If a country’s movies are a barometer of its emotions (and they often are), the 59th year of the State of Israel has been a bummer. In the aftermath of a disastrous incursion into Lebanon, saddled with a do-nothing government, Israelis of all stripes are dismayed by their current state of affairs. And the movies that have been delivered to New York for the 22nd Israel Film Festival, and the first Other Israel Film Festival, accurately reflect the country’s hangover. The American audiences watching these movies will get to see Israel as a squabbling, miserable family — bitter, fed by long-held grudges, held together with masking tape and the last remaining shreds of a previous generation’s ideological fervor.
No film is more literal in this than Dror Shaul’s Israeli Oscar-winning “Sweet Mud” (a ludicrous American title; the Hebrew title is better rendered as “Crazy Land”). In it, a 12-year-old boy named Dvir living on a remote settlement must protect his psychologically fragile mother from the slings and arrows of outrageous kibbutzniks. The vision expressed in “Sweet Mud” of life on a 1970s kibbutz is a final nail in the coffin of socialist idealism, depicted as a seething hive of parasites, users, hypocrites and sexual deviants. Sex, in fact, is this society’s lubricant — its motivation and its downfall. The kibbutzniks are more interested in getting their jollies than in protecting the weak, needy members of their flock, choosing to abandon them to their fate while engaged in the relentless pursuit of pleasure, masked as collectivism. Shaul is far from subtle in his approach; one particularly unsavory character is shown seducing a cow, and everyone — with the exception of the two protagonists — appears singularly obsessed with sex. It is not accidental that Dvir exchanges little more than a chaste kiss with the object of his own affections. Hardly the stuff of pioneer drama.
Matters are improved only moderately in the Tiberias of Shemi Zarhin’s “Aviva My Love.” Much like Zarhin’s earlier film “Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi,” “Aviva” tracks the growing pains of a talented, harried soul who, hampered by her impossible family, belatedly takes charge of her own fate. A middle-aged mother of three, saddled with an unemployed husband and a mentally unstable mother, Aviva struggles to find time to write, dredging up the stories that well inside her. She finds inspiration in the exploits of her humorously dysfunctional family, but bends under the excessive weight of responsibility. Zarhin finds inspiration in struggle, seeing Aviva as a potent symbol of bending without breaking. Her life is about roses, not just bread; but it is the struggle to get by that provides the drama of this warmhearted crowd pleaser. Zarhin is an expert purveyor of touching dramas leavened with humor, but “Aviva My Love,” even more than “Shlomi,” is tinged with a darkness that never entirely lifts.
While Aviva suffers under the hardships of a long-term relationship, the Orthodox singles in the documentary “The Modern Ones” pine for partnership. These Jerusalemites, their biological clocks rapidly ticking into dangerous territory, search for love in chaste fashion: JDate, or setups by mom — but no touching, please. Director Cheli Rosenberg, single herself, depicts men as either scarred or content to be alone, while her women are touching in their wounded optimism. Seemingly by accident, Rosenberg has taken a snapshot of a religious society in flux: caught between God’s demands and modernity’s promises, and unsure where to turn for relief.
Of all the films at this year’s festival, none is as heartbreaking as the Gaza-disengagement documentary “Storm of Emotions.” The film follows a border-police unit over the weeks of preparation before — and days of turmoil during — the removal of Israeli settlers from Gaza. Unnecessary “24”-style editing tricks aside, director Yael Klopmann is to be commended for the remarkable sympathy her film extends to settlers and to those tasked with uprooting them from their homes — and from the lives they had built in Gaza. Any regular reader of the Forward will be familiar with the outlines of the events depicted, but “Storm of Emotions” delivers precisely what its title promises: A panoply of evacuees, some audible (“There’ll be no absolution for you,” shouts a young mother dragged with her baby from a synagogue) and some silent (a rabbi calmly escorted to a waiting bus, a Torah scroll in his hands; a teenage boy filling his water bottle with sand from Gaza before departing).
The police officers, especially yarmulke-clad Asaf Walfisch, are heroic in their determination and sensitivity, but the surprise for many viewers may be the restraint demonstrated by settler leaders, who are portrayed as taking great pains to protect both sides from any outburst of violence. “Storm of Emotions” is so painful to watch that I intended to turn it off several times, but Klopmann’s compassion for her subjects, and her ability to pen a love poem to Israel in the ink of its tears, prevented me from doing so. Simply put, anyone who loves Israel while still despairing over it must see this film.
The words “Arab” and “Palestinian” are seldom, if ever, heard in any of the aforementioned films, but the burden of life as second-class citizens subject to the assaults of a state hostile to their very existence is the unstated topic of all the films in the competing Other Israel Film Festival (which opens in New York November 8 ), organized to present “images of Arab citizens of Israel.”
The Israeli Arabs of “No Longer Achmed,” “Pickles,” “On Hold” and the other entries in the festival are primarily defined by what they are not: not Jewish, not fully Israeli, not integrated into society and not satisfied. In the first, protagonist Achmed prefers to be called Meidan Sadeh and to live on a Jewish kibbutz rather than with his extended Bedouin family. The well-educated young couple of “On Hold” plans to depart for Barcelona rather than continue subscribing to the empty promises of Haifa, which offers the allure of full citizenship without any of its tangible benefits. In the absence of advancement, the protagonists of these documentaries — along with the widows-turned-entrepreneurs of “Pickles” (which is actually being shown at both festivals) — struggle on, dreaming of a better life somewhere other than where they are.
A necessary corrective to the near-absence of non-Jews from the entries at its older sibling, the Other Israel Film Festival is a troubling reminder that for all the problems cataloged by the Israel Film Festival, there remain some difficulties too painful to talk about. In this moment of continuous change for Israel, as it approaches its 60th birthday, it is perhaps time to take a rest from contemplating its own aches and pains and thoroughly examine those of the strangers in its midst.
Saul Austerlitz is a frequent contributor to the Forward.