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Warts, Not War: Israeli Films Shift the Focus Away From the Mideast Conflict

When it comes to directorial style, the winds continually shift between a more-is-more outlook — where camera and mise-en-scène run wild in an effort to draw attention to the means of production –– and a philosophy of austerity strongly opposed to showy or unnecessary camera movement. The latter has gained adherents recently, with the work of Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang (“What Time Is It There?”) and Roy Andersson’s masterful “Songs From the Second Floor” offering the best examples of this tendency. The philosophy of austerity is not a means of ignoring style altogether; both Ming-Liang and Andersson’s films are immediately recognizable as their own, possessing a highly distinct aura of individual taste. Rather, their asceticism is an effort to return life’s natural rhythms to their films, especially in the dimension of time.

Joining these filmmakers as an ideological comrade-in-arms is the Israeli director Keren Yedaya, whose film “Or” won the Camera d’Or for Best First Film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. “Or” premiered at The New York Film Festival on October 5. Yedaya uses a rigid frame for each shot, setting up once for each scene and never moving the camera. The traditional, unobtrusive style of filmmaking demands that the camera follow action, moving with characters as they move. The decision to have the camera not follow motion “naturally” gives the impression that the camera has been chained down, prevented from following its urge to move, and the shots often cut off parts of the characters’ bodies and position the actors in a manner that would be unacceptable for the perfectly posed Hollywood shot. In “Or,” Yedaya rarely centers the actors in the frame; in fact, in one key scene, all that is visible of them is a swatch of clothing at the far left of the screen.

The movie’s style practically screams low rent, a fitting mode for Yedaya’s characters. Or (played by Dana Ivgy) is a Tel Aviv teenager whose mother, Ruthie (Ronit Elkabetz, familiar as the mistress from 2002’s “Late Marriage”), is a prostitute just out of the hospital and looking to reform her ways. Constantly tardy on the rent, Ruthie takes a job as a house cleaner but has difficulty fighting the powerful urge to hit the streets again. And the humiliations of poverty are everywhere. Ruthie is lectured on the proper way to mix dog food by her new boss, and the unstated question hangs in the air: Is this really less humiliating than having sex for money?

Or, who juggles attending school, working at a restaurant run by her neighbor’s family and keeping a watchful eye on her mother, scrubs laundry with her feet while she showers, in order to save water. In one compelling shot, Or is seen at screen left trudging along the beach with an orange garbage bag, picking up cans, while the right of the screen is a traditional Tel Aviv waterside cityscape, blue water and golden light posed against glass office towers. This is how the other half lives here, Yedaya is telling us.

Or is required to mother her mother, sometimes even locking her in the house and binding herself inexorably to her mother’s unfailingly bad instincts. However, Or also has a bit of Ruthie’s unchecked sexuality. Ruthie may be the prostitute, but Or is the one we see picking up men on the street. Her blossoming romance with her neighbor, Ido, seems to put her wandering eye to rest, until parental interference sets her down a tragically unforeseen path. Her natural ebullience is rapidly and terrifyingly replaced by a poker-faced blankness –– a lack of response to the world’s degradations.

Yedaya’s film betrays an unblinking honesty in exposing its characters’ lives — warts and all — and is part of a new generation of Israeli filmmaking more interested in Israeli society than in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whether avoidance of the Palestinian issue is wish fulfillment or not, “Or” joins Dover Kosashvili’s “Late Marriage,” Shemi Zarhin’s “Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi” and Nir Bergman’s “Broken Wings” as exemplars of this inward-looking movement. This look at prostitution has little of the polished veneer of a “Pretty Woman,” and its vision of the everyday degradation of women, the misery of poverty and the ways in which the two curses serve to exacerbate each other is disarmingly brutal. But the film’s austerity bespeaks a filmmaker utterly devoted to her characters and to the unshowy, unpleasant realities of life on the margins of Israeli society.

Saul Austerlitz is a freelance writer in New York City.

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