Category Archives: Israel

“The Drive” by Yair Assulin— To the Breaking Point

Assulin, Yair. “The Drive”, New Vessel Press; Reprint edition, 2020.

To The Breaking Point

Amos Lassen

Originally published in Israel in 2011 in Hebrew, Yair Assulin’s “The Drive” (translated by Jessica Cohen) is the story of the journey of a young Israeli soldier  who is at the breaking point and unable to continue carrying out his military service. He is terrified of the consequences of leaving the army. As the soldier and his father drive to meet with a military psychiatrist, the author penetrates the torn world of the hero. His journey is not just that of a young man facing a crucial dilemma, but we are taken on a tour of the soul and depths of Israeli society and of those everywhere who resist regimentation and violence. The soldier is tired of being forced to be part of a larger collective, yet does not know if he is can fulfill a yearning for an existence free of politics, the news cycle and the imperative of perpetual battle-readiness―without risking the respect of those he loves most. This is a story of an urgent personal quest to reconcile duty, expectations and individual instinct.

Since the publication in Israel, Yair Assulin, has become a con­se­quen­tial voice in Israel through his reg­u­lar col­umn in the lib­er­al news­pa­per “Haaretz”. “The Drive” is an intense work that gives a point of view on Israeli life that is unfa­mil­iar and sur­pris­ing to non-Israelis.

The soldier/nar­ra­tor is an unnamed young man doing his required ser­vice in the Israeli Defense Forces. He is tor­tured internally and deeply dis­sat­is­fied with his assign­ment in an army intel­li­gence unit and is impelled almost to the point of self-harm. His requests for a change of assign­ment have been reject­ed by his supe­ri­or offi­cers. The nov­el traces his thoughts as he dri­ves with his father from Haifa to Tel Hashomer Hos­pi­tal in order to see a men­tal health offi­cer who he hopes will pro­vide him with a way out.

The story gives us a ver­sion of the eter­nal con­flict between the indi­vid­ual and soci­ety. Israel requires its young to serve in a mil­i­tary that val­ues con­for­mi­ty just at the same time when they wish for inde­pen­dence, and the nar­ra­tor gives a harsh indict­ment of what is usu­al­ly regard­ed as one of Israel’s crown­ing achieve­ments: a demo­c­ra­t­ic and egal­i­tar­i­an nation­al ser­vice. Beyond the ide­al­is­tic pro­pa­gan­da that the soldier feels is a soul-crush­ing expe­ri­ence. He rejects the val­ues of mil­i­tary ser­vice as ​“a big show,” and finds ​“all the talk about pro­tect­ing the home­land and giv­ing back to the coun­try to be the emp­ty rhetoric of peo­ple seek­ing respect”. He remembersthe lieu­tenant colonel in his unit  from years earlier as a piti­fully poor sub­sti­tute teacher. He is also crit­i­cal of the role of the army in what Israelis refer to as the sit­u­a­tion” that was brought about by Israel’s occu­pa­tion of the West Bank and the Pales­tini­ans’ resis­tance. The sense of futil­i­ty evoked by par­tic­i­pat­ing in this is seen by his main assign­ment in his unit: lam­i­nat­ing maps of West Bank towns.

We wonder if he is moti­vat­ed by gen­uine feel­ings of dis­gust at a cor­rupt sys­tem or is he, like many peo­ple his age, react­ing vis­cer­al­ly to hyp­ocrites and fakes?  The soldier sees him­self as a lone truth-teller while every­one else exploits the sys­tem to inflate their ego or to gain some advan­tage. He is also some­what of an odd­ball in his unit because he is reli­gious­ly obser­vant. We question whether the pro­tag­o­nist is a reli­able nar­ra­tor or, whether he is, as his loy­al and long-suf­fer­ing father com­ments toward the end of the nov­el, ​“real­ly … a bit of a narcissist.”

These two pos­si­bil­i­ties are held in ten­sion through the short novel, and it is difficult to decide where is the truth here.  The novel reveals facets of mod­ern Israeli cul­ture not usu­al­ly known out­side of Israel. The story also speaks to the ongoing short comings of the mental health industry. The soldier’s reaction is puzzling unless there are pre-existing mental health issues. Some will see this story as military service being primary over mental health He, himself is not a sympathetic character in that he petulant, self-absorbed, and immature. Going into a military setting is not going to be good for someone with his personality. He doesn’t do well with authority or with change and he’s completely unable to explain or express himself in a way that others can understand. Sometimes I believed him, other times I felt it was dishonest.

However, at the mental health office, the story rings true. Everyone tried to talk him out of it, (including his parents), and point out the life-long stigma attached to this choice. How he’s treated when he finally gets there is horrible.

Having served in the Israeli Defense Forces and often doing menial jobs, I can understand his displeasure.  His mental conflict feels like what we are going through now. Can we take a break from the news cycle, from being perpetually battle-ready, from speaking, writing, reacting and just spend a morning reading good literature?

The soldier’s feelings of unease and the irreconcilable space between soldier and commander hit home for me more than once in this unexpected story of resistance to military life. But the most important part of this book may be in its exploration of how impossible the mentally healthy find it to participate in the journey of the mentally ill. All in all this is a powerful and compelling look inside the mind of a young man as “he struggles to find his way in life and balance the expectations of his family, romantic partner, and country with his own troubled sense of who he is.”

“Growing Up Below Sea Level: A Kibbutz Childhood” by Rachel Biale— Those Were the Days

Biale, Rachel. “Growing Up Below Sea Level: A Kibbutz Childhood”, Mandel Vilar, 2020.

Those Were the Days

Amos Lassen

“Growing Up Below Sea Level: A Kibbutz Childhood” is Rachel Biale’smemoir made up of linked stories about growing up on a kibbutz in Israel in the 1950s and 60s. It was a time when children spent most of their time in a children’s House. 

The memoir begins with a prologue from her mother’s diaries and from of Rachel Biale’s mother and from letters her parents exchanged when her father served in the British army. She describes what her parents experienced when they escaped from Eastern Europe and went to Israel. They fled from the Nazis in Prague in 1939, spent five years on dangerous sea voyages and were interred i in British refugee camps. Yet even with this, her parents maintained their socialist and Zionist value and brought them to the kibbutz. 

Rachel’s parents felt that was nowhere that could be the kind of utopian society they longed to see and decided to live on Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin. Her earlies memories are from when she was three-years-old and a member of the children’s society and for a god part of the book, the focus is her childhood years. She also writes about the lives of the adult kibbutz members, including Holocaust survivors. 

Kfar Ruppin is in the valley of the nearby Jordan River and Biale was there during an important time in the history of Israel—the 1950s and ‘60s. The kibbutz was founded in 1938 by German Jews and Czechs who fled the German occupation, and sat 800 feet below sea level.

Biale’s memories look at how profoundly kibbutz life and the State of Israel has changed. We seehow her kibbutz childhood influenced the woman she became. Children on the kibbutz were expected to contribute to the broader community. In third grade, Biale was already in charge of a group of dairy cows. Above all we see her family’s commitment to build the young Jewish state at a central moment in Israel’s history.

Many things have changed since then. One of the most significant changed was taking down the children’s houses in the 70s and 80s. Many felt to do this was to change the original concept of the kibbutz experience which was built on a work ethic. It altered what childhood looks like. The biggest changed came in the 90s with the privatization process. Today, the kibbutz has become a much more diverse and inclusive community. The rigid, ideological, rather constraining system is no longer there, and there is a lot more freedom and independence. People  now have greater room to do as they please within the community’s parameters, yet everybody shares space, a communal social and cultural life, and major decisions.

The political scene in Israel has also changed greatly. There was a time, when I loved on kibbutz in Israel that the country was dominated by the Labor Party, which backed the kibbutz movement. When the right wing under Menachem Begin came to power, this changed and a very strong anti-kibbutz sentiment used by Begin and subsequent right-wing party leaders rallied their supporters. However, it was the Six-Day War was a disastrous victory that was responsible for the greatest changes in the country.

Regarding the settlements, Biale says that settling in the Golan seemed like it was the extension of the early kibbutzim ideology of settling into “empty areas.” However, these were not “empty areas”. What seemed to be the continuation of the kibbutz idealism, of creating kibbutzim and developing agriculture was basically co-opted and abducted by the extreme right wing in the project of settlements in the West Bank.

Biale felt it was important to write about the people who created “this utopian, strange community and the extreme danger they lived through to give her an idyllic, safe, healthy childhood.” They were able to keep part of their inner world and the cultural and cosmopolitan world of Europe. They fled their countries and abandoned their families in order to survive, yet they remained emotionally connected to their European childhoods. They came from highly educated cultured families, and they managed to sustain that intellectual and cultural world.  Even while on the banks of the Jordan River, they always remained Europeans.

Rachel’s family eventually came to live in America where she had her political awakening about Israel and the occupation. She began sto think about Israelis in relation to Palestinians and the social discrimination against Mizrahi and North African Jews. After the army, she decided I to return to the United States for college and she married an American Jew thus changing her life. Nonetheless we see the influence growing up on the kibbutz had on her and we are lucky to be able to read about it.

“Away from Chaos: The Middle East and the Challenge to the West” by Gilles Kepel— Forty Years of Middle East History

Kepel, Gilles. “Away from Chaos: The Middle East and the Challenge to the West”,  Columbia University Press, 2020.

Forty Years of Middle East History

Amos Lassen

The Middle East is one of the world’s politically hot regions. We have had great optimism for and tremendous disappointment in the countries there. We have seen the rise of the Arab uprisings through the rise and fall of the Islamic State resulting in challenges to international security challenges. The threat of terrorism has caused migration as have warfare and climate change, competition for control over oil.

Writer Gilles Kepel’s “Away from Chaos” is a forty year political history of Middle East conflict and its ramifications for the rest of the world. He brings us a “narrative of the long-term causes of tension while seamlessly incorporating on-the-ground observations and personal experiences from the people who lived through them.”

The history here begins in 1973 with the Yom Kippur War. We look at the many and diverseideologies of Middle East politics and their implications on the global stage. Kepel puts the chaos in perspective and shows their underlying dynamics while also exploring the prospects of coming out of what is happening.

“Away from Chaos” is Kepel’s personal and political look at the Middle East and a synthesis of years of engagement with and in the Middle East. Keppel has lived what he writes about and has even been targeted by jihadists. Here he shares what he has lived while proposing that there is a return to what steadied the region successfully in the previous century.
In 2016, Kepel was condemned to die for being “an experienced Arabist”. Then right afterwards French-born terrorist, Larossi Abballam, murdered a police officer and his wife . On Facebook he called for the murder of seven public figures in France, with Kepel’s name close to  the top of the list. A government security team guarded Kepel round the clock.  He is a public intellectual in France and extremely well-known.

While there isn’t much new or groundbreaking here yet this is a fine primer for anyone wanting to get up to date on the region and does not go into the aspects of the conflicts that so often cause one to not get a clear picture of what is going on..

Until the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Arab-Israeli conflict  was what really defined the region. Then a steep rise in oil prices and profits financed the first wave of radical Islamism. In 1979 the Iranian revolution and the siege of the Great Mosque in Mecca brought about  a deadly conflict between Tehran and Riyadh that continues today. The same year the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and this accelerated for the movement of international jihadists who were willing to become martyrs in battle against heathens.

Jihadism of the 1990s switched the United States for the U.S.S.R as its major enemy. Then came the 9/11 attacks. The Arab Spring pulled the region in yet another direction offering ideas fleeting of hope that the authoritarian regimes from Libya to Syria might finally become representative governments. Only Tunisia conformed.

After this,  ISIS picked up where Al Qaeda had left off and conquered and governed territory in Syria and Iraq . Young Muslims in Europe began to murder their neighbors and Jihadism was everywhere in the Middle East and became which became the beginning of the terrorism in the 2010s.

Kepel says that a new era has now begun with the destruction of the ISIS “caliphate” and the keeping of its influence and prestige in-check. Not only terrorism has largely subsided again but he monarchies of the Persian Gulf are modestly reforming and finally distancing themselves from the ultraconservative Wahhabi sect that has was the backbone of support for many years. Oi money that has financed radical mosques, sectarian militias and terrorist organizations all over the world are permanent declining and the United States replaced Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest producer of oil and gas.

We are certainly not sure of how it all stands today and whether we are just experiencing a pause or actually beginning a future that is not so volatile.

“ADVOCATE”– Lea Tsemel, Israeli Defense Attorney

 

 

“ADVOCATE”

Lea Tsemel, Israeli Defense Attorney

Amos Lassen

 

Lea Tsemel is a 74-year-old Israeli political firebrand, who has dedicated her career to challenging Israel’s two-tier justice system. In Israel there are different judicial standards for Israeli citizens and Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Tsemel sees herself as an “angry and optimistic woman” known for her quick sardonic retorts and unselfconscious in her moral convictions. Her opponents see her as “the devil’s advocate” or traitor to her country and her defense of would-be suicide bombers and other violent offenders is even difficult for pro-Palestinian pacifists.

Much of the film follows two inflammatory court cases in 2015-2016. One involves the youngest defendant Tsemel has ever had: a 13-year-old Palestinian boy charged, along with his 15-year-old cousin with the attempted murder of two Israelis in a knife attack in one of the illegal settlements. Through video footage, which was widely seen throughout Israel, the older boy was shot dead by security forces while the younger was run over by a car before his arrest. The other case is of a 31-year-old woman who was left badly burned by a car explosion in what the court determined was a failed suicide bombing.

The film is a talking heads plus archival clip biography of Tsemel who was a law student during the 1967 Israeli-Arab war in which she was a volunteer. However, the sight of refugees fleeing the Israeli forces brought back family stories of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust and this brought about her life-long opposition to the occupation and her challenges to the military justice used for the Palestinian population.

Michel Warchawski, Tsemel’s pro-Palestinian activist husband, gives an amusing account of his wife. During a period when he was jailed for helping Palestinian extremists and complained about the intense interrogations they had to deal with, she told him he needed to man up or he wasn’t worthy to be her husband. (Her adult son and daughter see her somewhere between embarrassment and awe). We see how her legal history includes many losses and a few incremental wins, including her part in getting a 1999 Israel Supreme Court ruling which limited the use of torture in interrogations.

We do not get much  from Tsemel’s critics and we see her as a unique crusading figure. The documentary isup close and personal and is directed byRachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche. We see Tsemel in motion on a bisected screen with live-action footage on the left and animated imagery on the right..

This has been Tsemel’s life for decades, working on behalf of people viewed by many  as inferiors and fanatics. Here is Tsemel’s tireless routine as she demonstrates how one person lives morally and ethically within a system that is little more than a swamp of misunderstanding.

There are flashbacks to Tsemel’s past, detailing her budding student activism, her fraught attempts to raise her family and her fervent efforts leading to a landmark 1999 Israeli Supreme Court decision that outlawed the use of torture when interrogating detainees.

Jones and Bellaïche would seem to be at a disadvantage because their cameras were not allowed in the courtrooms for these trials. But this works to the film’s advantage. We mainly watch Tsemel and her clients as they either ready for or react to their days in court. Tsemel is fully aware of the likeliest outcome, and she frequently assumes a position of preemptive consoler.

Jones and Bellaïche combine a biographical profile and an interrogation of the Israeli justice system here as they focuses on Tsemel’s life and work .

 

About Film Movement

 

Founded in 2002, Film Movement is a North American distributor of award-winning independent and foreign films based in New York City. It has released more than 250 feature films and shorts culled from prestigious film festivals worldwide including the Oscar-nominated films Theeb (2016) and Corpus Christi (2020). Film Movement’s theatrical releases include American independent films, documentaries, and foreign art house titles. Its catalog includes titles by directors such as Hirokazu Kore-eda, Maren Ade, Jessica Hausner, Andrei Konchalovsky, Andrzej Wajda, Diane Kurys, Ciro Guerra and Melanie Laurent. In 2015, Film Movement launched its reissue label Film Movement Classics, featuring new restorations released theatrically as well as on Blu-ray and DVD, including films by such noted directors as Eric Rohmer, Peter Greenaway, Bille August, Marleen Gorris, Takeshi Kitano, Arturo Ripstein, King Hu, Sergio Corbucci, Ettore Scola and Luchino Visconti. For more information, please visit www.filmmovement.com. Visit www.filmmovementplus.com for more information about Film Movement Plus, the new subscription streaming service from Film Movement.

“A Passion For Israel: Adventures of a Sar-El Volunteer” by Mark Werner— Volunteering

Werner, Mark. “A Passion For Israel: Adventures of a Sar-El Volunteer”, Gefen. 2020.

Volunteering to Serve

Amos Lassen

Mark Werner is a successful corporate lawyer who is now retired and living in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is also a man who finds volunteering as a way of life and we especially see this in his beautifully written memoir about the three weeks every year that he spends volunteering in the Israel Defense Forces. Werner is the son of Holocaust survivors and an ardent Zionist who found that the best way to show his love for the State of Israel was to become part of Sar-el, an organization that works with thousands of volunteers from all over the world to spend time as civilians on Israeli military bases thus allowing soldiers to do their military duties rather than being involved with the mundane duties of army life. Werner  kept journals of his work with Sar-el from 2006-2019 and they are the basis of “A Passion for Israel”.

For those of you who have served in the military, you have some idea of what that entails. However, the Israeli army constantly faces the threat of war in a climate much unlike many others. If that is not enough, an American without knowledge of Hebrew has a lot to learn. I so identified with so much here even though my time with the IDF came not as a volunteer but part of my obligation as an Israeli citizen who actually served on the front lines during several wars and skirmishes. Every day becomes precious for those in the army since each day could bring about horrific results at any moment.

What a wonderful and personal read this is. Beautifully written in great detail, we get an accurate picture of army life written by a man who made the choice to serve. It is also proof that many American Jews honor their commitment to the Jewish state voluntarily by giving of themselves to help defend the land.

I loved reading of Werner’s experiences of living during sandstorms, sleeping in bomb shelters, experiencing attacks from Palestinian missiles and getting used to a new way of life. Of course, three weeks is limiting but in a worn-torn country anything can happen and do so at a moment’s notice. While he was not on the front lines, when a military action takes place in Israel, everyone in the country feels it. Packing kitbags and medical supplies and the other necessities of army life are, in most cases, not exciting activities, they are necessary for the welfare of the entire nation and their importance cannot be under-estimated. The fact that Werner was part of this, along with filling sandbags and helping to get tanks ready, is heroic in my mind and because of him and others like him, the IDF is able to function smoothly.

Having been part of the Zionist movement from a young age, I knew that the time would come for me to go and live in Israel and I am very aware that many American Jews are unable to make such a commitment. Werner shows us that another way to make a difference is through Sar-el and his personal take on his life while doing so is quite a read. The stories are vivid and the prose is wonderful. He gives us a new look at life in the military in Israel as both an insider and an outsider. As I read, memories of the many years I spent in Israel and of the years I spent in the IDF came flooding back. Now re-settled back in the United States, I so needed this book to answer so many of my questions as to why I left this country at a time when Israel was still a baby and I found myself regretting what I left there. I cannot recommend this book enough— it is so much more than just a read.

“UNCHAINED” (“METIR AGUNOT”)— A Look at Jewish Orthodox Marriage

“UNCHAINED” (“METIR AGUNOT”)

A Look at Jewish Orthodox Marriage

Amos Lassen

Agunah is the Hebrew word for “chained” or for an “anchored” woman. This refers to the Jewish law principle  in which a woman is bound in marriage by a husband who refuses to grant a divorce or who is missing and not proven dead.

This is the story of Yossef Mourad and his wife Hannah. It takes viewers into the closed-off ultra-orthodox Haredi world, and touches on the most painful place where Jewish-law clashes with modern life- the status of women in society. 

 A devout Rabbi-detective, whose job is to free the women whose husbands deny them a divorce and a new life, finds that in his own home lurks a secret that threatens his world and marriage. “Unchained” has received 12 nominations for the prestigious Ophir Award including:

Best Drama Series Award

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Best Director in a Drama Series Award

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Best Actor in a Drama Series Award

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Best Actress in a Drama Series Award

“The Book of Israela” by Rabbi Rena Blumenthal— Now and Then

Blumenthal, Rena. “The Book of Israela”,  Resource Publications, 2018.

Then and Now

Amos Lassen

In Rabbi Rena Blumenthal’s, “The Book of Israela”, we meet Kobi Benami in Jerusalem of 2002 at the height of the second intifada. He is a middle-aged psychologist whose life is falling apart. He has been thrown out of his house by his wife who is tired of his philandering and his daughter has refused to speak to him. The new clinic director has put him on probation for his indifferent work habits. Life, for Kobi, is not particularly good right now. Just at this time, he gets a new patient named Israela, a woman with quite a story that is filled with strange  biblical references. Her husband, Y, is questionable—  he may or may not exist. She hasn’t seen him in months and she is being stalked by “his prophet-like emissaries who span a wide spectrum of Israeli society–Orthodox to secular, right-wing settlers to left-wing urban elites”. They are held together by their condemnation of her, her devotion to Y and her ties to  The Outstretched Arm, a sinister organization that Y supposedly runs.

Kobi soon finds himself as part of a surreal encounter with the anthropomorphized story of ancient Israel. He becomes preoccupied with questions about the nature and existence of Y and because of this, is forced to confront his own dysfunctional life patterns, his family’s past, and the war that rages around him.

Kobi becomes our narrator and he gives us a strange and honest portrait of contemporary Israel that is dealing with Abrahamic monotheism. The ancient prophets (or possibly just several crazy people) follow and haunt Kobi because of  Israela.

Kobi has no faith and his story is told as a biblical metaphor about God’s relationship with Israel. We read of Jewish historical and mythical experiences and these bring us close the hapless psychologist whose life becomes one of turmoil. We meet two men who are totally different— Kobi and an American Orthodox rabbi but both of whose lives force them to look at and analyze their pasts so that they can find new ways to face their futures.

Kobi’s problems are caused by his own doings. The story is set at a time when because of intifada, many look to the clinic for help and the number of suicide bombers is increasing. Kobi has little or no interest in his patients until Israela, whose story he finds fascinating, even though he is sure that she is delusional. Her claim to be married to an older man, Y, who controls a powerful, but little known, organization seems suspect. She says Y loves her, but Kobi suspects that she is an abused wife.

When emissaries from Y find Kobi and explain their understanding of Y and Israela’s relationship, things change. These emissaries  include an extreme right-wing settler and a leftist who believes Israel has mistreated the Palestinians, believe that Y has Israela’s best interests at heart, even though she has betrayed him.

I immediately realized that what I was reading were biblical stories retold and I find these to be very clever. In recognizing the original stories, we see an extra level to what is being told here. (However, it is indeed possible to read this with no knowledge of the Bible).

I find it fascinating in that I was totally ready to dislike Kobi, I changed my mind as I read even though his behavior left a great deal to be desired. When I read that he was the son of Holocaust survivors, his actions are put into perspective yet this does not excuse him. I must admit that there were several times during which I debated whether or not to continue reading— there were simply too many open situations for which I could see no forthcoming solutions but I decided to continue hoping that all would come together. As it is, I found this to be a satisfying read but one I had to work at. In fact, I am sure that there are aspects of the book that I missed and when time permits, I will read it again (something I rarely do).

Reading  a variety of perspectives on life in Israel today combined with social commentary through and biblical illusions can be great fun. It is Israela who makes this all possible by opening the story that drives Kobi and the rest of the plot. It took a while but I realized the genius that is between the lines of the text.

“FIG TREE”— Taking Care

“FIG TREE”

Taking Care

Amos Lassen

Set during the Ethiopian civil war, “Fig Tree” is the story  of the coming-of-age story of a Jewish teenager looking to save her non-Jewish boyfriend.

Writer-director Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian takes viewers back to 1989 to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We meet Mina, a Jewish teenager who learns of her family’s plan to make aliyah in Israel.  She fears for her boyfriend, Eli who is likely to be forced into joining Mengistu Haile Mariam’s army.  While moving to Israel will solve her family’s problem of dealing with the Ethiopian civil war, it doesn’t solve Eli’s problems.

Religion plays a large role in the film because of the strict rules that Israel has when it comes to making aliyah.  While Mina and her family are fine, Eli isn’t.  We see the role immigration plays in the film. While  it means that one looks to live a better life in another country it’s also tragic that oe’s own country has failed the citizen.  Unfortunately, this is where the film ends.

“Fig Tree” is the brilliant  directorial debut for the Ethiopian-Israeli filmmaker.  Not only did the film win the TIFF Eurimages’ Audentia Award for Best Female director it also had four nominations for the Israeli Ophir Awards–the Oscars equivalent. It lost to –“The Cakemaker” also reviewed here at reviewsbyamoslassen.com.

Betalehem Asmamawe  play 16-year-old Mina, a young Jewish, impoverished Ethiopian girl stuck in the war-torn Ethiopia of 1989 and she gives a startling, vulnerable performance. She is a Juliet who must guard her Romeo, Eli (Yohanes Muse), from being torn away from her.

The film opens with the explanation that “In the midst of the civil war, young men are hunted down and forced to join the army of tyrant Mengistu Haile Mariam.” Mina sees her male peers yanked out of classrooms and kidnapped off the streets of Addis Ababa. Her own brother has already lost his arm in this conflict.

To survive, Eli hides in a fig tree where Mina visits him daily, supplying food and company, and although they have not yet made love, the couple finds ways to express their love for each other.

Mina’s grandmother goes to the black market to get the proper papers for the family to emigrate to Israel. What will happen to Eli if the family moves?

The cinematography by Daniel Miller is stunning and the entire cast  beautifully recreates Davidian’s childhood memories. (She emigrated to Israel at age eleven near the end of the war herself). The ending of the film is unforgettable  as is all that we see here.

“M”— Overcoming Abuse in Israel

“M”

Overcoming Abuse in Israel

Amos Lassen

In Yolande Zauberman’s “M”, egregious abuse is exposed and explored. The film tells the harrowing story of Menahem Lang, a gregarious thirtysomething Israeli singer and actor who grew up in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Bnei Brak, just east of Tel Aviv, where he was raped systematically as a child by multiple religious elders. In his 20s, Lang confronted one of his abusers, and managed to secure an on-camera confession which was subsequently broadcast on national television. But he remained haunted by his past experiences, and convinced that sexual abuse in the community was still widespread. In the film he returns to Bnei Brak in search of further closure.

Shot almost entirely at night, a striking number of scenes take place inside cars, and it’s all set to a heavy, jazz-inflected score. As damaged as Lang clearly is, he’s motivated by a desire to heal his blighted, pathologically secretive community.

Many of the city’s older and more devout inhabitants would clearly like Lang to keep quiet or go away. Lang’s own parents prove completely inept at offering their son the support he so clearly needs. But other encounters take less predictable turns. During his time back home, Lang strikes up a friendship with a 19-year-old who was abused by his older brothers. After sharing their darkest secrets, the younger man feels he can open up about the fact that he believes he may be gay but is also completely clueless about sex. The subsequent exchange, in which Lang attempts to bring him up to speed, is both heartwarming and laugh-out-loud funny. Director Zauberman strikes a clever balance here, giving us a formally inventive film which is angry but also empathetic, and which leaves the viewer with a sense that recovery from even the most appalling trauma is possible.

Zauberman sets out on a particularly dark journey to uncover a widespread, albeit absolutely unreported in the public, issue in the reticent community of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

The documentary opens at night in Tel Aviv where Lang demonstrates why he has become a renowned performer of liturgical chants in a religious community. In the next scene we see Menahem discussing his preference for transsexuals with Miss Trans Israel, despite claiming to be of heterosexual orientation.

Lang left the Jewish religion, used his beautiful voice as an actor, and gained notoriety, as well as infamy in certain religious circles, for exposing his childhood abuser and getting his confession on camera. He was not the only rapist; Lang was not even eight years old at that time. And he was not the only victim.

In a rare glance behind the curtain of an enclosed religious community that shuns media attention, “M” uncovers shocking behavioral patterns that became normalized over the course of years. Several generations testify to the deeply-rooted sexual abuse in numerous distressing personal accounts and point towards intrinsic pathology.

Zauberman combines journalistic investigation and intriguing storytelling to give us a gripping exposé on rampant sexual abuse,  and the touching personal story of Menahem Lang and how childhood abuse changed his life and his stance toward religion and how he finds more uncomfortable answers.

This is disturbing to see but Lang’s candidness and bravery to speak out and lay bare his experiences, his struggles with his own demons and a lack of understanding among family members are amazing. His charisma and credibility draws other victims with similar stories into his orbit, uncovering identical patterns.

The power of the film is  in its accessibility. The perfectly-chosen protagonist’s willingness to be painfully frank about what happened to him and how it turned around his private life and his initial expression of attraction to transsexuals has a heartbreaking explanation.

Lang is completely charming. He is open and willing to probe the darker recesses of his soul by recalling the traumatizing experiences. He does not avoid less favorable and least expected circumstances as why he did not defend himself more furiously against the unwanted physical advances. His testimony and the circumstances he describes have great social relevance, although not exclusive to the community of Orthodox Jews. The catalysts have nothing to do with religion and Zauberman´s film brings forth eye-opening discoveries.

The director delivers wonderful storytelling. She manages to incorporate entertaining moments courtesy of Lang in carefully-timed, light flourishes of humor.

 

Lang becomes the confessor, the teacher and eventually the bearer of the light, even though he himself acknowledges the damage that cannot be undone. He remains dedicated to preventing the abuse and calling other victims out to not suffer in silence.

“UNSETTLING”—The People and the Land

“UNSETTLING”

The People and the Land

Amos Lassen

Iris Zaki’s “Unsettling” looks  deeply into the people at the heart of the lands most affected by the Israeli-Palestine debate. A self-confessed “leftie”, the filmmaker uses her first feature-length documentary as a social experiment, highlighting the tensions and experiences of citizens from the Israeli West Bank settlement of Tekoa through the more personal approach of one-to-one interviews.

The film begins with the director laying down her purpose and challenges for the project and even admitting her fears of not even getting enough content to fill the feature. However, once sat down with willing volunteers, Zaki is not afraid to challenge the views of those villagers comfortable enough (or not so comfortable enough) to join her. She slowly looks at the layers and barriers of each interviewee to uncover their true emotions and political opinions.

We get perspectives and become engaged in intelligent political discussions.  “Unsettling” is a documentary about the people rather than the unrest and it is unique through its presentation of an educated auteur assured in her political views. Each conversation brings about different questions that question us especially “Where is Israeli diversity?” If other countries can manage a multicultural society, why can’t Israel? This is a pertinent question, the answer to which still eluding us.

There is methodical pacing that comes with a series of in-depth discussions about such political content. The feature moves from interview to interview, interjecting each dialogue with prolonged scenic shots displaying life in the West Bank and gorgeous vast landscapes. It is this fluidity that makes watching this a tiring job when we consider the limited number of interviewees and the fact that each conversation is conducted in exactly the same location. One subject breaks this mold by giving a powerful and emotional account of the moment she was assaulted and stabbed by a young Palestinian boy and she gives an astonishing explanation of how she grew to forgive her attacker. But moments like this are rare. The film’s content is vitally important but a wider variety in the portrayal of this investigation would certainly have helped put across the film’s message more critically.

There is a lot of  tension when  filmmaker  Zaki arrives in the Jewish settlement of Tekoa to make the film. We can expect even more tension when the pro-Israel audiences see that she begins her film with a text indicating that “approximately 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank live under Israeli occupation.” It’s a choice of words that’s been contested by Israeli government who declare the West Bank as “disputed territory”.

A few very composed shots open the documentary to show the small place of life in a bubble, both geographically and socially. It is a peaceful space for the population of four thousand. What we hear, though, is a man off-screen complaining about on-screen representation of Israel; he hates the potential of a left wing filmmaker making a film there because “leftists are typically anti-Israel and anti-settler.” The set-up outside a coffee shop is simple: chairs, a table, cameras for shot-reverse-shot, and cameras observing from afar. The director uses thirty days to capture the experience of a lefty moving to a settlement and her interactions with its inhabitants.

The film is pretty emotionally exhausting for the filmmaker. A couple of weeks in, she realizes that she doesn’t fit in here, it’s a challenge, but she’ll have a film by the end of it all. And so she does, and it’s a fascinating film. Not many people were willing to talk to her but those who do bring unique perspectives to the table. Everybody has been affected by the situation between the two nations in some sort of way so every conversation is insightful in providing the various perspectives of a settler.

Zaki’s presence was polarizing from the outset, and she refuses to mince her words . The film’s tensest exchange, between Zaki and one of the community’s most openly rightwing residents, proves depressingly futile, with the latter using the historic mistreatment of Jews to justify her complete nationalism.

Zaki does better at finding common ground with two former members of the Hilltop Youth – a religious-nationalist movement known for violent pro-Israel activism – who both recognize that they were essentially brainwashed as children. A real sense of hope is seen in Michal, who saw her stabbing as a message from God that Israelis must “respect the foreigners living among us… and renounce this sense of entitlement”. She talks movingly about members of her assailant’s community visiting her to express their shame and sorrow, and explains how, by making alliances with their Palestinian neighbors, settlers the way towards peaceful co-existence might come about.