Religious divorce, an absent God and dancing Arabs

A look at the Israeli films premiering at the Jerusalem Film Festival

From 'Self Made,' Shira Geffen's latest film (Courtesy 'Self Made')
From 'Self Made,' Shira Geffen's latest film (Courtesy 'Self Made')

We’re in the middle of the 31st Jerusalem Film Festival – which isn’t just a celebration of cinema but a carnival of music, food, discussion, schmoozing and wondering why the hell the ticket says 7 pm, it’s already 7:20 and yet the doors to the theater aren’t yet open.

The superlative Jerusalem Cinematheque is one of the finest arts theaters in the world – it’s certainly the only one with gorgeous views of the Old City and an enormous library of film books in multiple languages. While audiences were (and still are) able to get early peeks at many of the films that have done well on the world festival circuit (like Michael Fassbender in “Frank,” Scarlett Johansson in “Under the Skin” or Robert Pattinson in “The Rover”), the big draw is seeing what’s new in Israeli cinema.

Here are some of the Israeli films that knocked us out at the Jerusalem Film Festival, ongoing now in the capital July 10-20.

“Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem”
Let’s spend five years in a single room arguing about religious law. Sound exciting? Well, shockingly, it is. Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz, a brother-and-sister team finishing out a thematic trilogy about gender difference in Israel, present something of a conundrum to a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil trio of rabbinical judges. A woman wants to get a divorce. The husband refuses to grant it. There have been no transgressions (adultery or abuse) so the husband cannot be legally forced.

What happens next? It’s a recipe for an absurdist comedy as well as a Kafkaesque frustration. The performances (Ronit Elkabetz in the lead and a cavalcade of faces coming and going as lawyers and witnesses) are all terrific slight caricatures. On paper this seems like a “filmed play” but the frequent use of close-ups and innovative editing makes this a grand exercise in extruding the “cinematic” out of any situation. Highly recommended.

From 'Red Leaves,' by Ethiopian director Bazi Gete (Courtesy Jerusalem Film Festival)
From ‘Red Leaves,’ by Ethiopian director Bazi Gete (Courtesy Jerusalem Film Festival)

“Red Leaves”
What would Yasujirō Ozu’s 1953 film “Tokyo Story” be like if moved to the Ethiopian-Jewish immigrant community of today’s Israel? Maybe a little something like this. Bazi Gete’s observational story about a 74-year-old man (who came to Israel via Sudan) and his conflict with his assimilated children goes in the direction you expect it to go, but the specificity of the culture clash makes for unique viewing.

The lead character is simultaneously sympathetic and frustrating, much like some of the elders in our life we both respect and want to strangle. Gete’s patiently paced film glides from documentary-style interior scenes to some elegant and moody sequences. Looking forward to see what this director does next.

“Dancing Arabs”
Director Eran Riklis (“The Syrian Bride,” “Zaytoun”) and writer Sayed Kashua make for a fine pairing in this very funny and touching story about an Arab-Israeli who slowly learns to “pass” as a Jew. The movie blends elements from Kashua’s novels “Dancing Arabs” and “Second Person Singular,” and blends some very dark satire with a typical (though not uninteresting) situational high school comedy. The result is something that ought to have wide international appeal, as it touches both on the peculiar nature of Arab Israeli citizenship and the universality of teenage relationships. Also, it’s an early 90s period piece!

“Absent God: Emmanuel Levinas and the Humanism of the Other”
Hoo-boy, that’s one brick of a title. Yet this short documentary from director Yoram Ron earns it. Not just a biopic of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, a Lithuanian Auschwitz survivor who later wrote and taught in France, but a rumination on his theories.

Interview subjects (some new, some archival) belch forth polysyllabic words and inscrutable concepts until it all sounds like mud, but director Ron juxtaposes these monotonous monologues with unexpected imagery. Say, of astronauts. Or the billboards in Times Square. In time, a sort of musicality emerges, reminiscent of Chris Marker’s essay films. Maybe we’re just not smart enough to follow what the heck these people were talking about, but, strangely, we enjoyed this movie quite a bit.

We wrote about this film when it debuted at Cannes this year, but this was its Israeli debut. We’ll never miss an opportunity to trumpet Shira Geffen’s hilarious and surreal rumination on art, identity and building your own furniture. (Note: we’ll have an interview with Ms. Geffen later in the festival.)

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