I recently saw all 11 feature films and all 10 documentaries playing in the Los Angeles leg of the 22nd Annual Israel Film Festival. I loved seven of the films, liked six others, strongly disliked another seven and detested one. After Los Angeles, the Festival will play in Miami from April 26-May 3 and in New York from June 6-21.
1) SOUVENIRS is a wonderful, rich, surprising documentary that really knocked me out. Having heard of his father’s amorous adventures in The Netherlands in 1946, and hoping to find half-siblings he never knew, filmmaker Shahar Cohen took his 82-year old Yemenite father, who had served in the Jewish Brigade (associated with the British Army) in World War II, on an auto trip through Italy, Germany and The Netherlands, retracing the little old man’s wartime footsteps. The journey and film are emotionally rich, revealing and highly amusing, because the father is a funny little duck who is constantly coming out with unexpected, amusing comments. They visit a battle site where the father suddenly collapses and weeps—something he had never done in front of his son before. When they reach the Netherlands, a private detective the son had hired to try and find two Dutch women the dad brags he had bedded 60 years before, reports her progress to the son—and later to the father. I dare not give away the results of her research, but the final sequence of this film is just terrific. Because this is real life and not fiction, the way the story plays out and the emotions that are revealed are much more compelling and involving than what you find in scripted films. The relationship between father and son is adorable, and there are some great surprises when we discover just how heroic the father was (or was not). The film’s final line is the perfect cherry on cake.
2) HEBREW LESSONS is another great documentary that is especially dramatic, funny, touching and involving, because it deals with the stories of real people. You can’t help but love all these characters—Chinese wives Chin and Dong-Dong, Russian lawyer-turned-dishwasher Sasha, German cat lover Anabelle, fiery Peruvian Mariosol and their emotionally vulnerable teacher. We you get emotionally involved in their struggles to raise fatherless children, help exploited Chinese workers and cope with painful separations from their daughters, not to mention their battle to master an alien new language. I like good acting, but no thespian creates characters this real. When Sasha goes back to visit the Russian law firm he founded and is treated high-handedly by the staff, it is very poignant, particularly because it is so real. Anabelle and her Israeli boyfriend want to marry and have a family, but they disagree about what religion to raise their children into, when Israel will only countenance a Jewish marriage and raising their children to be Jews. The relationship between Chin and her elderly, fat, well-to-do Israeli husband, for whom she originally worked as a maid, is just flat adorable. I tell you, you can’t write stuff this richly detailed and emotionally honest. HEBREW LESSONS spent five months in and around a beginning language class (Ulpan), focusing largely on the adaptive challenges faced by the five primary characters, and showing us Israeli life and culture through their very unique perspectives. It takes us through a range of genuine emotions as we identify with their situations and the way their true stories play out. This is powerful stuff, and the copy crawl at the end, which reveals what happened to them, is highly impactful. The only nit I would pick with this fine, fine film is that it was shot on murky video, so the images are not sharp—but I guess even that adds some immediacy to the sense of really being there now.
3) Eitan Anner’s LOVE & DANCE is a very sweet film. Chen, the protagonist is a young boy fighting the cultural conflict between his Israeli father and Russian mother. He sees a beautiful Russian girl his age at a dance studio and is smitten by her. He joins her dance class and prepares for the children’s national ballroom dancing championships, partnered with another girl. The teachers are a pair of Russians who formerly were world champions but who are now unhappy together. The conflicts between Chen’s parents add to the overall drama. The film actually starts as a comedy, with a furious bride destroying her wedding gifts and tearing up the checks they received in front of her guilty groom, who slept with her sister on their wedding day. The film turns serious and has melodramatic elements, but it is well written and acted. The final sequence, at the dance contest, is truly delightful.
LOVE & DANCE
4) LITTLE HEROES is a short, pleasant, charming film about a group of children who attend day camp. Two teenagers go riding in a 4 x 4 pickup truck, discover their brakes are out and crash into a pond, from whence they are unable to escape. A telepathic young girl on a bus believes she hears their cries for help. After returning home, she decides to walk back many miles and rescue them. She takes her large, simple-minded brother and a young wrestler (living in the shadow of his dead soldier father) on a compelling adventure that takes them through a military firing range, by a mystical herd of ostriches and past a group of kids trying to keep outsiders off their kibbutz—where they pick up a nerdy little fellow traveler who aids their efforts by stealing a tractor from workmen in an orchard. The characters are distinctive and interesting and the simple story holds our interest. Itay Lev’s LITTLE HEROES is one of the first children’s films made in Israel.
5) SWEET MUD, which won four Israeli Academy Awards, including best picture, and which was the official Israeli entry for the U.S. Oscars, is a powerful, well-made drama about life on a strictly run kibbutz in 1974. Like the two fine films above, this one also has a child protagonist. It deals with a 12-year-old boy’s attempts to help his emotionally damaged mother cope with her grief over her husband’s mysterious death some years back and with a new problem when her loving Swiss boyfriend is suddenly expelled from the kibbutz. Though leavened with humor and fine observation of behavior, this is a stark picture of the cruelty and intolerance that can appear in some tightly run collective societies. The cast is strong, especially the young lead and the actor who plays the mother’s boyfriend. I find it interesting that I really liked this film and strongly disliked Aviva My Love, both of which deal with women who are miserably unhappy. I think that one reason I found SWEET MUD so much more enjoyable and compelling is that here the characters fight back, whereas Aviva just suffers and suffers and stares at the sea.
6. THREE MOTHERS is a pretty good family drama with interesting mystery elements. Rucha, who works as a personal historian—recording people’s life stories on video and in book form—slowly learns her own family secrets by interviewing her mother and two aunts, who were triplets born in Alexandria, Egypt and blessed by King Farouk 64 years ago. They now live together in Israel, and much of the film traces their dramatic interwoven histories. I hesitate to give too much away, because the revelation of surprises is what makes the film so interesting. The central mystery is over what happened to Amnon, one of the twin sons of triplet Yasmin. No one has seen him for decades and the triplets have lied to Rucha about his dramatic history. Writer-director Dini Zvi-Riklis reveals the truth slowly and masterfully, while drawing us into the lives of the seven central characters: the triplets, their husbands and Rucha. This is a well-done character piece, with a strong cast and good production values. Because one sister is a singer, there is also quite a bit of enjoyable music. The plot keeps moving and twisting, holding your interest. The film deals intelligently and effectively with loyalty, deception, lust, secrecy, marital strife, self-sacrifice, revenge and construction safety. I recommend it to you.
7. SALT OF THE EARTH is a pretty good thriller about a heist gone wrong and how it impacts the four former military buddies who try to pull it off. The story creates good tension, and the script has a few interesting, ironic and even amusing twists. The primarily characters are complex enough to hold our interest. At first, the protagonist, who has a serious gambling problem, is very unlikable and that distances him from the audience, but he grows on us as he focuses on the caper and on getting revenge on the gambling czar who had his girlfriend beaten up, causing the death of their unborn child. This is the one film I saw that most resembled a Hollywood movie, because it is in the thriller genre, but unlike most Hollywood stuff, it takes off on interesting plot and character tangents that enrich it.
SALT OF THE EARTH
I also like the seven following films, but not as much as those above.
8. DEAR MR. WALDMAN is a pretty good film. (I am, naturally, disposed to like it since four of the characters have my surname.) It is one of the few films in the festival where the tragedy is offset with quite a bit of refreshing humor. Set in 1962, it deals with a concentration camp survivor who lost his wife and son in the Holocaust and who becomes obsessed with the notion that an advisor to U.S. President Kennedy, named Waldman, is actually his lost son. Like SWEET MUD, it focuses on a young boy who tries to help his crazy parent cope with loss—and coincidentally, in each story the boy writes a letter that intends to mislead the parent into having hope. In this case, it tragically feeds the father’s delusions and exacerbates the problem. There is a very poignant sequence where the father seeks relief in the arms of a woman who turns out to also be emotionally damaged by her concentration camp experience. Despite the father’s monomania, most of the characters here are very likeable, so this is not as heavy-going as most of the tragedies that comprise the 11 features in the fest.
9. MORE THAN 1000 WORDS is very well done documentary. It profiles Ziv Koren, a photographer who is compelled to shoot confrontations in the Palestinian territories, at considerable personal risk. Filmmaker Solo Avital followed Koren for two years as the courageous, highly talented news photographer sought to balance family needs in Tel Aviv with his frequent journeys into dangerous hot spots. There is also a compelling sequence about Koren’s book about a non-Jewish Israeli army soldier who lost his legs and went through a slow, taxing rehabilitation. Although the film is just a tad too fast paced, Koren’s photography is outstanding and his story is fascinating.
10. NADIA’S FRIENDS is an interesting documentary in which Chanoch Ze’evi sets up a class reunion and goes to visit old classmates from the open-minded, multicultural elementary school that he attended from 1972 to 1980. He is startled to observe an extremist (right-wing) shift and loss of tolerance among many of his former schoolmates (and the Zionist movement he was part of) over the past 25 years. I was fascinated by the story of Nadia, the one Arab student in the otherwise all-Jewish school, how she coped and how she lives now next to the Green Line separating Jews and Palestinians.
11. PICKLES is a touching doc about eight Northern Israeli Arab widows who resist strong Muslim tradition and form their own small pickled vegetable company. The struggles they go through in their business and home lives are quite involving. Most poignant is the story of a woman whose twin daughters are forced apart by the strict in-laws of one of them—to the point that she is not permitted to attend her sister’s wedding. These lively, resilient, independent-minded women, living in a society that strictly limits most aspects of their lives, charmingly capture the viewer’s hearts.
12. THE DARIEN DILEMMA is a moving but strangely constructed documentary which tells the little-known story of 1,000 Austrian Jews who died because of screw-ups by the British and an indecisive Mossad leadership. The story itself is dramatic and moves like a good mystery, and the finale is very touching. Due to an unusual sequence of events, 1,200 Viennese Jewish children were abandoned on the banks of the Danube River in Yugoslavia while the Israeli Secret Services sold the ship that would take them to safety in Palestine to the British military. Father and son filmmakers Nahum and Erez Laufer present this dramatic story in a very odd way, interspersing traditional talking heads recollections of the events of 1939-1941, dramatizations with actors, shots of Nahum typing the screenplay, a meeting between filmmakers and actors and a bizarre sequence where the Laufers gossip about Israeli leader David Ben Gurion’s sex life. For all its weird shifts in focus, this film is still well worth seeing.
13. ALL IS WELL BY ME, directed by Erez Tadmor and Yaron Amitai, is a pretty good biographical documentary on the life of Israeli singer Josie Katz who was very popular Israeli in the 1960s and who made a comeback when she returned to Israel from the US in the 1990s. She narrates the ups and downs of her life, which was initially dominated by her abusive, alcoholic, egocentric and immature first husband and singing partner. The Israeli Academy nominated it Best Israeli Documentary in 2006. Josie is very beautiful, fragile and sympathetic, and her emotions play very clearly across her face, so we empathize as she tells of her fears, insecurities and surprising changes of fortune. The music is very pleasant and the film has good character insights into her, her sons and her screwed-up ex-husband. The film is an intelligent and sensitive treatment of a female artist’s struggles.
Without going to detail, let me strongly advise you to avoid the following films, all of which I truly disliked: the feature films
AVIVA MY LOVE, CHILDREN OF THE U.S.S.R., TIED HANDS,
THINGS BEHIND THE SUN and FROZEN DAYS and the documentaries
STORM OF EMOTIONS, WITHDRAWAL FROM GAZA and the truly hateful waste of film titled
YOEL, ISRAEL & PASHKAVILS.
In the last two decades, the Israel Film Festival has presented more than 700 feature films, documentaries, television dramas and short films to more than 750,000 filmgoers and brought hundreds of Israeli filmmakers to the U.S.
© Alan Waldman (April 2, 2007)
To read Jan's thoughts on DEAR MR. WALDMAN, LITTLE HEROES, TIED HANDS and THREE MOTHERS please
To read Jan's thoughts on LOVE & DANCE and other recent Israeli films please