This year’s 23rd Israel Film Festival has moved on from its November venue in New York to Miami. A sample of the first three episodes of the television series,”Srugim,” was the most charming of the offerings I saw. “Srugim” continues in the tradition of “B’tipul,” the high quality Israeli series which inspired the American cable mini-series, “In Treatment,” about a psychotherapist and his clients.
“Srugim” depicts the lives of educated and high-achieving modern Orthodox Jerusalemites in their late 20s and early 30s. (The name refers to the knitted kipot [scull caps] worn by men of the “national religious” community – as opposed to the black hats and felt kipot worn by the haredim [ultra-Orthodox].) They negotiate career and life in contemporary Jerusalem as single men and women who maintain their ties to religious tradition, even as this tradition prizes early marriage and motherhood.
On the not-so-good side, were the two other films I saw. “Ben-Gurion Remembers” is a ponderous documentary that depicts Israel’s founding father in his own words and in those of close associates – including Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan. It is entirely devoid of real analysis and insight, let alone artistic merit. Made in 1973, just prior to the Yom Kippur War, it only has value as a relic of this halcyon period between the 1967 and 1973 wars when most Israelis deluded themselves into thinking that time was on their side and they could just sit tight and wait for the Arab world to come hat in hand begging for peace.
The other, a 40-minute drama called “Homeland,” was a 2007 television production, mostly in Yiddish. A young Holocaust survivor is inducted into Israel’s defense forces during the 1948 war, without his informed consent, and is delivered by truck into a desolate and remote outpost. His commander is hardened, apparently by his own Holocaust experiences, into a sadistic brute. Nothing good comes of their relationship and this viewer was left wondering why this well-acted but nasty little film was made.
By contrast, “Bridge Over the Wadi,” is a delightful and moving documentary which appeared both in the official Israel Film Festival and in the more or less simultaneous “Other Israel Film Festival” – the latter run in Manhattan for the second consecutive year under the inspiring leadership of Carole Zabar. I saw it in the “Other…” venue and benefited from a post-screening Q & A with Barak Heymann, who made the film together with his brother, Tomer. It’s about the first year of a bilingual, bi-cultural Jewish-Arab elementary school in the Israeli-Arab town of Kfar Kara.
The most difficult episode to watch was of an Arab teacher struggling with her Jewish colleagues and students to get across the Palestinian narrative of loss and defeat (the “Nakba”) during the celebration of Israeli independence. Mr. Heymann indicated that this striking young woman and her colleagues overcame their differences to find a less confrontational and emotion-laden way to co-teach this difficult subject. An image that stays with me is of the beautiful blond Jewish girl crying about Arab families having lost their homes. I wish that this delicate matter of how to fairly teach this subject could be explored in a follow up.
“Fog,” also a documentary, was the other “Other Israel” film that I saw. It depicts the effort of the prominent Israeli-Druze broadcast journalist, Rafik Halabi, to find out what happened to a relative who was reportedly killed in action during the Yom Kippur War. As you may know, Israeli Druze are an insular religious minority, Arab in culture but fully loyal to Israel and subject to military conscription in equal measure to Jewish citizens. The Druze are still somewhat secretive about their religion, but it is now known that it includes a belief in reincarnation – that every Druze soul migrates upon death to another Druze who is born afterwards.
Sergeant Mu’in Halabi’s soul is considered to have migrated to another body, a person who also dies as a young man while serving in the IDF (in a terrorist attack on an Israeli bus). His soul is then traced to a young boy born a little later. There was no obvious alternative explanation linking these three individuals. The spookiest connection recounted the terrible emotional upset that the middle individual experienced as a boy when, on a family vacation trip, their car passed the spot on the Golan Heights where the sergeant was probably killed.
“Fog” reminded me of the entertaining and thought-provoking feature film, “Maktub,” which explored a similar theme in last year’s Other Israel Film Festival .