A Question of Identity

in 31st Jerusalem Film Festival

by Andrzej Kolodynski

It would be a truism to say that the films presented at the 31st Jerusalem Film Festival acquired a specific meaning in the shadow of the current violent stage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The few programs I took in at random were fascinating enough in a universal sense but I must admit that the most important for me under the circumstances were the films dealing with the question of identity.

Dancing Arabs (Aravim rokdim) by Eran Riklis was a victim of the circumstances. The opening screening of the festival, in the outdoors Sultan’s Pool, was postponed “due to the escalation in the security situation” according to the official explanation. However it was not the only reason. The story of an Arab boy in a Jewish school in Jerusalem who seeks not only acceptance but, above all, a sense of belonging, seemed controversial. The questions of culture and tradition as well as the political situation (the threat of Saddam Hussein’s Scuds in the film seemed to be a metaphor for the current situation) make the lad’s quest difficult to achieve, and he pays a high price for his life choice. But this is a universal problem today, also in countries far from Israel.

A similarly universal dimension was acquired by Red Leaves (Alim adumim) by Bazi Gete presented in the Israeli cinema competition (named after the Haggiag family who sponsors the Awards). At first sight it may seem that the film deals with an exotic case. The protagonist, an old man who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia nearly 30 years ago, stubbornly clings to his Ethiopian culture in the dynamic country where he found shelter. But after his wife’s death he suddenly realizes that he belongs to a disappearing class. Just like King Lear he tries to live in the homes of his children but all he finds is a new and unfamiliar reality. How to survive now, being fully conscious of the defeat of his anachronistic attitude towards life? This vital question was at the heart of a wise and interesting film which won the FIPRESCI award.

A similar dilemma — how to live — arises for Ruchi, a 10 year old girl from Ashkelon in southern Israel. Ben Zaken by Efrat Corem (also in competition) pictures a place where the inhabitants have no life prospects whatsoever. Is there a way of escape? It is not only a question of finding a place but first of all finding a way to be active in a modern contemporary society. The problem of identity as shown in these films takes on a new, not only social, but also political dimension.

At first sight, Friends from France (Les interdits) by Anne Weil and Philippe Kotlarski (presented in The Jewish Experience section) seems to be a typical historical reconstruction. The action takes place in Odessa in 1979 — the beginning of the Cold War. Carole and Jerome, idealistic young people from France, try to contact Russian-Jewish Refuseniks. However, in the course of their mission they encounter difficulties which seem impossible to overcome. A case characteristic of this particular period? Yes, but the film’s broad emotional force suggests more.

Perhaps a more controlled engagement with the past was offered by Michael Verhoeven’s Let’s Go (The Jewish Experience section). Laura, a girl born in Germany in 1947, was for many years unaware of her Jewish origin. Did her Jewish parents have the right to hide the truth from her? Surely not, but history is their advocate. After the war they wanted to forget the terrible experience of the concentration camp. They decided not to return to Poland in fear of anti-Semitism. They did not want to go to America either — so far and unknown. But to hide a secret for years is impossible. The film is based on the autobiographical novel by Laura Waco who sent her book to the brave and controversial German director. As a result we got a moving, provocative film.

A new dimension of the question can be found in films from outside of Israel. It would be impossible to overlook such an entry as White Shadow — the debut film of the Israeli, Berlin-based helmer, Noaz Deshe (Debuts Competition). This German-Italian film, shot in Tanzania and produced by the angry actor Ryan Gosling, tells a strong, dramatic story of the never ending escape of an albino boy running for his life. He is a prey for hunters who sell albino meat and entrails to witch doctors. The laconic storytelling is almost documentary-like and shows more than just the casual intolerance the boy finally encounters in the big city. The focus of the film slowly shifts from the specific situation to something much more general and metaphorical — what it means to be different. This is the kind of film one finds difficult to shake off.

Moreover, Timbuktu by Malian helmer Abderrahamane Sissako (In the Spirit of Freedom section) is yet another bitter example of the problem. Inspired by a real life story, it takes place in West African Timbuktu controlled in 2012 by Jihadhists — radical militant Islamic rebels — who use not only traditional weapons but also the most advanced technology. But what could be the fate of a local couple not officially married and thus committing a crime against the divine law? In a cruel archaic ritual they are stoned to death. The film tries to deal with too many facets of the clash between different African cultures, but in creates an oppressive atmosphere and certainly deserves attention. It is a good example of the cinema presented in Jerusalem 2014: not only socially and politically conscious, but strong enough to suggest future expansion.

Edited by Yael Shuv