The Outsiders, From Inside

in 40th Chicago International Film Festival

by Necati Sönmez

At the early 80s, Jerusalem was a relatively safe place to live even without a huge concrete wall intended to ‘protect’ the insiders from the outsiders. There was no wall yet but obviously invisible walls exist everywhere at anytime. Building walls always helps – if it doesn’t really protect you at least it gives you the feeling of safeness. And more importantly, with it you can give a concrete picture of safeness.

We see three women through an indoor-window frame which surrounds the screen at the very beginning of Campfire (Medurat Hashevet). It starts with a role-play dialog – the widowed mother asks her daughters to answer the telephone and to lie about her dead father: “Tell them that he is out now…” In a way, the rest of the film is about how this game does not work at all in the long-term.

Set in Jerusalem in the year of 1981, Campfire tells the story of a 42-years old widow and her two teenage daughters who try to survive in a tribal environment without a ‘pater familias’. While the girls, Esti and Tami, struggle with their own growing-up handicaps, the mother, Rachel, tries to keep in step with the communal rules. For that reason, she wants to be among the founders of a new settlement around Ramallah. However they have to fit the demands of being a ‘complete’ family in order to be a more suitable candidate. So she agrees to date with those two men fixed by a matchmaker, the wife of Motke who is in charge of the acceptance committee of the new settlement: Moshe, a respected cantor and a wealthy businessman; and Yossi, a mini-bus driver who is an outsider himself, not only as being single but also in terms of his poor sexual experience. (By the way, one of the essential elements of the story is the sexual issue which is not a surprise in a film dealing with a conservative circle.)

Rachel’s useless attempts of being more ‘complete’ bring the family to the edge of tearing apart. The more she insists on her ambition the farer they fail to giving an ideal family picture. One of the daughters resists, the other hesitates – she gets through a traumatic experience – and the mother ultimately decides to listen to their own concerns instead of worrying about the external reactions… One of the turning points of the story is when the big daughter rebelliously reveals on the telephone that the father was indeed dead a year ago. That’s how the absent father which is supposed to be a fake umbrella over the family finally become a real dead and the life come back to his survivors. Being completed by another outsider, Yossi, they even manage to move the father’s ‘dead’ car thanks to this momentum of life.

One of the emphasis of Joseph Cedar’s film is the essential role of the drama itself and the empathy he feels to his every single character including even the least sympathetic Motke, who is the only one in a position of deciding over the others destiny. No matter what they do, Cedar deeply loves his characters and so do the spectators.

The greatness of this enormously warm film lies not on the great political messages it reveals but on its dramatic strength: Such a story full of energy with powerful characters nourished with extraordinary acting, works in any place and any era. Take and put it in any other society, its social and political dimensions will come within it. Because, resisting against the idea of blending in common values or trying to break the traditional and tribal confines consisting of various moral codes is not peculiar to any community.

What makes the film more exiting is its ability of reflecting the double-vision of the outsiders who actually live inside. We still need to know what’s going on in both sides of the walls, even if we know that the ‘hammer policy’ will flops at the end and once the ignored reality accepted the illusions will disappear, just like in Campfire .

Necati Sönmez