Gei Oni
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Gei Oni

An Israeli epic, with Yiddish

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From right, actors Tamar Alkan, Ezra Dagan, and Levana Finkelstein. Ran Aviad

Dan Wolman is one of Israel’s finest film artists, one of the leading “second generation” directors who began making films in the 1970s. After completing his army service, he studied filmmaking in New York; when he returned to Israel he wrote and directed “Hatimhoni” (The Dreamer), a love story about a special relationship between a young man and an older woman. The film was in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Together with playwright Hanoch Levin, he then undertook “Floch,” the story of an elderly man who loses his only child in an auto accident and seeks a way to have a descendant, even if it means leaving his wife. That film was screened at the Venice Film Festival.

Wolman’s talent for successfully creating onscreen relationships that deviated from the norm was evident from the very beginning and is seen in his next film, his and Esther Mor’s adaptation of Amos Oz’s “My Michael,” which tackled the psychological demons of a young married woman struggling in 1950s Jerusalem. By the end of the decade, Wolman broke the “gay” barrier with his fourth feature film, “Machbo’im” (Hide and Seek), set during Israel’s War of Independence, about a homosexual relationship between a young Israeli and an Arab on the other side of the fence. That film won prizes at the Berlin Film Festival.

Now, four decades after he began, the septuagenarian is more active than ever, working in theater, teaching, and making short films, television dramas, documentaries, and an occasional narrative feature. He has defied convention, always working in situations where he has had full control and often making films on the lowest of budgets. Many of those films have tackled aspects of Israeli life usually not seen on the Israeli screen, people on the margins of society: the foreign worker, a soldier denied military service, the Russian aide who takes care of the elderly parents of a child who has moved to America. Wolman is always exploring; he just finished shooting a film in Chinese with the Academy of the Opera in Beijing. Over the years, he has adapted classics from Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, I.B. Singer, and most recently David Grossman.

Now Wolman has written the screenplay for Shulamit Lapid’s novel “Gei Oni” (Valley of Strength); it is the 16th feature film that he has directed.

The film takes us back to the last decades of the nineteenth century, when most Jews fleeing pogrom-ravaged Russia fled to America, not Palestine. This is the mythic time of the first aliyah, the period when immigrants came to Israel “livnot u’lehibanot ba,” to build up the land of Israel and be reconstituted by that experience.

It is the story of Fania and Yechiel, whose chance arranged marriage may bring them together but does not allow them a chance to get to know each other. Each comes from a different world. He is a Safed-born yeshivah bokhr who left the yeshivah in order to take part in reclaiming the land. Newly arrived from Russia, Fania’s native tongue is Yiddish; she speaks haltingly in Hebrew and we do not quite understand why she chose not to follow her sisters and their children to America.

Yechiel, whose wife just died from malaria, has two young children. Fania has a baby and a mentally challenged brother, whom she refuses to abandon; we know nothing of the circumstances of her baby’s birth, except that Yechiel is told that her husband had been killed in a pogrom in Russia.

So begins a relationship, with a promise from Yechiel that nothing will take place between them without full mutual consent. So begins another Wolman effort to delve into relationships, this time between a man and woman who marry simply because she has no place to stay and he has nobody to care for his children. As in other Wolman films, one of them holds a secret that affects who they are.

The filmmaker nobly handles the challenge and presents a fascinating look at an evolving relationship within the tapestry of the founding of a Zionist reality on the land of Israel. Make no mistake – Yechiel wants Fania, and despite his early promise he comes close to breaking his word. Will she finally fall in love with him or is she simply to remain the nanny to his children? While all this sexual tension is taking place, we watch the evolution of a transplanted woman, finding new roots. Fania is out in the field clearing rocks, negotiating with her Arab neighbors, seeking creative ways to earn a living. She is equal to any of the men and not afraid to share her thoughts. We learn that she actually is far more cultured than most, as we watch her engrossed in her novels, speaking English, and even playing the piano. Fania, played so well by Tamar Alkan, is the epitome of the chalutza. She is a pioneer in the truest sense.

Wolman covers a great deal as he adapts Lapid’s epic novel for the screen. We see the distrust between Jewish and Arab neighbors. We learn of land sales by Arab sheikhs and the displacement of the fellahin, the Arab laborers who inhabited that land. There is disease, hunger, even the shooting of one of the young pioneers. And there is the debate over which language should be spoken, Yiddish or Hebrew.

Interestingly, the early part of the movie is largely in Yiddish, with Yiddish actor Yaacov Bodo as Fania’s uncle. There is much to show, and Wolman tries hard to provide a broad panorama.

For many viewers, used to fast-paced car chase-filled cinema, this film will seem slow and draggy. But walk into the theater as if you are going to see a European slower-paced epic and take in the gorgeous Galilee scenery, some fine acting by Alkan and co-star Zion Ashkenazi, and imagine yourself with Fania and Yechiel in Gei Oni, not far from Safed or Tiberius, shortly before it would became the town of Rosh Pina.

“Gei Oni” opens today at the Quad Cinema in New York.

Eric Goldman teaches cinema and is president of Teaneck-based Jewish film distributor Ergo Media.

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