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Jewish Film Festival Diary (Updated)
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Jewish Film Festival Diary (Updated)

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival requires little introduction. Now in its twenty-ninth year, the annual summertime event has turned into the most important global gathering of its kind. Transforming the west coast American city into a temporary stand-in for Berlin or Cannes, albeit a Jewish version, is no small feat. Nor is the festival’s distinction for helping serve as the North American starting point for some of Israel and Europe’s most significant new Jewish productions. Over the course of the next week (plus or minus an additional day or two), Zeek film editor Shai Ginsburg will be offering short reviews of his favorite films being showcased at this year’s festival, which begins on July 23rd. We’ll be updating Shai’s blog as his pieces come in. For those unfamiliar with Shai’s work, this is as good an introduction as any of his consistently excellent film coverage. The former film editor of Tikkun, Shai Ginsburg began working with Zeek two years ago, when he reviewed Joseph Cedar’s brilliant Beaufort.

Desert Brides

Ada Ushpiz’ 2008 documentary Desert Brides explores the life of Bedouins in Israel. Until a decade or so ago, Bedouins were present only on the margins of Israeli cinema, mostly as an emblem of the exotic, primitive Orient in which Jews sought to establish a modern European polity. The present interest of Israeli filmmakers in topics and communities that were traditionally marginalized brought attention to Bedouin communities. Among the films that deal with Bedouins in Israel one should count Dan Verete’s 2001 Yellow Asphalt and such documentaries as Uri Rosenwaks’ 2006 The Film Class, Oded Adomi Leshem’s 2007 Voices from El-Sayed, and Ebtisam Mara’ana’s 2007 Three Times Divorced.

Israeli films commonly explore Bedouin life from a double perspective. On the one hand, they point at the discrimination which Israeli Bedouins experience, not only in their interaction with State and local officials, but also in their interaction with private individuals. On the other, they draw attention to the oppressive character of Bedouin society. Conversely, these films throw into relief the endeavors of the state to uproot the Bedouin from their traditional grounds and settle them in permanent towns. The Israeli government further refused to recognize and provide services to 36 Bedouin villages, in which some 50% of the Bedouin’s in the south of Israel reside; this refusal translates into the abject poverty that dominates Bedouin life, whether in recognized or unrecognized villages. These films also explore the ways that Bedouin society deny what one would consider basic rights to some of its members, particularly to women.

Desert Brides largely focuses on three Bedouin women who are all part of polygamous marriages. While the annulment of a marriage is not prohibited among Bedouins, divorces are unusual and polygamy is still a common practice. About 30% of Bedouin women in the Negev desert live in polygamous marriages. Indeed, the film argues, if not already within such polygamous household, all Bedouin wives live in fear that their husband would “marry over them.” Ushpiz studies the ensuing anxiety and melancholy of her female protagonists. Be they first wives, second wives or the only wives, anxiety and melancholy becomes the core of their experience as Bedouin women.

Ushpiz begins the film with a wedding scene. A woman takes photos and directs a video camerawoman. The sound of music, laughter, screams of delight and the sight of the wedded couple and their joyful guests contrast with the listless, not to say dull expression on that woman’s face. Miriam El Kwader, a professional wedding photographer, supports her family and unemployed husband. Now her husband’s family pressures the reluctant husband to take a second wife.

The director returns to Miriam’s wedding photos and videos throughout the film. The magnificence and display of luxury of these weddings does not merely contrasts with the angst of the film’s protagonists, but also to the poverty in which some of them live. More than that, these weddings appear less like traditional Bedouin celebrations than wedding parties common elsewhere, in Europe, the US and Israel. Yet these similarities are misleading. A completely different fate awaits this newly wedded woman.

The film then returns to these photos and videos to introduce his two other protagonists.
Miriam Al-Nimer, recently divorced, is a successful young woman who runs the local Center for the Elderly. She had promised herself never to enter a polygamous marriage. At first, her marriage indeed seems happy, albeit filled with romance.  But as Desert Brides progresses, we discover that she is a second wife. Notwithstanding what assurances her husband gives her of his love, she constantly feels she has to compete with the first wife and her children for the time and attention of her husband. Ushpiz does not fail to interview the first wife as well, who feels betrayed after having welcomed Miriam into the family. Both women mirror each other.

Desert Brides’last protagonist is Aalya El-Abd. At twenty-seven, she feels she has to marry or be doomed to remain a spinster. As her partner courts her, he promises to divorce his second wife, but refuses to provide a time limit for that. On the day leading to the wedding, Aalya’s sisters warn her not to trust his promises. He will never divorce his first wife, they tell her. She must get used to the idea of being a second wife.

Most disturbing about the portraits of the these three women is the fact that they all believe themselves to be trapped. Despite their intelligence, education and familiarity with Israeli-Jewish society, in which polygamy is unacceptable as well as illegal, they are unable to imagine better lives for themselves. No thought of resistance or of change crosses their lips. In the end, they submit to what they perceive is their fate as Bedouin women.

While watching the film, though, I had one reservation, As capturing and nuanced a study of the life of women in a non-Western society as Desert Brides is, its introduction does it disservice. Preceding the first scene, frames of text dialogue link polygamous marriages in Bedouin communities to Israel’s handling of Bedouins. Each begats the other, or so it seems Yet, nothing in Ushpiz’ film actually explores that link. Nowhere does the director examine the ties between the experience of being uprooted and resettled, or of life in an unrecognized village, to the experience of her subjects. It is all too easy—even if not unjustified—to blame the Israeli state and its treatment of its non-Jewish citizens and residents for the social faults the latter suffer. It is much more difficult to expose and analyze the links between state policy and communities like the Bedouin in concrete, narrative terms. Simply invoking such idée reçue, without subjecting these same beliefs to critique, doesn’t explain such causal relations between the Israeli state and its Arab subjects. It is a pity that the otherwise intelligent and probing Desert Brides falls into this trap.

Lady Kul El-Arab

Ibtisam Mara’ana is one of growing number of, yet still all-too-few Israeli-Palestinian filmmakers who seek to transcend the ethnic-national boundaries of their “home” communities and appeal to the Israeli public in general. Her documentaries regularly explore the complex realities not only of the people she captures on film, but also of herself, as a someone with three identities: Israeli, Palestinian and female. As Mara’ana’s films suggest, in present-day Israel, reconciling the three proves to be not only difficult but unlikely.

Mara’ana’s films turn on the travails of women in one of Israel’s minority groups: Palestinian, Druze or Bedouin. Paradise Lost (2003), Badal (2005) and Three Times Divorced (2007) put into relief the endeavor of her female subjects to seize hold of the rights and opportunities offered (or at least nominally proclaimed) by the Israeli “liberal” state while, at the same time, fighting a double oppression: their legal and political oppression as members of a national minority by the very same “liberal” state, and their social oppression as women within traditionally patriarchal communities.

What allows the director to study this double oppression is her own position as an outsider to both Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian societies. As a member of the Palestinian minority, Mara’ana finds herself—despite her best efforts—outside the Jewish culture of the Israeli state. And as a feminist who decided to leave her Palestinian hometown for the big cultural center of Tel Aviv, she consciously places herself outside the Palestinian-Muslim patriarchal culture into which she was born. In her films, Mara’ana translates this “outside” position into narratives that aim to give voice to the distress of Palestinian (as well as Druze and Bedouin) communities within Israel, all the while criticizing the traditional patriarchal customs that still predominate in these communities. The center of gravity of Mara’ana’s latest film, Lady Kul El-Arab (2008) is somewhat different, as Mara’ana focuses more on a critique of traditional Arab patriarchy. The film follows Duah Fares, native of the largely Druze town of Sajur in the northern part of Israel. After Duah reaches the final stage of the Lady Kul El-Arab beauty pageant, she decides to withdraw and register, instead, as a contestant in the Israeli beauty pageant. The Arab pageant, she tells the director, would offer her only limited, brief opportunities within the Arab sector, while she dreams of an international career as a model. Yet, what seems at first to be a simple story of a young woman’s aspirations to move beyond her community into the “big world,” turns into an account of the ensuing conflict between traditional and liberal values, between the patriarchal tradition in which Duah was raised and the free, progressive state to which she would like to move.

Whereas the Arab pageant adheres to the customs of modesty prevailing in Duah’s community, the Israeli pageant, like other such pageants in Europe and the US, dresses its contestant in revealing clothes. The prospect of Duah’s appearance in a swimsuit spurs condemnation in her hometown and shakes not only her parents, but also her Druze community as a whole. The elders of the community all enlist to pressure her Duah and her parents to yield and withdraw from the Israeli pageant, warning them that they risk being ostracized. But the pressure does not stop there. Duah and her parents receive threats, and she has to go into hiding and remain under constant police protection for the duration of the pageant. Duah now has to weigh her dream against its consequences—for herself as well as to her family. A career as a model, it now becomes clear, would come at a very dear price. Yet, Lady Kul El-Arab displays a dimension of Mara’ana’s oeuvre as a whole, a dimension that was subdued in her earlier films, but that in this film takes center stage. The director skillfully turns Duah’s story into a compelling tale about the struggle of a young woman to pursue her dream, a tale about the hurdles she has to overcome in order to realize herself and about the ways a patriarchal society mobilizes all of its powers to curb that woman’s free spirit. Yet Mara’ana’s film stops short of considering the most interesting question her subject raises: What is the relationship between Duah’s endeavors to transcend the limits set by her community, and the status of women in a so-called liberal state, of which she aspires to become a member?

The film sets Duah’s story within the coordinates of a simple opposition between oppression and emancipation, failing to question the nature of the emancipation offered by the liberal state. Nowhere does the director stop to question the nature of the “liberal” values her characters—and the director herself, it seems—set so high. Are they indeed as liberating and emancipating as they seem? Would taking part in a beauty pageant truly place Duah’s beyond the yoke of patriarchy? Or would it, perhaps, simply replace one such yoke with another one, as the common feminist critique of these pageants would suggest? The most troubling aspect of Lady Kul El-Arab, then, is that the director seems to sincerely believe that an Israeli beauty pageant is a place of feminist liberation beyond reproach.


A History of Israeli Cinema

Raphaël Nadjari’s film, A History of Israeli Cinema, is in fact, groundbreaking. It is the first attempt ever to survey the history of Israeli cinema in the same medium, that is, in film. The outcome is captivating. The documentary will serve as an excellent introduction to those unfamiliar with Israeli film and will certainly become the bread and butter of all college classes on the subject. It is also simply fascinating.

Nadjari does not introduce a new history of Israeli cinema. Rather, he portrays it the way it has been described and taught over the past two decades. He thus divides his film into two parts. The first, which focuses on the years 1933-1978, presents a rather homogeneous film scene, shaped and formed by a single idea at a time. At the center of stage is Zionist ideology, the establishment of a new state, and of a new Jewish society and culture. Israeli movies moved from portraying the glory of the Zionist endeavor in Palestine and, in particular, of the New Hebrew Man, through a paean to Jewish might , to ethnic comedies (the Bourekas films) that brought to the surface inter-Jewish ethnic tensions, and finally to personal cinema that explored the confusion of the hegemonic Ashkenazi middle class in general, and of the Ashkenazi male in particular. The first part of Nadjari’s survey is easier to follow than the second one, which deals with the period falling between 1978-2005, and which presents a much more convoluted film scene that pulls in divergent directions. During this era’s first decade, the homogeneity that characterized Israeli filmmaking is still somewhat present, at least in terms of subject matter. However, this work is by no means quiescent. The late 1970s through the 1980s were dominated by films that, for the first time, turned on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the fate of Palestinians under Israeli of paramount concern. Yet, the early 1990s saw the emergence of new films that are much harder to group together under any specific rubric. Israeli cinema no longer followed a single theme or style, but multiple ones.

The sense of disorder is also enhanced by the way Nadjari introduces selections from different Israeli movies. One of the most successful decisions of the director was not to make do with short clips from as many films as possible but, rather, to present longer sequences, selected from fewer films, to allow viewers to get a deeper sense of these productions. Yet, whereas in the first part, each sequence is properly introduced and contextualized, (and its relationship to the present stage of Israeli cinema is made clear), the sequences in the second part lack such context. This is another indication of the disappearance of the homogeneous frame of reference that shaped Israeli cinema for the first few decades of its history.

Nadjari’s second formative decision was to cut between film sequences and interview sequences. These include interviews with directors, actors, producers, film scholars and critics. The director does not see his interviewees as subservient to the film sequences. On the contrary, he turns them into subjects in their own right, of equal importance to the films that they discuss and analyze. A History of Israeli Cinema thus does not merely accentuate the central role scholars and critics played in shaping and forming Israeli films. After all, many filmmakers make their living teaching in the different departments of cinema studies and communication alongside many of the film critics and scholars. History is as much about the relationship between his interviewees and Israeli films as it is about the history of Israeli cinema. The director thus opens his film with the 1935 Avodah  (Labor),  which fetishizes the figure of the Jewish-Zionist settler in Palestine, and cuts to the figure of Nachman Ingber, one of Israel’s most influential film critics, who ironically looks much more like the "Old Jew" Zionism tried to overcome than the young, muscular and Aryan looking man that it set as a masculine ideal.

That said, Nadjari’s film primarily focuses on the history of feature filmmaking in Israel. The one documentary he discusses,  David Perlov’s Yoman (Diary, 1973-1983), accentuates the absence of other documentaries, and begs the question what the relationship is between documentary and feature filmmaking in general and the boom in both that we have witnessed over the past decade in Israel. Likewise, the director fails to discuss the relationship between television and cinematic productions. Once again, the one television drama noted, Ram Loevy’s 1978 Khirbet Khizah, poses the same question that was asked about documentaries, especially television series and their role in the recent boom in Israeli filmmaking. In a similar manner, History includes just one short feature film, Avi Mograbi’s 1989 Gerush (Expulsion). The choice is particularly interesting given that Nadjari does not note that this is a short, and that Mograbi’s reputation is in documentary, not  feature filmmaking. Nadjari’s choice of Mograbi’s film also raises questions about what the relationship is between Israeli shorts and the “larger” cinematic works.

Be that as it may, Nadjari’s A History of Israeli Cinema is a worthy introduction to Israeli cinema.

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