Breaking the Wall

in 19th Docaviv – The Tel Aviv International Documentary Film Festival

by Ohad Landesman

Moran Ifergan’s The Wall (Ha-Kir), winner of the Best Israeli Documentary Award at this year’s Docaviv, opens idiosyncratically with an unconventional sequence. A fragmented high-angle shot of a woman’s feet, walking peacefully on a pavement in Jerusalem, is laid over a recorded WhatsApp voice message. The woman is Ifergan, the main subject of this personal film, but her face, along with the faces of any other voices heard throughout this film, are not to be seen. The camera shortly positions itself in the courtyard of the Wailing Wall, one of the holiest and most religiously controversial locations in the world, a place alluded to succinctly and somehow agnostically in the title of the film as simply “The Wall.” The personal audio recordings we listen to – some real phone calls and some recorded WhatsApp voice messages about Ifergan’s life – resonate a wider meaning in light of the national and iconic images of faith with which they are juxtaposed. Ifergan tells us about herself, her recent divorce from celebrity chef Asaf Granit, and her attempts to seek independence as a secular woman, But she also speaks volumes about any woman’s attempts to break the wall and oppose patriarchal customs and traditions under the pressure of society and family. Her film embraces a complex and interesting structure, which elegantly skips from the personal to the national. On the one hand, we hear stories of Ifergan’s personal crises, such as her grandmother’s illness and her recent problems in her marriage. On the other hand, the photographed images of the Wailing Wall plaza – a space that marks the destruction of another national home and signifies collective desires and religious zealotry – make the spoken words reverberate a larger meaning about the Israeli existence as a whole. Ifergan’s charismatic mother – who seeks to place her daughter back at the center of the family, but encounters resistance and indifference – is also responsible for some of the most powerful, amusing and exciting moments in the film.

The Wall is essentially a personal documentary, focusing mostly on Ifergan and her family. As such, it may produce discomfort for certain viewers who could feel that the filmmaker does not expose herself and her personal life with absolute sincerity, and replaces the burden of personal exposure by letting other characters speak for her. While such a strategy in a personal diary conceals more than it reveals, there is nothing wrong with it as a formal decision in an essayistic project. Ifergan, it seems to me, is not interested in personal honesty, but in how her own story can become symbolic and representative of the stories of many other women in Israeli society that are required to resist tradition and conservatism on a daily basis. Undoubtedly, the most impressive element in Ifergan’s film is its radical rhetoric. By creating a continuous contrast between images of tradition, customs and ceremonies in Jerusalem, on the one hand, and telephone conversations and messages in which a woman’s revolt is clearly delineated, on the other, Ifergan crafts an original expression of a filmic montage. Even if such relations between image and sound are not tightly justified in any given moment, a viewer’s attempt to seek such correlation throughout the whole film creates a challenging and rewarding experience. The Wall is probably the most daring and ambitious documentary shown in the Israeli Documentary Competition, and the main prize given to it by the official jury is highly justified.

The Wall is only one out of thirteen films in the competition that focused on individual attempts to resist a repressive ideological system, be it ethnic discrimination, faith and tradition, normative family values, anti-semitism or chauvinism and misogyny. Netalie Braun’s Hope I’m in the Frame (Mekava She’ani Ba’frame) – a beautiful and moving tribute to the underrated Israeli filmmaker Michal Bat-Adam – is another case of a woman’s admirable journey to endure the hardships of a patriarchal society. In less than one hour, Braun manages to craft a song of praise for a forgotten talent in Israeli cinema, while undermining the conventions of cinematic biography on the way. Bat-Adam, almost too old now for a film industry that superficially adheres to youth, constantly deals with femininity through the personal prism of her films and serves as the central example in Israel of a well-known actress who has become a filmmaker. Some segments from the films in which Bat-Adam participated, or those she directed, appear in Braun’s film without sound, accompanied by background music only. It is a fascinating formal decision that essentially differs from other biographies of filmmakers that use such segments instrumentally to evaluate the life and work of the director. In Braun’s film these segments are arranged alongside old footage of interviews and mesh together with intimate documentation of Bat-Adam in her house and on the sets of her films. The result feels refreshingly different, as the biography is not structured according to the chronology of her films, the logic of their content, or even their critical assessment. It rather flags and lingers on Bat- Adam’s continuing refusal to stop creating, even when faced with negative criticism, dissatisfaction or just irritating conservatism. In a beautiful and special moment in the film, which takes place on the seashore, Bat-Adam recreates a scene in front of Braun’s camera that she had already directed in one of her previous films. A nostalgic past is interwoven with a continuous present, and creativity continues to flow, even against all odds.

There are a few disturbing moments in Hope I’m in the Frame that remind the viewer why such a film is so necessary nowadays. In a meeting between Bat-Adam and Israeli mega producer Leon Edri, she is approached with the typical misogynistic condensation of the old-generation in Israel. “You look good! you must have a lover,” he defies her, and the viewer gets a distilled portion of the chauvinism with which Bat-Adam has been dealing with throughout her lifetime. Later on, Braun presents us with various examples of derogatory reviews Bat- Adam received over the years, and without mentioning any names or dates, she sketches the landscape of Israeli film criticism: ostensibly conservative and outlandishly chauvinistic. One of the film’s original traits as a biography is its ability to make a double gesture, not only for an underrated woman filmmaker, but also for her husband, Oscar-winning Moshe Mizrahi (Mizrahi’s Madame Rosa won the Foreign Language Oscar in 1978). A very short part of Mizrahi’s biography is indirectly heard through a news report on television, but is cut in the middle. Mizrahi, similarly to Bat-Adam, has never been properly appreciated within the local film circle and has never received the appropriate acclamation he deserves. The first significant question Braun throws into the air, only midway through the film, is expressed in her own voice: “Wasn’t there any type of competition between you two during all of these years?” Not only that the dynamics between the two does not seem to be competitive in any way, it is also suggested that Bat- Adam kept on directing films in order to somehow continue the legacy of her husband, who has not been able to get funding for his films for many years now. Whenever Bat-Adam directs her husband in front of Braun’s camera, she encounters graceful passivity, but the viewer experiences an intimacy full of tenderness, love and mutual respect that brings to mind the heartwarming gestures of appreciation between French director Agnès Varda and her husband Jacques Demy. In another elusive moment in the film, a montage of still photographs and snapshots reminds a knowing viewer of how beautiful a couple Bat-Adam and Mizrahi were in the Seventies. Braun, on the one hand, risks sanctifying the beauty of these two artists, reminding us how the bluntly conservative film criticism in Israel superficially referenced the work of Bat-Adam for years. On the other hand, she alludes to a glorious past of this talented couple, making an urgent call to reevaluate their place in Israeli film history.

Edited by Yael Shuv