Harris, Rachel S. “Warriors, Witches, Whores: Women in Israeli Cinema”, (Contemporary Approaches to Film and Media Series), Wayne State University Press, 2017.
A Feminist Study of Israel’s Film Industry
Rachel Harris’s “Warriors, Witches, Whores: Women in Israeli Cinema” is a feminist study of Israel’s film industry and the changes that have occurred since the 1990s. Using a cultural studies approach, we look at the creation of a female-centered and thematically feminist film culture in terms of the structural and ideological shifts in Israeli society. Author Harris places these changes in dialogue with the cinematic history that preceded them and the ongoing social inequalities that keep women marginalized within Israeli society.
While no one can deny Israel’s Western women’s advancements, feminist filmmakers look at Israel’s less impressive underbelly as sources for their inspiration. These films have focused on sexism, the negative impact of militarism on women’s experience, rape culture, prostitution, and sexual abuse. These films also tend to include subjects from society’s geographical periphery and social margins, such as female foreign workers, women, and refugees. The book is divided into three major sections and each considers a different form of feminist engagement.
The first part explores films that situate women in traditionally male spheres of militarism and consider the impact of interjecting women within hegemonic spaces or reconceptualizing them in feminist ways. The second part recovers the narratives of women’s experience that were previously marginalized or silenced, thereby creating a distinct female space that offers new kinds of storytelling and cinematic aesthetics that are a reflection of feminist expressions of identity.
The third part offers examples of feminist activism that reach beyond the boundaries of the film and comment on social issues. Here we see how feminists use film (and work within the film industry) in order to position women in society. Of course, there are thematic overlaps between the chapters, each section marks structural differences in the views of feminist response.
We see the ways social and political power have affected the representation of women and how feminist filmmakers have fought against these inequities behind the camera and in the stories they tell.
Rachel Harris’s focus in our on the shifting representation of women in Israeli cinema post-1990. This is an academic study and not for the general reader or filmgoer. Harris asks whether a director’s gender necessarily determines the politics of a film, whether women’s stories are necessarily feminist ones, which women’s stories are represented on-screen, and how some depictions of sexual violence intended to critique rape culture are actually complicit with it. Harris provides an act of resistance to those who think that feminism can only position itself in opposition to all things Israeli.
She points out, early on, that while Hollywood in the U.S. had a women’s melodramatic film tradition to call upon, there was no such tradition in Israel. From the beginning of Israeli cinema, women were depicted on-screen as military and pioneering support staff. Their bodies were metaphors for the land and their sacrifices were for the nation. The war widow was a prominent figure, and Israeli film shows that the Zionist narrative of gender egalitarianism was really not sustained. As more leftist critiques of Israeli militarism became part of cinema, the possibility for raising feminist questions in war-related films developed. Changing modes of warfare also impacted cinema.
Harris also looks at the increasingly diverse representations of women in Israeli cinema. While religious women tended to be stereotypically viewed from a secular vantage point, including a fetishizing of their sexual oppression, now films such as “Ushpizin” (2004) and “Fill the Void” (2012) show the struggles of religious women from an insider’s perspective. Harris acknowledges that these films are sanctioned by religious authorities who define their feminist limits within the world of Orthodoxy.
For Jewish feminists interested in the intersections of film, feminism, and Israeli culture, this study asks valuable questions and gives valuable insights. It also provides a watch list and most of the films mentioned here can be streamed either through Amazon or the Israeli Film Center.