World enough, and time
In a new documentary series, two Israeli filmmakers shed light on the lives of four local women writers. Orly Castel-Bloom, the subject of the first film, says she is too young to have her work summed up.
Almost 80 years after British author Virginia Woolf declared that a woman who wants to write needs money and a room of her own, two Israeli filmmakers set out to explore whether anything has changed since. "It's frightening to see how relevant the money issue still is," says film director Ruth Walk. "The problem hasn't been solved yet," adds her partner, Yael Perlov.
The documentary series they have produced, "A Room of Her Own: Women Writers" (in Hebrew, directed and filmed by Walk, produced and edited by Perlov), follows the daily routine of four female writers. The camera zooms in on the room, desk, laptop or typewriter of Ida Fink, Emunah Yaron, Orly Castel-Bloom and Agi Mishol. In their modest homes, the stars of the series do not always have a room of their own. Two of the films, "Orly Castel-Bloom: Not Far from the Center of Town" and "Emunah Yaron: Chapters of My Life," were screened last week at the Jerusalem Cinematheque's Jewish Film Festival. Starting next week, the series will be broadcast on Channel 8. So far, three of the four films have been completed. The last one, on Mishol, is still being filmed.
One of the series' implicit themes concerns the role of women in the family. Fink, whose stories and life are closely tied to her sister, represents "the Sister." Yaron, who has devoted her life to publishing the writings of her father, S.Y. Agnon, is "the Daughter." Castel-Bloom, whose successful novel "Dolly City" portrays the experience of motherhood in a manner previously uncharted in Hebrew literature, is "the Mother."
In an interview at her home in Maoz Aviv, together with the two filmmakers, Castel-Bloom says she identifies with the maternal role and even considers it her most important one. With a daughter in her early twenties and a teenage son, she had to cope with the teachers strike, which she supported, but with "clenched teeth" (she illustrates her point by smiling her Cheshire-cat smile). The strike inspired her to write a story about a teacher on strike who goes out of her mind and imagines she is the philanthropist Lady Davis. Another story she is in the midst of writing is about a cultural attache who goes into a panic when he is ordered to return to Israel after spending a decade in America. "I understand him," says Castel-Bloom. "I know my characters and I know what it's like to live in America."
But the documentary, some of it shot in Boston, reveals that when this writer was in America last winter, she was actually quite anxious to return home. "I was there for three months, and they hadn't had a winter like that for 30 years. I was so cold I almost bought a 'light box' on the Internet. You wear it on your head and you feel like the sun is shining on you. I can't tell you how bored I was in Boston. I sat and I read about post-modern literature [a genre she is always associated with] on Wikipedia. They wrote that it has no meta-narrative and the writing is made up of fragments. Sounds right up my alley.
"I had a rough time in the States, also because of the mentality and the red tape. When you are in a cafe, they ask if you want your coffee in a paper cup or in a plastic cup. I said I didn't care. So they ask again 'Paper or plastic'? There is no meeting halfway. And their racism, which is only a polite form of apartheid. You know how many times they told me 'You have to write "Caucasian,"' and emphasize that by this they mean white and not Hispanic. Language was another problem. They kept insisting that I be coherent. I can switch my coherence on and off. Sometimes I just want to relax and let it go. It was surreal, and it was hard for me to connect."
Castel-Bloom finds it easier to connect to our own surrealism. She named the cultural attache in her book "Uzi Erlich." "That's his name at the moment, although things could change," she says. Erlich takes special courses, such as "How to Represent a Country You Don't Identify With." As a matter of fact, Castel-Bloom herself would also sign up for such a course. "I'm patriotic," she explains. "I want to fight for Israel. All that mess with the concentration camps, what's that supposed to be? And we have great weather." And then the coherence switched off again.
She will soon be visiting France to take part in a panel discussion, together with other Israelis involved in the arts, including film director Amos Gitai, former MK Avram Burg and actress Hannah Laszlo. "Being a representative is very hard. Either you turn into a stool pigeon or you invent something to circumvent the problem. In Prague [in March 2004], they blackballed me. Nadine Gordimer was very snotty. She wouldn't speak to me because I was Israeli. They were angry because Israel had just assassinated Sheikh Yassin. I told them 'It wasn't me. I was in Prague. I have an alibi.' That broke the ice and got the audience laughing."
Castel-Bloom has a room of her own, and even creates her own hours, as director Walk discovered, but she also wants a garden of her own. In the film, we see her walking her dogs early in the morning in Tel Aviv's Hayarkon Park, not far from her home. The lawns are strewn with papers and other garbage. "Yorkshire," she wryly comments. "Nowadays I'm into gardening. What I want is an English manor with a big garden, but I don't want to leave Israel. At least that much I know."
In Israel, she says, she indulges in escapism. "I try to keep myself in a perpetual state of amnesia." It doesn't always work. Fear sends her to all kinds of strange places. In the documentary, the "Iranian threat" sends her looking for a house in Ramat Raziel. She heard about this rural settlement in the Judean Hills from somebody who was sitting next to her on a flight back to Israel. She loves to drive, and goes out there with a camera crew.
In one of her stories, Castel-Bloom writes: "I live on paper." The filmmakers wanted to show that the life of a female writer is not just "on paper." At the same time, they had to avoid compartmentalizing the women. "To call my writing 'women's literature' is not suburban - it in effect puts me on the periphery," Castel-Bloom once said. In fact, she even has difficulty being categorized as an "author." "It's hard for me to imagine such a thing as a living author. So I go around thinking I'm either a liar or dead," she said on another occasion.
Now she says half-jokingly that she plans to give private lessons in creative writing, although writing is a "really problematic" profession. "I hope for the students' sake that they know how to do something else," she says.
But Castel-Bloom herself clearly doesn't. "She creates days that are out of this world," Walk says. "She gets up at three o'clock in the afternoon and goes to sleep when she's bored. Writing is what guides her. There is something hermetic, something sterile in her world, and that's the persona that comes across in the film. The same is true for the photography and the editing. The whole film follows in the footsteps of the heroine."
In the documentary about Ida Fink, "The Garden that Floated Away," the garden around her house is a major theme; in the documentary about Emunah Yaron, her father is pivotal. Yaron and Fink, both in their mid-eighties, are the oldest characters in the series, but it is Castel-Bloom who talks most about time and "how much is left." Nevertheless, at 47, she knows she is still young to have a film sum up her work. She feels awkward about a documentary having been made about her, and refers to the woman who appears in it as "she."
"It's not really me there," she insists. "Seeing a film about yourself is recommended when you're dead."