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
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