MOSCOW — Amikam Kovner has strong feelings about the distance between Tel Aviv and the restive parts in northern Israel, and he doesn’t mean kilometers.
When asked how it felt to experience life in the country’s party capital during the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War, he reminisces, “People in the north suffered. Their life changed. They couldn’t work. They were living in shelters. But life in Tel Aviv kept going the same way. There was always some party going on, or some pub just nearby.”
Kovner’s first feature, “Hafsakat Esh” (literally “ceasefire,” but given the title “Haven” in English), which was in competition at the just concluded 36th Moscow International Film Festival, looks at the same disparity.
“I’m horrified by the current events in Israel and Gaza. The death toll is inconceivable and unbearable. These are not just numbers, but real people — fathers, mothers, children — that were taken suddenly and violently from this world,” says Kovner.
“It’s hard for me to relate to my film in front of such horrible reality,” he says.
Set during the Second Lebanon War, “Haven” opens with Motti and pregnant Keren, a young and uncouth couple from the north, seeking respite from the rockets in the bourgeoisie household of Boaz and Yali in Tel Aviv.
Boaz is unnerved by the presence of another male in the house, and tension soon erupts between him and Motti. The apartment, empty and airless in the beginning, quickly becomes crowded as the different personalities stifle each other.
At one point in the film, Motti stands by a window, looking at the calm streets outside and mutters, “Everyone lives his own life.” He is stunned by how people around him are apathetic to the war, an event that led to him being out of work, unable to provide for his expecting wife and reliant on the magnanimity of this unknown couple. It’s a quietly poetic moment in a movie not short on them.
For Kovner, who also wrote the film, this is similar to the scene in Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” when the protagonist returns to Tel Aviv — having seen men from his unit die — and sees people clubbing like nothing’s wrong.
However, Motti’s not the only one with problems. The movie’s best scene is set in Boaz and Yali’s bedroom at night, as they are woken by the loud sex in their guest room. At first they laugh, politeness entailing they not raise a protest at something so natural. Soon, the mirth vanishes from their eyes as they reflect upon the different state of their marriage. The romance has left their relationship long ago; the heartbreak caused by failing to make a baby has dealt a near-fatal blow. “They are both depressed,” Kovner says. “Instead of trying to overcome it together, they have gone into their own shells.”
The growing gap between different members of society, their fates determined not by talent or one’s own actions but by factors such as the location one happened to grow up in, is a woe common to many regions in the world and pertinent to many eras.
During the press conference following the film’s premiere, a Ukrainian woman gushed effusively about how “Haven” reminded her of her niece who had to live in a similar shelter when pregnant. Kovner agrees that the notion of urban people not being connected to the problems of people who live in rural areas can be found “anywhere,” but believes there are some details here specific to Israeli society.
One important subplot in the film deals with Motti’s attempts to straighten himself out. He is going back to religion, saying prayers before every meal and wearing a kippah throughout the day. He believes that turning to God before the birth of his child will cleanse him of his sins. It’s “quite ridiculous,” according to Kovner.
‘The power that was given to us, as human beings, is also the power of cinema — that is, our ability to put ourselves in someone’s else’s shoes’
“Haven” is bolstered by good performances from the quartet of principal actors. Lana Ettinger, who plays Yali, has to perform the bulk of the emotional heavy lifting; she succeeds. Her character frustrated in an eventless life and stung by each glimpse of a pregnant Keren, Ettinger has to portray her inner turmoil while maintaining a façade of helpfulness.
Nevo Kimchi plays Boaz and while he’s convincing in conveying the impotence of his character, his moment of glory arrives when he tells Motti the sad saga of his and Yali’s efforts to conceive.
Fans and critics of Oshri Cohen (Motti) will get a few laughs from a sneaky joke about the one thing the actor is criticized most often for: not serving in the army.
But “Haven” doesn’t receive an unreserved recommendation in that it is filled with a number of stereotypes. The plot moves like clockwork and few story details surprise. Of course, Motti, the villager, is street smart and can repair an electric fuse that the snobbish Boaz deemed beyond saving. Of course, Keren, a demure damsel from the hinterland is plain and her husband is attracted to the exotic and sophisticated Yali.
What’s also notable is the men’s brashness. Each is steadfast in holding onto his principles and doesn’t see the value of a compromise for the sake of peaceful living. The simmering discontent reaches its peak during a dinner table sequence where Boaz and Motti enter into a full-blooded argument.
This is in stark contrast to the women, who recognize the fragility of their predicament and want to keep their rumblings to themselves if only to get through the days.
Kovner thinks this is in line with contemporary Israeli society.
“Israelis are strongly opinionated. What could be considered as rude and aggressive outside would just be like a normal conversation in our country. That’s how Israelis talk,” Kovner says.
“The power that was given to us, as human beings, is also the power of cinema — that is, our ability to put ourselves in someone’s else’s shoes. The ability to feel what the other person feels. To be moved, or thrilled or devastated when something happens to them as if it happened to us. Whether it is on screen or in real life. It’s called empathy. The moment we stop using this great power is the moment we cease to be human,” says Kovner.