A Swerve In Israeli Cinema
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A Swerve In Israeli Cinema

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

When we get into the second half of the 20th century, I tell my students in “Introduction to the Moving Image” that the default setting for feature filmmaking in the developing world is a global variation of neo-realism. Like its Italian predecessors of the 1940s, this cinema is low-budget, shoot-on-location, with most of the performances coming from ordinary people rather than trained actors. The focus is invariably on family melodrama and the tensions that rapid urbanization has wrought on working people.

It’s not hard to perceive why cinemas in countries as dissimilar as Bolivia and Belgium, Senegal and Singapore, Taiwan and China have tended to this model. The financial limitations that filmmakers face dictate parsimony. The social, economic and political situations depicted revolve around precisely the issues enumerated above. Everyone experiences these crises in the family setting.

For prominent filmmakers working in richer nations — EU member states the United Kingdom (for the moment), Russia, China, Japan and even the United States to some extent — the decision to work in this vein may be an artistic statement, a political stance or both. Certainly for Chinese independent cinema pioneered by Jia Zhangke and others, it’s likely the only choice: Your film probably won’t be cleared for public screening anyway, but if you take money from the state, you won’t be able to make the film you want.

Israeli film, perched a little uneasily between the Anglo-American narrative model and the influences of the various new waves, has always had its own neo-realist variant; its practitioneers are often artists like Eytan Fox, who veers between the realistic (“Yossi and Jagger,” “Yossi”) and a friendlier, stylized vein (“Cupcakes,” “The Bubble”). Intriguingly, recent Israeli releases shown here suggest a new swerve in the realistic direction, accompanied by a turning away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a film subject. (Of course, that turning away happens periodically, but this time it feels a bit different in ways I can’t quite articulate.)

Whenever you are discussing socio-political currents in film, it is essential to remember that filmmaking — even documentary filmmaking — is not like making instant coffee. For a director, the time between the initial impulse and the final result takes months, even years. As a consequence, one should wait at least a few months before proclaiming a “new” trend in the film world. At least that is my excuse for the fact that although this trend is a couple of years old I really only noticed it at this spring’s Israel Film Center Festival.

It may be a mistake to offer sweeping generalities on the prevalence of domestic melodramas in this year’s event, but the change in emphasis and tone was unmistakable. I was tempted to deduce the negative influence of Culture Minister Miri Regev, who has repeatedly expressed her disapproval of films that question the ruling party paradigm in issues of war and peace. On the other hand, one might similarly suggest that her concern for greater funding for Mizrahi artists might have had something to do with the welcome presence of films like “Baba Joon,” “Encirclements/Hakafot” and Shemi Zarhin’s new release, “The Kind Words,” all of which focus their attention on Mizrahi nuclear families.

In defense of Regev, the trend began before her ascendancy to the cabinet. A film like Tom Shoval’s “Youth” (2013), with its odd mix of anti-macho genre busting and reflections on the collapse of the Israeli economy, clearly fits the new paradigm. And the economic downturn was an obvious flashpoint in both cinema and the society at large.

What I find particularly suggestive, though, is the growing presence of the charedim in the groves of Israeli popular culture. The most recent manifestations are “Tikkun” and “Mountain,” by Avishai Sivan and Yaelle Kayam, respectively, in which charedi protagonists are forced out of their comfort zones by unexpected and incomprehensible events. Although both filmmakers have an outsider’s perspective on the ultra-Orthodox community, each film is surprisingly nuanced in its vision of the cultural collision.

One hesitates to suggest that such films herald a new scrutiny of the other chasm that threatens Israeli society, but you’d have to be living in a cave not to see that even if peace with the Palestinians were achieved at noon today, this intra-Jewish dispute would still be a danger to the future of Jewish state.

George Robinson covers film for the paper. His column appears every other month.

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