Israel at Cannes, 2014: A Record Year

in 67th Cannes Film Festival

by Alissa Simon

While it sometimes seems that countries other than France and the U.S. are on a quota system at Cannes, at the 2014 edition of the fest Israel had a record year with five features, one documentary and one short (The Visit by Inbar Horesh) in official sections. Given the current talk about the scarcity of female directors at Cannes, it is also worth noting that five of these seven titles are directed (or in one case, co-directed) by women.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Middle East did not fare nearly as well, with only the heart-wrenching Syrian documentary Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait (Eau argentee, Syrie auto-portrait), directed by Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan and the Cinefondation short from Egypt, The Aftermath of the Inauguration of the Public Toilet at Kilometer 375 directed by Omar El Zohairy to represent it.

Even as former sine qua non countries such as Romania and Iran didn’t produce any bounty for Cannes this year, selectors from every section except the main competition found something from the Jewish State.

Cannes Classics featured the entertaining documentary The Go-Go Boys directed by Hilla Medalia. Both an affectionate tribute and a cautionary tale, it offers, as its subtitle promises, one version of “the inside story of Cannon Films” while charting the careers of producers — and cousins — Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, and the rise and fall of the empire they jointly built. Combining well-chosen archival material with articulate talking heads waxing nostalgic and entertainingly dishing dirt, this celebration of the two legendary showmen also encapsulates the Cannes fest’s divergent impulses: selling shlock and adulating auteurs.

In the A Certain Regard section, the Cannes-nurtured auteur Keren Yedaya (a Camera d’Or winner for her first feature My Treasure (Or)), didn’t win many new fans with her third feature, the grim incest drama That Lovely Girl (Harcheck mi headro). But on the positive side, the film confirmed the remarkable range of lead actor Tzahi Grad as the father.

The Critics’ Week invited Self Made (Boreg) the second feature from another former Camera d’Or winner, Shira Geffen (the co-director of Jellyfish (Meduzot)). But unlike her debut, Self Made was no crowd-pleaser; rather it was a provocative yet whimsical, female-centered exploration of identity — and the only one of the five Israeli features in which Palestine, the IDF and the Israeli checkpoints played a role.

Nadav Lapid’s mannered sophomore outing The Kindergarten Teacher (Haganenet) nabbed a special non-competing slot at the Critics’ Week. Lapid, whose debut Policeman (Hashoter) made him a name to conjure with at the Jerusalem and Locarno fests in 2011, once again brought conceptual rigor to a provocative notion — here, that those partaking of Israel’s crass, consumerist lifestyle are unable to appreciate the poetic — but once again, his visualization of that notion didn’t always translate into compelling viewing.

Meanwhile, the Director’s Fortnight highlighted the conclusion of siblings Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz’s three-part divorce drama with Gett, the Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Gett). Certainly the most compelling entry of the trilogy, Gett could be marketed as the Israeli answer to Iran’s A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin), with the action alternating between scathing drama and bitter comedy taking place entirely within a courtroom.

The Fortnight also introduced first-time director Assaf Korman, who made a striking if not always easy to watch debut helming his actress wife Liron Ben Shlush’s screenplay in Next To Her (At li layla). This intense, naturalistic drama explores the unhealthily symbiotic relationship of two sisters. It centers on Chelli (Ben Shlush), a pretty security guard, who is raising her mentally disabled younger sister Gabby (Dana Ivgy) on her own.

Chelli and Gabby live in a noisy, dilapidated apartment building in a not particularly nice section of Haifa. Although Chelli hates the idea of putting Gabby in any kind of institution, she doesn’t display any qualms about locking her into the flat and leaving her alone while she is at work. Her attitude is that Gabby is hers and that she knows what’s best for her. But Gabby’s howls of distress and head banging annoy the neighbors who threaten to report Chelli to social services. Chelli ignores the situation and their complaints by choosing not to answer her mobile phone.

While Gabby’s problems are plain to see, it slowly becomes clear that Chelli has major co-dependency issues. The two 20-something women live in an intimate, feral state without personal boundaries, which Korman neatly visualizes by showing them sleeping and bathing with their limbs entwined and using whatever toothbrush or hairbrush that comes to hand. An evening’s entertainment for them is to watch television, cuddled together on the couch that is also serves as their bed, in postures that recall mother and child or cohabiting couple.

Eventually, for reasons left unspecified, Gabby is enrolled in a day-care program. Jealous that the care provider, Sveta (Sophia Ostritsky), is able to forge a relationship with Gabby and that she seems to enjoy the day-care activities and companions, Chelli seems eager to sabotage Gabby’s adjustment by taking her home early.

As if to retaliate for the friendships Gabby is making in daycare, Chelli awkwardly seduces nerdy co-worker Zohar (Yaakov Daniel), a temporary gym teacher who still lives at home with his mother. Zohar might be somewhat socially inept, but he’s infinitely more domesticated than Chelli. When he moves in with the sisters, his attempt to convert Chelli to his standards of cleanliness and order represents one of the film’s welcome lighter moments.

To Chelli’s surprise and resentment, Zohar proves to be great with Gabby. Even so, he doesn’t take to Chelli’s perverse habit of bringing Gabby into the room where they are sleeping or having sex.

Ben-Shlush’s subtle screenplay, her first, transforms what initially seems like familiar material into something dark and strange. She doesn’t shy from forcing viewers to confront uncomfortable sexual situations.

Directing with restraint and sensitivity, Korman uses the expert widescreen lensing of Amit Yasour to create a tense and claustrophobic environment. Tightly framed, sometimes in extreme close-up, Chelli is locked into a situation where she crosses the lines between love, sacrifice, nurturing and torturing.

In what is essentially a three-hander, the performances are excellent all-round. The petite and good-looking Ben-Shlush endows the tightly wound Chelli with a sometimes mean-spirited contrariness that isn’t so obvious at first but then plays out in strange ways. In contrast, Daniel makes Zohar ever more likable and grounded. In perhaps the most demanding part, Ivgy’s playing seems so natural that it is hard to believe that it is a performance.

Gritty, realist art direction reinforces the sense of the characters’ enclosed world, just as the sophisticated sound design of near-constant background noise antes up the tension.

Edited by Richard Mowe