Where Do the Children Play?

in 31st Jerusalem Film Festival

by Pablo Utin

One of the most debated films in the Israeli narrative competition at the 31st Jerusalem Film Festival was without a doubt Tali Shalom-Ezer’s excellent debut Princess (which shared the first prize in the Israeli competition with Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem). The film clearly divided audiences and critics into lovers and haters with very little room for a mixed, more middle-ground reaction. These kinds of responses to the film only emphasize the fact we are in the presence of a unique talent, a new voice in Israeli cinema that challenges viewers with her radical aesthetics and provocative themes. Princess is Shalom-Ezer’s first feature film, but it continues the exploration of human sexuality that was already present in some of her short works, primarily in Surrogate (2008). If in Surrogate the theme of sexual trauma was brought to the surface through the point of view of an adult man who finds it difficult to deal with his sexuality because of an abuse he experienced as a child, in Princess Shalom-Ezerbravely confronts the experience of childhood sexual abuse.

The story follows Adar (Shira Haas), a 12 year-old girl who lives with her mother (Keren Mor) and the mother’s new boyfriend-turned-step-father Michael (Ori Pfeffer). The relationship between the three is portrayed as very warm, intimate and filled with liberal atmosphere. It seems that Michael cares for Adar and loves her very much, and is always playful with her. At the same time, we can feel something is wrong with those seemingly innocent games. The openness and intimacy seem to cross a line and the viewers find themselves wondering “isn’t it too much?” are we in the presence of intimacy and love, or are we already in the territory of sexual abuse?

The film opens with a beautiful shot of Adar and the half naked Michael in bed, both watching the mother getting dressed. They praise her beauty and there is an erotic mood in the room. This sexually open couple is exposing the young girl to their intimacy in a very natural and sincere way, but at the same time, it is obvious that the girl shouldn’t be a part of that aspect of their relationship.

As the film unfolds it becomes more and more clear that Adar is suffering from some kind of sexual abuse, but it is not clear in what form. She creates an imaginary friend, a male alter-ego named Alan. The boy Alan moves into Adar’s room and appears and disappears at random. From this point on, the film clearly adopts Adar’s internal world as the prism through which the story flows in a stream of consciousness. Alan and Adar keep appearing interchangeably, one completing the other’s actions; Adar takes her shirt off but Alan appears half naked, Adar punches the wall with her fist but Alan’s fist is the one that bleeds.

In this context, it should be mentioned that the Hebrew language is a very gendered one, and Shalom-Ezer uses this characteristic to the film’s advantage, in order to create a psychological complexity. Michael talks to Adar as if she was a little boy. It starts as a playful gesture, but as the film progresses and Alan’s presence gains an even more sexual quality, this use of language becomes more and more disturbing. Most of this lingual complexity gets lost in translation. The way language conveys ambivalences and erases or defines what the body feels is one of the main strengths of Shalom-Ezer’s cinema.

The beauty and softness of the cinematography clashes with the monstrosity of the topic. It is impossible to take your eyes off the sensuality and eroticism of the film. This beauty is what allures us to watch the terrible acts that are being committed with the same confusion experienced by Adar. Adar needs the attention. She is lonely and alienated. She doesn’t want to go to school, she doesn’t have any friends (she says that all the other kids are stupid) and she stays at home and plays with Michael, who is unemployed. Michael’s friendliness comforts her, but of course this friendliness becomes more and more disturbing. Can Adar really comprehend what is happening? Can Adar understand the boundaries between playfulness, intimacy and abusive behavior? For example, in a memorable scene, Alan shows Adar how to “fuck”. In a playful childish way, while fully clothed, the kids display a handful of sexual positions. This is a desexualized sex scene, while at the same time sexually disturbing. It is very difficult to discern if this is a game of innocence or a way to express a profound distress and cope with the vulgarity of the adult world. At some point in the film we stop asking ourselves these questions and instead find ourselves worried about Adar. She has no way to escape. She is a prisoner in her own home, living in intimacy with a sexually abusive adult. We witness how her mind tries to break away from her body by means of a split personality.

Shalom-Ezer invites us to enter an erotic and dangerous world only to trap us in a claustrophobic nightmare together with her character. This way she manages to challenge us and undermine our perception of what is normative, what is acceptable and at what point we can recognize and define abusive behavior that sometimes appears in an ambivalent and complex manner… till it’s too late.

The perfect camerawork by Radek Ladczuk and the delicate acting style of all the cast members create the right atmosphere to deal with such a controversial topic. Having said that, I found the end of the film quite unsatisfactory. Shalom-Ezer tried to figure out a happy — or at least optimistic — ending for her film, allowing her character some kind of hope or strength. Even if this choice can be appreciated and respected, the way in which Shalom-Ezer brings it to the screen makes it very hard to accept. The film has delved into such intricately difficult and complex issues that resolving them in only two scenes seems almost irresponsible. The character is so much in need for an escape from the abusive situation that Shalom-Ezer simply gave it to her, without any visible transition or internal process. This kind of narrative decision somewhat weakens this beautiful but difficult film.

Princess is both extraordinary and of its time. Although the topic of child abuse used to be atypical or unusual in Israeli cinema, it suddenly became one of the most salient and recurring themes of the Israeli films in competition at the Jerusalem Film Festival, and is becoming a recurrent theme in Israeli cinema in general in the last two years. Among the films in competition we can find Ben Zaken by Efrat Korem, a film about the relationship of an unemployed father and his troubled daughter without any future in a small city in the South of Israel. That Lovely Girl (Harkhek me-he’adro) by Keren Yedayah, depicts an incestuous relationship between father and adult daughter. The Kindergarten Teacher (Ha-Ganenet) by Nadav Lapid tells the story of a kindergarten teacher who kidnaps a talented five year old boy in order to “save him” from society. And finally, in Self Made (Boreg) by Shira Geffen a woman has her uterus removed and thus renounces the possibility of having kids at all. In previous years films such as Ajami (Copti and Shani, 2010), The Slut (Ha-Notenet, Ben Asher, 2011), Big Bad Wolves (Mi mefakhed me-haze’ev hara, Keshales and Papushado, 2013) and Beit Lehem (Adler, 2013) all had images of children being abused by adults.

In the near past, Israeli Cinema tended to portray kids as the main characters in coming-of-age tales. The reality around these kids was hard and grim but the heroes of Sweet Mud (Adama meshugaat, Dror Shaul, 2005), Nina’s Tragedies (Ha-asonot shel nina, Sabi Gabizon, 2003) and other films, would always find a way to overcome adversities, learn a life lesson and set themselves free. In today’s films there are no growing-up stories, but instead children find themselves victims of deception, manipulation, pedophilia, kidnapping, incest and sexual abuse.

If one could interpret the presence of children as representatives of the possibility of hope and a better future, the current Israeli cinema metaphorically seems to depict the loss of hope in a society caught in a constant state of war and at the verge of an economic crisis, a society where adults are the most imminent danger to their own beloved children. The adults are portrayed as responsible for a dark and sinister present whose main recurring motif is that of violated innocence.

Edited by Yael Shuv