Is­rael’s new di­rec­tion…

Two fac­tual films screen­ing in Lon­don show how Is­raeli cin­ema is be­com­ing a ma­jor player on the in­ter­na­tional stage. Lemez Lovas re­ports

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

AN­OTHER FES­TIV A L , a n o t h e r award. I s r aeli cin­ema is cur­rently ben­e­fit­ing from a new gen­er­a­tion of gifted film-mak­ers. Two award-win­ning doc­u­men­tary be­ing screened at the UK Jewish Film Fes­ti­val in Lon­don are fur­ther ev­i­dence of the im­pact Is­raeli film is mak­ing in­ter­na­tion­ally. Both ex­am­ine that most Is­raeli of themes — im­mi­gra­tion and be­long­ing.

The He­brew Les­son, di­rected by David Ofek, is a por­trait of a class of im­mi­grants in an Tel Aviv He­brew school, or ul­pan, over a six-month pe­riod. Here the stu­dents’ hopes, fears and frus­tra­tions are acted out over end­less ta­bles of con­ju­ga­tions and verb end­ings.

One of the fea­tures of new Is­raeli film-mak­ing is how young direc­tors are re-ex­am­in­ing cen­tral icons of their na­tional cul­ture from a more crit­i­cal stand­point. “I was drawn,” says di­rec­tor David Ofek, “to this first mo­ment of strange­ness, when the im­mi­grant ar­rives to his new home and re­acts to it.”

By fo­cus­ing on the sto­ries of the class­mates — Sasha from Rus­sia, Dong Dong from China, Marisol from Colom­bia — Ofek raises dif­fi­cult is­sues, such as the pain of be­ing de­nied ac­cess to one’s chil­dren, the ex­ploita­tion of for­eign work­ers, misog­yny and re­li­gious in­equal­ity.

Far away from friends and fam­ily, the ul­pan be­gins to func­tion as a refuge from the harsh re­al­i­ties of their new life. The ul­pan teacher, Yoela, be­comes a kind of sur­ro­gate par­ent to her young stu­dents. “The most im­por­tant char­ac­ter for us to find be­fore we started shoot­ing was the teacher,” says Ofek. “We knew that if the teacher was right, ev­ery­thing else would fol­low.”

Yoela came to Is­rael as a young or­phan her­self: “I’ll never for­get my ul­pan teacher,” she says in one poignant scene. “She helped me through th­ese first dif­fi­cult years. So I said to my­self: this is what I want to do too.”

An­other award-win­ning Is­raeli doc­u­men­tary on show this week, 9 Star Ho­tel, tack­les a chal­leng­ing as­pect of Is­raeli so­ci­ety.

Ido Haar’s film is a por­trait of a the young Pales­tinian men from the West Bank who risk ev­ery­thing to work in Is­rael — sleep­ing rough in fields, al­ways on the run from po­lice and border guards.

“When I talk about the film,” says Haar, “I say first of all that it is about a group of young men who have an in­cred­i­ble zest for life, but who are de­pressed by so­cial is­sues that they just can­not con­trol. If I tell peo­ple it is a film about Pales­tinian work­ers, they ei­ther get very de­fen­sive, or else they think to them­selves: ‘Pales­tini­ans and Is­raelis again, what do I need to see that for?’ That’s ex­actly why wanted to make a film where peo­ple, not pol­i­tics, are at the fore­front.”

The film fo­cuses on two men, Ahmed and Muhammed, as they work on con­struc­tion projects in Modiin, mid­way

Ido Haar, di­rec­tor of 9 Star Ho­tel be­tween Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The two friends dis­cuss ev­ery­thing can­didly in front of the cam­era — the stress of be­ing the only bread­win­ner in a big fam­ily, be­ing forced into mar­ry­ing young, their dis­ap­point­ments with pol­i­tics. “We Pales­tini­ans never think of th­ese things be­fore­hand,” says Muhammed. “Pales­tini­ans al­ways think back­wards.”

What gives the film its strength is Haar’s re­fusal to at­tribute blame for the Pales­tini­ans’ plight. “The of­fi­cial pol­icy to­wards them is ‘one eye open, one eye closed’,” he says. “The po­lice chase them but ev­ery­body knows that some­body has to do this work. I didn’t show the bosses on cam­era be­cause they are not the bad guys in this story — it goes much deeper. ”

So, Is­raeli film is on the rise, al­though David Ofek re­mains wary. “There is this fash­ion in the film world to choose a coun­try and call it the next big thing: first it was Iran, and now it’s Is­rael and Ro­ma­nia. Is­rael has al­ways had so many great sto­ries, but per­haps it is just that we have got bet­ter at telling them.” The He­brew Les­son is screened on Sun­day, 9 Star Ho­tel on Thurs­day. De­tails of times and venues at www.uk­jew­ish­film fes­ti­val.org.uk

A scene from The He­brew Les­son, a doc­u­men­tary about im­mi­grants learn­ing He­brew at a school in Tel Aviv

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