Oct ’07 Spotlight



“One needs courage in order to say ‘We also have problems at home,’ but without courage there is no real art.” So said screenwriter Hanna Azulay Hasfari about her 1994 film Shchur (widely credited as the first “important” film about Mizrachi family life in Israel). Jewish-Americans already know that Israelis have tremendous physical courage, but every new batch of films brings fresh evidence of artistic courage as well. The eighteen films on this year’s Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema schedule run the gamut. I found some excellent and others less so, but all were interesting and worthwhile.

Keep in mind as you watch that many of these films had their first public screenings at the 2006 Jerusalem Film Festival last July, just at the point at which Israel’s border with Lebanon was erupting into flames. So these “pre-war” films all depict internal conflict: souls in torment; families in crisis. Maybe next year we’ll get some comedies, and sometime after that some films about Lebanon, but this year’s schedule deals with addiction (Salt of the Earth), betrayal (Aviva My Love and Miracle), drug abuse (Someone To Run With), homosexuality (Paper Dolls and Things Behind the Sun), mental illness (Sweet Mud), and the painful consequences of failures to communicate (Pesya’s Necklace, Sisai, Three Mothers and Tied Hands). It takes courage to make them and determination to watch them. Maybe some of us would like to see less challenging images of Israeli life, but if our most fervent wish is for Israel to be a “normal” country, then we can’t sit in Chicago and close our eyes to the reality. Chicago’s annual Festival of Israeli Cinema gives many of us our best chance each year to learn more about Israel, so let’s all go and make our support count.


Jewish-Americans will be very surprised to hear this, but the Holocaust has never been a big theme for Israeli filmmakers. There are some notable exceptions, of course, one of the most famous being The Summer of Aviya (shown at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1989 and now available on DVD), but depictions of the Holocaust have been much more controversial in Israel than they have been here. Knowing this, I was surprised to see Holocaust-themed films in each of this year’s three categories: Dear Mr. Waldman (in the feature category), Pesya’s Necklace (in the shorts category), and The Ashkenazim (in the documentary category). I called Dani Dothan in Tel Aviv to learn more. Dani is co-director of The Ashkenazim along with his wife and partner Dalia Meyerovich, and he gave me two compelling answers: self-reflection in response to Mizrachi demands for greater political participation and the integration of more Russian immigrants into mainstream society.


The star of my top pick for 2007 (Dear Mr. Waldman) is Rami Heuberger, someone best known in Israel for his television roles (although he had a bit part in Schindler’s List very early in his career). After receiving an Ophir nomination for his Waldman role as “Moishe,” a Holocaust survivor living with his second family in Tel Aviv, he was cast in the American adaptation of Amoz Oz’s novel The Little Tailor which premiered last month at the Haifa Film Festival. So I’m probably one of many who expect to see more of Rami in the future.


I predict we’ll also be seeing a lot more from Adi Refaeli, the talented director of the narrative short Empathy. Adi began her directing career in community television. She attended Kineret College School of Film, and Empathy was her graduate film. The premiere was held at last year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, and it was also shown at Israel’s International Women’s Film Festival in Rehovot. It has now reached America where Empathy recently won the Judges Award for Best Short from the Red Rock Film Festival in Utah. It has also received positive reviews after film festival screenings in Boston, Indianapolis, Manhattan, and Syracuse, NY.


Knowing that time is limited and choices must be made, here are my recommendations:

As mentioned above, my favorite feature film this year is Dear Mr. Waldman, written and directed by Hanan Peled. Already well-known in Israel as a screenwriter, this is Peled’s directorial debut, and he’s clearly telling a semi-autobiographical story very close to his heart. Moise (Heuberger) and “Rivka” (Jenya Dodina) are both survivors. Rivka is determined to move on with her life, but Moise is more of a dreamer. They have two sons, “Jonathan” (Roy Mayer), who’s brusque and practical like his mother, and “Hilik” (Ido Port) who has his father’s more creative temperament.

The film is set in the early 60s; posters advertising Kirk Douglas as Spartacus are plastered everywhere, as if in deliberate counter-point to testimony from the Adolph Eichmann trial (always playing in the background on family radios). Hilik is a smart boy, and he’s well-aware that his father is no Spartacus. Although Rivka and Jonathan refuse to acknowledge his vulnerability, Hilik can see that Moise’s defenses are crumbling, so he steps up and takes the weight onto his young shoulders. Can he find a way to protect Moise, and maybe do something to make him happy? Peled does an excellent job of containing the emotions. Watching it, I felt transported. Hilik reminds us of the mind set of all those who asked themselves to be heroes in this small infant state.

This theme is carried over in my favorite doc The Ashkenazim. To become Israelis, the children of survivors had to bury their own fears and support their parents’ attempts to build new lives. Emotions were suppressed along with diasporic languages, habits, and customs. As we learn from watching Dear Mr. Waldman (and The Summer of Aviya), neighbors did not want to hear the woes of survivors, and talking about the past was taken to be symptomatic of mental illness. But in The Ashkenazim, Dothan and Meyerovich focus on a new generation. These thirtysomethings feel empowered to ask their grandparents questions that their own parents never dared to ask. Israelis in this “third generation” (the second generation to be born in Israel) are now reaching back to reclaim Eastern European culture; they’re cooking old foods and singing old songs, all of which are new to them.

Is this symptomatic of “post-Zionism”? In a way, yes. As Yosefa Loshitzky says in her insightful book Identity Politics on the Israeli Screen, Zionist ideology assumed that everyone had “come to Israel voluntarily driven by ideological (Zionist) motives,” but today many Israelis are now acknowledging that “the Jewish state of Israel is basically a multicultural society of immigrants dominated by ethnic diversity and social polarization.” Because most Jewish-Americans are Ashkenazim, this film can be our entryway into fascinating and uniquely Israeli issues. (Note: I am also indebted to Loshitzky’s book for the opening quote from Hanna Azulay Hasfari.)

Empathy, my top pick in the shorts category, takes all of these complex dynamics for granted. It’s sort of an Israeli version of Crash (which won the Best Picture Oscar in 2006), but I actually think it’s much better. Empathy’s special achievement is to balance the scenes so that you come to see each unique point of view. There are Ashkenazi characters, Mizrachi characters, Russian characters, Palestinian characters, and each one is presented with, well, empathy. The individuals in this film are remarkably well-depicted and even though she has no time to create complex backstories, writer/director Adi Refaeli makes us understand why they all do the things they do, even when specific actions are reprehensible. One chain of events represents the whole, and the urgent plea of this novice filmmaker is obvious: before lashing out at “the other” stop and think through the consequences, not just how you might impact them, but what damage you could do to your own soul in the process.

Finally, I’d also like to recommend Little Heroes, which is about a group of kids who band together to save a couple injured in a car accident. I’m not usually the best source for films for children, but Little Heroes completely won me over. Each member of the cast is endearing and even though I knew from the get-go that everything would work out OK in the end, I still suffered with them and worried about them, holding my breath until everyone was safe and homeward bound. Parents and grandparents: While most of these films are off-limits due to their graphic adult content, I can confidently encourage you to bring your own little heroes to the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema so you can watch this film with them and then discuss the dynamics together afterwards.


Two of my favorite performances this year are given by relative newcomers: Rami Heuberger (who plays Moise in Dear Mr. Waldman), and Adva Bulle (who plays “Tali,” the first character we meet in Empathy). According to an e-mail message I just received from writer/director Adi Refaeli, this is Adva’s second screen role, ever. The other top performances are given by two of the greatest actors working in Israel today.

Vladimir Friedman plays a man named “Valera” in a profoundly-moving short called Miracle. Vladimir has become ubiquitous in recent Israeli cinema, to the extent that almost every time the script calls for a Russian doctor, there he is. (Two of the best of these roles were in Broken Wings and The Schwartz Dynasty, both now available on DVD.) However, he’s typically in supporting roles, whereas in Miracle he plays the lead. It’s wonderful to see him stretch himself to fill the full screen, and I’m sure he’ll be rewarded with more good parts in the future.

But no one on the 2007 schedule compares to Gila Almagor! She’s the queen of two films this year: Three Mothers and Tied Hands. These roles are completely different and equally eloquent. She’s at the very top of her game in Tied Hands, a heartbreaking drama about the mother of a young man dying of AIDS. You may think you don’t want to see something so downbeat, but if you don’t go you’ll be cheating yourself; her performance is magnificent.

Gila began her screen acting career in the 1960s but her international break-through came in 1988 when she stared in The Summer of Aviya (playing a character based on her own mother). She received the Silver Bear in 1989 at the Berlin International Film Festival, which she shared with Kaipo Cohen (the actress who plays Gila herself as a girl). She also wrote Aviya’s screenplay and five years later she wrote a sequel called Under the Domim Tree (also staring Kaipo Cohen and also now available on DVD). One of the most remarkable things about Gila is that she’s equally compelling as Ashkenazi characters (in Aviya and Tied Hands) and as Mizrachi characters (in Shchur and Three Mothers). When Steven Spielberg needed someone to play Eric Bana’s mother in Munich, she was the obvious choice. She has earned her place as an Israeli icon.

Here are my top picks:

Best Feature Film: Dear Mr. Waldman

Best Short: Empathy

Best Actress in a Feature: Gila Almagor in Tied Hands

Best Actor in a Feature: Rami Heuberger in Dear Mr. Waldman

Best Actress in a Short: Adva Bulle in Empathy

Best Actor in a Short: Vladimir Friedman in Miracle

Best Documentary: The Ashkenazim

Special Mention: Little Heroes

Here is an overview of this year’s schedule (asterisk indicates “highly recommended”):

Feature Films (over 60 Minutes):

Aviva My Love *

Dear Mr. Waldman *


Little Heroes *

Salt of the Earth *

SomeoneTo Run With

Sweet Mud

Things Behind the Sun

Three Mothers

Tied Hands *

Shorts (under 60 Minutes):

Empathy *

Facing the Wind

Miracle *

Pesya’s Necklace *


The Ashkenazim *

Paper Dolls *


Sisai *

One Final Note: Please keep your ears sharp as you watch this year’s films. Unfortunately the English subtitles rarely tell you which language is being spoken when, yet language is often the only clue you have to a character’s identity. If you listen carefully, I promise you’ll be able to tell. Most often the characters speak Hebrew, of course, but some of the characters in this year’s films also speak one or more of the following: Amharic, Arabic, French, Russian, Tagalog, and Yiddish. If you’re like me, this may be your first exposure to some of these languages, and that in itself will tell you a lot about life in Israel today!

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