During a panel discussion on "Humor as a means of expression in the immigration experience," which accompanied two days of immigrants' films at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque last week, director Alex Gentelev told the following joke: Rabinovitch (the Jew in Russia is always Rabinovitch) caught a golden fish. The fish, as usual, promised to fulfill any wish in return for its release. "I'm fed up with being a Jew," grumbled Rabinovitch. "I want to be a Russian." "That's easy," said the fish with a sigh of relief. "Go to Israel."
Among the films screened at the Cinematheque event, "People in Motion - Films about Immigration," was Gentelev's film "Yolki Palki." The film, which was named Israel's best documentary movie in 2008, describes his efforts to locate the people who had been his fellow passengers on his flight to Israel in the early 1990s. The director related that some of the jokes in Russian had to be translated into Arabic, for want of sufficiently crude language in Hebrew.
Israelis are so refined that in answer to the question of whether immigration is funny, Gentelev told the following story: Before he immigrated, he was told that in his profession, he could only live in Tel Aviv. When he arrived, he found a real estate agent and waited patiently until the latter found a suitable apartment for him. Gentelev hastened to a Russian-speaking friend and invited him to visit his new home on Neufed Street. "There's no such street," replied the friend. Convinced that his friend was mistaken, Gentelev went down to the street to look for additional indications. There, a passerby explained to him that he was in fact in Bnai Brak.
Is this funny? "The humor in immigration really begins when we are able to laugh at you," said Gentelev.
Thus far, his films have dealt with the Russian experience, but he makes a point of showing them exclusively in Israeli frameworks. "I didn't come to Israel to work for Russian [television] channels," he said.
He is also eager to exit the circle of "Russian" topics. His dream is to make a film about the most Israeli subject there is - the country's criminal underworld. Ze'ev Rosenstein had already promised him exclusivity, he said, but then the alleged crime kingpin was sent to prison.
Films about immigration are nothing new; see Ephraim Kishon and "Salah Shabati." But those antecedents prompt Dover Koshashvili, whose film "Late Wedding" made the Georgian immigrant community angry at him, to offer a different definition of this genre.
"When it's about Ashkenazis, it's simply a film," he said cynically. "But when it's about Mizrahim [Jews of Middle Eastern descent], it's an immigration film. The Ashkenazis aren't immigrants. They've always been here. They've grown out of the soil."
Immigrants from the former Soviet Union have changed this cinematic reality.
The event at the Cinematheque, sponsored by the Israel Joint Distribution Committee, the Gesher Multicultural Film Fund, the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption and the European Union, was a charming bubble in the Israeli here and now. Filmmakers from Ethiopia - like Shmuel Baro, who is now completing the first feature film made in Israel by a director from Ethiopia - mingled with filmmakers from the former Soviet Union as they showed their wares to immigrants from South America.
In a film by Jorge Weller, who comes from Argentina, a Russian immigrant in a Hebrew-language class tries, in a heavy Russian accent, to correct the Hebrew accent of a fellow student from Argentina. The Argentine immigrant is a telenovela actor preparing to audition for an Israeli telenovela in which he hopes to play the role of Shimon, a "half-brother" from Jerusalem's Katamonim neighborhood. Before immigrating, he had played in the telenovela "Half-Brother" in Argentina, and only the little matter of the accent must be resolved to extricate him from work at a gas station.
In reality, such situations look a bit less gentle: As I talked with Gentelev, an elderly woman who had heard him on the panel approached. "You have to do something about your Russian accent," she scolded him, and told him about her mother, who immigrated to Israel at the beginning of the last century and lost her foreign accent within a few weeks. The chastised Gentelev answered politely that she was quite right.
And then there is Israel as reflected in "Yiddishe Mama," a film by Fima Shlick and Gennady Kuchuk, in which Kuchuk's own mother makes a supreme effort to prevent her son from marrying a woman who immigrated from Ethiopia.
A roomful of strangers
"We aren't attacking this specific mother, but rather coming out against a significant percentage of the Russian population that is very racist," said Shlick, 29, who immigrated to Israel at the age of 13. "This racism isn't only Russian, it's also Israeli. It is everywhere. I'm simply a person who comes from this community, and therefore I am talking about it. I would be very glad to express rooted Israeliness in my films, but even though I came here as a young teenager, my view will always be a bit from the outside."
This distance is the subject of the short film "Weitzman St. No. 10" by Pini Tavger, who was born in Israel to parents who immigrated from the Soviet Union. The situation is familiar from the descriptions of many immigrants who arrived in Israel in the midst of the Gulf War, straight into the air-raid sirens and the sealed rooms. This is always funny.
But Tavger's film - in which, immediately upon arriving in Israel, a family of immigrants finds itself in a roomful of strangers wearing gas masks - is not a film about war; it is a film about difficulties in communication. This, perhaps, is the main difference between "Israeli" films and immigrant films: In the latter, war is not just blood, sweat and tears, but also strangeness and alienation.
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