“S#x Acts” (“Shesh Peamim”)
Sexual Abuse in Israel
More than once I have read that if a film is American and about sex it is considered dirty while foreign films about sex are considered art. I understand this to mean that American films have a juvenile attitude toward sex (the “American Pie” series) while foreign films look at sex with a more mature eye. “S#x Acts” an Israeli film directed by Jonathan Gurfinkel, is most definitely serious, and it’s most definitely of artistic intent. However, it also doesn’t tell you much about the provocative subject of teen sexuality that you don’t already know.
The story is set in the present. Gili (Sivan Levy) is a teen that changes schools and she is determined to improve her lame social status. Over the course of a few weeks she hooks up with several different boys, all from her new school. Their encounters get more and more sexual, exploring their limits each time further. The boys are eager to take what is so generously offered, and Gili is thrilled to get the attention. There are no tears, no complaints, no consequences, and no adults. There is no one who says that maybe something is wrong and the teens here get up to some truly irresponsible sexual behavior.
The title in English is ambiguous— it can be read as both “six acts” (a nod to the film’s structure) or “sex acts,” and whose use of the pound sign suggests the centrality of new technology to the lives of its characters. Even though the circulation of an impromptu sex video plays a key role in the film, the technological angle is almost a side note to the meatier stuff of a naturalistic portrait of teenage behavior.
Gili is most romantically inclined toward the most noxious of the three, Omri (Eviator Mor); she half rebuffs his efforts and half rewards them, agreeing to fellate him, but not let him penetrate her in a club bathroom. Things continue to get worse for Gili, as she has sex with another kid in which the question of her consent becomes highly blurred, and later gets humiliated at a party thrown by Omri.
So why does Gili put up with this behavior? That’s the question the film asks, and its refusal to provide definitive answers is both its most admirable and most troubling quality. Gurfinkel and screenwriter Rona Segal present a young woman in a precarious position, desperate to make an impression at a new school, troubled by economic factors (her family is of far more modest means then her new acquaintances), and, presumably, in search of genuine affection. She uses the only tool she knows how to use, her sexuality, to bridge the gap, but the result is that the boys view her increasingly as a purely sexual object.
The film’s observational stance, which, coupled with an aesthetic of rough-hewn camerawork and blurred backgrounds, offers only selective glimpses of the teens and their actions, we never know exactly what Gili’s motivations are. Therefore the film can illustrate patterns of behavior rather than drive home theses about the desperate cycles of teenage sexuality.
The film comes close to presenting Gili as a willing perpetrator in her own victimhood yet the film’s ultimately sympathetic viewpoint never allows it to quite cross the line and it remains a worthwhile piece of work.
Gurfinkel shows how secular teens residing in the affluent beachfront suburbs of Tel Aviv are every bit as horny, lonely, self-centered, and destructive as their fresh-faced American cousins who we have seen in films. The film is divided into six episodes. We first meet 16-year-old Gili after she’s transferred to a new high school and is uploading photos of herself onto a local social web site in hopes of making friends. The self-taken shots do gain attention, but not of the right sort. Because she is poor, unstylish, and not attractive enough, Gili seems like an easy plaything to exploit by the “in” boys in town and that’s exactly what they plan to do.
Tomer (Roy Nik) desires a hand-job, his pal “Why-don’t you-shave-it?” Omri (Mor) graduates Gili into oral sex, overweight “loser” Shabat (Niv Zilberberg) takes her a bit further, and eventually Gili will be offered up as a bar mitzvah present, and there is still more to come. Gili perfectly captures the neediness of a young girl wanting to belong and willing to say “yes” to any offer that might lead to romance and acceptance but the film with its “based-upon-true-life” screenplay by Rona Segal unfortunately does not give us enough of a back story to allow us to understand Gili’s degradation.
Gili apparently likes Tomer, and has a sexual encounter with him. His friend is the rich, good-looking, popular Omri who will then hit on Gili and have a dry-humping encounter with her in a pool in front of Tomer. This is “Act One” and “Act Two.” “Act Three” involves Gili giving Omri a blowjob while another boy – Shabat – watches and touches her buttocks. It is frustrating watching her put herself in situations where she knows she’ll be uncomfortable – situations in which things will happen to her that she doesn’t necessary to want to happen but knows will end up happening. But Gili wants these things to happen, and yet she’s also incredibly passive during these encounters with the boys. That is one of the things that made the film so difficult to watch. Gili is sort of asking for it, and yet she’s also so passive when around Omri (in particular). A group of popular girls make fun of what she’s wearing behind her back, but when she meets up with them and tells them that she’s “hooked up” with Tomer and Omri they seem impressed. They are also impressed when she gets them into a club using Omri’s name. All of it feeds into Gili’s lack of self-esteem and need for approbation.
“Act Four” involves a sexual encounter with yet a fourth guy and Omri. Here, Omri is more forceful with Gili than he has been before. Up to this point, Omri has been playful with Gili, calling her “sweet” and “beautiful” among other things. But when she disses the fourth guy who is a part-owner of the club they are in, Omri gets upset with her particularly when she refuses to let Omri have intercourse with her in the men’s bathroom. She leaves the club and is picked up by Shabat in his car. He’s nice to her and takes her home; but he wants something from her, it’s obvious. In “Act Five,” she goes to Shabat’s place after not being able to meet up with Omri who she really likes and wants to be with. With Shabat, she puts up her most aggressive fight back and yet the two end up having sexual intercourse. He thinks she wants it; after all, she has done everything necessary to create her reputation as an “easy” girl among the guys at her new high school.
“Act Six” finds Gili in Omri’s bedroom with a bunch of guys. I am not saying what happens here because to do would spoil the film for those who want to see it. Director Gurfinkel perfectly brings everything together in the last 15 minutes – all the film’s uneasiness comes to a head in the final act. This is a difficult film to watch and yet was rewarding when considered as a whole. Watching the acts of what could be called “sexual abuse” are painful to take in one right after the other. I really was pained because I spent years teaching Israeli youth and I cannot imagine my students acting like this even thought I am sure there were those that did. The film pulls no punches in its exploration of one girl’s self-induced exploitation by a group of guys all for the sake of a sense of acceptance.
S#x Acts is certainly timely. It attempts to portray incidents like the Steubenville, Ohio rape case — situations in which teen boys are either too dumb to know, or too callous to care about, the point at which their actions tip over into sexual violation. Gurfinkel shoots in a documentary-like style that often feels very real, and the utterly naturalistic performances add to that. Watching the movie is frequently uncomfortable because, let’s face it, we know the things it is depicting are happening somewhere in the world right now. S#x Acts is critical of the behaviors of its characters while maintaining empathy for poor, confused Gili, yet the film fails to provide the kind of structure that would have allowed it to have a more defined perspective on the subject matter. There’s no early development of Gili, so she’s already offering herself up when we first meet her. We don’t fully understand the factors that led her to make the decision to give boys whatever they want, at her own expense. Similarly, we see precious little of her life in between these sexual encounters, making it tough to know how she feels in regard to her liaisons after the fact. And while the movie is astute in its portrayal of adolescent males selfishly thinking only with their “little heads,” the story’s justification for such a mentality is a bit too thin: Lackadaisical parenting is to blame here. That’s true to a certain extent, but a lot more things contribute to the shameless exploitation of women. S#x Acts fails to acknowledge them.
In some respects, the film does work as a cautionary tale. It’s well made on a technical level, feels gritty and real, and leaves you with an appropriately unsettled feeling. The plot, ironically, just doesn’t go far enough. A too-abrupt ending fails to make a statement as one would like, and without fuller development of Gili’s motives — or a more defined expression of how she feels in regard to her increasing degradation – the super-explicit sex scenes are so uncomfortable as to become distancing. S#x Acts is admirable for its intentions; the execution but on the other hand it comes up short.