Urban Fairytales and Political Ghosts

2008-04-04 (Limited release)

Curled up on the sandy banks of the Mediterranean, a mere 45-minutes east of the dry heat, stone covered hills, and ancient city walls of Jerusalem, and only 82-kilometers north of the turbulent Gaza Strip, Tel Aviv awaits, pulsing with nightlife, music, film, and fashion. In a country perpetually in the throes of political turmoil, the city is a cultural oasis of sorts, and a muse for artists looking to portray Israel beyond the conflict.

Though Israel has a long history of nationalistic films, the past two decades have seen a slow shift towards a more expansive approach to movie making. Turning away from the traditional settings of Jerusalem, the army, and the kibbutz, directors are hoping to tell new stories beyond the conflict, and that ever more frequently unfold in Tel Aviv. This past year alone, three Israeli filmmakers turned to Tel Aviv as the site of loneliness, confusion, redemption, and hope, in films that appeared in festivals around the world.

Flirting with escapism and fantasizing about the foreign, Jellyfish, Japan Japan, and Noodle dispense with the traditional realism of filmmaking in Israel, and skirt the line between fictional abstraction and pure surrealism. While a number of recent Israeli films dealing with politics and history — notably The Bubble, The Band’s Visit, and Beaufort — have gained attention on the world stage (the last earning the country its first “Best Foreign Film” Oscar nomination in 24 years), others have turned their gaze inward, offering a wider definition of what it means to be Israeli through diverse characters and more abstract plots.

“A lot of people refer to Tel Aviv as the Bubble,” says Etgar Keret, co-director of Jellyfish alongside his wife Shira Geffen, in reference to the assumption among Israelis that Tel Avivians are too politically removed and generally self-absorbed. “I see it actually as a sort of positive term. The fact that Tel Aviv is successful in being both connected and disconnected is something that allows it to be so rich culturally.” Against this nuanced backdrop, Jellyfish, Japan Japan, and Noodle use Tel Aviv to tell stories that are deeply personal, and engage Israel’s internal problems to address universal themes. Though the approach is common to Hollywood, the films, emerging from a country better known for its political drama than its heartwarming success stories, evidence a desire among young directors to expand the definition of Israeli cinema.

From Israel’s inception, film existed as propaganda and education rather than entertainment, according to Galit Roichman, an Israeli screenwriter and film lecturer. “Early films were not trying to tell the stories of individuals, but taking a fictional character and using it to tell about reality,” says Roichman. “In the ’40s and ’50s, until the mid-’60s, most films are trying to support the Zionist narrative, and to give the feeling that the Zionist movement knows what it is doing.” Though the government didn’t mandate this type of filmmaking, members of the Knesset would occasionally attend movie premieres to show support for a film.

Older movies, like 1967’s He Walked Through the Fields, emphasize the miracle of a self-built nation and star the ‘New Jew’, or Sabra, as the gun-toting male, prepared to defend his country at all costs. Created shortly after the Six Day War, the film tells the story of a young kibbutznik who falls in love with and impregnates a new immigrant and Holocaust survivor. Before telling him she is pregnant, he leaves for the army, and is killed. Despite the tragedy, the film is intended to be optimistic, as the girl is left carrying the next Sabra generation.

From the mid-’60s through the ’70s, as Israelis questioned whether Jews from disparate backgrounds could coexist, a new genre of films developed. Termed “Bourekas films” after the filo dough pastries, they dealt comically with the ethnic clash between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and often concluded with happy intermarriages. As flaky and insubstantial as their culinary namesake, the resulting films were campy, and are today seen as humorous cult-classics.

In 1978, the government established the Fund for the Encouragement of Quality Israeli Cinema, known today as the Israeli Film Fund. With new monetary resources, filmmakers in the ’80s were able to nurture their creative urges and focus on characters previously excluded from films. Until this point, Israeli film had been dominated by the mentality of the collective. These films — including Journey of the Stretchers, about a misfit soldier in a combat unit; Beyond the Walls, about corruption in Israeli prisons; and Don’t Give a Damn, about Rafi, a boy who loses his legs shortly after joining the army — began to criticize the Zionist narrative by introducing characters who were outsiders. Yet, though they operate under the auspice of redefining the traditional narrative, they are not as radical as they appear. The central character of Journey of the Stretchers dies halfway through the film, quelling his symbolic value, and, though Rafi spends the entire film depressed, leading his girlfriend to leave him, at the end he chases her in his wheelchair across what is now Rabin Square. The camera pans up to reveal them crossing the square together, suggesting that he can now return to normal life as part of the Israeli collective.

A southern Tel Aviv street, from Japan Japan

In the ’90s, the number of films set in Tel Aviv multiplied, and in keeping with the city’s reputation as Israel’s party capital, they were generally lighthearted. The movies were improving, but still attracted little attention within Israel, and even less attention outside. Though a handful of films from Israel have gained notoriety internationally, over the past eight years the number has dramatically increased. With greater financial support for film from the government, films like Walk on Water, Or (My Treasure), and Turn Left at the End of the World have garnered accolades abroad.

Today, an average of 22 films are released per year, in comparison to approximately nine films per year a decade ago. Despite the increased complexity and range of subject matter, recent films have still been based primarily on historical, political, or cultural aspects of life in Israel. Jellyfish, Japan Japan, and Noodle turn away from representative film-making and adopt the form of urban fairytales, using Tel Aviv to gain entry into the lives of Russian immigrants, Chinese migrant workers, children of Holocaust survivors, and Sabra men and women. Through somewhat fantastical plots, they explore the full array of human emotions that remain generally underrepresented in Israeli cinema.

Though it used to be the job of the filmmaker to create films that represented the national voice of Israel, Ayelet Menahemi, who directed Noodle, feels that the young filmmakers of today no longer feel that responsibility. “It’s a generation that is more self absorbed, in a good way,” says Menahemi. “They want to represent themselves and what interests them. It is a healthy process, and it is more normal in terms of creativity.”

Imri Kahn in Japan Japan

Driven by a non-narrative structure, Japan Japan follows Imri (Imri Kahn), a young man living in Tel Aviv, planning to move to Japan. Based partially on director Lior Shamriz’s own plans to travel to Japan when he was in his early 20s, half scripted and half improvised, the film is a mash up of fiction covered by autobiography. With a spontaneous breakout into an ABBA sing-along, a glimpse of Imri’s crazy roommate getting cozy with an imaginary boyfriend on the couch, and sequences of Japanese gay pornography, the film is a funny and thoughtful indulgence of Shamriz’s creative fantasy, and one which is largely unprecedented in the spectrum of Israeli cinema.

Menahemi’s own film, Noodle, takes inspiration from the growing problem of illegal foreign workers in Israel, and models the central character, Miri (Mili Avital), on a woman she met who lost both a fiancée and a husband to war. Noodle follows Miri, a flight attendant who avoids coming to terms with her tragic past by flitting between cities, as she learns to live life on the ground. After her housekeeper, an illegal Chinese worker, is deported during an immigration raid, Miri finds herself responsible for the woman’s child, and risks her own safety to reunite the boy with his mother.

Baoqi Chen and Mili Avital in Noodle

Though Menahemi views the film as neither escapist nor political, she notes that the film emphasizes the close connection between the national struggle and individual strife. “It is a very personal thing,” says Menahemi of Miri’s story. “It is motivated, as always here in Israel, by national tragedies, but when it comes down to real life, national tragedies get down to the personal level.”

The stark reality of life in Israel infringes subtly on each film, despite the intended aversion to politics. “When you are 18 years-old and they [the army] put a gun in your hand and you go out and protect your country,” says Keret, who is also a bestselling author in Israel, “of course when you go home you will have this personal violent history that you drag along with you. My work is not overtly political, but very much a perception of how the political reality affects your everyday life.”

Nikol Liedman and Sarah Adler in Jellyfish

The pervasive anxiety of living in a country dominated by political conflict is evident in all of the films and, to an extent, takes its cue from the more ambiguous, open-ended literature of the ’90s, like Keret’s. Though Jellyfish does not invoke the political conflict, it portrays a cast of characters who are shaped by the trauma of their personal histories. Whimsical and surreal, it features a young caterer (Sarah Adler), a new bride (Noa Knoller), and a Filipino migrant worker (Ma-nenita De Latorre) as they unknowingly weave their way in and out of one another’s lives in a perpetual search for happiness, compassion, and recognition. Burdened by the weight of their individual pasts, they struggle in their relationships and have difficulty connecting with the people around them, reflecting the internal discomfort of living in a country dominated by conflict.

Though Jellyfish was successful in Israel, prior to winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Keret and Geffen couldn’t get a distributor. “I think that people were scared because it is not a typical film in the Israeli tradition of hyper-realistic filmmaking,” says Keret. “Many times, when as an Israeli filmmaker or author you go to work, people want you to deliver the goods. If you see a film about Israel, you want to see a movie about war, you don’t want to see people having a relationship with their son.”

Noa Knoller and Gera Sandler in Jellyfish

Part of the difficulty in breaking with political filmmaking arises out of the need to make films with international appeal, as the Israeli audience is small, and the world is particularly interested in the conflict. Shimon Dotan, a filmmaker and professor of political filmmaking at the New School, sees this pressure as primarily financial: “Since the world is extremely preoccupied with the conflict, the world does reward filmmakers from all sides that are dealing with the conflict.”

Though Japan Japan was included in the New Directors/New Film festival at Lincoln Center, Shamriz hasn’t found a distributor within Israel. “You see colleagues make shitty movies about the conflict and getting a lot of attention,” he says. “It’s just people stopping by accident to see it, but still you feel stuck in the same place because you do movies that no one likes.” Shamriz conveys his frustration with the difficulty of making a film that is both well-received and that transcends politics with Japan Japan, which concludes with a brief foray into Ramallah and a shot of the security fence. “For me, it was important to tell the story about a person who tries to choose how to live his life, but the place chooses it for him.” Following the completion of Japan Japan, he relocated to Berlin, where he is working on his next film. “I guess in a way it’s ironic that this film that has some political background was actually my most successful so far. For me it’s a film that deals with the need to make a film about the conflict.”

But despite the sentiment that political films fare better on the international stage, the recent success of Jellyfish, Noodle, and Japan Japan, suggests that the world is willing to accept a broader range of Israeli films. As someone who has dedicated much of his time to making historical films — most recently a documentary, Hot House, about the Israeli prisons — Dotan already feels the pull away from political films within Israel. “There is some fatigue,” says Dotan, “and a sense that people want to live their lives beyond the politics.”

Jellyfish trailer

Japan Japan trailer

Noodle trailer