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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.

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