An interesting thing has happened to the Other Israel Film Festival, which opens for its 12th annual run on Thursday, Nov. 1. As time has passed and the event has become a fixture on New York film calendars, it has shifted its emphasis from an initial concern with the unrepresented ethnic groups within Israel to a broader focus. The festival now also showcases newer directors, with an emphasis on women filmmakers in addition to the original concern with minorities like the Druze and Bedouin populations.
That change has been gradual and dates back several years. But a more recent — and impactful — shift has taken place in the larger New York film picture, with the apparent departure of the Israel Film Festival, which has for the last few years restricted itself to a Los Angeles version. Right now, unless you count the Israel Film Center festival, which is programmed and sponsored by the same roster as Other Israel, the latter is the only game in town for an aggregation of new cinema from the Jewish state.
Frankly, as this year’s festival should remind us, that is all to the good. The programming at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan has been consistently creative and challenging and the turnout of filmmakers impressive. If you factor in the New York Jewish Film Festival, which inevitably includes a generous helping of Israeli movies, we seem to have a good read on Israeli cinema.
This year’s Other Israel event presents several new films by women directors at the outset of what look like promising careers. Happily, their presence is a reminder that the female half of Israel’s arts communities is vibrant, if underrepresented, outside its homeland.
Michal Aviad, whose “Dimona Twist” and “Invisible” were among the better Israeli films on offer in New York in this decade, is neither a youngster nor a tyro. Aviad has been making films, mostly documentaries, for over 30 years. But “Working Woman,” her second fiction feature, is a cut above and painfully apposite to recent headlines.
Orna (Liron Ben-Slush) is suddenly thrust into the role of family breadwinner when her husband’s start-up restaurant sputters. She takes a job with a local power in Tel Aviv real estate, Benny Almog (Menashe Noy), and displays an unexpected genius for marketing and sales. But her newfound success cuts two ways as Benny becomes more aggressive towards the attractive young mother of three. Gradually Orna’s situation becomes suffocatingly untenable with results that will ring depressingly true to anyone who reads a newspaper.
This #MeToo scenario could become an easy, cliché-riddled cautionary tale. Fortunately, Aviad’s grip on her material is too firm and her formidable filmmaking skills — rooted in a subtle but distinctive use of long takes that force Ben-Slush out of the comfort zone and into an emotional and almost literal obstacle course shakily negotiated in high heels — transform “Working Woman” into a darkly powerful indictment of male privilege and indifference. Aviad’s camera refuses to look away from Orna’s discomfort and the result, particularly in the sequence in which Benny presses his advantage in a Paris hotel room, is agonizing.
At the other end of the spectrum of experience we find Rana Abu Fraiha, whose debut film, “In Her Footsteps,” raises her from talented still photographer to very promising documentarian. Her film, like Aviad’s, also deals with an intensely painful and personal loss, chronicling the decade-long struggle of Abu Fraiha’s mother Rodaina with terminal cancer. Using a skillful mix of home movies shot by her father, family videos that include their wedding and glimpses of the five children, and footage taken by Abu Fraiha and her crew, the filmmaker unflinchingly documents her mother’s startling physical deterioration. Yet the film never feels morbidly voyeuristic when the focus is on the combative, independent older woman.
However, things frequently get awkward when Abu Fraiha shifts her attention to the divisions within her Bedouin family. Although both her parents are highly educated and well-assimilated into Israeli society, there are still open wounds to be dealt with, exacerbated by her mother’s failing health. Twenty years earlier, when Rana was about five-years-old, the Abu Fraihas moved out of Tel Sheva, a ramshackle Negev Bedouin village in which her father had been raised. Rodaina had chafed at the oppressive treatment of women in the village and pushed for a move to Omer, a neighboring, well-to-do Israeli town.
Now her children are adults estranged from their roots, more comfortable speaking Hebrew than Arabic, and high achievers with a fragile sense of identity. When it becomes clear that the Jewish cemetery in Omer won’t accommodate the family when Rodaina dies, all these issues rise painfully, nakedly to the surface in often acrimonious family discussions Like Aviad, Abu Fraiha refuses to look away from the anguish and the film is stronger, but also more painful, for her honesty.
Filmmaker Dana Goldberg and poet Efrat Mishori refuse to look away from conflict either. Their collaboration on “Death of a Poetess” is designed for a disturbing candor, shot in shimmering black and white with a cast, essentially, of three women, two of whom are seen in unrelenting close-ups. Lenny (Evgenia Dodina) is a well-known researcher (although her field of endeavor is left unexplained) and aspiring poet who is on the verge of suicide. Yasmin (Samira Saraya, a very talented newcomer) is a nurse whom we see in stifling close-ups against a blank wall in what quickly is revealed to be an police interrogation room. Her insistent questioner (Y. Goldberg) remains a naggingly ominous presence on the soundtrack but we never see her.
Slowly the film unspools with a devastating intimacy, and we realize that these two very different women — one Jewish, the other Muslim, one a neurotic 50-year-old, the other a 20-something with her own tensely held secret — have somehow collided briefly by chance, with tragic results. Goldberg and Mishori raise this material, which might have seemed slender as an episode of a TV cop show, into something more stark, not only a comment on how Israeli justice may grind up those “others” caught in its wheels, but also a parable about the disappointments and dysphorias of life in post-industrial prosperity of the 21st century.
The 12th annual Other Israel Film Festival will run Nov. 1-8, with screenings at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, NYU and the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in downtown Brooklyn. For the full schedule, visit otherisrael.org.