A reel local triumph
The works screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival, which just ended, attest to the new tradition of loading movies with references to Israel’s cinematic history
Eight works competed this year for the best Israeli full-length film award at the 27th Jerusalem Film Festival, which ended Saturday night. Three were based on novels by popular and well-regarded Israeli authors: “Intimate Grammar,” directed by Nir Bergman, is based on “The Book of Intimate Grammar” by David Grossman, and won the best film award; Dover Koshashvili’s “Infiltration” was based on the book by that name, by Yehoshua Kenaz; and “Gey Oni,” directed by Dan Wolman, was based on the book by Shulamit Lapid.
Even though several films have been produced here previously, based on Hebrew literary works − such as Wolman’s “My Michael” based on Amos Oz’s work, and Michal Bat Adam’s “The Lover,” based on A.B. Yehoshua’s book − the cinematic adaptation of literary works has been quite rare in local filmmaking. The numerous instances of it this year (there are other movies based on literary sources waiting in the wings) is a new phenomenon, whose advantages and risks depend on the nature of the adaptation.
The three works in question represented three approaches to cinematic adaptation: Bergman’s is the kind of film that illustrates the literary original and does not delve deeply into it, which in the case of Grossman means roaming between realistic the symbolic. Wolman’s film recreated Lapid’s book in the low-key, intimate style that is typical of all this director’s works. And Koshashvili’s film − which in my opinion, was the best one in the competition − “rewrote” Kenaz’s book while looking through the prism of the director’s personality, his creative nature and his place within and also in contrast to Israeli society and history.
Over-dependence on literary sources can lead to cinematic works that are too academic and pompous. Only a personal and unique struggle with the literary source, as is embodied in Koshashvili’s film, and to a certain extent in Wolman’s, can save Israeli cinema from such a fate, and transform reliance on highly respected written works into an advantage that will make cinema fertile and stake its place within local culture as a whole.
Another characteristic typical of the above-mentioned films is that they are based on events that occurred in the past, and each work relates to the issue of recreating the historical moment in which it is set in a different way.
“Gey Oni,” which takes place in Rosh Pina in the Galilee, in the late 19th century, refrains from turning recreation of the period into the essence of the movie, and focuses on the characters, the surroundings where the story takes place, the texture of the stone houses where the film is set and the appearance of the nearby wheat fields. “Infiltration,” set at the Israel Defense Forces No. 4 training camp in 1956, created a gallery of very believable characters, who look just like the Hebrew soldiers in photos from the 1950s. For its part, “Intimate Grammar” was loaded with a collection of characters that have for the most part been seen already in local films about the trials of adolescence or the difficulties of acclimating to life in Israel as experienced by immigrants who arrived in the first years of the state.
Wolman and Koshashvili’s attitude toward the past tied in with the way in which they adapted the literary originals their films are based on. In the case of “Intimate Grammar,” the past was refashioned to fit in with the general tendency of the film to shape the story in a correct, albeit to a certain extent mechanical, fashion.
If the past is the common denominator of the first works mentioned, two other films in the competition had an apocalyptic dimension with a somewhat futuristic overtone: “And On the Third Day,” Moshe Ivgy’s first foray as a director, which followed simultaneous plots and characters, and ends with a missile attack against Israel; and “Andante,” Assaf Tager’s first film. The fundamental difference between these two is that Ivgy’s movie takes place in a familiar local setting, while Tager’s occurs in a place disconnected from anywhere immediately recognizable. However, both films express a sense of fear and impending disaster.
Another element evident in two films in the competition − “And On the Third Day,” and Avishai Sivan’s “The Wanderer” − was a focus on the ugly, deviant, dysfunctional and repulsive, albeit via different styles. “The Wanderer” used narrative and stylistic minimalism, whereas “And on the Third Day” is based on a plot that bursts beyond its bounds with all manner of characters and events, but the two both describe an upsetting local reality in a human, visual way.
The entries in the full-length movie competition ranged from mainstream to experimental. While “Intimate Grammar” was an exaggerated representation of the first type, Tager’s work was the experimental one among those screened (and also one of the longest such dramas ever produced here). There was also an experimental feel to “The Wanderer,” and to some extent also in Doron Tsabari’s “Revolution 101.”
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the competition’s films was that nearly all were loaded with references to the development of Israeli film, a fact that proves that local cinema has in fact accumulated a rich and weighty history.
Koshashvili’s film emerges from the tradition of military movies produced here over the years, whether war films, comedies or films that shaped the revered image of the sabra warrior − or undermined that image. While watching “Gey Oni” it was impossible not to recall “They Were Ten,” Baruch Dienar’s 1960 film, which took place against a similar historical background and is one of the most esteemed films in the early history of Israeli film.
“The Wanderer,” which tells the story of a young ultra-Orthodox man, connects in its way to the collection of works about that society, which have been produced at other times (one interesting aspect of this one is, however, that unlike those movies, it does not focus on ultra-Orthodox society per se, but rather uses it to fulfill certain abstract ideological and emotional purposes). The apocalyptic conclusion of “And On the Third Day,” as well as its character-loaded dramatic structure, cannot help but remind one of Asi Dayan’s “Life According to Agfa,” from 1992. And one of the weak points of “Intimate Grammar” is that it includes too many scenes that we have already watched in films about similar subjects.
The mere ability to position nearly every film in the competition in a local cinematic, historical context is a sign of health and creative diversity, which reflect the continuing progress and development of cinematic works vis-a-vis the very core of local society, culture and experience. It is therefore unfortunate that the only full-length work that dealt directly with Israeli cinema, “Sea Salt” − which is about the premiere of an Israeli film at the Dead Sea − was a flop.
There is a lot to be said about local cinema in the framework of a local film, but not in the framework of a childhood fantasy, as Itai Lev chose to use. This removed from Israeli cinema the considerable uniqueness it has attained, to which the competition at the Jerusalem Film Festival further attested.