What kind of documentaries are produced in the Middle-East? We look into “A History of Israeli Cinema”, the latest of the film festivals held in Tel Aviv, and the forthcoming films pitched at CoPro.

Bernard Dichek
Bernard Dichek is a Canadian-Israeli filmmaker and journalist living in Tel Aviv currently working on a film series about Africa.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has unquestionably been a dominant theme in Israeli cinema in recent years. So it may come as a surprise to learn that the subject is hardly mentioned until half way through ARTE’s recently produced documentary A History of Israeli Cinema, or to find out that not one of the documentaries premiering at the 2009 DocAviv Festival in Tel Aviv focus on the conflict.

A History of Israeli Cinema is a monumental three hour long film, comprising interviews with 40 film critics and filmmakers and including about 60 feature film clips. The subject of the conflict is low-key during the first part, explains director Raphael Nadjari, because until the 1970s filmmakers tended to focus on how Israelis were attempting to achieve their long-sought after goal of being a normal nation with a homeland. “Obsessed by the idea of national unity, by the quest for identity, Israeli cinema in its beginnings doesn’t speak of its conflict with the Other. It can hardly define that Other, one hardly sees it pass in the background, in the shadow” he says in an interview.

Many of the films portray the lives of the early pioneers in farming activities such as digging irrigation canals. Historian Nurit Gretz observes that these productions ‘have an almost erotic quality’. They reinforce the founding generation’s utopian vision of a socialist society in which a “New Jew” would emerge – secular, independent and dedicated to working the land; this in contrast to the religious, weak and stateless Jews of Europe.

The turning point in subject matter came in 1978 with Ram Loevy’s landmark drama Khirbet Hiza’a that raised thorny questions about the exile of Palestinians during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. An attempt to ban the film from the state-run television station backfired and led to the film attracting a wide audience across the nation. Khirbet Hiza’a was followed by a wave of political films that took up the subject of Israeli-Arab relations with avengeance. Some of these films try to reverse stereotypes, for example Avanti Popolo (1986, Rafi Bukai) where the Arab protagonists are presented as the ‘good guys’. Others include romances between Arabs and Jews, for example On A Narrow Bridge (1985, Nissim Dayan), or attempt to introduce dialogue such as in Uri Barbash’s Beyond the Walls (1984) that showed Arabs and Jews in solidarity during a prison hunger strike. These conflict-focussed films have been simultaneously accompanied by the productions of large number of auteur filmmakers like Ronit Elkabetz, Dover Kosashvili and Keren Yeda’aya who explore feminist and cultural themes.

A History of Israeli Cinema offers a valuable social and political overview. Nadjari’s decision to present subjective impressions without narration is reminiscent of the style of the Canadian film about filmmaking itself (Capturing Reality, 2009, Pepita Ferrari) – a style that gives the film the feel of an observational documentary.

The film’s main weakness is the overload of interviews with a homogeneous group of film theorists. One breath of fresh air is provided by Israeli Arab actor Muhammed Bakri who gives a dramatic anecdotal account of how he convinced the director of Beyond the Walls to let the Arab character that Bakri was playing in the film deviate from the script and refuse to break the hunger strike in order to maintain unity with the Jewish prisoners. The filmwould have benefitted with more colourful vignettes of this kind.

At DocAviv some filmmakers gave differentreasons for choosing subjects that steer away from the political-military arena: Google Baby by Zippy Brand Frank deals with the issues that have arisen as revolutionary human reproductive technologies spread globally in an unregulated way. Doron is an Israeli entrepreneur who set up an internet-based business that allows people to create babiesby using egg donors and surrogate women to carry the embryos to birth. The idea isn’t new. Doron himself, together with his homosexual partner, created a baby using an American egg donor and American surrogate. Doron’s innovation is to reduce costs by outsourcing the surrogacy stage to the developing world. Doron’s service allows couples from countries like Dubai, Germany, Zimbabwe and Australia to place orders on the Internet, to send sperm in the mail and then to come to India to pick up their babies.

Brand Frank tells this story in a non-judgemental way without the use of narration. Through her subtle use of film language, and incisive portraits of characters in Israel, the US and India, she raises numerous ethical issues relating to colonialism, racism, exploitation and individual rights. Has the world of human reproduction turned into the Wild West? What are the dangers of the global baby trade proliferating? Google Baby doesn’t answer these questions, but in showing that all ittakes is a credit card to order a baby, the film might get a much needed public debate goingboth in Israel and around the world.

Another debate-stirring film at DocAviv was Romale in which filmmaker Yoram Porath follows a Roma community living in Rudnany, an eastern Slovakian village. Porath presents a picture of Roma people residing in ramshackle houses built on soil contaminated by nearby mines resulting in them being at high-risk for contracting cancer. They face discrimination by their ethnic Slovakian n e i g h b o u r s and segregation in the town’s schools. In his narration, Porath notes that more than one hundred thousand Roma are estimated to live in impoverished conditions of this kind in the heart of an EU country. Porath tries to find out if the problems can be overcome through the attempts made by a group of Roma musicians to break out of the cycle of poverty. The conclusions he reaches do not leave room for much optimism.

 

The Worst Company is a bittersweet comic documentary about the filmmaker Regev Contes’ attempt to help his father save his insurance company from bankruptcy. Contes’ family originates from the former Czechoslovakia and Worst Company is very much in the satirical Czech literary tradition of Good Soldier Schveik and the sixties films of Milos Forman. The film is about three middle-aged men – divorced, in debt and in poor health – who are full of an anarchist-like joie de vivre and who have a sense of what is important in life that many more materialistic-minded people have forgotten about. Comic documentaries are a challenging genre but Worst Company, Contes’ first film, not only succeeds to make the audience laugh and cry, it also tells a poignant story of a son getting to know his father in a new way.

Unlike DocAviv, at CoPro (the Israel Market for International Co-Productions held in late May), the subject of Palestinian-Israeli relations was back on the pitching agenda with two projects featuring collaborations between Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers.

Pixeled Dreams brings together Palestinian filmmaker Juliano Mer Khamis with Israeli filmmakers Ran Tal and Tomer Heymann. The coming film is an extension of an educational project that Tal conducted during the past few years in a variety of troubled neighbourhoods across Israel; the initiative gave teenagers a chance to produce videos that tell stories from their own viewpoints. In Pixeled Dreams teenagers in the Palestinian Refugee Camp in Jenin and in the Israeli border town of Sderot will exchange personal video letters in an attempt to describe their lives to each other. They will eventually meet each other and their filmed letters will be blended into an edited programme.

Dead Sea Dying is the combined effort of Palestinian filmmaker George Khlefi, Israel’s Noam Shalev and Jordan’s Khaled Haddad. The three filmmakers will look at the environmental disaster facing this unique body of water located at the lowest point on Earth and bordering on all three political entities. The Dead Sea is dehydrating, explained Khlefi in his pitch, because of activities affecting its source in the Sea of Galilee (including the diversion of water to irrigate the Israeli desert extolled in early Israeli cinema). Rescuing the Dead Sea is possible, the filmmakers suggest, but like everything else in the Middle East it will entail cooperation from all of the parties involved. Getting political cooperation to preserve the environment may take some time, but the film collaborations such as those proposed at CoPro could play a role in making that cooperation happen. That is if the filmmakers are given a chance.

Dead Sea Dying

Nick Fraser, a commissioning editor with the BBC’s Storyville, while speaking at CoPro, harshly condemned the efforts being made by Ken Loach and other UK filmmakers to boycott Israeli films. “Ken Loach doesn’t speak for me,” said Fraser, pointing out the contribution that Israeli filmmakers made as critics of Israeli society and that they did so with complete freedom of speech. “Israeli filmmakers are not afraid to tell it like it is, “ he said, adding “I could easily fill up Storyville with Israeli documentaries.”


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