Still a Land of Contrasts

in 32nd Jerusalem Film Festival

by Jack Mener

A well-established cliché describes the State of Israel as a land of contrasts. This year too, the 32nd Jerusalem Film Festival proved that it aims to present a variety of works from all over the world that are totally different from each other. Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Chinese spectacular historical epic The Assassin was shown next to the captivating and moving first feature Ixcanul Vulcano by the talented Jayro Bustamante from Guatemala and the ultra-minimalist Dutch film Between 10 and 12 by Peter Hoogendoorn. The same diversity applied to the numerous Israeli movies screened at the Festival.

An obvious example was two totally different and very original films which participated in the main competition for Israeli Films (named the Haggiag Competition for Israeli Full-Length Feature Films) – Wedding Doll (Hatuna MeNiyar) and Tikkun (Rectification). Wedding Doll by Nitzan Giladi won the awards for best first film and best actress (Asi Levi) as well as a Special Mention from the Fipresci Jury. Tikkun by Avishai Sivan was crowned with no less than four awards for best Israeli feature film, best script, best actor to Khalifa Natour and best cinematography to Shai Goldman.

Wedding Doll tells the story of Hagit, a pretty young woman, slightly retarded and with language difficulties, who tries to free herself from her overprotective divorced mother. Hagit works in a small family owned toilet paper factory in a remote town in the Negev desert and creates little puppets out of cardboard tubes and paper rolls. Her hopes to marry the son of the factory owner and the plans to close the factory will cause radical changes in the course of their lives.

Director Giladi illustrates the realism of a day to day story with a delicate touch of poetry, enhanced with light strokes of humor (tackling with all kinds of ideas around toilet paper might have been risqué but the situations never cross the lines of vulgarity or ridicule). Hagit is a bit reminiscent of the heroin played by Leslie Caron in Lili (Charles Walters, 1953). She is naïve and touching and at the same time shows unexpected glimpses of maturity and willpower. The young actress Moran Rosenblatt is certainly convincing in such a perilous and difficult part, but the one who steals the screen is the most talented Assi Levy who brings depth to the character of the mother with an astounding variety of expressions and nuances. Without doubt she deserved her Haggiag Award for Best Actress.

The other original focus of Wedding Doll lies in the choice of location. To our knowledge, never has the Negev desert been so efficiently used as an active background for the dramatic evolution of the plot. The outstanding décor of the beautiful ochre cliffs is a character in itself, contributing to the climax of the action. The bright colors used by cinematographer Roi Rot add to the magic light that radiates throughout the movie. It offers the protagonists an escape from their outdoor prison if not towards a rainbow, at least to aspire for a life with brighter colors.

At the extreme opposite of the spectrum we found the astonishing Tikkun by Avishai Sivan. An undeniable original creation, I must say, like many of the Israeli films of the last decade. Shot in splendid black and white tones, Tikkun evokes the strange resurrection of the young and brilliant Hassidic student Haïm-Aaron in Mea Shearim, a famous ultra-orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. I intentionally say “evokes” because almost the entire film is both physically and psychologically swathed in a misty, mystical and gloomy atmosphere. Haïm-Aron, obsessively studying the sacred texts day and night, is suddenly torn apart in the bathtub by an unexpected surge of sexual desire. In a state of lethal shock, he comes back to life, and, to the despair of his parents, experiences a crisis of faith and starts to wander the deserted streets of the Holy City in a desperate search for a new meaning to his life.

With such an interesting pitch, one might have expected a captivating experience as was offered by Israeli directors like Amos Gitaï (Kaddosh), Ronit Elkabetz (Gett) and Joseph Cedar (Footnote) who created mind boggling conflictual religious confrontations. To my personal regret, shared by a few other film critics, Sivan was trapped by the trendy tendency in contemporary cinema to stretch out the basic plot like an endless chewing-gum. With very long shots ending nowhere, it incites impatience and boredom to the viewer instead of curiosity and compassion for the character’s intimate struggles.

That kind of script disease has struck several other fiction films at the 32nd Jerusalem Film Festival. Whether owing to a lack of inspiration, a false sense of depth and mystery or an artistic reaction to the hectic pace of the music video generation, I am ready to bet that such a style of storytelling will not be to the benefit of these films in the long run. By using such devices as meeting a horse in a street at night or filming an insect climbing on the silky face of a little girl (inspired by a short experimental documentary by Sivan’s fellow director Chen Sheinberg) not anyone necessarily becomes a new Bergman, Sokurov, Tarkovsky or even Ozu. Such opinion was certainly not held by the main jury of the festival, who granted Tikkun with four of the most prestigious awards. I do have to admit though that the one given to the magnificent work by experienced cinematographer Shai Goldman, who also shot Sivan’s first feature The Wanderer, was entirely deserved. Same applause goes to the best actor award, rewarding the impressive performance of the Arab Israeli actor Khalifa Natour as Haim-Aron’s father. All the more regrettable then. Some extra-long coffees are not really my cup of tea.

Edited by Yael Shuv