As you might remember all of those days you ‘randomly’ had off during your school years, September is a big month for the Jewish people. We’ve already had Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we’re currently in the middle of Sukkot, and Simchat Torah is coming up soon. (Look them up.) In the spirit of the High Holidays, it is a good time to take a glance at Israeli cinema.
Israeli cinema is as old as the country itself and has gone through many phases. Over the last five or six years, Israeli films have started to get worldwide recognition – they are being shown in increasing numbers at major film festivals, and films such as Waltz with Bashir (2008), Footnote (2011), and Ajami (2009) have been getting international recognition on the awards circuit.
Common themes include the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the struggle between tradition and individual choice, and the Israeli LBGT community. Most feature a lot of moral gray area – you’ll understand all sides to the conflict, even if you disagree with the outcome as a whole. Warning: based on your Western Hollywood values, you WILL disagree with the outcome a lot. So-called Hollywood endings don’t happen that much in Israel.
Here’s a look at four Israeli films that serve as good introduction to the country’s cinema.
Walk on Water (2004)
This film is by far the best introduction to Israeli cinema – it features distinctly Israeli themes, but has a story structure more familiar to Westerners and most of the dialogue is in English. The storyline involves much travel across the state of Israel, which in and of itself shows a lot of history and some beautiful landscapes.
The story focuses on Eyal, an emotionally restrained but lethal agent of Mossad (the Israeli intelligence agency.) After the death of his wife, his superiors assign him to an easier job: learn the whereabouts of a aging Nazi and kill him “before God does.” The Nazi’s granddaughter Pia is living in Israel on a kibbutz. When it is discovered her brother Axel is visiting Israel convince Pia to return to Germany for their grandfather’s birthday, Eyal goes undercover as a tour guide to gather information. As Eyal shows Axel and Pia around the country he develops a genuine fondness for the two of them. Eyal finds himself taken with Pia, but stays emotionally distant. After he finds out that Axel is openly gay, Eyal finds himself confronting his own homophobia, his distrust of Germans, and no small number of other ingrown prejudices.
The film is essentially an interpersonal drama, but plays like a thriller, so it’s easily accessible to most audiences. Touching on everything from the Holocaust to Israeli/Palestinian relations, it’s as good a look at the traits that define Israel that you can get without actually visiting the country.
The Syrian Bride (2004)
The Druze religion is as esoteric as it gets – they are monotheists who believe that every current Druze is a reincarnation of a previous one, and they don’t allow converts. Many Druze live in the Golan Heights – much of which is territory Israel captured from Syria in 1967 – and are granted undefined citizenship. Many Druze enter arranged marriages, often sending brides from the occupied area into Syria itself. The problem – once the bride defines her nationality as Syrian, she will never be allowed into Israel again.
The Syrian Bride centers on the family of Mona, a Druze from the Golan preparing to cross the border to marry a successful Syrian actor. It has taken six months to get a permit, so this is a big ordeal for the family – each of whom are having their own conflicts with each other, often between tradition and outsider values. Mona is scared of marrying a man she’s never met. Her father, Hammed, is pro-Syria and is respected in his community – but his son Hattem, whom he shunned for marrying a non-Druze and leaving the country, complicates things by returning to see his sister off. Mona’s sister Amal is married with two older children. She wants to become a social worker and one of her daughters wants to marry the son of a pro-Israeli villager – both of which are problematic to Amal’s husband, who is required by tradition to control his wife and children. Overshadowing all of this is the fear that something may go wrong with the border crossing due to geopolitical tensions over the area.
The Syrian Bride tackles the issues of Syrian-Israeli diplomacy, the influence of tradition on independence, and provides a look at both the Druze lifestyle and some beautiful shots of the Golan.
Late Marriage (2001)
Another foray into the conflict between family tradition and individual choice, this time in the form of a black comedy about Georgian Jewish immigrants to Israel. (Before you ask: the country Georgia, not the state.) (Note to self: check to see if there even any Jews in Georgia.)
Zaza (played by Lior Ashkenazi, the same actor who played Eyal in Walk on Water) is an unmarried 31-year-old Georgian-Israel graduate student. His traditional Georgian-Israeli immigrant parents are looking for a potential young wife for him. Behind his parents’ back, he’s been dating Judith, a 34-year-old divorcée with a young child. This goes against Georgian tradition – wives are supposed to be virginal and younger than their husband. This leads to an inevitable confrontation between Judith and Zaza’s parents, where they try various ways to scare her out of his life in ways that range from hysterical to downright terrifying, occasionally at the same time.
One of the most standout scenes in the film is – of all things – the sex scene. Not because it is steaming hot and drenched in passion – it’s quite the opposite. Of course there’s passion but the scene itself prolonged, broken up, full of awkward conversion, with little-to-no background music – all of which adds up to the most uncomfortably realistic sex scene I’ve ever seen. It’s basically the exact opposite of The Room.
At its core, the film confronts the question “does love truly conquer all?” with an honesty not often seen in Hollywood.
Ajami is an actual community in Jaffa, Israel. It is a mixed community, primarily of Muslims and Christians. The film was co-directed by an Israeli and a Palestinian and depicts how the tense relationship between the two regions affects everyday life. It is told in a non-linear fashion and is more art-like than the three previously mentioned films, but still tells a distinct story.
The film tells five stories which often overlap. They are all narrated by Nasri, an Arab Israeli boy. It’s difficult to describe them without giving too much away, but I’ll do the best I can:
1. Nasri’s brother Omar tries to save himself and his family from a gang that is trying to kill them out of revenge after Omar’s uncle paralyzed one of their own.
2. Malek is an illegal immigrant who works at a restaurant to save money for his mother’s surgery.
3. A brief story about an altercation with an older Jewish man and his drug dealing Palestinian neighbors.
3. Dan, an Israeli cop, does everything in his power to locate his missing brother – who may have been captured and killed by Palestinians.
5. Binj is an Arab who is in love with a Jewish girl from Tel Aviv (part of the same metro area as Jaffa) – much to the chagrin of those around him. Binj is arrested for a suspected connection for attacking a Jewish neighbor.
All five stories meet up in a tense and violent end apropos of the region. It’s not pretty, but it’s real.
Israeli cinema – not for the faint of heart, but an enriching experience. All of the films listed here are available on Netflix.