Arts & Culture

Netanya Fish Fry

She's dead, now, but I can still hear her speaking as though she were right next to me. "All they ever want to see or hear is something about the fucking Occupation." I could sympathize with my friend, standing next … Read More

By / June 4, 2008

She's dead, now, but I can still hear her speaking as though she were right next to me. "All they ever want to see or hear is something about the fucking Occupation." I could sympathize with my friend, standing next to her one hot summer afternoon, in front of her house near Kikar Hamedinah. If only they could stop expecting it of us. If only we could stop producing it ourselves. If only, I remember thinking on the drive home that night, it didn't need to be written about at all.

That was nine years ago. Yet, for the past year, I cannot help but hear Naomi's words again. Writing on the controversy over the selection of Beaufort for an Oscar over The Band's Visit, Tom Tugend indicated his preference for The Band 's Visit because he found it so much happier than Joseph Cedar's noir, anti-war drama.

Reprising the theme yet again in a review of Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen's award-winning Jellyfish, Ella Taylor describes the film as" belonging to a new breed of Israeli movies — domestic rather than political in focus, and formally more sophisticated than the realist war dramas and blunt comedies that until recently kept Israeli cinema in the boondocks of international cinema." As much as I would like to agree with both Tugend and Taylor, I'd be hard pressed to see the non-political in yet another new Israeli production.

One can sympathize with the impulse, though, to want to encounter Israeli culture as thought it were a reflection of something a little more peaceful than what it actually reflects. Indeed, to be able to experience it as such ought to be a goal; a consequence of a new state of affairs, in which it would be possible to make films that weren't necessarily about politics. However, to press such a position in a contemporary context is tantamount to pretending that form is equal to content.

Though both films are more narratively complex than traditional Israeli political films such as Amos Gitai's Kippur or Eran Riklis' Cup Final–and the politics more allegorical–the 'new' breed of Israeli filmmakers are no less political than their predecessors. They are also equally engaged. The difference is simply that the way they incorporate politics is more subtle, more organically ingrained in their narratives, rather than being structured around straightforward accounts of war. Take, for example, the fact that not a single character in Jellyfish is the least bit happy, and that their lives are consistently connected to death. Combine a young, suicidal waitress; a Filipina guest worker whose lot is consigned to attending to dead and dying elderly German women; and a young bride whose frustrated Russian-immigrant husband finds himself charmed by an older native Israeli writer who kills herself after giving the couple her suite on their honeymoon, and it's quite hard to argue that the ideologically-focused sensibilities of early Israeli cinema have somehow disappeared. The difference is that the collectivism of what may have once characterized the way politics expressed itself in Israeli film has changed. This is not to say that more traditional forms of political filmmaking have disappeared with directors like Etgar Keret substituting the literal for the metaphorical. If every character in a film about three women in Tel Aviv is confronted by death, does that not still say something about a common experience, a shared sense of fate? It may not be happier state of affairs expected of a film that's not about war, but the same fateful shadows we associate with conflict are still very much there.

If anything, Israeli film is in the process of diversifying the way it deals with the political. That is not something to see as a sign of stasis. It is, in fact ,something that ought to be celebrated, in the same way that my late friend might have embraced it as a necessary compromise. To the extent that any progress has been made away from the literalism which we associate with documenting conflict, at least now we've developed the capacity to deal with its immediacy and its after-effects in other ways. Ways which indulge the subtleties and the sophistication we associate with affluence, with an absence of conflict.