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48 mm: Film Festival From Nakba to Return

Dec7

by: Olga Gershenson on December 7th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

Image of the Zochrot brochure

Image of the Zochrot brochure

Film festival of Zochrot (an Israeli NGO, working to promote accountability for the injustices of the Nakba) at Tel Aviv Cinemateque: probably the best films in the line-up were “Born in Deir Yassin” and “Jerusalem We Are Here” (I’ve written about both of them for Tikkun, in the forthcoming issue). Another important film is “Looted and Hidden,” a new documentary by Israeli curator and art historian Rona Sela. It’s super-dense with images and stories, but basically, it’s about several Palestinian photo and film archives, that were stolen by Israelis in 1948, in 1967, and in 1982, from PLO research center and from a Cinema Center in Beirut. The good thing is that the audience gets to see tons of these documents–family photos, studio portraits, battle snapshots, pictures of atrocities, etc, along with snippets of narrative films, army reports, news footage, and even an excerpt from a Soviet anti-Zionist documentary. This plenitude is both a blessing and a curse–a curse because in 45 minutes, it’s impossible to contextualize all these still and moving images, tell what’s behind them, AND let them speak on their own terms. It took Rona Sela, a Jewish Israeli with a stubborn mind and legal assistance, over 10 years to even get access to these visual documents. All of them are locked up in the Israeli archives, with absolutely no hope for them to ever be open, especially in the current political climate. What a paradox it is, that it takes an Israeli to recover the hidden visual history of Palestinians–a Palestinian, obviously, would not stand a chance in the tightly censored IDF archives.

The biggest revelation for me was an archival screening of the 1972 Syrian film, “The Dupes,” by an Egyptian director Tewfik Saleh. It’s based on a novella “Men in the Sun” by a late Palestinian writer and activist Ghassan Kanafani. The action is set in 1948 and the plot follows three Palestinian refugees who are trying to get to Kuwait to work. Without plot-spoiling, the film ends in tragedy. Besides being a beautiful (although heart-breaking) black-and-white art film, what is so remarkable is that it lets us experience the immediate aftermath of 1948 from the Palestinian perspective. In addition to the narrative plot, it includes also what looked to me like documentary footage: tents, lines to food kitchens, snippets of daily life in early camps. The narrative plot is structured as road film, following the three men, intercut with flashbacks telling their individual stories leading to the lethal journey. That structure, with flashbacks to the stories of characters reminded me of “Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer” – a 1955 Zionist film that is also set in 1948, telling a parallel, albeit very different story.

Another significant film was a new doc by another Israeli woman filmmaker, Anat Even, “Disappearances,” recovering the memory of a Palestinian neighborhood Al-Manshiyaa, which today is buried under the lawns of beach-side Clore Park and high-rise buildings in Tel Aviv. The story is familiar: in 1948 the neighborhood is “cleansed” of its original citizens, and new immigrants – Holocaust survivors and North African Jews move into abandoned houses. Later, even that proves out as an insufficient erasure of the past, and so the entire thing is razed, with only one old Arab building remaining. Ironically, today it’s a site of the Etzel Museum. The film is quietly political – personal and moving. Anat Even doesn’t tell this story at once, there is no didactic voiceover, instead, she brings in to the site families who once lived there. These include Palestinian refugees, some of whom haven’t been to the place for decades, as well as Jewish Israelis who were relocated to other places, also against their wills. Additional commentary is provided by voices of architects – some who designed the current park, others, who give it a critical interpretation. The Hebrew title of the film, יזכור למלנשייה, is way more successful than the English translation – I think she should have kept the Yizkor there, a word with rich and tragic association in the post-Holocaust world.

I also watched a bunch of predictable shorts, as well as “1948: Creation & Catastrophe,” which is a more standard edition doc, with talking heads, maps, archival footage, and male voiceover. Although not without problems, it can be productively used for education, especially if paired with a documentary presenting Israeli perspective.

Even though the festival presented significant films, there was something provincial and sad about it: announced speakers weren’t always there, the speakers that were there weren’t best prepared, whatever Q&As there were, weren’t moderated, English subtitles promised in the program sometimes didn’t materialize, etc. But most of all – empty theaters. It’s not that Tel-Avivians are apathetic–thousands showed up for the March of Shame to protest Netaniyahu’s corruption. This for them is urgent, political, and personal, whereas memory of Palestinian loss, let alone taking responsibility for the violence that caused it, is not. This for me was among the main takeaways of the festival.

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Olga Gershensonis Professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies and Film Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Fifth Dispatch from the Jerusalem Film Festival

Jul25

by: Olga Gershenson on July 25th, 2017 | Comments Off

Fourth set of notes from the Jerusalem Film Festival fromTikkun’scorrespondent Olga Gershenson!

The truly important film of today was “Conventional Sins” (the Hebrew title is ידיד נפש), an absolutely heartbreaking and brave documentary about sexual abuse of children in Haredi communities. As sensitive the the treatment of the subject is, it’s still hard to watch. The main character, whose Yiddish name was Meilich (today he left the fold and goes by Meir), tells his story in the film, but he is not a passive subject, rather he takes almost a director’s role. On screen, we see him holding auditions with other former Haredi young men to “play” him and his predator in his story. These men, as it turned out, had similar tragic experience of being abused. The auditions take the place of reenactments and transform on screen into really honest conversations about their personal stories and their community. The important thing is that the film doesn’t position itself as anti-Haredi, rather, as Meilich/Meir said after the screening, it’s about children. There are other communities, he pointed out, where terrible things are happening to kids, whom society fails to protect.

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Fourth Dispatch from the Jerusalem Film Festival

Jul21

by: Olga Gershenson on July 21st, 2017 | 2 Comments »

Fourth set of notes from the Jerusalem Film Festival from Tikkun’s correspondent Olga Gershenson!

“The Man with the Iron Heart”–a historical drama about Reinhard Heydrich, his rise to power, and his eventual death by the hand of the resistance in Prague. It’s an international co-production (directed by a French filmmaker, Cedric Jimenez), and as such is suffering from the usual problem of WWII films: all the dialogue is in English, with Germans speaking with hysterical German accents and Czechs with a faux Slavic one. The filming of the Nazi parades and such is a bit fetishistic, reeling in all these crisp uniform and colorful insignia. Finally, and that’s the main problem, how do you make a movie about an architect of the Final Solution, and make it NOT about the Jews? In a two-hour-film, the Jewish question is mentioned literally once, in a brief scene set at the Villa Wannsee meeting. No Jews appear in the Kristallnacht massacres. Even in the scenes of mass executions by Einsatzgruppen, the identity of the victims is not marked in any way. It appears that the Nazis just shot all these innocent Czechs and Poles. Alternatively, there are tons of Christian symbolism–the crosses, the prayer, the churchy music. The two resistance fighters who fatally wounded Heydrich, die in a flooded church, martyrs in a kind of eternal baptism. One of the last shots of the film is a floating rosary with a cross.

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Third Dispatch from the Jerusalem Film Festival

Jul20

by: Olga Gershenson on July 20th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

Third set of notes from the Jerusalem Film Festival from Tikkun’s correspondent Olga Gershenson!

 

Three films for today: first “The Cakemaker”–from the first-time Israeli director Ofir Raul Grazier, starring an incomparable Sara Adler. Here is the story: an Israeli businessman Oren has an affair with a German baker on his frequent trips to Berlin. After he dies, the German is distraught; he comes to Jerusalem, and has an affair with Oren’s wife! The German-Israeli love affair across gender, religious, and sexuality boundaries is reminiscent of “Walk on Water,” but with a lot more food porn (specifically pastry) and even more schmaltzy, if that is possible. On the other hand, the performances are brilliant and the filming of Jerusalem rises to the level of visual poetry.

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Second Dispatch from the Jerusalem Film Festival

Jul19

by: Olga Gershenson on July 19th, 2017 | Comments Off

​More notes from the JerusalemFilm Festival from Tikkun’s correspondent Olga Gershenson!

 

A documentary “Gaza Surf Club“–exactly what it sounds like–a quixotic group of surfing enthusiasts in Gaza, struggling against the double burden of occupation and patriarchy (girls are not allowed to surf or even swim). The human story is very touching, but the film-making is too predictable. And then, a real revelation, “Holy Air” by writer/director Shady Srour, and starring Latitia Eido. Absurdist comedy set in Nazareth, and very clearly paying tribute to Elia Suleiman’s sense of irony. Beautiful, nuanced, funny, straddling the lines between issues at stake for Palestinians, citizens of Israel, and universal issues of love, loss, sex, and faith. The cinematography is such that I could freeze any frame and put it on the wall. What is it with Nazareth and filmmakers? One is better than another.

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