The Israeli Movies at Haifa: First Impressions By Gidi Orsher

in 21st Haifa International Film Festival

by Gidi Orsher

This year’s Cinderella has won the grand prize of the Haifa International Film Festival. Frozen Days (Yamim Kfuim), an unknown film made by anonymous students with a puny budget of $25,000 (puny even by Israeli standards), became the biggest winner of the festival’s closing night. A small, classy, interesting movie – and, what’s more, a better one than the other, bulkier participants. The jury had no choice this time. The other Israeli films participating reminded us of the sad stagnation of our cinema both in quality and in quantity since last year’s triumphs. We’ve seen it in the Jerusalem film festival and in the “Ofir” awards, also known as the Israeli Oscars. And it was obvious here again in Haifa.

What happened this year? There were all sorts of reasons, which eventually had to do mostly with money. The funding for movies was significantly decreased this year; bureaucratic glitches prevented transfers to the financing funds; the new procedures of the still unstable cinema legislation failed to kick off. The bottom line is that only 14 films were made. Compared to last year’s 24 it seems scarce and strained.

The Israeli movies in Haifa were a perfect reflection of our cinema and perhaps of our lives in Israel. We could find in the bucket a movie about bereavement, a movie about crime, a movie about lost ideals, and one student movie which reminded us that there is still some talent out there.

Danny Lerner, “Frozen Days”

Frozen Days by Danny Lerner was created by talented students. It is an interesting integration of style, plot, and considerable knowledge of moviemaking, entwined with references to other works. Ironically, the lack of resources created the opportunity for success. The roots of the story are deep in the lives of the youth of Tel Aviv. There is a girl who exists in her self-created space. Independent and strong, self-oriented and egotistical, she sells drugs by the order and lives out her life on her own. Her only relationship with the outside world is through cellular phones, chat forums, and SMS messages. Through these she meets a mysterious man. She goes to his apartment for a brief romantic encounter, which is interrupted by an electrical blackout, but she never really sees his face. When he falls casualty to a club terrorist bombing, she takes on his identity.

It is a dark movie with a strong emphasis on lighting and black and white photography, edited with enthralling dynamics, along with a powerful appropriate soundtrack and a hypnotizing actress. Anat Klauzner in the lead is without a doubt a discovery. With no previous acting experience she successfully completes the puzzle director Danny Learner lays down for her. Her expressive, elastic face is beautiful and enchanting: huge eyes, a jagged mouth, and presence the like of which is hardly seen in our cinema. She is the movie, and the movie is hers.

It is only at the end of the film that some slackness creeps into this otherwise wonderful work. There is a dull, unnecessary knot in the plot. Nevertheless, this small movie rightfully stole fame and fortune from the more experienced participants.

Marek Rozenbaum, “The Belly Dancer”

It is painful to have to criticize Marek Rozenbaum’s The Belly Dancer (Lirkod), for two reasons. First, the man is truly a knowledgeable filmmaker and is one of the most important producers in Israeli cinema, both as a creative producer and as a person, a combination rarely seen in this cruel world. Secondly, here were true intentions of making a meaningful and enjoyable film.

The trouble is that nothing came out of these intentions, save perhaps awkward looks after the premiere and considerable embarrassment. Rozenbaum, in his second movie as director (his first attempt in The Investigation Must Go On [Haboleshet Hokeret] turned out to be a decent thriller drama) and in ongoing collaboration with screenwriter Chaim Merin, completely fails to hit the mark. We have here some stories which under different circumstances could have created an enjoyable, logical sequence with a meaning, but what comes out is an incoherent, unpleasant, hallucinated, illogical, and impossible assortment of pictures, which do not connect to anything consistent that can be related to.

This is a story of three people: two companions living in a soft underworld — one is traditional, the other a complete atheist — and the woman in between them, who was previously religious and is now an atheist. She came from a religious home and became a belly dancer, and she likes it. The three set out to rob a diamond merchant, manage to obtain some Judaica, and can’t find anywhere to sell it. The girl’s boyfriend, one of the companions, is caught and is put in jail. The other becomes completely religious. The girl dumps her boyfriend because of his offensive behavior and exchanges lovers. The other’s embrace of religion prevents her from doing what she truly loves — dancing. In the poor ending of the movie everything returns where it belongs.

As was said, here are several stories one might sink one’s teeth into: the involvement of religion in the criminal world, the story of friendship, loyalty, and its price in the face of reality, and just maybe, the most beautiful story about the role of the woman who could determine fates, who travels between the two worlds, who is always stuck in the middle, unable to truly make a decision, unwilling to sacrifice one for the other.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. The characters don’t evolve. In fact, it seems the director hasn’t decided what he wanted to do with the story and where he wanted to take it to. The performances are bizarre, the style is ever-changing, the emphasis stays on the wrong subjects, and the movie comes out in pieces – like a random collection of unedited scenes. Rozenbaum knows this and is in conflict. As an intelligent filmmaker he should have archived the materials lying in his storeroom. As a producer who has invested and as a director who wanted to be heard, he publishes the product against his own good. However, as an experienced professional, he knows the storm will blow out, and what will remain will be all the other movies he produced and the opportunities he gives filmmakers working with him to make a significant contribution to Israeli cinema.

Eyal Shiray, “Comrade”

Another movie that was nominated at Haifa is Eyal Shiray’s Comrade (Bekarov Yikre Lecha Mashehu Tov), based on Uzi Weil’s script, a film completely different from the didactic panorama of our cinema this year. The movie leaves the viewer with the feeling that it was too short, missing some parts to bring together its unique plot, to offer an explanation and emphasize some of the worthy subjects in the story.

Shiray offers some dramatic issues he neglects to develop in the story of an adolescent teen who runs away from home in a village in the south to be with his older sister in Haifa. (She ran away years ago, after their mother’s death.) Unexpectedly, he discovers the letters she had been sending him that were hidden by their father, who isn’t able to communicate with his growing kids. The sister, who is a cruise boat stewardess, is mostly away, and the kid wanders freely in the big city, conspiring with an eccentric old man who lives in an abandoned house nearby. The elder claims to be the last true communist. The man even has an extensive weapon collection, to fend off the capitalists who would come and attempt to evict him. “A true communist never submits,” he preaches to the young child. The last part of the movie becomes a harsh satire about our public behavior through the story of the hallucinated battle of the last communist and the kid against the police and military forces who siege the house, mistaking the situation for a hostile terrorist takeover.

Shiray’s style is somewhere between poetic realism, in the scenes in which he depicts the child’s sexual development (masturbating to dirty magazines, peeking on his showering sister, and even physically coming near her), and existentialistic farce, in the warring moments involving these two casual friends. In between there are fantasy scenes of hallucinated conversations between the child and an imaginary South American general who emerges out of the magazines and teaches the child a handful of life’s little secrets.

Shiray and Weil are looking for a shortcut to be considered as the cult of local cinema, and in their impatience, they neglect their professional responsibility. They created a film that will be remembered as an anecdote, as an existentialistic cinematic joke. Instead of taking a few steps further and offering something more responsible and mature, they carelessly smile and wink. The characters are there – they are interesting, different – but they don’t go all the way, and the plot leaves them hanging halfway through. That goes for the child, his sister, the miserable man at the kiosk, and the most enthralling character, the old communist, who is perhaps an idealist dreamer or perhaps a madman.

The actors’ performances are fascinating, led by Asi Dayan, who has lately been seen in just about every movie and television production, in the part of mad Abraham. Same goes for child Adam Hirsh and Tinkerbelle as his sister. It’s nice to see her growing up through movies.

Daniel Syrkin, “Out Of Sight”

As the plot thickens in the second half of Daniel Syrkin’s Out Of Sight (Lemarit Ain), the director brings in the elephants, greatly influenced by the encouragement of screenwriter Noa Greenberg. These elephants turn the delicate china shop of a movie laid down in the first part of the film into a real battlefield with heavy gunfire and no room for any finesse.

Syrkin conveys the story of two friends’ personal and domestic crisis. To avoid a spoiler, the essence of the crisis will not be discussed, but whoever stays as long as the middle of the film can already understand the horrible secret about to unfold. One of the friends commits suicide right in the beginning, giving cause for her blind friend to fly to Israel from prestigious Princeton University to be with the family that raised her when she had problems with her own family. Confusing? To the viewers as well, but it all falls together. During the Shiva’a, the blind heroine sees what others failed, or rather didn’t want, to see. Because of her handicap and the abilities it has enabled her to acquire, she can sense the dreadful secret.

After laying down the foundation, the essential introduction to the characters, and bridging between the friends’ intimate past and the present, the plot must evolve. But the relative sensitivity vanishes; the storytelling is cramped with exclamation marks and becomes blunt and amateurish. The puzzle of pictures and hints of which the story consists is made out of too bulky, too common, too known, and too empty pieces. A familiar schematic weave of events, decisions, and choices replaces the good taste that was there up until that point.

While lead actress Tali Sharon in the part of the blind heroine, Guy Loel as the washed out lover, and the young girls playing the younger friends all give good performances, the other actors falter, especially in the more dramatic scenes in the last part. The movie ranges between general discomfort and lack of credibility and logic, and the end of the film stretches several minutes and several scenes too long. Out Of Sight presumes to take on too much – in meaning, in its plot, and in its desire to shock. It is a pity that it fails to achieve the goals it sets out to fulfill.