Double Take – Two Award Winning Israeli Films with Identical Themes
by Naama Rak
It’s always weird to watch two films that are very similar to each other in a short amount of time. Looking at the program of this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, one can easily spot such a case: Savi Gabizon’s Longing (Ga’agua), in which Shai Avivi plays a man dealing with the death of his son, just like he did in A Week and a Day by Asaph Polonsky, that took the best Israeli film award in last year’s festival. But this isn’t the only example. Two debut films that premiered in the Israeli competition at the 34th JFF told a story about an intellectual teacher and an under privilegd student forming a strong yet complicated connection with a tragic ending. Having said that, Scaffolding (Pigumim) that won the best film award, and Doubtful (Mutalim Besafek) that took the award for best debut, deal with this subject in two completely different ways.
The protagonist of Scaffolding, directed by Matan Yair, is named after the actor portraying him: Asher Lax. Asher, who is about to finish high school, is living with his father, who owns a scaffolding business. This is one of many new Israeli films dealing with family and self- development while using construction as a metaphor. Building or buying your own house is the Israeli dream – a status symbol almost everyone works hard to get, while less and less people can actually afford. The Lax family is far from rich, and Asher’s dad wants him to take over the family business and make good money. At first Asher wishes the same for himself, but with time he finds a new interest. His literature professor, a gentle, kind and shy young man, is becoming a new role model for him, a different example of masculinity.
Even though it’s not the most original story, there’s something very touching about it. Asher lives in a loud and brutal environment, but the film has many quiet moments, showing the protagonist’s inner world. When his school life is in such a chaos, it makes sense he would find peace in the simple, repetitive construction work. His father tells him not to go too high, but he keep going up and up like an urban Tarzan. It’s beautiful to see him get in touch with his feelings and finally understand what is really going on in his life, but till the very end he remains a short- tempered person that can barely control raw and intense feelings.
The protagonist of Doubtful isn’t the student but the teacher, Assi, played by Ran Danker, who became one of the biggest TV stars in Israel after playing in soap operas. Danker is trying to prove himself as a serious actor, this time by portraying a Tel Avivian semi-douchebag hipster, with longer hair and a beard. His students are poor and sassy kids from a tough neighborhood, but this isn’t the Israeli Dangerous Minds. Assi isn’t a real teacher, he’s a screenwriter. Teaching is his community service after getting into trouble, and he doesn’t actually care about education, he just wants to do his time and be rid of it.
Doubtful becomes a lot more interesting when it stops behaving like a neo-realist playbook and even making fun of that, when the teacher shows his students De Sica’s Shoeshine. The real subject is the relationship between a young man from a good home and the much younger and wilder teenagers he’s trying to befriend – especially one teen named Eden (Adar Hazazi). If Scaffolding hints to the idea of a teacher as a second dad in the subtext, here it’s an actual option – Eden is both terrified and excited about Assi flirting with his mother. Both Eden and his mother have a dark and violent side, and Assi is also kind of a jerk. There’s no way these two can actually maintain a friendship, the gap is just too big, so whenever they they take a step towards each other the audience actually becomes a little more worried.
Doubtful is a dark film in its plot and tone and even in its colors. It could be the reason why it lost the best film award to the brighter Scaffolding, but this isn’t the only reason. Out of the two, Scaffolding is more developed and touching, and it feels more complete. Personally, however, I prefer Doubtful. The protagonist isn’t as strong a character, but the relationship is much stronger. When the danger and the conflicts feel real, the love feels authentic too. I really enjoyed seeing this snob falling in love with the kids, even when I was perfectly aware of his patronizing approach.
After the festival, these two films will try their luck at the Israeli Film Academy Awards. The one named best film will have the chance to compete in the foreign language section at the Oscars. Do they actually have a chance to disconnect from each other, or will their similarities hurt them in this much larger competition? I’m afraid the second option seems more likely.
Edited by Yael Shuv
© FIPRESCI 2017
Naama Rak (27) is a film critic for israeli website Mako.co.il. She is studying cinema and screenwriting in Tel Aviv University while working as a journalist and a lecturer.