Israeli film’s new wave
Etgar Keret, the Israeli writer and now movie-maker, explains why his country has been winning so many big international film awards. By David Lasserson
THE NIGHT I s r a e l i movie Jellyfish won the Camera d’Or prize at this year’s Cannes F i l m F e s t i v al , t he directors, husbandand wife-team Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen, had to put on evening dress. “Everything here is so far from our lives. This is the first time I have worn a suit since my barmitzvah,” said Keret, who is best known as one of Israel’s most exciting young writers. The fairytale quality of their success could almost be an episode from the movie itself.
Keret and Geffen have created an unassuming, poetic film about interconnecting lives in Tel Aviv. The movie, which is being screened at the UK Jewish Film Festival in London this weekend, manages to t a k e b o l d f l i g h t s o f fancy while remaining resolutely down-to-earth. Its meanings are not handed over instantly — Keret is determined to reward the inquisitive viewer.
“My wife’s a poet and I’m a fiction writer. We didn’t want to make the plot obvious.” Trying to understand the title is a starting point. “When Shira told me that the title would be Jellyfish, I thought about how they are taken to the beach by the current. When a jellyfish stings you, it doesn’t mean to — it’s thrown by the current so it touches you. Our characters hurt each other without meaning to. They are carried by things they can’t control.”
An ill-defined melancholy is the starting point for the three intertwined narratives in Jellyfish. A young couple break up and the girl finds herself living alone in a flat with a drip- ping ceiling and a negligent landlord; another young couple tie the knot, but the bride’s broken ankle means they have to honeymoon in a local hotel instead of the Caribbean; a Filipino carer, desperately missing her son, takes a job in a private home with an elderly lady who resents her.
Into this unpromising arena of non-communication, unexpected influences surface. A strange, silent girl wearing a rubber ring drifts into the singleton’s life; a guest at the hotel offers her suite to the newlyweds; the carer encourages her patient to go to her daughter’s theatre performance. People start to move from passivity to activity.
“You need an outsider to mediate the emotions of people close to you,” says Keret. “In contemporary Western society the structures that used to hold people, the tribe, the authority figures with all the answers, no longer exist. In our film, a family dinner is a situation of complete isolation. The landlord doesn’t know what to do about the dripping ceiling. The policeman can’t find missing people. In this malfunctioning, fragmentary society, our characters are not looking for love; rather, they are looking for connection — for someone to hug.” Jellyfish is one of a quartet of high-profile prizewinners to emerge from Israeli cinema in the last year. Keret notices something they have in common. “Look at Beaufort, The Band’s Visit, SweetMud. They all take place in one location. A military s t r o n g h o l d , a kibbutz, a small town. There is something modest here.”
Modesty is a virtue that allows today’s film-makers to talk about contemporary Israel. “There’s been a shift from the ambition to tell the story of the nation. Ten years ago, if you wanted to make a film about Lebanon, you would include the Prime Minister’s office, the general’s office, Lebanese people on the streets, and so on. [Now] directors are able to connect more with people and find new ways of talking about politics. Beaufort is set in a single stronghold in Lebanon, and the soldiers are hoping a withdrawal will happen before they are killed.”
How did Israeli cinema attract the attention of international-festival prize juries? Keret offers a literary comparison. “For years, Israeli fiction was considered good, while Israeli film was not. I think this is to do with Hebrew being traditionally a written language. Acting in Hebrew has now improved, and performers are becoming more nonchalant in using it.”
He also cites a more practical element. “Thegovernmentchangedtheirscheme for sponsoring film to allow more access for first-time directors. There have been a number of successful debuts.”
Few have been more successful than Keret’s and Geffen’s. Inexperienced directors but hugely successful writers, they brought a distinctly literary approach to creating a world on film.
“We wanted it to be like a fairytale, in no exact place or time. There are no long shots that show you the city. And there are many details that make the fabric of the film, even if you miss them. “For example, as the couple move from hotel room to hotel room, the patterns in the rooms are the same, they just get bigger. When the groom sits alone on the street in the rain, behind him is a lingerie shop displaying the same clothes his wife was wearing. These are like literary metaphors.”
Too subtle for a cinema audience? “Our art director told us that in film no-one notices these things. OK, but they might feel it. And the actor knows it, so he will communicate something more. Literature assumes an active reader, while film assumes a passive viewer. But I want moments to make the viewer feel like he is the only one in the cinema to notice.” Jellyfish is screened at the Screen on the Hill, NW3, on Sunday (tel: 020 7435 3366), and at the Everyman Cinema Club, NW3, on November 15 (tel: 0870 066 4777)
A scene from Jellyfish, a film which depicts Israelis as alienated and living in a fragmented society. Co-director Etgar Keret ( below) says a new generation of film-makers are succeeding by focusing on small-scale human stories