"World Cinema: Israel"

My book, "World Cinema: Israel", is available from Amazon on "Kindle", with an in-depth chapter comparing and analyzing internationally acclaimed Israeli films up to 2010.

My next speaking tour to North America will be in October 2015! Contact me if you are interested in my speaking in your community. My contact info: amykronish@gmail.com

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Yom HaShoah

Tonight, Yom HaShoah is commemorated in Israel.  I want to review here some of the most important films, made in Israel, which honor the memory of those who perished during that time.

The large masses of immigrants who arrived in Israel from Europe during the years following the Second World War altered the earlier image of the pioneering "new Jew”  which had been so prevalent in Israeli society and in Israeli film.  These Holocaust survivors, who were once stigmatized and learned to be silent about their wartime experiences and traumas, eventually began to share their memories.  The first groundbreaking film which altered our view of the Holocaust survivor was the award-winning Summer of Aviya (Eli Cohen, 1986, fiction) and its sequel, Under the Domim Tree. The stories of survivors are now honored and heard in numerous films.   

Young Israelis, perhaps suffering from over-exposure to Holocaust stories and commemorative events, or from what some have called “Holocaust fatigue”, have learned to grapple with the importance of memory – one through the use of rock music (Due to that War, Orna Ben Dor, 1986, about singer, Yehuda Poliker and his lyricist, Yaakov Gilad, both children of survivors), others through the use of black humor (Babcha, Micky Zilbershtein,1998), and another through a chance encounter with a survivor at Dachau (Martin, Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, 1999). Holocaust consciousness has permeated every aspect of contemporary Israeli culture – film, literature, politics, music and television, and Israelis continue to live in an ongoing shadow of the Shoah.   

Often, the Arab enemy has been compared to the Nazis – out to wipe all Israelis and Jews from the face of the earth (Hill 24 Doesn't Answer, Thorold Dickinson, 1954).  More recently, however, some Israelis are tired of seeing Nazis in all of their enemies, and they are standing up and saying: I'm finished with fighting the Nazis; let's get on with life as normal (in Eitan Fox and Gal Uchovsky's  enormously successful, Walk on Water,  2003). 

In addition, I want to draw attention to the following documentary films which offer some of the most important expressions of memory -- you can find reviews of all of these on this blog --
  • Bureau 06 by Yoav Halevy
  • The Flat by Arnon Goldfinger
  • Six Million and One by David Fisher
  • A Film Unfinished by Yael Hersonski
  • The Green Dumpster Mystery by Tel Haim Yoffie
  • The Hangman by Netalie Braun 

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Kindergarten Teacher

The Kindergarten Teacher ,  הגננת  ,  directed by Nadav Lapid, is about whether or not we appreciate poetry and poets in our society. This is a subject that could have been of interest to the film-going public, but this film does not succeed in gripping us sufficiently so that we can empathize with this issue.

The story is about a kindergarten teacher, Nira, who becomes obsessed with a 5-year-old boy who writes poetry.  Nira notices that Yoav, one of her pre-school children, goes into a trance every now and then, paces back and forth, and begins to recite poetry.  She becomes fascinated by this, begins to favor the child, tries to teach him special things, and copies down his poetry.  Nira is married with two grown children and is attending a poetry workshop where she presents Yoav's poems as her own.  Her obsession enters every aspect of her life -- for example, she answers a phone call from Yoav so that he can tell her his newest poem,  even as her husband is trying to make love to her (even his full frontal male nudity does not seem to distract her from this phone call)!

Poetry in the film is portrayed as sensitive and artistic, versus the heroic and masculine virtues of our society. We see this in two scenes -- when Nira's son's army officer congratulates them on making their son into "a soldier, a human being, a man" and at the Chanukah celebration when the children sing about Judah the Maccabee as the heroic "redeemer of the nation."  Yoav's father, a successful businessman and restauranteur, is obviously against his little boy becoming a poet and he does not want to encourage it, since he feels that poets are unappreciated in our society.

According to Uri Klein, the film critic for Ha'aretz, this is the best Israeli film of the past year!  But I choose to differ. 

I got tired of the film when it began to enter into the realm of political statements.  Nira takes Yoav to the beach and teaches him a poem about Ashkenazim and Sephardim, trying to radicalize him and teach him about societal issues.  Not only does this seem inappropriate for a little boy, but it seems to be derailing the narrative construct. 

Mostly, I felt that the pacing was drawn out and the camerawork was always drawing attention to itself.  The  camera lingered too long on each face, on each moment, on each scene, creating a self-indulgent, troubling, uneasy feeling, and creating too much sexual innuendo.  When Nira showers the little boy because he got sandy in the sandbox, the camera watches her every movement so closely, creating exaggerated sexual tension and making us feel terribly uneasy.

According to the filmmaker, Nadav Lapid, the film is semi-autobiographical, in that he was that little boy who wrote poetry.  I much preferred his previous film, The Policeman (previously reviewed on this blog). 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Lia van Leer -- In Memory

Lia van Leer was a unique individual who succeeded in establishing new institutions, inspired by her own vision and passion. In a country where film had been primarily seen as a form of entertainment or a means of propaganda, van Leer, through her untiring efforts, has helped change that image and raise filmmaking and film appreciation to a new level. As a result, film is now seen as an expression of culture and art, and is funded as such by government agencies.

She passed away last night at the age of 90. May she rest in peace.

I worked for Lia for 15 years.  During that time, I learned a tremendous amount from a greater-than-life woman who was obsessed and committed to her work.  She especially expressed interest and encouragement in two big projects which I curated -- the Yiddish Film Festival (in cooperation with the National Center for Jewish Film in Waltham, Massachusetts) and the establishment of the annual Jewish Film Festival.  She always saw Jewish and Yiddish film as a commemoration to her parents who she lost in the Shoah. 

Winner of the Israel Prize for her contribution to the field of cinema in Israel, she is remembered for establishing the Haifa Cinematheque, the Jerusalem Cinematheque, the Israel Film Archive and the Jerusalem International Film Festival.

Please see the biography that I wrote about her for the Jewish Women's Archive on-line. 

[the text of this biography was approved by Lia when it was written about 10 years ago]

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Lost Scrolls of Deuteronomy

This fascinating documentary film, Shapira and I (directed by Yoram Sabo), unfolds like a detective story, layer by layer.  This is the story of  Moses Shapira who sold ancient manuscripts in a shop in the Christian Quarter in Jerusalem's Old City during the latter half of the 19th century. During those years, Shapira had in his possession ancient scrolls of the Book of Deuteronomy but experts at the British Museum decided that the scrolls were a forgery.  Shortly thereafter, Shapira committed suicide and the scrolls disappeared.

Filmmaker Yoram Sabo, together with cinematographer Yoram Millo, take us on a compelling journey searching for this lost treasure -- the ancient scrolls of Deuteronomy.  As the story unfolds, we meet historical researchers, book dealers, and even a British psychic!  We visit a dusty collection of historical artifacts in a London basement.  We learn that Shapira converted to Christianity and joined Christ Church in Jerusalem.  We read from a book by one of his daughters who describes her father's shop in the Old City.  And most importantly, we begin to realize why researchers today believe that these scrolls of the Book of Deuteronomy were actually authentic.

If you are a connoisseur of Jewish history and find meaning in the Dead Sea Scrolls, then this fascinating story of Moses Shapira will certainly interest you!  

Shapira and I (documentary, 57 minutes) is available from Ruth Diskin Films.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Next to Her, a film about two sisters

Next to Her את לי לילה  , directed by Asaf Korman, was the big prize-winner at the last Haifa Film Festival, October 2014. This is an emotional and hard-hitting film about caring for a disabled sister, about relationships, about frustration and loneliness.

The film tells the story of two sisters living together in Haifa.  Gabby is mentally-challenged.  She is cared for by her older sister, Cheli, who works during the day as a security guard at a local high school.  It isn't easy to care for such a sister.  The difficulties, loneliness and frustrations are all apparent.  Eventually Cheli finds a day-care program for her sister and begins to take her there regularly, while she is at work.   But they are still very close, sleeping together every night, bathing together, sharing a somewhat ambivalent relationship.  Eventually Cheli meets a guy -- he's the substitute gym teacher at the high school.  As expected, this begins to affect the relationship between the sisters.

According to an interview on Israeli Radio with the screenwriter, Liron Ben Shlush (who plays Cheli and is the wife of the film director), the image of the sister takes inspiration from her own sister.  The story of the film was born in an acting workshop where she decided to write a scene about what would have happened to her if she hadn't had such a supportive family around her, how her life would have been different.

In fact, the viewer wonders about this too.   Just when we are asking ourselves about  the rest of the family, the mother pays a visit and we realize that she is not capable of caring for Gabby.  She has no empathy or love for her severely-disabled daughter.  

This is an artistic yet realistic film.  The pacing is superb, and the acting by both of the lead women characters (Cheli is played by Ben Shlush and Gabby is played by Dana Ivgy) is a tour-de-force.  As the film draws you in, the twists in the narrative cause you to gasp, and the hard-hitting nature of the material leaves you extraordinarily affected long after.

The title of the film in Hebrew, את לי לילה , At Li Laylah, is taken from a Boaz Sharabi song, which you can listen to on youtube. 

Next to Her was produced by United King.

Student Films from Ma'aleh

Just last week, I had the opportunity of attending the screening of this year's graduation films from the Ma'aleh Film School.    I love viewing and analyzing student films because they provide us with a window into the subjects that are of concern to the younger generation.  If you are doing film programming, take note of this year's group of six films which are of particularly high quality and definitely worthwhile!  There are three short dramas, one video-art and two documentaries.

Three Short Dramas

short drama, 28 min., Dir: Alon Rabinovich

Valdimir is the lighting technician at the Jerusalem Theater, but he dreams of much more -- he wants to be an actor and play Shylock on the stage.  This is an interesting and authentic drama about Jewish identity, about who is a Jew, and about who has a monopoly on being Jewish. 

Riding his bike to work one day, Vladimir meets an old friend from Russia who has become haredi and is helping people put on tefillin on Ben Yehuda St.  His friend puts the tefillin on him and Vladimir is quite moved by the experience.  But he finds it a challenge to discuss with his wife the changes that he is feeling.   The story develops and it is interesting to see how the couple eventually finds their way.

The Little Dictator
short drama, 29 min., Dir: Nurit Cohn

Yossi is a nerdy professor whose area of specialization is totalitarian leadership.  Unappreciated by his students, Yossi goes home at the end of the day to a domineering wife and three children.  At a family weekend where the extended family is celebrating Grandma's 90th birthday, he finds himself in a surreal situation, but is able to vindicate himself.  A tour-de-force in acting and directing. 

The French Revolution
short drama, 21 min., Dir: Hai Afik

A noisy street disturbance bursts into the home of a young couple as two hooligans barge in and destroy their well-being.  A very hard-hitting film about cruelty, humiliation and self-respect.


Wall, Crevice, Tear 
video-art, 11 min., no language, Dir.: Tehila Ra'anan

A poetic visit to the Kotel (Western Wall).  This is a film of beauty and yearning,  filmed during different seasons of the year, expressing  feelings about the meaning of the Kotel for both the pious and the secular. 

About Disabilities - Two documentaries

Hannah is Beautiful
doc., 22 min., Dir.: Shira Meisher

Hannah is a 37-year-old woman with mental challenges, who lives in an apartment sponsored by the non-profit organization, Shekel.  This is a touching look at a woman who desperately wishes she could find love.  She works full-time in a government cafeteria and is terribly disappointed when she is refused a raise.  She takes great care with what she wears, her make-up, how she looks.  On the one hand, we've seen films like this before.  On the other, it is a poignant portrait of a wonderful woman who believes that she has to make the best of what life has given her.  

Mazal Means Luck
doc., 29 min., Dir: Mazal Ben-Yishai

The filmmaker's parents are mentally challenged and the filmmaker was brought up in one household by both her parents and grandparents.  In fact, the film beautifully integrates old family movies in order to tell the story of this remarkable family.  Now that her grandparents are getting older, they are grappling with where her parents will go to live when the grandparents are gone.  Is it the young woman's responsibility to live with her parents, sacrificing her life to them in order to take care of them?