Sunday, November 27, 2005

Ma'ale short movies

Last night we went to a screening of three short movies made by students at Maale, Israel's religious film school. They were of varying quality but all interesting, and all showed that the way religious people are portrayed in Israeli cinema is undergoing a transformation, and will continue to become more sensitive and nuanced as more religious filmmakers come on the scene. The movies were by no means uncritical -- the opposite -- but were all made from a point of sympathy. I was interested to see that although the students at Maale are mostly national religious and to the left of that, two of the movies were set in the ultra-orthodox community, and were in Yiddish. I guess that this community remains intriguing even for the modern orthodox, is unexplored enough territory in film to make movies about it compulsive viewing, and that many of the dilemmas of religious life are easier to portray at the extremes. I was actually sorry that one of the movies -- Cohen's Wife -- wasn't set in the modern orthodox community. It would have been harder to get right but possibly more satisfying for that. In any case, I understand that there was a similar screening of these movies in NY and if you get a chance to see them, take it up!

The movies were:

  • Eicha (2001)-- "Eicha is a young religious girl living in a typical West Bank settlement. Her unique and unusual name, Eicha, is the Hebrew title of the biblical scroll of lamentations that is read on Tisha B’av, the annual fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. Tisha B’av is also Eicha’s birthday. Upon reaching the age of 18 she decides to change her name and try to establish her own identity."

  • This movie was definitely my favorite. Eicha grows up with very idealistic and ideological parents and feels confined by the role she is expected to play. She also feels very pressured by the way that everyone in the society around her looks at the way she dresses (typical settler) and assumes they know exactly what she thinks and feels (something I think that many people in Israel can relate to -- certainly I could. When I returned to Israel in 2000 I wore only skirts and eventually, felt so uncomfortable that I was being pigeon-holed and that assumptions were being made about what I thought politically and culturally that I couldn't take it and began wearing jeans -- something I hadn't done for years. Unfortunately, clothing in Israel is an even more political statement than it is elsewhere). This movie is supposedly about how stereotypes are not necessarily true, but ironically it plays very heavily on stereotypes itself and the stereotypes get the biggest laughs -- Eicha's mother is the slightly batty American settler, a woman in misrad hapnim is deliberately and hysterically indifferent and rude, Eicha's siblings are called "Hevron" and "Yerushalayim" (big laughs from the audience). The movie also ended rather abruptly. Nevertheless, perceptive and touching.

  • Elyokim (2002) -- "Elyokim, who is ultra-orthodox and a brilliant talmudic student, is in love with Rachel, the daughter of his Rabbi. The social conventions which govern Elyokim's world means he will never be formally introduced to Rachel. Elyokim takes matters into his own hands…"

  • Elyokim is actually disabled -- something you don't realize until a few minutes into the movie. The movie portrays very well just how frustrating it is to have your dating prospects so utterly out of your hands, and how, in the shidduch system, and if you are unlucky enough to suffer from a disability -- which in general society can make finding a match difficult enough -- it doesn't matter if you are talked about as a future rosh yeshivah or if you are a total tzaddik, you are not going to get introduced to the 'good' girls. The frustrations end up driving Elyokim to some rather unpleasant ends -- he eventually essentially ruins the girl he is interested in. It's not entirely clear to me whether this was just revenge/jealousy on his part (in the one entirely unrealistic part of this movie, he spots her having a secret rendezvous with a secular man who brings a tour group into the haredi neighbourhood each day, and calls mishmeret hatzniut) or whether it was his way of bringing her down to a level where she was such 'spoiled goods' that her family would finally have to consider a shidduch with a disabled man. But the psychological ambiguity is part of the charm of this rather good little movie.

      • Cohen's Wife (2000) -- "Rivki Cohen, a young ultra-orthodox woman, opens the door for a strange man that come for Tsedaka (charity). She is raped. Now she is awaiting the rabbinical court’s decision whether her husband, Motle, must divorce her. According to the Jewish Halacha, 'A Cohen’s wife who is raped is forbidden to her husband'"

      This was the slowest-moving of the movies but it was also nuanced and subtle. The husband and wife clearly love each other but as they await the ruling whether they must divorce or not, essentially suppress their feelings to protect themselves, especially the husband. At one very moving point, the husband wants to put his arms around his wife but can't bring himself to do it. Ultimately, although the beis din rules that they can stay together, the movie suggests (the ending is slightly ambigous) that the way they each handled the period while they were waiting for the ruling has irrevocably damaged their relationship.

      RELATED: Salon on the vitality of the Israeli cinema scene

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