‘Friends,’ Tel Aviv-style

The quickest way to summarize Eytan Fox’s new film, “The Bubble,” is to describe it as an Israeli version of “Friends.” But unlike the characters in the American television show, these 20-somethings collide with reality in a dramatic fashion. Also, it’s not exactly a comedy.

Noam, Yali and Lulu live and work on Sheinkin Street, in Tel Aviv’s Greenwich Village. Noam (played robustly by Ohad Knoller, who also starred in Fox’s first film, “Yossi & Jagger,” a commercial success in 2002), sells CDs at the actual Third Ear music store (though it’s no longer on Sheinkin); Lulu works in a soap boutique, and Yali is the manager of the Orna and Ella restaurant (a real-life, famed Sheinkin Street eatery).

The opening scene depicts Noam on his reserve army duty at a checkpoint near Nablus, where a Palestinian woman has given premature birth to a stillborn child. Noam assists the woman, along with a Palestinian named Ashraf (played by popular TV star Yousef “Joe” Sweid). The scene is filmed by a TV crew, which is a common enough occurrence and a conceit that successfully brings the viewer into the intimacy of the moment. But once Noam returns home from the army to his Tel Aviv flat, the story takes a less realistic turn. Accompanied by an indie music soundtrack throughout, including the songs of Israeli-born Keren Ann and those of popular gay Israeli singer Ivri Lider (who makes a cameo appearance in a Tel Aviv club), Noam re-enters civilian life.

Ashraf implausibly shows up at the friends’ apartment to return Noam’s identity card, displaced at the checkpoint, and within minutes the two are up on the roof of the building in a sexual embrace. The requisitely improbable couple emerges: Ashraf moves into the apartment, takes on a Hebrew name (Shimi) and gets hired by Yali as a waiter at the restaurant.

The love lives of Lulu and Yali, though less central, also add to the storyline. Daniela Wircer, who plays Lulu, is especially endearing in her first feature film performance, as she skirts between a personal innocence and an embrace of the hedonistic freedom of a Tel Aviv lifestyle. Lulu’s rejection by the caddish editor of Time Out Tel Aviv leads her to a flirtation with an organizer for the group Rave Against the Occupation. Meanwhile, Yali falls for Golan, who, with slicked-back hair and low-buttoned shirts, is déclassé for the hip Tel Aviv crowd.

Unwittingly, Golan, exposes Ashraf’s identity at the café. Frightened, Ashraf returns to Nablus, where preparations are being made for his sister’s wedding to a Hamas activist. In a particularly unbelievable scene, Noam and Lulu, disguised as French TV reporters, go to Nablus, where Ashraf’s homosexuality is exposed to his future brother-in-law. When a tragic turn involving the Hamas activist and the Israel Defense Forces causes death and injury among Ashraf’s family and among the Sheinkin street trio, Ashraf’s response, on which the film’s ending hinges, takes over.

The only time that the trio appears to be politically engaged is when they join with the organizers for a Rave Against the Occupation on the beach in North Tel Aviv. There actually was a group called Rave Against the Occupation; it has since disbanded, but I interviewed the leaders in 2002. “We use the raves as a tool of protest, what can be seen as hedonism,” one of the organizers told me, “but we have the will to live a normal life in coexistence with Arabs. We just simply want to have fun together. That’s the kind of Israel we want to see.”

And that’s the kind of Israel that this film portrays. It’s an important statement — to see a different Israel, one that is commonplace to Israelis but practically unknown to Americans who know less about real-life Tel Aviv and more about a nearly mythical Jerusalem. Like “Yossi & Jagger,” and Fox’s second film, “Walk On Water” — the latter broke foreign box-office records for an Israeli film — “The Bubble” allows Fox to show his Israel to a wide audience. It’s deserving of attention, even if the love affair between Ashraf and Noam defies the very reality that his films portray.

Jo-Ann Mort writes frequently about Israel and Palestine for the Forward and elsewhere.

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‘Friends,’ Tel Aviv-style

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