Life’s pain and beauty on show at Tel Aviv’s 26th DocAviv

Annual documentary film event offers week of screenings of works from Israel and around the world

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

From 'Billy and Molly: An Otter Love Story,' being screened at May 2024 Doc Aviv film festival (Credit: National Geographic/Charlie Hamilton James)
From 'Billy and Molly: An Otter Love Story,' being screened at May 2024 Doc Aviv film festival (Credit: National Geographic/Charlie Hamilton James)

It’s a complicated time to host any kind of event, but Tel Aviv’s annual DocAviv documentary film festival is moving forward, celebrating its 26th year and running May 23 through June 1 at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and other movie theaters around the city.

“We’ve been working a full year on this,” said artistic director Karin Rywkind Segal, who has weathered other complicated periods, including during the coronavirus pandemic, when the festival was held only online.

This year, festival staff aimed to create a program that acknowledged and mourned those killed and taken hostage in the Hamas terrorist attacks of October 7, with a hefty selection of Israeli programming, including several films made in recent months.

There are also documentary films from around the globe that celebrate and reflect upon other cultures, nationalities and customs, offering some hour-long breaks and longer from life’s realities.

One of those films is included in the DocAviv “Optimists” section, an apt moniker for “Billy & Milly, an Otter Love Story,” a beautifully filmed and narrated story of Billy and Susan, a couple living in the Shetland Islands, an achingly beautiful Scottish archipelago — lying between Orkney, the Faroe Islands and Norway — the northernmost region of the United Kingdom.

The 78-minute National Geographic film tells how the middle-aged Billy finds and cares for Milly, a baby otter that washes up on the shores of their home.

Billy’s loving care for Milly fills some of his emotional needs, which are beautifully described and narrated by Billy’s wife Susan, without exposing too much of their personal histories and details.

It’s a film that can help assuage some of the pain and sorrow felt by so many in the country, harkening to the themes of loss and renewal, while also offering views of the spectacularly beautiful vistas of sea and land in the Shetland Islands.

“Documentary films aren’t usually about fun subjects,” said Rywkind Segal before the screening. “Someone called me and said, ‘Watch this, it will make you feel good.”

It certainly does.

Other selections in the Optimists section include “Rabbi Capoeira,” filmmaker Barak Heymann’s latest about a capoeira and hip-hop studio in the ultra-Orthodox environs of Bnei Brak, and “Sapir,” about Israel’s first transgender soccer referee.

There’s also “Acre Wall Jumpers,” a film by Donna Naor Hacohen and Firas Roby about the teens and young people of Acre who spend summer days diving from the ancient walls of the city into the deep waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

The festival includes award-winning films and Israeli premieres focusing on well-known people and stories, such as “High & Low: John Galliano,” about the groundbreaking fashion designer and “The Stones & Brian Jones,” telling the story behind The Rolling Stones.

There’s also “Frida,” the new documentary about artist Frida Kahlo, and “Sorry/Not Sorry,” about comic Louis C.K. and the sexual misconduct allegations made against him.

Other award-winning films being screened include “Vista Mare,” about what happens behind the scenes at an Italian resort; “Black Snow,” telling the true tale of a whistle-blowing Siberian housewife and “Monogamia,” which examines how to keep the spark going in relationships.

For other films situated far from the Israeli reality, try “Wilding,” about an English couple who let nature have its way on their inherited estate, and “Menus-Plaisirs Le Troisgros,” a four-hour extravaganza of a film about a three Michelin-starred restaurant in the French countryside.

There are more difficult films as well, including Daniela Völker’s “The Commandant’s Shadow,” following the meeting between the son of the commander of Auschwitz and a Jewish survivor.

This winner of the Yad Vashem award was prompted by Maya Lasker-Wallfisch, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, who first approached Völker, a German and Argentinian filmmaker, about making the film.

Israeli filmmaker Jasmine Kainy will premiere her latest film, “Rise from October 7,” about the Gad family of Kibbutz Be’eri, who survived the Hamas terrorist attacks of that black Shabbat.

There’s also “Hostages,” by Doki Dror and Itay Landsberg, who created their film series by speaking to experts about previous hostage deals and prisoner releases in Israeli history.

For tickets and more information about screenings and DocAviv events, go to the DocAviv website.

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