Ofir Trainin’s documentary “Wandering Eyes” implicitly commands the viewer to empathize with Gavriel Balachsan, Israel’s self-proclaimed “next big thing” in rock, as he loses big-thing status with his downward slide into the mire of manic depression. The inclusion of this documentary in the ReelAbilities: NY disabilities film festival (at the JCC in Manhattan through February 8), is telling. The festival promotes awareness and appreciation of people with disabilities and that goes far beyond physical impairments. Sometimes, the difference between those who are disabled and those who aren’t isn’t readily evident from the outside.
Frontman of the rock band Algiers, Balachsan gives stage performances that are visceral, sweaty affairs, evoking rapt sing-alongs from his (mainly female) fan base. His rock idol status is what 14-year-old boys fantasize about as they play air guitar in front of their mirrors.
But for Gavriel it brings no great joy, as he is grappling with acute mental illness. Rather than his musical career, the film portrays his struggle to live with his diagnosis — sometimes in overly meandering fashion. “Wandering Eyes” is a comparatively unpolished film that seems more like that of an amateur than of a professional, but the unfinished medium lends itself to its tormented subject. The suggestion of the film is that, pace Freud, we are all mentally ill to some degree, and this artistic anguish over it is emblematic of the human condition.
After Gavriel suffers a series of debilitating attacks of mania in 2004, he lands in a mental institution. The film takes up the story from 2006 to 2007 by showing him attempting to pick up the pieces via spending time with his younger brother, Pinchas. “He raised me, and then I raised him,” Pinchas says, recounting how the two brothers grew up eight years apart in a family of 13 children. Their parents became religious later in life, and Gavriel struggles with whether or not he has a religious identity as a Jew. On his family’s farm in Israel, where he is recuperating, he writes a song with lyrics that profess, “I don’t believe in God, or graves, or miracles — my shutters are closed.”
But Gavriel bemoans the closed shutters. He sings of his words being barren, his mouth being just a tongue, but says he is “jealous” of those whom he derisively labels “tallit wrappers.” “Every time he has an attack, all these things hidden inside him come out,” Pinchas says of Gavriel’s latent religiosity. When he’s depressed, religion seems more potent and real to Gavriel; it’s unclear as to whether this is a throwback to an earlier age of certainty, or an attempt to project the certainty of believers into his own chaos. Pinchas generally manages to “talk him down,” but is going abroad for a few months, and Gavriel will have to grapple with his demons alone. There are moments when the film feels a little “Real World: Depressive Israel,” and this is one of them, as Gavriel plays melancholy music on the piano in a minor key while Pinchas packs. This is where the film’s own mediocrity comes through more clearly than it should: Ideally, a documentary film should be the combination of its direction and its subject; here, Trainin seems content to let the subject carry the film where he will. It’s unclear whether this surrender of directorial authority is deliberate. In either event, it’s probably not the best choice.
As Gavriel rehearses for a new solo record — Algiers having long been left behind — he is paralyzed by his doubts and fears, vacillating between elation and panic. “I don’t feel I’m ready,” he tells the camera. “I wrote a song the other day that made me happy. But I don’t know. It scares me. I feel pressured.” He wanders through moonlit fields at night because his mania won’t let him sleep, but at the same time, his worries won’t let him work: “Going back to work feels like a mountain.”
Who among us hasn’t felt this way, to a lesser extent, at some point in our lives — as though all of our struggles are meaningless? Gavriel pulls himself free of his family to go live in a dingy and depressing one-room rental in the Yemenite quarter of Tel Aviv. He attempts to be “normal,” but the camera betrays him. He looks at himself, with a Pharaonic crown on his head for Purim, and his eyes brim over with sorrow. He attempts to look like everyone else on the street, it’s implied, but seething within him is something he cannot control. This is one moment where Trainin’s choices are good ones: The juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy is nothing less than what it actually means to be human, depressed or not.
Gavriel’s struggles are more acutely felt than those of most other people, but the results are more alive, as well. He’s sent back to the mental hospital, but emerges to win an award for his new musical effort, for his music that struggles with the pain of being depressed, being manic and being human. The film embodies a critical component of the ReelAbilities festival. We see that with which others have to struggle, and our humanity surges, full of admiration and hope, regardless of the kitsch factor.
Jordana Horn is a lawyer and writer at work on her first novel.