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 Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

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


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