Film appreciation in a time of war

July 20, 2014

Did you ever wonder what it’s like to attend a film festival in a time of war? Tal Kra-Oz’s recent article in Tablet  (18 July 2014) gives a good, insider’s perspective of this month’s Jerusalem Film Festival, where screenings are interrupted by sirens and the obligatory temporary removal to basement rooms filled with old film reels.

Israel’s artistic elite – of which film-makers are a solid part – are notably more left-wing and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than the majority of the population.  Thus, the pall cast on this year’s Festival is yet another tragic by-product of the Israel-Hamas conflict now taking place.

But, as Kra-Oz writes, the show does indeed go on: “even when the cannons and sirens are heard, the muses are anything but silent”.

And what a show the Israelis had to boast about. In a country of just 7.8 million people, last year the country produced and released 40 feature films.  In the May Cannes Film Festival, seven Israeli films had official screenings: five features, one documentary and one student film.  Compare that to Australia, almost three times as large (population 23,537,000) , which released 26 films in 2013 and had three films in official Cannes categories (The Rover, Charlie’s Country and These Final Hours).

Kra-Oz’s article captures the spirit of the dynamism of Israeli film-making.  How this relates to the country’s on-again, off-again conflict with the Palestinians is clearly complicated and overlaid with more than 100 years of history.

After some 22+ years of unbroken economic growth, is life too good for us here in Australia?  Do we not have enough to worry about to make good films?  It may be no coincidence that Australia’s greatest success at Cannes this year was Rolf de Heer’s Charlie’s Country, in which lead Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil – playing a role in part based on his own life – won the “best actor” award in the “Un certain regard” competition.   Indigenous Australians are among this country’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged, and those living in remote regions – such as Gulpilil’s character – even more so.

David Gulpilil(photo above:  David Gulpilil in Charlie’s Country)


Fill the Void film review

December 3, 2013

This film review of “Fill the Void” was published in a slightly different form in the Melbourne edition of the Australian Jewish News on 28 November 2013.  Sydney release to follow.

Written and directed by Rama Burshtein

Starring Hadas Yaron, Chaim Sharir, Ido Samuel, Irit Sheleg, Yiftach Klein and Hila Feldman


I am old enough to remember an historic moment in Israeli film: when “Beyond the Walls” was released in Australian cinemas in 1984 – the first time an Israeli film opened here theatrically.  At the time, Israeli films were rough, unsophisticated – and rare.

How times have changed. This week’s opening of “Fill the Void”, following its successful premiere at the Jewish International Film Festival, shows just how far the Israeli films have come.

“Fill the Void” is set in an ultra-Orthodox community in modern day Israel, and tells an intimate Jane Austen-style story of Shira, an 18 year old woman who is facing a major life choice.  When her older sister Esther dies in childbirth, she comes under increasing pressure to marry her late sister’s husband, Yochay (Yiftach Klein).  In that way, her baby nephew, the first born of the next generation and beloved by all, would remain in Israel.  This is the alternative to the tempting offer that Yochay has of a match with a suitable widow who lives in Belgium.  Thus the choice is set young Shira, who had been expecting someone much closer to her age.

Shira (winningly played by Hadas Yaron) is already preparing for marriage, and having a number of “dates”, ultra-Orthodox style.  These consist of short ‘at home’ interviews with immature young men, barely older than her, who ask clunky questions.  Shira, by contrast, is wise beyond her years, and has an inner stillness and a beautiful – but not yet fully appreciated – soul.

Ultimately, it is women who drive this film – Esther’s death, an aunt with an unusual physical affliction, Shira’s choice and the pressure on Shira from her mother (Irit Sheleg), a powerful figure indeed.  The men, try as they might, are secondary to the women’s concerns – and their ultimate power and control.

Writer/director Rama Burshtein is, apparently, the first ultra-Orthodox woman to direct a dramatic feature film aimed at a wide audience.  It may be a while before we see another:  New York-born Burshtein became religious after attending the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem; it’s hard to imagine an ultra-Orthodox woman choosing to study secular film-making.  But after Burshtein’s lead, anything is possible.

Modern films with Chassidic characters are not new.  Chaim Potok’s book “The Chosen” (1981) was made into a well-received film.  Barbra Streisand’s “Yentl” (1983) examined romance from an unusual feminist perspective.  Sidney Lumet’s “A Stranger Among Us” (1992) detailed a murder investigation in New York’s Chassidic community.  It’s fair to say that these films – all written and directed by Jews – still had an “outside in” perspective on ultra Orthodox Jewish life.  “Fill the Void” is different, made by people who know it intimately.

And “Fill the Void” is indeed intimate, mostly set in small, crowded, almost claustrophobic interiors.  The focus is on the characters and their relationships with each other.  Each gesture and each word matters; Burshtein exhibits an unexpected level of restraint and control in the scenes.  Each frame has meaning.

Although set in modern-day Tel Aviv – an interesting choice, not Jerusalem or B’nei Brak – one reason for  the film’s success is its timelessness; it could just as easily have been set in modern New York or Europe a century ago.  But a good script and a strong director require actors with the skills to make it happen, and here Burshtein allowed herself to cast non-religious actors.  As Shira, whose emotional journey provides the film’s core, Yaron gives a performance of exquisite subtlety.  She won best actress at the Venice Film Festival and as well as Israel’s 2012 “Ophir” Awards (where the film virtually swept the awards), and some even promoted her for a possible Oscar nomination (nice idea, but unfortunately no chance).

Intergenerational tensions, the politics of marriage and the competition between women for the best men – Austen presented these 200 years ago.  “Fill the Void” provides a fresh take on these timeless themes, in an unusual but somehow appropriate setting.  The result is well worth watching.

Fill the Void film photo

Fill the Void

Brad Pitt and World War Z – a great hit – who wudda thought?

August 14, 2013

Today’s email brought a fascinating press release from the publicity department of Paramount Pictures Australia.  Here’s the title:  “’World War Z’ becomes Brad Pitt’s highest grossing worldwide release and his biggest domestic grossing film of all time”.

Dated yesterday (August 11, 2013) in Hollywood, CA, the release announces that,  “Brad Pitt’s ‘World War Z’ has now earned over $500 million at worldwide box office, making it the actor’s highest grossing worldwide release, surpassing the star’s ‘Troy’ which grossed $497.3 million globally”.  Of this amount, $197.4 million is in the USA (ed note: perhaps they mean North America, which includes Canada?) and $305.2 million outside of North America.  This has now outstripped Pitt’s previous best US box office – “Mr and Mrs Smith”, which has a total box office domestic gross of $186.3 million.

Who wudda thought?

There is much to “unpack” here.  First, I place “Troy” – with its confusing mix of accents – and “Mr and Mrs Smith” – with its nasty edge on domestic life, as two my LEAST favourite Brad Pitt movies.  (Okay, add “Tree of Life” to that too.)  So clearly I am in a minority.  But also remember that “Troy” was released in 2004 – nine years ago, and its approximate box office figure of $500 million – what with ticket price inflation – would be worth at least $657 million (say, 31% more) now.  (Click here for Brad Pitt’s Box Office Mojo page – all details in one place!)  Yet again, the public relations people ignore the reality of history and the facts of economics ….

And note how “World War Z” has earned a good 60% of its box office OUTSIDE of North America.

In “World War Z”, Brad Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a former United Nations public health specialist (hooray for the public health professionals) who saves the world – as a matter of speaking – from a zombie plague.  Yeah, that plague.

“World War Z”, to its credit, takes the whole premise seriously (no “winks” at the audience here).  And part of the film is set in Israel (although apparently filmed in Malta), as the Pitt character travels there because the Israelis reportedly had predicted the pandemic and took precautions in advance.  There has been much online discussion about the positive portrayal of Israel in the film.  (Yeah, watch the film and see exactly what happens at the end of the Israel section.  Positive?)  Israeli actress Daniella Kartesz has a starring role opposite Pitt, playing an Israeli soldier – not a love interest, but a brave one.

Here’s an interesting video story from “Jewish News One” about Kartesz, who is likely to have quite a career.

Don’t get me wrong; I liked “World War Z” a lot.  The opening scenes were genuinely some of the most chilling I have seen in a movie in a long time – the slow dawning of realisation that life as they know it has disappeared forever.  It’s just the misplaced box office hype that bothers me.

Apples Apples

December 18, 2011

Back in the early 1970s as part of my pursuit of my utopian dream and my Jewish identity, I lived on Kibbutz Gonen in the Upper Galilee of Israel for a total of almost twelve months, in two different periods.  During most of that time I worked in the apple orchards, in the middle of the Huleh Valley.  I picked apples in the season, I pruned the trees in the winter, I sprayed the trees in the spring and I sorted them in the sorting “factory”.

I share this information with you so that you, the reader, will understand that I do indeed know apples.  In Hebrew, for instance, the “Granny Smith” apple is called – to the best of my recollection – “Grannismeet”.  And the “Rome Beauty” is called “Yofie Roma”.

And here’s something which I did NOT know, from an article by John Seabrook in The New Yorker of November 21, 2011, entitled “Crunch: Building a better apple”:

The Granny Smith apple was originally discovered growing on a compost pile on a farm in Australia in the 1860s, and of course became the logo for The Beatles’ “Apple Records”.  But the newer forms of apples all are different: “Instead of standing mostly for places and people” (Granny Smith, Rome Beauty), newer apples “stand for images, sounds and ideas – Royal Gala (a personal favourite!), Pink Lady, Jazz.”  Have a look below.

Film review of Lebanon

November 25, 2010

(This film review of Lebanon appeared in the Australian Jewish News on November 25, 2010.)  (In Hebrew, with English subtitles.)

Directed and written by Samuel Maoz

Starring Yoav Donat, Itay Tiran, Oshri Cohen, Michael Moshonov and Zohar Strauss

From its opening shot in a field of waving sunflowers, the Israeli film Lebanon marks itself as different and demanding attention.  This first feature by Tel Aviv-born director Samuel Maoz tells the story of an Israeli tank crew during an incursion into Lebanon during the 1982 Lebanese war.  We have seen great and harrowing films about Lebanon before, notably Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort (2007) and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008), however Maoz brings an entirely new perspective to war films: this entire film is shot within and from the perspective of the tank crew.  In other words, this film takes place only within a tank, giving it certain similarity to the recent American film Buried (a man buried in a coffin in Iraq), possibly starting a trend which might be called the “new wave” of “claustrophobic film-making”.

This is film-making from straight from the heart and the stomach.  As a twenty year-old, Maoz spent part of the 1982 Lebanon War in a tank, and this clearly is his story.  He introduces his film thus:

On June 6, 1982, at 6:15 AM, I killed a man for the first time in my life. I did not do so    by choice, nor was I ordered to do so.  I reacted in an instinctive act of self defense, an act with no emotional or intellectual motivation, only the basic survival instinct that takes no human factors into account, an instinct that forces itself on a person facing a tangible threat of death. On June 6, 1982, I was 20 years old.

Twenty-five years later, Samuel Maoz wrote the first draft of the script of Lebanon, which he describes as “straight from my gut”, with “no intellectual cognition …. I wrote what I felt.”

The idea of the film is breath-taking – a whole war seen primarily through the faces and viewpoints of the four tank operators:  Shmulik the gunner (Yoav Donat) – who watches much of the action outside framed through his scope, Assi the commander (Itay Tiran), Herzl the loader (Oshri Cohen) and Yigal the driver (Michael Moshonov).  They have occasional visitors who literally pop in the tank’s top hatch, mostly the paratroop commander Jamil (Zohar Strauss), who assures them that it will be a “cakewalk” (it isn’t), a dead paratrooper’s body (an “angel” in the soldiers’ lingo) and a Syrian prisoner.  Why are the Syrians there?  The soldiers have no idea.  In fact, they barely know who they are fighting and why.  All they want to do is survive.

Shmulik, terrified in his first actual shooting, is responsible for firing the tank’s powerful weapons and near the beginning of the film he “chokes”, with disastrous results.  Is Shmulik director Maoz’s character stand-in?  We are not certain, but it’s my guess he is.

This is war, brutal, harrowing, deeply disturbing, full of death and destruction.  The impact on Lebanese civilians is seen both in close-up and at a remove through the scope (the cinematography by Giora Bejach is stunning).  The implications are clear: the village they have entered has been decimated, and innocents have been slaughtered, some by “terrorists” and some inadvertently by the Israelis themselves.

What holds Lebanon back from making a greater emotional impact on the viewer is that we simply do not learn enough about the actual characters to care sufficiently about them; the script gives us no “back story”, no parents, lovers, girlfriends or immediate past as a context to know why they are feeling how they do.  This, of course, may be part of the point:  war exists in its own universe, separate from any other.  But it does mean that while Lebanon the film will leave you shaken and shocked, these characters will not remain with you long enough.

If there were any uncertainty as to whether Israeli film-making had entered a golden age, Lebanon erases that doubt.  The result is a visceral experience, not for the faint-hearted or the weak.  It is a truly accomplished film, fully deserving of its “Golden Lion” award at last year’s Venice Film Festival and its ten nominations at the Israel film awards (where it won four).

Here is a trailer of the film Lebanon, with unofficial, but still effective, English subtitles:

Will Israel bomb Iran?

September 22, 2010

Will Israel bomb Iran?  American writer Jeffrey Goldberg thinks so, predicting that it is “likely” that some time in the (northern) spring of 2011, the Israelis – feeling threatened by the Iranian development of nuclear weapons – will take the great risk of going it alone to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, possibly followed up by commando raids.  Writing in the September 2010 issue of The Atlantic in an article entitled “The Point of No Return”, Goldberg writes what is certainly the most powerful “run-on” sentence I have read for a very long time:

When the Israelis begin to bomb the uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz, the formerly secret enrichment site at Qom, the nuclear-research center at Esfahan, and possibly even the Bushehr reactor, along with the other main sites of the Iranian nuclear program, a short while after they depart en masse from their bases across Israel—regardless of whether they succeed in destroying Iran’s centrifuges and warhead and missile plants, or whether they fail miserably to even make a dent in Iran’s nuclear program—they stand a good chance of changing the Middle East forever; of sparking lethal reprisals, and even a full-blown regional war that could lead to the deaths of thousands of Israelis and Iranians, and possibly Arabs and Americans as well; of creating a crisis for Barack Obama that will dwarf Afghanistan in significance and complexity; of rupturing relations between Jerusalem and Washington, which is Israel’s only meaningful ally; of inadvertently solidifying the somewhat tenuous rule of the mullahs in Tehran; of causing the price of oil to spike to cataclysmic highs, launching the world economy into a period of turbulence not experienced since the autumn of 2008, or possibly since the oil shock of 1973; of placing communities across the Jewish diaspora in mortal danger, by making them targets of Iranian-sponsored terror attacks, as they have been in the past, in a limited though already lethal way; and of accelerating Israel’s conversion from a once-admired refuge for a persecuted people into a leper among nations.

Yes, that’s all one sentence.  But implicit in the fact that there is no “period” or “full stop” is that once this happens (again, which Goldberg feels is more likely rather than less), it will unleash a series of powerful and very fast-moving events.  This is powerful stuff, and if it takes place, lots of things will not be the same.  By no means does everyone agree with Goldberg:  read this intelligent response piece by Israeli freelance journalist Noam Sheizaf on his blog Promised Land.

Goldberg is also the author of a fascinating and deeply engaging book entitled Prisoners: A Muslim and Jew Across the Middle East Divide (2006).