AICE Israeli Film Festival – Sydney and Melbourne

The following article about the AICE Israeli Film Festival appeared in the Australian Jewish News on August 20, 2009 in a shorter (edited) format.  The complete article is below.

Cant’ make it to Israel this year?  Well, this month’s Israeli film festival (organised by Australia Israel Cultural Exchange – AICE – opening on 25 August 2009 in Melbourne and 1 September 2009 in Sydney) is just about your second best choice, with a wonderful depth and breadth of themes reflecting modern Israeli society, life, culture and concerns.

Of the fourteen films which premiere this year, a number of interesting themes surface.  One of the most persistent of these is that of generational conflict and family commitment; this lies behind what are likely to be the two most popular festival films, both highly accessible modern dramas:  Lost Islands – the opening night film, and Zrubavel, about Israeli-Ethiopian life.

Lost Islands arrives with a strong pedigree:  last year (2008), it was the biggest Israeli-produced hit within Israel and won four Israeli Film Academy awards, with eight additional nominations.  The publicity description describes it as an “Israeli American Graffiti”, but that is only because it concentrates on the “coming of age” of young men, particularly non-identical twins Erez (Michael Moshonov) and Ofer (Oshri Cohen).  I would liken the film more like Diner (1982), American-Jewish director Barry Levinson’s first film, neatly mixing comedy and drama.

Lost Islands is the first feature from Israeli writer/director Reshef Levy, who comes to this story of sibling rivalry and guilt naturally:  according to the Internet Movie Database, Levy always credits his dead brother as his co-writer, as a tribute to his memory.   Lost Islands is a comedy, of sorts, but one overlaid with the challenges faced by a partly dysfunctional family.  The two brothers, their two siblings (an older brother and a younger sister) are part of a close family, with emotionally demanding parents.  And Erez and Ofer have an agreement:  what one wishes to do, the other stays away from.  So although Erez has his heart set on becoming a paratrooper, all their plans all go awry when an attractive new girl, Neta (Yuval Scharf), arrives at their school after some years spent in Iran, and both boys fall in love with her.

The result is a complex relationship triangle which is then complicated further by a family tragedy, putting an almost unbearable strain on everyone concerned as they attempt to balance family loyalty with their own desire to follow dreams.  Lost Islands (the title comes from a 1976 American television series about teenagers shipwrecked on some islands) is set in 1980, a time of greater innocence than now (but isn’t that always the case?) which gives the film a unique sense of melancholy.  Despite introducing a few too many story lines, the film works well due to some outstanding performances and the ability to capture a universal conflict between siblings and parents and children, setting the story neatly in a time well-remembered.

By contrast, the film Zrubavel is set very much in the present of modern Israel, where Ethiopian immigrants are still caught between a tribal African past and a contemporary Israeli present.   The older generation is typified by patriarch Gite Zrubavel (Meir Desai, in an outstanding performance), a former colonel in the Ethiopian army who is now reduced to sweeping streets.  But this has not diminished his powerful ambitions for his children and grandchildren.  Son Gili (Abina Beru) is bright and articulate but hangs around with Ethiopian gangs in scenes that could be taken right from a Spike Lee film, and is discouraged from entering a selective high school because of his background and his family’s poverty.

That’s one point the film wants to make:  the racism these migrants experience is similar to that experienced by poor African-Americans in the USA.  And to make the point even clearer, the film opens as one grandchild – who has taken on the nickname “Spike Lee”- does a clever autobiographical fictional documentary that introduces his family.  Daughter Almaz is insistent on rejecting an arranged marriage, preferring a love match instead, but tragically she is “related” to her boyfriend, as Ethiopian families insist on going back seven generations to make certain there is no common blood.  Daughter Hana has married an Ethiopian who has turned religious – and breathtakingly insensitive to his wife and children.

Zruvabavel is the first Israeli film totally made by Ethiopians, and provides a loving “inside out” perspective on the Ethiopian experience, with dialogue in both Amharic and Hebrew.  While it has a passing similarity with Live and Become, an Israeli-French co-production which opened in Australia two years ago, this film tells a unique story of a family in cultural disorder and stress.

Zrubavel was written and directed by Ethiopian-born Shmuel Beru, who had never made a film before.  It was produced only $150,000, and shot mostly in Beru’s home town of Hadera.  The film rings true with a strong sense of true incidents from Beru’s life and family.  The result is highly engaging, very entertaining and deeply affecting:  my choice for pick of the festival.

Whereas Zrubavel is a fictionalised account of Ethiopian life, the documentary Yiddishe Mama explores an real inter-racial relationship between Russian immigrant Gennady Kuchuk (who also co-directed the film) and Nurit, his Ethiopian girlfriend who he wants to marry.  His mother Zina refuses to accept this partnership, flatly questioning why he can’t find a nice “white” girl.  And here’s a fascinating connection:  Kuchuk was the cinematographer for Beru on Zrubavel.

The festival features three other documentaries:  Chronicle of a Kidnap which details the heartbreaking story of Karnit Goldwasser – the wife of kidnapped Israeli solder Ehud (one of the events that led to the July 2006 Lebanon war).  The film is stunningly made, and tells us much we did not know about the event itself and the devastating emotional aftermath.  Nine Years Later is also a documentary about a family undergoing a painful struggle in a mixed culture:  Danielle is a Jew who grew up in Morocco as a Muslim, and fights to bring up her son.

On a lighter note, Eye Witness – 60 Years is a documentary about the work of famed Israeli photographer (and Israel Prize laureate) David Rubinger, who has been photographing key events in Israeli history since 1947.  Rubinger features throughout, discussing his own work, along with comments by his wife and others.  It’s a lovely opportunity to be reminded of how significant some of his work has been in creating the image of Israel over the past sixty years.  In a neat twist, the film follows Rubinger as he successfully attempts to track down the original subjects of a number of his most famous photographs.  While this might seem to be a manipulative trick, the result is frequently deeply affecting, as we slowly realise that these subjects of Rubinger’s historic photographs are proud of and deeply value their iconic roles in portraying Israel’s visual history.

Terrorism and its psychological aftermath is the central point of the feature film 7 Minutes in Heaven, an Israeli-French-Hungarian co-production which follows the experiences of Galia (Amsallem Raymond), the physically and emotionally scarred survivor of a Jerusalem bus bombing.  With little fanfare, this spare and delicately observed film unfolds like a mystery, detailing Galia’s journey as she moves from deep-seated psychological trauma to a new place of acceptance and knowledge.  Combining elements of romance with resonance to the work of Christopher Nolan (Memento) and Krzysztof Kieslowski (The Double Life of Veronique), this frequently tense and powerful film won the best film award at last year’s Haifa Film Festival.

(If you want to see more of David Rubinger’s photos, go to this 2008 Time magazine article, where you can view 16 photos from his book Israel Through My Lens.)

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One Response to AICE Israeli Film Festival – Sydney and Melbourne

  1. Keith says:

    Another connection between Yiddishe Mama and Zrubavel is that Nurit, Kuchuk’s wife to be in Yiddishe Mama, is the sister of Shmuel Beru, the director of Zrubavel.

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