Set within the confines of a small Jewish enclave in the East Jerusalem Arab neighborhood Silwan, Tsivia Barkai Yacov’s new film “Red Cow” centers on 17-year-old Benny (short for Benyamina), an only child who lives with her fundamentalist Orthodox father (Yehoshua).
As Yehoshua, whose wife died in childbirth, becomes more and more obsessed with the arrival of a new-born red heifer that he believes will bring redemption, Benny drifts further away from the strictures of her community and into the arms of newcomer — Yael (Moran Rosenblatt).
“Red Cow” (“Para Aduma” in Hebrew) is a very personal story, explains writer-director Barkai Yacov in conversation with The Times of Israel ahead of a pre-release screening in London.
“The film’s geography, plot and the emotions of its characters are all close to me,” she says.
Winner of both the Haggiag Award for Best Feature Film and the Anat Pirchi Award for Best Debut Film (jointly with “The Dive” by Yona Rozenkie) at this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, the film explores the complexities of Benny’s sexual awakening and ideological questioning with sensitivity, authenticity and nuance. Avigayil Koevary plays Benny — her first major role. She also won the Best Actress award for her performance at the Jerusalem festival. The film officially premiered at the UK Jewish Film Festival on November 18, with an Israeli theatrical release scheduled for early 2019.
Speaking on a crackly phone line from her Jerusalem home via an interpreter — her husband Boaz Yehonatan Yacov, the film’s cinematographer — Barkai Yacov explains that she came from a religious background. She grew up in Beit El, one of the first settlements in the West Bank, established in the late 1970s. She, too, had been in a lesbian relationship at the same age as her film’s protagonist.
“Although I later fell in love with a man and got married, it was important for me to talk about this subject,” she says. “Orthodox society may be forward looking concerning some issues, but this particular one remains in the dark.”
In the film, the relationship between Benny and her father is close and loving, but becomes tested as she grows increasingly critical of his religious nationalism and zealous beliefs. Is their bond a reflection of what Barkai Yacov shared with her own father?
“He died when I was 19 and he was far from the father in this story,” says Barkai Yacov. “We had our differences and even though we loved each other, it was not to the extent and depth that is shown on screen between Benny and Yehoshua.”
Yehoshua’s character is based on an amalgam of people whom Barkai Yacov knew growing up. She was keen to ensure that he was not a one-dimensional figure.
She aimed, she says, to create “someone you feel for — his life, his struggles, his beliefs. He doesn’t always know where to go and what to do. I also wanted to build a character who, [as a leader and a father] conveys his society’s agenda, and have Benny live within this atmosphere and fight it.”
Barkai Yacov agrees that Yehoshua’s character is contradictory. On the one hand, he encourages his daughter to get involved and assist him in his work, even permitting her to participate in religious customs that are usually confined to men, such as the laying of phylacteries. He also allows her to dress in a way that defies the expectations of their community by wearing jeans under her mandatory skirts. Yet, at the same time, he is rigid in his views about sexuality and, when he becomes aware of Benny’s relationship with Yael, tells her it is a disease.
The birth of the unblemished red cow is a providential event for the community. According to the Bible (Numbers 19:2), following its sacrifice, its ashes would be used in a purification ceremony and extremists believe that the building of the Third Temple on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount can then commence. Yehoshua is convinced that the cow will bring salvation, says Barkai Yacov, and it is significant that he tasks Benny with its care.
The theme of sacrifice resonates for father and daughter.
“In a way, the red cow is Benny’s part in her redemption,” says Barkai Yacov. “She doesn’t want to sacrifice who she feels she is by being pure and religious. Yehoshua may believe that he is bringing redemption closer but his refusal to accept Benny means that he is sacrificing the only important relationship in his life, which is his daughter.”
When Barkai Yacov wrote the script, she continually asked herself what was going to happen to the cow at the end, aware that she had to stay true to Benny’s character.
“For her to kill the cow would not have been faithful to who she is, but I wanted them both to be free,” she says. Benny’s attempt to release the animal is, in part, a metaphor for her own freedom. “Somehow, the cow choosing to stay symbolizes the other choice that Benny has but didn’t take.”
Benny’s experience of first love is passionate, demanding and all-consuming. Nothing has prepared her for the extreme feelings Yael has ignited, nor the struggles with her faith that evolve as a consequence. But the strong message of the film appears to be that her sexual and emotional feelings are incompatible with being religious.
“Basically, being a lesbian doesn’t fit religious life,” Barkai Yacov says. “But I also have to add that the Bible doesn’t talk about gay women.”
There are gay men and women trying to convince the Orthodox community to accept them, she says. “The more publicity there is about the issue, the more it might help parents to accept it.”
Koevary portrays Benny’s strong emotions with a credible, fierce intensity and vulnerability but, admits Barkai Yacov, the award-winning actor had not been cast initially for the role. A different actor left the project three weeks before shooting, and fortunately Koevary stepped in at the last minute. Koevary, too, comes from a religious background, and Barkai Yacov says she made small adjustments to the part, as a result of her experiences and upbringing.
In an unexpected but happy twist of fate, the filmmaking couple got together after the film was made. They married over a year ago, and, as we talk, their four-month old baby son wakes up. Barkai Yacov was religious until the age of 18, explains Yehonatan Yacov, whereas he became religious when he was 24. “Tsivia didn’t mean to fall in love with a man, and not an Orthodox man,” he says, and they both laugh.
“It occurs to me now that the movie is about a separation, the breaking up of a home,” contemplates Yehonatan Yacov. “But it’s nice to think that it brought us the exact opposite. I guess that we both felt at one with each other.”
“Red Cow” will screen at the UK Jewish Film Festival in London on 18 November 2018.