Plain and simple — Israeli cinema can match up today with cinema from about any other country.
With new funding sources from both within and outside the government, and with co-productions with other countries, we are witnessing a quality of filmmaking that can make us proud. And what’s even more exciting is that Israeli filmmakers are tackling all aspects of Israeli life in their narratives, and their documentaries are winning prizes all over the world. This week, Shimon Dotan’s “The Settlers” is showing at the New York Film Festival and Elite Zexer’s “Sand Storm” is playing at Film Forum in New York City. Dotan’s work is a documentary about Israelis who are living in territories Israel conquered during the Six Day War, and Zexer’s is a narrative about a Bedouin community. It is in Arabic with English subtitles.
Shimon Dotan began his career in Israel making powerful dramatic motion pictures, like “Repeat Dive,” a moving film about Navy divers who risk their lives every day, and “Smile of the Lamb,” adapted from David Grossman’s book about the friendship between an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian living on the West Bank. After making a few films in North America, in 2006 Dotan returned to Israel to make “Hot House,” which showed how Israeli prisons have become the breeding ground for the next generation of Palestinian leaders. It won the Special Jury Prize for documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. Dotan followed it with a few more narrative features made here, and he has now returned to documentary filmmaking in Israel with “The Settlers.”
“The Settlers” attempts to provide an overall history of the settler movement by tracing its origins to a just a few weeks before the start of the Six Day War, when Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook of Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem delivered a speech expressing his longing for the holy sites on the West Bank. After Israel’s victory, Kook’s students saw his speech as prophetic; within a year, settlers were living in Kfar Etzion and in Kiryat Arba, outside Hebron. By 1977, when Menachem Begin was elected prime minister, there were 4,400 Israelis living in 31 settlements in the territories. Within five years there were 21,000 settlers living in 73 settlements, and today more than 400,000 settlers live in more than 200 settlements and illegal outposts across the West Bank. Dotan interviews some of the people involved in creating the movement, including Yehuda Etzion and Benny Katzover; General Shlomo Gazit, who oversaw political and economic affairs in the occupied territories; Talia Sasson, a former deputy state attorney; Palestinian attorney Raja Shehadeh, and some new arrivals to settlements. While he does a masterful job in providing a broad history of how the movement has grown over 50 years, there are few Palestinian voices. We also do not hear enough about how the relationships between the settlements and neighboring Arab villages. Dotan tries to remain neutral. But throughout there are blistering critiques from all parties of the various Israeli governments that either stalled or allowed creation of the settlements. Strangely, there is little mention of the current government and its policies.
A few months ago, Shimon Dotan was invited to show the film at a conference at Syracuse University. A few weeks later, Syracuse religion professor M. Gail Hamner uninvited him, claiming that she did not have a chance to see the film, while in fact she never had asked to see it. It appears that she was afraid that BDS activists would protest the screening of an Israeli film. How sad it is that BDS has gained such strength on the university campus. After a scathing article about the affair in the Atlantic, the university vice-chancellor made an official apology on behalf of the university and Syracuse has invited Dotan back.
Shimon Dotan does a credible job in providing an historical framework for understanding the settler movement. He breaks down the film into episodes following a biblical timeline of sorts that did not work all that well for me. What did work was having Hebrew University professor Moshe Halbertal fill in the gaps and give incisive commentary. Halbertal pulls everything together brilliantly. Most of the settlers interviewed come across as ideological, believing themselves to be chalutzim, Israel’s present-day pioneers, but we also meet a family that has chosen to move to the territories simply because they can buy twice as big a house for half the price. While doing a fine job delving into how this phenomenon came about, Dotan largely avoids the issue of how settlers get along with their Palestinian neighbors and what effect the presence of such a massive number of settlers has on today’s government policy. The former state attorney and general weigh in, pointing to the settler movement as being the single biggest detriment to making peace in the area today. As for Palestinians, they are barely heard.
See it and make your own judgment. Whatever you think, you will walk away more aware of an important issue for the future of the State of Israel. The film will be shown tonight at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center.
Most Israelis see the Bedouin as semi-nomads whose tourist tents they may have slept in or whose coffee they might have sipped. For first-time feature filmmaker Elite Zexer, they are family.
The future director, then 25 years old, joined her mother, a still photographer, more than a decade ago on a photo shoot of Bedouin women from neighboring villages in the Negev. That trip had a lasting effect on Zexer; her fascination with Bedouin life and culture made her want to put some of the stories she heard on paper. When she began to study filmmaking at Tel Aviv University, it became clear to her that she had to put one or more of the stories onto film. After producing a short film set in the community, she has now made her feature film debut. It is a terrific look into a world most of us know nothing about.
Zexer’s “Sand Storm” has taken the Israeli film community by storm. The Israel Film Academy selected it as the best motion picture of the year and therefore it is Israel’s submission to the Oscars this year. Zexer was picked as best director, an amazing feat for a first-time movie-maker.
Most Israeli Bedouins live in the Negev. During Israel’s War of Independence they were caught in the thick of battle, and many chose to flee to neighboring lands. The Israeli government pushed hard to get the Bedouin who remained to commit to living in a specific place, particularly as developing the Negev became a priority for the new state. A variety of problems developed as the Bedouin, who had their own unique culture, history and social order and were used to moving freely, now were confined to live within demarcated areas. Their ability to support themselves worsened, and today Bedouins are ranked toward the bottom of Israel’s socioeconomic ladder. According to a 2010 Knesset report, “unemployment is high and education level is low in comparison to other minorities.” On top of that, the Bedouin’s fertility rate, at 5.5 percent per year, is one of the highest in the world. That means that there are always more mouths to feed. And although a large proportion of Bedouin serve in the IDF, they have never been able or willing to integrate into the greater Israeli society. In “Sand Storm,” Zexer gives us a rare and unique opportunity to learn about the Bedouin.
It should come as no surprise that Zexer’s focus is on women and their status within this community, where tribal laws and customs prevail. The film begins with a father and daughter arriving in their village, and throughout the film Zexer uses entrances and exits as a unique way to exhibit the fragility of the female presence in this patriarchal world. Layla has been away, studying at Ben Gurion University, where she encounters a new social culture. Now she is back in her village for her father’s wedding to a second wife. Her father has two daughters, it is never clear whether he is marrying again to try to have a son or just because he wants to — about 25 percent of Bedouin men have more than one wife. So how does her mom react, and how does this 18-year-old feel about having another woman in the household? And what will be her fate, now that she has reached marriageable age? Layla is being given the luxury of a college education and interaction with an outside world, yet she knows full well the limitations posed by the strict traditional world in which she lives.
It is clear from the beginning of “Sand Storm” that Elite Zexer — who after all is a photographer’s daughter — is a filmmaker with a keen sense for lighting and ambiance. Shooting in a gorgeous desert landscape, she brilliantly uses its hues and the overpasses and underpasses that weave their way through the sands. There are clear and open passageways and dead ends and tunnels to nowhere. Zexer plays with different color schemes to emphasize and contrast different situations — the wedding, where there are separate pre-nuptial events for men and women; the bridal suite, and the home’s interiors and exteriors. Even Layla’s and her mother’s departures and arrivals are visually powerful as we track their standing within the village and the various physical and communal obstacles that may keep them from shaking things up too much. It is wonderful to see Layla’s younger sister survey the action through an outside window, just like we, the spectators, do.
In a recent conversation, Elite Zexer talked to me about her affection for and obsession with Bedouin life. The film’s story is based largely on a true one. Many Bedouin women study on a university campus, where they see a different set of rules. But what are their choices? What are the consequences they and their families face if they break these rules?
“Sand Storm” is exquisite and visually stunning. The actors, most of whom are non-professional and all of whom are native Arabic speakers, had to learn Bedouin dialect; Bedouin women are restricted from acting in films. Not for the first time, Israelis have to watch an Israeli film subtitled into Hebrew. That an Israeli Jew could make an Arabic language film, and that it could garner such honors, is a tribute to Israel and the government funds that supported its making. Elite Zexer is a filmmaker to watch; I hope that this first feature is an indicator of many more superb movies to come. I am going on record, without yet knowing anything about the competition, to predict a first for Israel — an Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language film. “Sand Storm” is playing at Film Forum in New York.
Eric Goldman teaches and lectures on film. He is founder of Ergo Media and adjunct professor of cinema at Yeshiva University.