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

by Sanjin Pejkovic

Film festivals are often quite similar in their form. During a brief and condensed period, people meet, talk, and watch films. They are often there for similar reasons as oneself and the whole experience is time-limited. The whole structure dissolves after a few days and the risk is great that you will never meet everyone under similar circumstances. Each festival is therefore unique but wears a feeling of déjà vu. The framing, the drinks, the chat, the snacks, all that is quite similar. However, the contexts can vary.

This year’s Docaviv, documentary film festival stationed in Tel Aviv, featured a whole lot of interesting films and themes. The national competition gave me the chance to see a wide range of movies. Seeing 13 domestic works in just a few days and on site was an interesting experience, partly because I had the opportunity to see which topics worked with the audiences, but also to witness the broadness of today’s Israeli film production.

Several films touched upon the complex life in Israel and elsewhere, where people have their everyday lives bothered and disturbed by the politics. Few of the films concentrated on various kinds of systematic oppression. A recurring question raised was about imagined identities. Several films punched on the myth of Israel as a home to all Jews and showed issues of a structural racism that permeates and has permeated the country through history. The Ancestral Sin (Saleh, po ze eretz Israel – ????, ?? ?? ??? ?????) deals with how the Israeli government, in its desperation to populate desolate areas, systematically discriminated certain Jewish groups. It is mainly about North African Jews, who were seen by European Jews as a less intelligent group, hence useful for social experiments in order to strengthen the newly formed state. Director David Deri – himself born and raised by North African Jews in Yeruham, a development city in the Negev Desert – did a massive archival work. Still, the film does not lose itself in archival reconstructions but is empathetic towards the individuals whose lives were controlled by radical Israeli politicians who looked down upon them. The film is a touching piece of work – the main characters are portrayed with empathy and humanness – but it also touches upon the non-sentimentality behind certain decisions concerning forced relocations. For example, if someone refused to obey the orders, the Israeli government took away their rights. There was no chance of getting a job or even a rental contract.

Additionally, it was shocking to see official documents in which members of the Israeli government expressed themselves in an openly racist way. Jews with darker skin tone were structurally looked upon with contempt, and described as stupid and uncivilized. The Ancestral Sin is brutal in its deconstruction of various nationalist-based myths but also because it was deeply human and tragic. Several of the protagonists with roots in Morocco and Algeria point out that they would never move to Israel if they only knew what European Jews thought of them.

The Promised (La Promise) directed by Anat Schwartz tackles a similar theme from a somewhat different perspective. In recent years, a large number of French Jews have immigrated to Israel. The film follows the stories of a young person, a middle-aged couple and an older woman. Marouanne, 18 and filled with antidepressants, wants to change his life in France to become a shepherd in the outskirt of Jerusalem. Isabelle and her husband rant about how blacks and Muslims have taken over France while pointing out that they are not racists and have many Muslim friends. Valerie has lived in Israel for a few years and works on a French-language television program. She longs for Paris. Her husband has left her and returned home and she seems to have forgotten the reason why she moved to Israel to begin with. The characters’ hopes are soon to be semi-disappointments, in a situation where their naïve wishes collide with the hard reality. The idea of a promised land changes throughout the film, and the imagined ideals are questioned.

The Promised is a beautiful and nuanced documentary, where anguish, frustration, disappointment, fears and hopes can be read in the faces of the protagonists, rather than said out loud. The film touches upon similar issues like Ancestral Sin, questions about identities and imagined communities, but will probably work better in the international festivals market because the theme of the film is of a transnational nature.

A movie that I suppose will win a number of audience-awards at international festivals is Muhi – Generally Temporary directed by Rina Castelnuovo-hollander and Tamir Elterman. It revolves around Muhammad, a seven-year- old boy from Gaza, who was suffering from an illness from an early age, causing his arms and legs to be amputated. The film follows him in hospital corridors in Israel where he was brought by Israeli activists. Had he stayed in the isolated Gaza, he would not have survived. The team has documented Muhis life at the hospital for several years, in a fly-on- the-wall style. He stays there with his grandfather who cannot go outside the hospital area and is not allowed to stay in Israel. The incredible story gives an insight to the hardships of an everyday life in politically suppressed areas.

The paradoxical decision that Muhis life was worth saving but the lives of many others were not that important is not problematized in the film. The complexity of troubled relations between Jerusalem and Gaza is relying solely on the portrayal of Muhi and his family members. Regardless, the boy’s joy, humor, and cordiality infect the audience and I think Muhi has a long and successful festival road to go.

The everyday schizophrenia is not only a reoccurring theme in several of the films at the festival. The fact that 2 million people live in a social experiment in Gaza, just 45 minutes from Tel Aviv’s beaches, and that they only have 4 hours of electricity a day was a topic of discussion during the festival. Many who work with Docaviv are activists of various kinds, and cultural workers who do not accept the current situation. Many films in the national competition challenge and criticize the official government stance in different ways. And it seems to work, at least considering the audience’s scope. Over 50,000 visitors show that the audience is open for a critique of today’s situation, something that is mirrored in the competition.

Edited by Yael Shuv