For the very first time, the “New Directors New Films” series, sponsored jointly by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, selected three Israeli films to be screened as part of its annual spring series. Two of the three films take place within Jerusalem’s Orthodox world and the third is set in today’s Poland. The series runs through the end of this week, but these Israeli films should be in theaters later this year.
The question of why recent Israeli cinema has focused so intensely on charedim and eastern Europe is well worth considering. It certainly is appropriate to reflect on the political climate and developments within a society that might affect the kind of topics covered on screen. A scholar or keen observer may look at events and societal changes and find clear reasons that may have influenced the movies. What is harder to explain is the incredible recent growth of the Israeli film industry, short of the fact that there is more government and foundation money available today to make movies. For decades, Israeli filmmakers found it exceptionally hard to find funding to make movies, but in the last 15 years that has changed radically.
In a most curious way, the kind of funding that has become available has had a deep impact on the subjects that Israeli filmmakers now tackle. With major funding from the city of Jerusalem, meant to encourage movie-making there, along with monies from such foundations as Gesher and Avi Chai, life within the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem world is fast becoming a new genre of Israeli cinema. Gesher and Avi Chai are promoting a greater understanding between Jewish subcultures, and they have been funding very successful television programming and a few movies on related subjects for more than a decade. That, combined with incentives the municipality offers, has resulted in a proliferation of films about ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. This, coupled with a cinematic revolution within the ultra-Orthodox community, has put chasidim on screen more than ever before
Nearly 40 years ago, when one of Israel’s greatest film directors and actors, Uri Zohar, become a baal teshuvah, a born-again Jew, he totally rejected the notion that he would continue making movies as sacrilege. But much has changed in the last 15 years, and the charedi world, which continues to shun television and traditional movie houses, has permitted filmmaking within its midst. In 2004, baal teshuvah Shuli Rand turned to Gidi Dar, a friend from his earlier life, and made “Ushpizin,” a film about how, just before and during the festival of Sukkot, a married couple’s faith is tested. The film’s worldwide success surprised most Israelis. Another recent development is the cultivation of a charedi women as film audiences. These women have found comfort in a select group of films made specifically for them by ultra-Orthodox women filmmakers, some of whom trained in Israel’s best film schools before becoming observant. Three years ago, one of these filmmakers, American-born Rama Burshtein, had her film “Fill the Void” play at the New York Film Festival. Now it seems that everyone wants to make movies about charedim!
“Mountain,” Yaelle Kayam’s debut feature film, uses the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, as its primary setting. Zvia (Shani Klein), her husband Reuven (Avshalom Polak) and their four children live on the edge of the cemetery. Director Kayam develops a fascinating story about this frum woman’s growing connection to the cemetery, setting it in total opposite to her relationship with her husband. As Zvia and Reuven grow apart, the landscape of the mountain and the secrets held within its stones become more and more alluring. Shani Klein (“Zero Motivation”) gives us a powerful performance.
The second Jerusalem film, “Tikkun,” revolves around Haim-Aaron (Aharon Traitel), a Meah She’arim yeshiva student who is struggling as he paves new talmudic inroads. Recognized by his teachers and peers as an illui, a prodigy, his intense study leads him through a variety of intense physical struggles until he finally passes out, leading him on a journey that alternates between the world of the yeshiva and the forbidden. Director Avishai Sivan does not hold back on his choice of expressive and often inelegant visuals, sometimes going beyond the limits of what we might consider R-rated cinema, as he takes us back and forth between these worlds and between the dominion of the living and dead. This is a film about a shochet father who ritually slaughters meat for a living and the son who literally sacrifices himself in his search for meaning. A little bit of the talmudic Elisha Ben-Abuyah?
“Demon” is a Polish-Israeli coproduction that touches on what is becoming a popular film form in Poland — the ongoing presence of the Jewish past in that country today. In the last several years, more funding has become available to explore such topics; in this instance, support came from the Polish government. Jews lived in Poland for a millennium; during the Shoah 90 percent of the three million strong Jewish community was murdered, some by Poles. Those facts, and lack of Jewish presence in Poland today, has been a controversial part of Polish filmmaking these last many years. Now, Polish director Marcin Wrona digs in to continue the exploration. When Peter (Israeli actor Itay Tiran) arrives from England to marry Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) at the country estate that Zaneta’s father is bequeathing them in rural Poland, he finds human skeletal remains on the property. That discovery will haunt him throughout his Polish Catholic wedding, which begins the next day, as he is joined by an uninvited and very dead Jewish guest from the past. Wrona’s film is truly superb, highlighted by an extraordinary performance by Tiran, whose body becomes possessed by a dybbuk.
“New Directors New Films” is taking place at both Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art through March 27. For more information, go to newdirectors.org.
Eric Goldman is founder of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish film. He is adjunct professor of cinema at Yeshiva University.