A Woman at the Helm: Layla Ibrahim Musa Embarks on a Journey of Survival

Filmmaker Anat Zuria's newest effort, 'The Lesson,' examines the story of an Egyptian-born Muslim woman whose life story is so dramatic that it's hard to believe reality concocted such a plot.

After an impressive documentary film trilogy in which she dealt with the way Judaism relates to female sexuality (“Purity”), binds women in an inegalitarian judicial system (“Sentenced to Marriage”), and oppresses those who attempt to deviate from their assigned role in society (“Black Bus”) Anat Zuria has chalked up a new chapter in her filmography. In her latest work, “The Lesson,” she moves away from religion, but continues to examine, with a critical eye and a light touch, the situation of women in Israeli society. “The Lesson” bolsters Zuria’s standing as one of the most riveting women in the local film world, and provides further proof of the power that can derive from a combination of elements borrowed from feature and documentary genres.

At the center of the film, which aired last week on the YES Docu channel and is now being screened at the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem cinematheques, is Layla Ibrahim Musa, an Egyptian-born Muslim woman who was married off at 14. Her husband tore her away from her family, took her with him from Egypt to Israel, and years later threw her and their three young children out onto the street. Without any available or supportive family members, Musa was forced to embark on a journey of survival and independence a particularly challenging journey in Israeli reality for someone who is not only a woman, but also an Arab, uneducated, homeless and the sole provider for her children.

This is just one element in the protagonist’s tragic path, which is unfolded before the viewers gradually, very delicately and in an original manner: during the course of a series of driving lessons. The interior of the car slowly becomes her confession booth, and Nimar, the driving instructor, becomes her confessor, the one before whom Musa agrees to open up and peel away her protective layers.

“The Lesson” also follows Musa’s convoluted relationship with one of her daughters, Hagar, who, to her mother’s chagrin, moves in with an Israeli boyfriend and integrates into Israeli life. As the details accumulate, a female figure who can be seen as a contemporary incarnation of the biblical Job gradually fills the screen. She is battered and bruised, but insists on fighting.

Says filmmaker Zuria: “After ‘Sentenced to Marriage’ I did major research on fundamentalist religion’s obsessive hypocrisy regarding women. I came to realize that today, in part of the religious Jewish world, there is an attempt to define driving by women as something that is immodest. At first I thought of making the film about that, but then when Layla, who is a friend of mine, told me about her own driving story, which became complicated I found myself being drawn to it more and more.”

In the film, Musa recounts that she has taken some 200 driving lessons but still has not managed to realize her dream and obtain a license. “Alongside her unusual life story, I was interested in the fact that driving itself was a very dramatic part of her life,” Zuria says. “I realized that through it, I could powerfully convey the sense that despite everything, something in her life is stuck and chaotic, that she is incapable of driving and is locked inside it. She almost gets there but it doesn’t happen.” 

‘Trauma-weary’ woman

The frame-story of the driving lessons allowed Zuria to construct a fascinating portrait of a betrayed and trauma-weary woman, who nonetheless remains amazingly strong: “This is a woman who has been through a heap of betrayals, loads of them,” she continues. “Someone who could be described as the ultimate victim. She lost nearly her entire family, was torn from her homeland, and goes through an experience of imminent bereavement. Except for stories of Holocaust survivors, who knows stories like this one nowadays? When she got [to Israel], she tried to build something new here, but in the end even her child, who grew up inside this trauma, became a victim of sorts. Nevertheless, amid all this, Layla presents a different portrait of a victim. She is a woman who is prepared to take her self-discovery all the way, a woman who has fashioned an unusual capacity for expressing herself and, mainly, a woman who built herself anew, reinvented herself. I was very impressed by it.”

The film is set in Jerusalem, where the director and the protagonist both reside. The city is seen through the eyes of the central characters and through the windows of the car, and it also becomes yet another battered character in the movie.

“Even though the city is off-screen, there’s a story that I call ‘the theater of Jerusalem,’” Zuria says. “This film is full of love of cinema it is influenced, for example, by [Iranian filmmaker] Abbas 
Kiarostami and his movie ‘10’ and full of love for women, and it is an attempt to tell a woman’s story within the reality I know, in Jerusalem, in the setting of this city, which has so many varieties of suffering.”

At times “The Lesson” seems like a documentary, at times like a feature film. On the one hand, the life story at its base is so dramatic that it is almost hard to believe reality could have concocted such a plot. On the other hand, it is also hard to believe that this same reality could provide the filmmaker with so many aesthetic, stylized and well-scripted situations.

It all started when Musa sought an instructor with whom she could continue her driving lessons. Zuria offered to join her, film the journey, and together they began looking for a instructor. They met with a long list of candidates, but when they found Nimar Kadoumi, they understood they had found the right teacher.

“I thought he could do something special vis-a-vis her life and the film, because his worldview went beyond driving instruction,” Zuria says. “He told me: ‘As far as I’m concerned, I am not just a driving instructor; I am here to listen to my students, to embark with them on a journey and help them overcome the obstacle of their fears and hardships.’ I realized at once that I was going to choose him.”

Before the filming of the lessons, a process that lasted about 18 months, Zuria sat down with the actors, and mainly with Nimar, to discuss the processes the characters go through, the situations that develop during the lessons, the topics they ought to touch on and the places they ought to drive to. The cameras were positioned carefully inside the car to capture the two protagonists in the crowded interior, but leave room for conversation, improvisations and confessions, without the director being present.

Throughout the movie, there are questions about Musa’s life story that remain unanswered. For example, “The Lesson” does not explain why the heroine and her former husband moved from Egypt to Israel. “This is a film that works a great deal on hints,” Zuria admits. “I know there are people who will raise an eyebrow, who won’t get why there are things that remain a mystery, and why I don’t explain everything to the end. But from my perspective, the kind of cinema I like and am interested in making is cinema that involves disturbing the viewer. My viewer is not supposed merely to enjoy. He is meant to be disturbed.

“I try to give the viewer an idea of the power of the trauma this woman is carrying around. From my standpoint there is an attempt here to create an insinuated and troubling world, in which the viewer has to do a little work. I give him credit and believe that he can imagine what’s going on, even when it isn’t explicit and clear. After all, he sees the interactions between the characters and what’s going on, understands what kind of energies are there, and picks up also on nonverbal things. Cinema’s power does not derive from words. In return, I very much hope I am giving the viewer enough experiences on the story level that he can carry them with him. I hope this film stays with him afterward and makes him asks questions.”

From painting to film

Anat Zuria was born in 1961 in Jerusalem, to Naomi Shalev, a painter and gallery owner, and Avner Shalev, the chief army education officer, head of the culture directorate at the Education Ministry, and today chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate. Although the family moved to Ramat Hasharon at some point, she says Jerusalem left a strong impact on her: “This city had a power of encounters with various types, friction with a very heterogeneous population, and a gallery of realities that is very eclectic and interesting and crazy.”

She started out as a painter, studying at the Midrasha art school in Ramat Hasharon and with the likes of the late Raffi Lavie and Yair Garbuz; in her mid-20s Zuria already had a solo exhibition in Tel Aviv and her works began circulating abroad as well.

“Even though I was young, there were the beginnings of a career, and it was lovely, but then, suddenly, I felt disquieted and decided to quit. I didn’t know in favor of what. Suddenly I had lost the passion for painting, suddenly there was opaqueness, suddenly I felt detached,” she recalls. “I was already a mother with children, and then, when I got the chance to attend the Jerusalem film school Ma’aleh, which was just getting off the ground, I went for it.”

It was her marriage to a religiously observant man that provided Zuria with an intimate knowledge of religion and the lifestyle it dictates to women a subject that was the focus of her first three films.

Zuria: “I met my husband at a very young age, 21, and I always joke that it was like marrying the enemy. A religious man who was 180 degrees from my world and nonetheless we had a love story, and we built a family for ourselves. But it isn’t simple. Nothing is trivial in a relationship like this one with someone who does not come from your cultural world. On the other hand, he’s an interesting character and there are anarchist streaks in him, so we also had meeting points and a connection personality-wise.

“In the beginning he was a lot more Orthodox, and through him I began connecting to that world; suddenly I displayed an interest in Judaism and experienced it. Experiencing Judaism as a religion was very special to me, because I was an alien. I did not truly become religious, but I did comply with the ways of life of a religious woman and I would do things like go the mikveh [ritual bath], for example. So I found myself in a situation in which I felt like an outsider, and that enabled me to look at [that world] from the outside with humor, with absurdity, with questions. Like a tourist.

“From a young age I had a deep sense which I think that now, in the 21st century, has proven itself that the attempt [by people] to disengage from religion did not succeed. From a young age religions attracted me on an intellectual level. With my parents there was something that was communist, socialist and disconnected from religion, but I felt that our reality did not provide a different sort of collective answer. Moreover, I felt that our imagery was created by religions, even if we are not always aware of this, and that religions are the source of a whole slew of concepts that we have yet to get rid of, and which we try to deny. Concepts that are like shadows in our lives.”

While at Ma’aleh, Zuria also taught a course on the connection between cinema and plastic arts, and wrote movie reviews for magazines. Her experiences with the mikveh and the religious laws that govern female sexuality in Judaism led her to begin working on the film “Purity,” which came out in 2002: “I wanted to deal with feminine identity through a ‘bodily situation’ to examine the collision between the female body and menstrual cycle with civilization. And religion is of course an aspect of civilization. This is a subject that had hardly been dealt with before then, in Israel and in the world,” she says.

At Ma’aleh, where many of the students and teachers are religious, the reactions were harsh. “I was told: ‘How can you do that, this is sacred, it’s taboo, you don’t touch it, you’re a voyeur, it will be crass, it’s esoteric.’ And I was met with practically the same responses from the secular world, when I went to raise money at the film funds,” she recalls.

Body-image distress

Nevertheless, Zuria made the film, and in it she and other women recounted their own experiences with the Jewish laws of female purity. It generated much interest, won awards and was shown in many countries.

“In the wake of ‘Purity,’ I understood there was a thirst in many places in the world that there is immense distress on the part of women with regard to their body image,” she says. “A lot of women told me: You managed to create here an X-ray of the ‘exclusion of the female body.’”

Zuria’s “Sentenced to Marriage” (2004) documented the phenomenon of agunot (lit. “chained women”) women whose husbands refuse to give them a get, or Jewish bill of divorce and the gender inequality inherent in Israel’s rabbinical court system. “Black Bus” (2009) told the story of two young women a blogger and a photographer who grew up in Hasidic homes, decided to document the exclusion of women in ultra-Orthodox society and publicize it, and were forced to pay a painful price for that. All three movies in Zuria’s trilogy made a splash, were acclaimed and won prizes.

“I wanted to put the body i.e., menstruation and sexuality on the table, as a political act, and also the fact that there is a theocracy in Israel when it comes to marriage and divorce. On the human-emotional-experiential level, [these movies constituted] an ongoing preoccupation with topics that people deny, and an effort to contend with people who don’t fully understand why such cinema deserves to be made, why it is important to view it, why it contains questions and warning signs for society. My challenge was to take a political statement and make it accessible.”

Zuria, a mother of five (her eldest is 28 and youngest is 11), is already planning her next film. This time she will not be focusing on either the feminine experience or Judaism, she reveals, but she will touch on a subject that Israeli society is not eager to address: suicide.

Before “Purity” came out, and close to the birth of her youngest daughter, Zuria’s brother, the artist Yuta San, took his own life. This affected her profoundly, she says, and drove her into a protracted and deep depression. In its aftermath, she began adding her brother’s name to her own, and it appears in the credits of her films to this day as Anat Yuta Zuria.

“I always say we belong to a club that has a lot of members, and around which is a lot of taboo,” she smiles. “Before my brother committed suicide, I supposedly didn’t know anyone who had committed suicide. Only subsequently did I learn that many of my friends and acquaintances had known someone who committed suicide. In the past decade I have read a lot on the topic, spoke with many people, and went over the numerous materials my brother left behind lots of texts that describe his thoughts, ruminations, stories.

“Any bereavement in the life of a family is like a kind of bomb, in the wake of which all of life and an entire construct of concepts is altered. In my eyes, anyone who kills himself hurls a nuclear bomb at his surroundings; the way it works within the domestic space and within the social space of the environment is different. There are different qualities of suffering here, and different qualities of meaning.

Today we know that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people in Israel, and that there are more suicides among them than fatalities in traffic accidents. On the other hand, silence envelopes the issue, and very few films or books deal with it.

In my film, I want to depart from my personal experiences, and ask what happens in terms of society, and in terms of the human condition in general when someone hurls a nuclear bomb like that on you, with the frequency that it happens here.” 

Emil Salman
Dror Lebendiger