Rahel Streiff and Ohad Milstein met at a dog park in Tel Aviv. She’s Swiss and he’s Israeli. They fell in love and a few months later Rahel became pregnant. The couple were delighted and their joy increased when during the 10th week of pregnancy they were told they were having twins. Things changed in week 23, and Streiff described it in her diary.
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“Little peanut, this is the hardest time of my life. Last Thursday, we went to take a routine check, and pretty fast it became clear that something was not quite right,” she wrote.
“The doctor explained to us that if one twin dies, it could have fatal consequences for the other twin because an imbalance in the blood pressure is created, which causes vessels to be damaged, especially in the brain, leading to severe brain damage. The specialists in the hospital unanimously recommended us to have an abortion as soon as possible because the risk of having a baby with a handicap is so high.”
Ohad and Rahel’s fraught journey has been recorded by Milstein in his documentary “Week 23,” first screened at the Docaviv film festival. It will be shown Wednesday on the Yes Docu satellite channel and will later be screened at movie theaters across the country.
Milstein is a respected documentary filmmaker, but this is the first time he has recorded his own life. His earlier movies include “Obsession” (2008), which features people plagued by obsessions, “Systema” (2010), which documents Israel’s Olympic synchronized-swimming team, and “Planets” (2014), which shows people choosing to live on the margins of society.
As in all of Milstein’s movies, the visual aspects in “Week 23” are aesthetically pleasing. The artistic quality and cinematographic motifs are reminiscent of director Paolo Sorrentino and photographer Luca Bigazzi’s 2015 film “Youth.” Another common theme is that some of the plot takes place in Switzerland, with water a visual backdrop.
Milstein recorded Rahel and him falling in love, not just the pregnancy. “I didn’t know where it would lead, and then we found out we had identical twins,” he says. “I come from a background of art as well as film, and the idea of identical twins sounded like a good concept for making art.”
Milstein says there’s a disconnect between “parents’ gut feelings and female intuition, on the one hand, and medical procedures that don’t leave room for this. Moreover, Israeli society is wary of outliers. If you have an unborn child who may not be 100 percent okay and you want to have it anyway, that’s considered off the charts. Being weak and imperfect is shameful in Israel.”
Streiff says that throughout the pregnancy she had the feeling the fetus was healthy.
“I knew it, but the doctors kept telling me I was wrong. That made me doubt myself, and since there’s no way of measuring maternal intuition and there’s one for measuring medical knowledge, one tends to think they’re right and you’re wrong,” she says.
“It’s important to understand that this isn’t an anti-abortion movie – we believe that each case should be considered on its own merits. It is, however, a film that tries to support maternal intuition.”
In this case there was male intuition as well. There’s a dramatic moment where Milstein discovers that the doctors were wrong in calculating the size of the living fetus, and that the fetus was developing normally despite the predictions.
“When I discovered their mistake I couldn’t understand how the picture they were painting was of something so distorted while the ultrasound looked fine,” Milstein says.
“So I went over the numbers, made comparisons and discovered their mistake. They’d compared the size of the living twin’s head to the dead twin’s leg, which was obviously small, instead of to the living twin’s leg.”
My conversation with the couple takes place in their Jaffa apartment. At the entrance I meet their son Alva, who’s almost 3. The idea that he might never have been born if his parents had listened to the doctors is inconceivable.
Streiff says maybe there’s a cultural difference between Europe and Israel.
“In Europe there’s more dialogue with the mother during the pregnancy. I’m from a family that’s connected to nature and to itself. I didn’t see many doctors when I was a child and my mother always taught us to listen to our bodies,” she says.
“I’m grateful for that, otherwise I would have been terrified of the catastrophe they described and would have terminated the pregnancy. I felt egotistical in insisting on not having an abortion, since Ohad felt differently. He was very scared and I thought it wasn’t fair for me to do that to him.”
Milstein says that if things turned out poorly, they would have moved to Switzerland so they could be helped by Rahel’s parents “and live in a society that’s more tolerant of differences.”
One of the most difficult statements in the film is made by Rahel’s father, Patrick Streiff, a bishop. He wonders at the intolerance of Israelis toward the handicapped.
He tells his daughter: “I’m very surprised by what you’re telling me. Don’t they have handicapped children there? Don’t people there know or can’t they see how happy these children can be, so capable of fully enjoying life?”
Great sex scene
In contrast, the readiness of Israelis to immediately abort fetuses when any suspicion of imperfection arises is represented by Milstein’s mother, Margherita.
She tells the couple as they’re driving somewhere: “I’d have an abortion at once, as soon as I learned the fetus was deformed It’s the simplest and easiest thing to do in such a case, in contrast to the risk of having a handicapped child that could ruin your life and wreck everything. It can destroy a family, since a retarded child will always remain so, whatever his defect. For me, your fetus is not a living creature.”
And yet, Milstein’s mother is the only character in the film who undergoes a change. Later in the movie she cries when she sees Alva’s ultrasound images, confessing that she’s “full of guilt feelings” for abortions she had when she was younger. “It’s killing something incomplete, something so calm and peaceful,” she says tearfully.
Milstein says his mother is portrayed in an extreme light but actually represents the consensus in Israel. “Everyone we consulted with, including family and friends, said unequivocally that they wouldn’t take the risk and would have the abortion,” he says.
“Everyone said ‘what’s the problem? Have an abortion and start over.’ Since I don’t like to talk a lot, especially not in my movies, my mother served as my voice. She represents what I thought. She went through a transformation, and so did I.”
Either way, the sex scene at the beginning is beautiful. “I’m afraid my parents will see it, but otherwise I have no problem with it,” Streiff says. “I see this scene as the artistic part of the movie.”
Milstein adds: “It was important for me to include this scene since it documents the event that led to all the rest. If there’s any reason to include a sex scene, this is it.”
Streiff, a graphic designer by profession, works as a language expert (she speaks German, French, English and Hebrew) on a Google project. Her narration in the film is a driving force.
“When I became pregnant I started writing things my future child could read when he grew up. I was then surprised that there were two, so I wrote them both about how I felt having them inside me,” she says. “When the problems appeared, writing fulfilled a need to get things out. It was my way of dealing with everything that happened.”
So was it hard to read the diaries aloud?
“It was extremely difficult because it constantly took me back to that situation,” Streiff says. “Some of it was very personal and hard to share.”
As Milstein puts it, “I’m a tough director. I asked her to read it over and over until I was satisfied.”