Yemenite-Israeli film Golden Pomegranate premieres in Australia

(Directed by Dan Turgeman; screenplay by Robert M. Bleiweiss and Dan Turgeman; Israel 2010).

A most unusual Israeli film have its Australian premiere on Saturday night 30th July 2011 – at Sydney’s North Shore Temple EmanuelThe Golden Pomegranate is billed as the first feature film to illustrate the history of the modern state of Israel from a Yemenite perspective.

So many of our most famous screen (and literary) Zionist narratives are based on the Ashkenazi (northern and eastern European) experience of migration.  Think of Exodus, the influential 1960 film directed by Otto Preminger.  Certainly there have been Sephardic migration stories (such as the outstanding 1964 film Sallah Shabati, starring Topol, written and directed by Ephraim Kishon), but there is no doubt that modern Israeli history has mostly been written by Ashkenazi Jews.

The Golden Pomegranate is set within a framing device:  a modern-day Yemenite singer in Jerusalem (played by Achinoam – Noa – Nini) meets an elderly Arab friend of her family. The film is based on the 1995 novel The Pomegranate Pendant by Melbourne-born Jerusalem resident Dvora Waysman.

The film first screened in July 2010 at the Jerusalem Film Festival, which often provides the first international exposure to a large number of Jewish themed films.  At that festival, the film reportedly “engendered considerable in buzz Israel’s Yemenite community, and Tuesday’s premier at the festival was packed, with a few dozen elderly Yemenite women waiting outside the screening hall in hope they would be let in at the last minute,” wrote Benjamin Joffe-Walt in JewishJournal.com.

The film is sweeping in its scope, with 48 speaking parts and 300 extras, a wide variety of settings and including powerful Yemenite music.  It takes place over the period 1880s to the mid-1970s, commencing in Yemen.  The core character of the film is Mazal, who we first meet as a fourteen year-old child-bride who marries Ezra.  She arrives in Jerusalem in 1882, has two children, becomes a young widow (sorry for the plot giveaway here – Ezra reappears later to provide spiritual guidance to Mazal), and provides for her family by running her family’s jewelry making business – which she originally learned from her father.  At its heart, this is also a feminist story of women triumphing over financial, personal and historical challenges: at first semiliterate, Mazal eventually learns how to read and write, speak several languages and befriends a number of women.

The film has a wonderful aesthetic and will particularly appeal to those from Sephardic backgrounds for whom the illustration of this story can be quite profound.  The film slowly builds and the final third does provide a satisfying emotional pay-off.

A few criticisms: The English-language dialogue (with occasional bursts of welcome Hebrew) spoken by predominantly Israeli actors with a variable range of accents comes across as slightly bizarre to this native English-language speaker who understands Hebrew.  The 2007 Israeli film The Band’s Visit was actually declared ineligible for “Best Foreign Film” Oscar contention because more than 50 percent of the dialogue is in English, but at least that film had a rationale for the use of English:  the Egyptian Arabs had to find a common language with their Israeli hosts. I do recall seeing an Israeli feature film in 1988 about early Zionist settlers which was also shot in English, and the 1995 war film Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer was mostly shot in English.  While some of the acting in The Golden Pomegranate is superb, there is also some inconsistency and stilted language, part of which I mark down to the actors speaking (for them) a non-native tongue.  There is a lesson here: sometimes making a truly “local” film is preferable than trying to appeal to an international audience (Australian film producers take note!).

I also would have liked more of the modern story of the Yemenite singer (and her music!), as a means of bringing the historical points of the film together.  But that would have inevitably cut into the time allotted to the story, which needs to cover almost 100 years in about 100 minutes.

Some viewers may also be put off by the change in actors of some of the key roles as they age throughout the film.  The Americans do this very well, almost perfectly matching younger actors to their older selves (anyone seen Beaches recently:  check out the young Bette Midler; or Annie Hall’s childhood version of Woody Allen in one of the opening scenes). The Golden Pomegranate follows a more European tradition, in which actors are changed mid-way through without the same level of concern for consistency of looks.  Israeli film-making tends to take a more European approach to story-telling, which is best described as more artistically interpretative than the literalness Americans so frequently have.

You can view the trailer for the film here:

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