Absorbing Israeli Documentaries

in 52nd Krakow Film Festival

by Katia Bayer

The 52nd Krakow Film Festival showcased three Israeli films as part of its International Documentary Competition, alongside 20 medium- and feature-length ones, all subject to the critical eye of the public, the official jury and the FIPRESCI jury. All three films dealt with memory, the past and the unspeakable, and were head and shoulders above the rest of the selection in terms of their cinematographic quality, their emotional impact and their pertinence in regard to a troubled reality. Each film was duly rewarded at the festival — The Flat (Hadira) by Arnon Goldfinger (97′) received the FIPRESCI Award, Six Million and One (Shisha Milion Ve’echad) by David Fisher (93′) bagged the Silver Horn for Best Feature Film, and Life in Stills (Hatzalmania) by Tamar Tal (58′) won the Audience Award.

Even though other films in the selection were meritorious in their own right — like the hilarious Women with Cows (Kokvinnorna) (93′) by the Swedish filmmaker Peter Gerdehag, which won the Golden Horn for Best Film, it is nevertheless remarkable that three films of the same genre and nationality should have achieved such success.

The Flat by Arnon Goldfinger (winner of the FIPRESCI Award) is made up of objects and hints about a family secret discovered by the director in his recently deceased grandmother’s flat. The film narrates a highly personal quest to uncover a painful past, by drawing on family ties and rummaging through an incredible and almost forbidden chapter of history — the friendship between a German couple and a Zionist German—Jewish couple during and after the Second World War. Mr Von Mildenstein was to become a Nazi officer whereas the Zionists, who belonged to the Jewish intelligentsia, were to become Arnon Goldfinger’s grandparents. With this film, the director leads a complex and astonishing enquiry into the information he finds in his grandmother’s flat, with his mother who was entirely unaware of this taboo page in the family history, and with the daughter of the Von Mildensteins, who was also in the dark about her parents’ past and who has a hard time coming to terms with these events. On both sides of the camera, the director enumerates the progress of his discoveries, as new elements gradually arise from his grandmother’s flat. Bit by bit, with modesty and discretion, the veritable subject of the film unveils itself and a sense of peace descends upon us, as the unsaid is finally put into words.

Six Million and One by David Fisher (93′) also deals with the war and denial in the form of a pilgrimage. Accompanied by his siblings, Fisher embarks upon examining the traces of the Nazi concentration camp of Gusen in Austria, where his father served time. Drawing upon his father’s diary from those years, Fisher interrogates his family on the secret his father had nourished. During his visit, he discovers the “honest citizens” that now inhabit the former SS officers’ quarters. The solemnity of the moment ironically gives rise to uncontrollable fits of laughter in the tunnels, and the strained links between the family and their past are reinforced in a single journey, however taxing it may be.  There is unforgettable emotion in certain scenes, such as when David asks his siblings if they love their father more now, knowing what he went through, or when his sister has an outburst and expresses her suffering due to the Holocaust and her not being loved by their mother, or the sad and weary look in the eyes of the GIs who liberated the camp, when they recount what they saw there. It’s especially there in the archival footage of the director’s father during family celebrations, distant and submerged in silence.

The last of this trio of films made in Israel is Life in Stills by Tamar Tal, which won the Audience Award. Somewhat more conventional but full of tenderness and humour, the film follows the life of 96-year-old Miriam Weissenstein and her grandson Ben, and shows the love that they bear for each other and the hardships they have traversed together. Their studio “Photo House”, part of Tel-Aviv’s cultural heritage, is under threat of being demolished. Both grandmother and grandson strive together to hold on to their property, at one point travelling to Europe for a photography exhibition, but they do not see eye-to-eye when it comes to modern means of communication or the tragedy that struck their family. The film is noteworthy for its excellent cinematography and the director’s excellent treatment of the intergenerational link, as well as the protagonist, this little lady, almost a century old, touching and resilient.

Israel, a small country with an impressive number of film schools, has of late accustomed us to the emergence of new auteurs and frequent aesthetic and narrative surprises, with its “traditional” (read fiction) cinema strongly oriented towards short films. The international recognition it has received thanks to all these elements has allowed us to speak of an independent Israeli cinema, and continues to do so. These three films then, so different from one another and so powerful in the treatment of their subject matter, remind us that this cinema also borrows from the documentary genre. This however is not new; the nation has been cultivating a documentary tradition with such diverse offerings as those of Helmar Lerski, Ram Loewy, David Perlov, Amos Gitai, Avi Mograbi and Nurith Aviv, to name only a handful. Of late, one admittedly overlooks this fact, due to the obvious tendency of the “other” cinema to eclipse stories of reality, which are seldom shown in our cinemas or talked of in the media. But this is also another reason for festivals such as Krakow to exist, to take us away from our preconceived ideas, to confront us with rare works of art that do not always make it onto our screens. And if these stories can touch and move us, or make us wonder and leave us astonished for a while after the credits, then we realise that we the common viewers have brushed up against life and an unsuspected truth, “simply” through the medium of cinema.