The 2014 Israeli Film Festival kicks off tonight in Brisbane and Melbourne, with screenings in other Australian capitals to follow. With the Gaza situation plastered all over the news recently, it’s certainly a difficult time to promote a film festival celebrating the work from a country engaged in such devastating warfare (with questionable tactics, to say the least).
But a people should not be judged for their government’s actions, and whatever your thoughts on modern Israel, artists within such nations tend to be the forces for change; voices of dissent. That’s apparent in opening night film, Self Made, which tells the story of two women: an Israeli artist (Sarah Adler) and a Palestinian factory worker (Samira Saraya). Their contrasting points of view provides an insightful perspective into the conflict between the two countries, as Israeli characters are inconvenienced by lost screws or missed concerts while their Palestinian counterparts are faced with violence and oppression by Israeli soldiers.
Director Shira Geffen is interested in more than developing a dichotomous political subtext however, weaving themes of family and disconnection through a film that is thoughtful but fundamentally humanistic. Geffen’s cinematography has the precision and coolness of razor-cut ice, reflecting the numbness of her characters. As a spiritual cousin to films like The Double Life of Véronique and Certified Copy, Self Made is one of the most intelligent and interesting films I’ve seen this year, and certainly worth seeing.
Asaf Korman was the editor of last year’s Israeli thriller Big Bad Wolves, which received a lot of attention after earning the label “best film of the year” from Quentin Tarantino. He also works as a director, and his second feature length film Next to Her – screening at the festival – is a long way from the brutal bloodiness of Big Bad Wolves. Next to Her is a naturalistic tale of a twenty-seven year old Chelli (Liron Ben-Shlush, who also wrote the film) and her mentally-impaired younger sister, Gabby (Dana Ivgy).
Mentally-impaired characters in cinema tend to exist as a blend of two stereotypes: the burden – a drain on the protagonist’s energy – or the blessing – who demonstrates the saintly attributes of said protagonist. Next to Her quickly reveals itself to be less interested in such simplistic depictions, especially when Chelli’s burgeoning relationship with substitute teacher Zohar (Jacob Daniel) reveals the messy complexities of the bond between the two sisters. Korman’s direction is simple but effective: note how he uses warmer, more natural lighting after Zohar moves in with Chelli and Gabby, or the way Gabby is consistently framed, out of focus, in the background. Nothing spectacular, but a solid film nonetheless.
They can’t all be winners, though, and documentary Shadow in Baghdad is certainly not a winner. Its subject matter – the historical persecution of Jews in Iraq – is interesting, as is the collaboration between Israeli and Iraqi reporters to uncover the details of past injustice. Unfortunately, the direction is dull and insipid – every second scene feels like a recreation, whether it is or not – and the subject matter, as interesting as it is, lacks the substance to fill out even its scant seventy minutes. Avoid this one.
I’ve only seen these films so far, but I’ve also heard good things about caper comedy Kidon and Nadav Lapid’s drama The Kindergarten Teacher if they happen to slot into your schedule.