Category Archives: Israel

“Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation” edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman— On the Occupation

Chabon, Michael and Ayelet Waldman (editors). “Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation”, Harper Perennial, 2017.

On the Occupation

Amos Lassen

I find that talking about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is a sure way for me to get into an argument and so I try to avoid the issue as much as I can. Authors Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman along with the Israel non-governmental organization Breaking the Silence (former Israeli soldiers who served in the occupied territories)and other illustrious writers to tell stories of the people in the contested territories. This essays put a human face on the situation.

Contributors include Colum McCann, Jacqueline Woodson, Colm Toibin, Geraldine Brooks, Dave Eggers, Hari Kunzru, Raja Shehadeh, Mario Vargas Llosa, Assaf Gavron, and the editors Chabon and Waldman. What we read here gives us unique insight into the narratives behind what we hear about and provide us with a deeper understanding of how those who live in occupied territories deal with.

The topic is always a difficult one for me since I served in the Israel Defense Forces and I love Israel. We are quickly approaching the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War in June and it is also the 50th anniversary of the occupation of the Palestinian territories. During the last five decades there has been a great deal of violence on both sides. Former Israeli soldiers formed an organization in 2004 that allowed them to speak about what they experienced in that war. The group met author and editor Waldman in 2014 and they shared a tour of Hebron and she, along with her husband Chabon realized that something must be done to change the situation. They chose to work on storytelling and thus provide a personal view of those who face the situation every day. It was then that they invited twenty-four writers from all over the world to go to the West Bank and Gaza and then share their memories of what they saw. The stories are fascinating and the run the gamut of opinions. What we read is not only enlightening but also moving, sensitive and often infuriating. Together, these stories stand witness to the human cost of the occupation

 

 

 

 

“MEMORIES OF THE EICHMANN TRIAL”— From Testimony to Truth

“Memories of the Eichmann Trial”

From Testimony to Proof

Amos Lassen

David Perlov’s hour-long documentary film, “Memories of the Eichmann Trial” captures how a formative event in Israeli history continues to shape the Israeli experience. Perlov approaches the trial not as a formative event that brought the story of the Holocaust into Israeli consciousness, but as a formative event that turned into a memory itself and this memory continues to influence the Israeli experience and shape its development to this very day.

In a scene about the establishment of Holocaust memory, Perlov asks photographer Henryk Ross (whose photos are now on display at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts) to describe how he was able to secretly take dozens of photos of life in the Lodz Ghetto, where he and his wife Stefania (who is also interviewed in the film) lived. We see Ross wearing a hat, and wrapped in a coat and scarf, which hide the camera he is holding underneath. He shows how he quickly drew the camera from behind an opening in the coat, shot the picture, and with the same haste returned the camera to its hiding place.

This reenactment of how he documented a reality that became a memory of both presence and absence is one of the most beautiful, moving and significant moments in the history of film.

Rafi Eitan, who ran the operation that led to the capture of Eichmann, is the first person interviewed in the film and we see him leafing through a series of photos of Eichmann who was inside his glass booth during the trial. Eitan sat beside Eichmann (who under a blanket in the back seat of a car) after his capture and had even visited the former Nazi in his jail cell. Eitan looks at the photos tranquilly, almost with a smile.

In one of the pictures, Eichmann is seen in his jail cell, wearing house slippers, leaning back in his bed and examining some kind of document. In a second photo, his naked back is to the viewer as he washes himself at the sink in the cell. Moving to the end of the movie, we are told that Ross never took another photograph after he was released from the Lodz Ghetto. The film ends with a series of photos of a young, smiling Stefania Ross, accompanied by an argument between her husband and Perlov playing on the sound track. The two immigrants both speak Hebrew with heavy accents, each according to the country of his birth.

The banality of evil has itself become a banality. A recent biography of Otto Adolf Eichmann by Bettina Stangneth has rekindled the debate over Hannah Arendt’s portrait of the Nazi SS-Obersturmbannführer, logistician, and executor of the Final Solution as an apathetic, bureaucratic functionary “who never realized what he was doing.” Perlov’s gives us reminiscences by trial witnesses, Holocaust survivors, Israelis of the second generation, and others who were directly involved in the Eichmann case. Perlov is considered the father of Israeli nonfiction cinema, having given it his deeply personal, artistic sensibility. This is what makes this film so striking and unforgettable.

“A QUIET HEART”— Seeking Anonymity and Solitide

“A Quiet Heart”

Seeking Anonymity and Solitude

Amos Lassen

Jerusalem today is a city that is increasingly dominated by religious fanaticism, Naomi Sarid (Ania Bukstein), a secular young woman seeks refuge from the pressure of her life as a concert pianist. She is overwhelmed by the expectations of her parents and her colleagues in Tel Aviv and seeks anonymity and solitude in Jerusalem. Despite her intentions to stay alone, however, Naomi quickly makes two unexpected connections, one with a musically gifted Ultra-Orthodox young boy who lives in her building and the other with Fabrizio (Giorgio Lupano), a charismatic Italian monk and organist. While these relationships allow Naomi to reconnect with her love of music and sense of meaning, they also make her a target in her new community. She faces escalating isolation and violence and Naomi has to learn to use music as a bridge to overcome towering religious barriers.

The film is set on the fault line between religious conservatives and secular liberals in contemporary Israel and has a great deal of emotional bite and drama. Already a domestic award-winner, writer-director Eitan Anner has directed strong performances and timely themes.

Escaping her native Tel Aviv to start a new life in Jerusalem, Naomi rents a threadbare apartment in a high-rise housing project in Kiryat Yovel, a hillside suburb that is dominated by hard-line Orthodox Jews. Her religious neighbors see her with suspicion. Naomi is alarmed to discover that Simcha (Lior Lifshitz), a mute preteen boy from an Orthodox family in the next building, has a habit of climbing in through her fifth-floor window to play a battered piano left behind by the previous tenant. She begins giving him lessons on how to play the piano.

In between working at her day job, Naomi faces constant passive-aggressive scrutiny from her neighbors, while a hostile traffic warden (Uri Gottlieb) gives her costly parking tickets on a daily basis. Her only escape is trying to rediscover her love of music, which starts to return after she hears the pipe organ played at a nearby Catholic monastery by a handsome Italian monk, Brother Fabrizio.

It soon becomes clear that Naomi’s peace of mind is likely to be assaulted by external pressures such as the open animosity from some of her neighbors, who consider a young secular woman living on her own as immoral in their close knit community. One young woman, an activist who is part of a group which is trying to stop the ultra-religious from taking over the neighborhood claims that his a war and the only connections that Naomi she manages to achieve are due to passion for music.

It is Simcha who holds the key to the truth about what happened to the previous tenant. Her other emotional link is with a charismatic Italian monk, Fabrizio (Giorgio Lupano), who agrees to teach her to play the pipe organ. The mutual attraction between the two is played out in intimate duets, shared glances and, just when it means most, a chaste kiss to the hand.

The connection with Fabrizio is a rare moment of harmony in a world which seems increasingly discordant as Naomi finds herself the target of a hate campaign.

Naomi’s hesitant friendship with Fabrizio is mildly flirtatious but never sexual. Even so, faceless neighborhood gossips use this to brand her as a “whore” and a “missionary,” demanding that she leave the area by using anonymous threats and increasingly stark warnings. Fearing reprisals, Simcha’s mother cancels the boy’s informal piano lessons with Naomi. There is evidence that seems to suggest the previous tenant in her apartment was driven to suicide by similar harassment tactics, or even murdered outright.

The drama is about the evils of intolerance. Director Anner succeeds in conveying a repressive, claustrophobic air of creeping unease and latent violence. Naomi’s housing block exudes a chilling, almost hostile mood and writer-director Anner has crafted a piece that is very symbolic of the subject of the coexistence of different religions, a topic inherently important to Israel, and especially Jerusalem. The film answer to this is that it takes courage from a brave individual to stand up against intolerance.

“FOUR BY FOUR”— A Comedy

“Four by Four” (“Arba Al Arba”)

A Comedy

Amos Lassen

Wanting his boss to think that he is a cool guy, Oded lies about knowing a secret beach in Sinai Peninsula. Moti, his boss is a bit crazy himself and decides to take Oded along with two other employees, Tal, a nerd from marketing, and Dima, a racist, quirky Russian programmer to the terror-stricken peninsula.

Of course, this results in a near catastrophe and their off-road vehicle goes way off the map. One lie led to another and another so that Moti would not know that Oded lied about the resort They guys end up lost in the desert, running from a hostile Bedouin who is aided by a sheikh’s gun-toting daughter. Oded can kiss goodbye the promotion he was looking for.

 

“MR. PREDICTABLE”— Keeping His Promise

“MR. PREDICTABLE” (“Yeled Tov Yerushalayim”)

Keeping His Promise

Amos Lassen

When Adi (Amos Tamam) was five years old, his father made him swear to be a good boy and always be responsible. After his father’s death in the war in Lebanon, Adi had no choice but to keep his promise for life. Years later, a computer error causes Adi to believe that he’s got cancer – and suddenly all those years of being “predictable” seem like a tragic waste of time. Adi meets sweet, free-spirited Natalia (Meytal Gal), who seems to have no fear of life. Now he has face the choice between a steady, predictable existence and a chance at genuine happiness.

Adi has always been a “good boy.” He always helped at home, at school, in the military, in his marriage and he became the most thoughtful man you can imagine. Actually, however Adi became a “sucker” who was exploited by nearly everyone he ever met. Natalia, something of a “naughty” girl who entices Adi into a life full of emotions, of passion and romance. Adi Levi became a man who was simply too nice for his own good until he literally bumps into Natalya and one of the dogs she walks. Natalya is a dog walker who takes Adi into her life and retrains him (just like she does to the dogs she walks).

This is a film that takes us into ordinary life in Israel, with the situation there in the background, informing it rather than being at the heart of the story. Because of his promise to his father, Adi has been careful and cautious to the point of timidity and so very aware of others. He became a pushover and his boss, his wife and even his teenage son walk all over him. When a mix-up at a hospital appointment that leads him to believe he has mere weeks to live, his life begins to change. It just so happens that he narrowly avoids killing one of Natalya’s dog charges when he runs it over.

We watch a new relationship and a new man being born. Adi finds not just his mojo, but also his inner hard man. Much of this is down to the winning performances of a beautifully matched pair of actors, and supporting cast of dogs. Roee Florentin directed the film with sensitivity and panache.

“HOMEPORT”— Returning to Dry Land

“Homeport” (“Namal Bayit”)

Returning to Dry Land

Amos Lassen

After thirty years at sea, Aaron (Yoram Hattab) returns home to the port of Ashdod, Israel in the hopes of winning back his family, but he soon realizes that life on land is more complicated then her thought. He accepts an administrative position at the port and soon finds himself in confrontation with Rahamim Azoulai (Shmil Ben Ari), a working class leader who tries to protect the world he’s built for himself and his men. This is the story of a port and the need to build a life even on shaky ground.

Director Erez Tadmor looks at the corruption of the port in Ashdod and treats the subject with a certain ambivalence. Aaron really wants to repair his relationship with his married daughter, Tali (Liron Ben-Shlush), who has recently had her first child and whose husband also works at the port. Rahamim is his best friend and the head of the local workers’ union and the de facto boss of the port. He is pleased by Aaron’s appointment to his new job and he believes that it will serve his own best interests. However, Aaron has no intention of compromising the integrity of his job, even at the cost of his longtime friendship with Rahamim and what he owes him for helping him and his family when Aaron’s father died.

“Homeport” is something of a morality play that pits a principled hero against a reality of professional anarchy and corruption, and it follows that hero’s struggle to hold to his principles and the price he pays for his moral backbone. We’ve seen many movies centered on a similar kind of conflict, often involving two friends whose years-long closeness turns sour when one of them fails to live up to the other’s expectations. Aaron is a man with a stubborn conscience and we see this in his attempts at reconciliation with his estranged daughter, who resents his many years of absence.

Aaron becomes involved with Yelena (Anna Dubrovisky), the port’s customs supervisor, who came to Israel from Ukraine, leaving her daughter behind. Their budding relationship is totally predictable from the moment we first meet Yelena and see the analogy between the two absentee parents. The eventual moral conflict to which their romance leads is a familiar one yet there is s a certain charm to the scenes between Aaron and Yelena.

While it seems like nothing but plot for much of the film, towards the end the movie manages to go further adding an ideological ambivalence that redeems it. At this point the moral forthrightness of the film finally blurs, and it suggests that rigid integrity might have consequences that neither the hero nor his adversary want. The result is a social, economic and political comment on who really rules the port and, by extension, the country, where processes mirroring those that take place within the port claim so many victims.

“OUR FATHER”— A Story of Fatherhood

“Our Father”

A Story of Fatherhood

Amos Lassen

Ovadia Rachmim (Morris Cohen) is the strongest and most violent doorman of Tel Aviv nightclubs. He fears nothing and has never lost a fight . His biggest dream is to become a father; he and his wife Rachel (Rotem Zisman-Cohen) are trying to get pregnant for almost five years. A small time gangster named Shalom (Alon Dahan) sees great potential in Ovadia and wants him to come to work for him. Ovadia sees this as great option to start an expensive treatment for his wife. As soon as Rachel gets pregnant, he decides to stop working for Shalom but learns that it is not that easy. Ovadia needs to finance fertility treatments for his wife and reluctantly takes the job as a strong-arm collector of grey-market debts.

This is the story of decent man who is drawn into organized crime only to find that, once he has become a fully blooded member of the underworld, he can’t opt out again.

There’s an intimacy and subtlety that we see when the husband and wife share the screen (They are also husband and wife in real life). Ovadia was at first reticent to taking the job offer but soon gets a taste for the work. However, the stress takes its toll on his even temper.

Meni Yaish’s film is filled with violence and the acts Ovadia commits show him a side of himself that he has always tried to restrain, a side that enjoys his physical power and his ability to inflict pain.

Throughout the movie, we know that something awful is coming when Ovadia tries to break free from Shalom. This is also the story of the other Israelis, the ones who live in Tel Aviv but who are outside the so-called bubble, whose lives revolve around minimum-wage jobs and being overdrawn at the bank. Ovadia and Rachel are also religiously observant without being fanatical. Ovadia’s religious observance is at odds with the job he is supposed to do.

“PAST LIFE”— Two Sisters

“Past Life”

Two Sisters

Amos Lassen

“Past Life” chronicles the daring late 1970s odyssey of two sisters. Sephi (Joy Rieger) is an introverted classical musician and a scandal sheet journalist and Nana (Nelly Tagar) as they deal with a shocking wartime mystery that has cast a dark shadow on their entire lives. They begin an investigation of their father’s, Baruch Milch (Doron Tavory), activities during the Second World War.

When the two young women make their way to a choral choir concert being held in Berlin where at the reception afterwards, a woman confronts Sephi telling her that she is the daughter of a murderer.  The shocking incident leads to Sephi telling Nana what she heard and the two sisters go about a personal investigation to discover whether the accusation is true.

This is a coming of age tale for Sephi who has to deal with the weight of history and forge a future for herself.  Nana convinces Sephi to investigate the matter and find out whether their father was a war criminal, or it was some sort of accident. Nana, on the other hand, disagrees with her sister, but embarks on her own journey to try to understand the choices that her father had to make.

Nana was invited by Thomas Zielinski, a German conductor to perform at a concert in Warsaw. It seems that Thomas was tied  to the event that happened in the past. It just so happens that the accuser is the mother of Zielinski.

For a number of reasons (including her father’s often excessive discipline), Sephi cannot dismiss the encounter, so she shares it with her sister Nana who has not had a great relationship with her father and assumes that there is some truth in the accusation. The sisters start investigating their father’s past and when Baruch is made aware that there are inquiries being made about him, he offers to reconstruct the lost diary of the years he spent hiding in the Zielinski farm. However, the combination of the sisters’ lingering doubts and accumulated bad karma, this could bring tragic results to the Milch family.

There is significance to setting the film in 1977 should not be lost on anyone and director Nesher does not belabor the parallels between the thaw with Sadat and the efforts of Sephi Milch and Thomas Zielinski to reconcile their parents. This is a richly detailed period production that reminds us of both the good and the bad of the era.

Joy Rieger is rather remarkable as the initially naïve and submissive Sephi Milch. Her expressive face is like an open book. Nelly Tagar brings more attitude and angst as the razor-sharp but profoundly sad Milch-Kotler. Doron Tavory deftly walks a fine line as Dr. Milch, establishing his severity as a parent, but also a deep sense of his fundamentally decent but scarred psyche. It is good to see him back on the screen.

This is an emotional drama where each of us have something to learn from. It is, in a way, an educational movie that shows that pain is sometimes not caused by physical suffering or discomfort caused by illness or injury, but by traumatic past events. We need redemption, understanding and willingness to let the past go. I have tried very hard not to write any spoilers here so if this review is, in places, somewhat incoherent that is the reason why.

“THE WEDDING PLAN”— Marriage

“The Wedding Plan” (“Laavor et hakir”)

Marriage

Amos Lassen

In the Hasidic community, marriage is the most important thing in a woman’s life even though she has little to say about the man she marries. In fact, it seems that marriage is to provide social acceptance and companionship and it does not seem that love has anything to do with it. There are marriage brokers for those who need help in finding the right mate and director Rama Burshtein show us here what we need to know about marriage in an insular community.

Michal (Noa Koler) became religious over a decade ago and is about to get married in a month to Gidi (Erez Drigues). However, Gidi suddenly breaks it off sending Michal into an existential crisis. She is determined to get married and she even books Shimi’s (Amos Tamam) catering hall and this means that she has just twenty-two days to find a husband. Michal contacts a marriage broker and has many dates, but as the big day approaches she begins to doubt her faith. You see Hasidic Jews expect God to provide them with a spouse.

This is an Israeli romantic comedy that focuses on an ultra-orthodox Jewish woman’s search for love through her unwavering faith in God. Michal is a 30-something Hasidic Jew who is increasingly frustrated by the aspects of life that she feels excluded from without a husband. Her community pities women over twenty-years-old who are not married and within the Hasidic community there is great respect placed upon companionship, love, children.

When the film begins we Michal in conversation with Hulda (Odelia Moreh-Matalon), a homeopathic practitioner who uses fish innards and bread dough to accent her consultations. Michal’s presence is immediately felt as we see her frustration of being single. Michal decides enough is enough and so she books a wedding hall for the eighth day of Chanukah and places her faith in God to send her a husband. Michal goes on comical dates with unsuitable bachelors, bares her soul to her sisters and then realizes that the man of her dreams was under her nose all along.

Michal’s character is genuine and engaging and Koler portrays her with wonderful conviction and tenacity. At first, we think that this is a film about societal values but it is also about faith and belief.

“PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW”— From New Orleans to Tel Aviv

“Presenting Princess Shaw”

From New Orleans to Tel Aviv

Amos Lassen

Samantha Montgomery is 38 years old and lives alone in one of New Orleans’ toughest neighborhoods. During the day she works as a caregiver for the elderly and at night she becomes Princess Shaw, singing soulful originals at poorly attended open mic nights and posting homemade a cappella clips on YouTube for just a handful of viewers. One of her followers happens to be Kutiman, a.k.a. Ophir Kutiel, an Israeli musician who lives on a kibbutz outside Tel Aviv and mashes up YouTube videos from all over the world to create new musical pieces. Princess Shaw had no idea that he had found videos.

Director Ido Haar goes back and forth between Shaw at work and on YouTube in New Orleans as Kutiman sits in his Tel Aviv apartment and watches Shaw’s performances in preparation to compose his work. He and Shaw do not yet know one another and Haar works to preserve the effect that events are being candidly shot and not recreated after the fact.

We do not get to now when Haar began filming Shaw whose life is at first presented in what would have to be several months before Kutiman’s compositions go on the net. As seen at her job, at a local open-mic night, and speaking with family members about her upcoming efforts to audition for “The Voice”, we sense Haar turning the screws on Shaw’s desires. In a sense this ruins the film and if you continue to read, you will understand what I mean.

When Shaw went to Atlanta to check out the music scene and meet some relatives and she learns of the chronic sexual abuse by her mother’s boyfriend when she was a child. As shot and edited, the scene involves Shaw and two female relatives, each of whom comfort one another and shed tears of pain over the past trauma as well as tears of joy that they have persevered. Haar’s presence lingers as a question the film never addresses and is especially imperative since this moment comes before the public release of Kutiman’s work. It is curious that Haar was there in the first place and we want to understand if he had prior knowledge of Kutiman’s work before its release. I am curious to know when this became a documentary. There is something missing here.

The final third of the film confirms that this is an underdog narrative. Kutiman’s videos get the attention of the New York Times and other national outlets and this brings about a demand for a handful of concerts. Shaw hops a flight to Tel Aviv, where she prepares with Kutiman and other band members for a show. We see that Haar’s filmmaking has no essential narrative information, particularly the economic specifics of what Shaw’s sudden (and relative) fame entails. Specifically, it’s not clear how much she’s being paid for her work, or even if at all. The first third of the film states that Shaw lives in poverty and is unable to keep the lights on in her cramped apartment yet this seems to be forgotten later. A passport and airfare to Israel are not cheap.

On the other hand this is a film that portrays the difficulty of overcoming childhood abuse and deprivation making it a sad but uplifting film. Samantha channels her pain and disappointments into songs she writes and sings on YouTube and we learn that she was neglected as a child by her mother and sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend.

The filmmakers chose Montgomery wisely; the depth of her personal pain and the earnestness of her striving and optimism give this movie substance it might otherwise lack. According to Montgomery, director Haar originally followed several of Kutiman’s YouTube “collaborators.” Slowly this film became a story about Montgomery, Kutiman, and their beautiful relationship. Kutiman deserves credit for the joy he brought Montgomery by appreciating her art, by enhancing it, and by being inspired by it. This is what Montgomery who is poor, undereducated, and lonely wanted. Watching the tears of joy flow from her eyes when she hears Kutiman’s version of her music but there are still difficult questions. Kutiman neither pays nor asks the permission of his many “collaborators.” This free use of artistic works uploaded to the Internet expresses the philosophy of the free culture movement, which objects to stringent copyright laws and other exercises of ownership and financial control of art. Yet the irony here is that, in some sense, Kutiman’s efforts to use others’ work and polish it into better, more marketable art makes him the kind of person that many talented but financially naïve artists look for to promote their work. It’s not that Kutiman exploits them financially. It’s just that these are real people who are attached to the work he collects and uses, so you can’t help but feel that they ought to be asked permission. On the other side, in Montgomery’s case, Kutiman’s appreciation marked the first time she ever felt encouraged in her art by someone she respects. Because of that it is hard not to love Kutiman for the hope and self-respect he gives her. We are left with an unanswered and valid question— if there is a marketplace demand for their collaborations, will Montgomery make enough to quit her day job. The movie does not tell us Montgomery announces that she and Kutiman collaborated on an album that’s nearing release.

We get a look at Samantha’s as a young single woman struggling to find an outlet for her voice. , She tries to make the best of a troubling job and difficult living situation and she uses singing as mean of self-expression and personal connection. Her efforts to generate a career out of performance often disappoints and she frequently plays to empty clubs on amateur nights and a chance to audition for “The Voice” flops.