trials and adventures learn to respect and even love each other.

Fahed’s father and grandfather fled their Palestinian village, whether during the war in 1948 or 1967 is not clear, and have since lived in a refugee camp in southern Lebanon.

Absent any visible mother or grandmother, Fahed grows up as a wild youngster who escapes the camp at every chance to smoke cigarettes and exchange obscenities with the native Lebanese, who hate the “filthy Palestinians.”

This routine is suddenly broken by two events. One is the death of Fahed’s father, killed in an Israeli air raid. The other is the downing and capture of an Israeli fighter pilot by one of the numerous Christian and Muslim factions fighting for control of Lebanon. 

Oddly, Fahed and some of his fellow urchins are put in charge of guarding the pilot in a makeshift prison. The boy takes advantage of the situation by spewing his hatred of Israel and even takes a pistol shot at Yoni, inflicting a painful thigh wound.

But Fahed and Yoni have one thing in common: both want to get back to Israel/Palestine — Yoni for obvious reasons and Fahed to plant the sapling of an olive tree on the grounds of his ancestors’ former land. (This provides the inspiration for the film’s title, “Zaytoun,” which means “olive” in Arabic.)

Fahed, who realizes that he’ll have a better chance of reaching the old home with Yoni at his side, orchestrates the pilot’s escape, and the two set off with the boy carrying the olive sapling in his backpack.

The bulk of the picture details the adventures of the unlikely couple as they walk and limp through the rocky, hilly terrain, steal a jeep, bluff security guards and navigate a mine field. In the process, they gradually learn to respect each other’s resourcefulness and dependence on each other.

Director Eran Riklis, whose well-received earlier film, “Lemon Tree,” also dealt with the subject of coexistence between Arabs and Jews, breathes new life in the odd-buddies-on-the-road formula. As Yoni, American actor Stephen Dorff, who converses with Fahed in English, manages a passable Hebrew accent.

Not surprisingly, the scene-stealer is young Abdallah El Akal (Fahed), whose expressive face and eyes convey more than his words. The boy was born in Israel and at 13 is a veteran of 16 feature and TV films.

“Zaytoun” will screen April 21, 7 p.m., at the Writers Guild Theater; April 28, 9:30 p.m., at the Town Center in Encino; and May 2 as part of a closing three-hour program at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, which will start at 7:30 p.m. and include a special ceremony honoring Israeli comedians Shaike Levi and Gavri Banai. 

For more information and updates, call (877) 966-5566 or visit this IsraelFilmFestival.com.

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