The Female Director Who's Defying the Male Point of View

Maya Dreifuss thinks her new film, 'She Is Coming Home,’ wasn’t accepted to the Cannes Film Festival because it makes men feel threatened.

Guy Kushi

“Write: ‘She opened the door for me dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and an apron. The aroma of cooking soup was in the air, and her fresh complexion was devoid of makeup,’” director Maya Dreifuss requested at the end of my meeting with her.

“I don’t think so,” I replied. “I think I’ll write the truth: ‘She opened the door for me wearing a headband with rabbit ears. She hadn’t eaten anything since morning. She was feeling nervous and pressured about the trailer she had just finished editing, which she was now trying to promote on her Facebook page.’”

“But I’ll never get married that way,” she complained.

Dreifuss, 38, is a woman engaged in permanent battle. There isn’t a stone she’ll leave unturned, not a sentence she won’t try to challenge, or at least have the last word on. In fact, she’s not all that different from the heroine of her new film, “She Is Coming Home,” which hits movie theaters on Thursday.

The film, starring Tali Sharon, Alon Aboutboul and Liora Rivlin, tells the story of Michal, a woman in her 30s who – on the pretext that she’s writing the screenplay for a feature film and therefore can’t support herself at the moment – returns to her parents’ house in Herzliya and takes up residence in her old room. She meets Zev, a high-school principal who is older than she and already married, and begins an affair with him that is full of power struggles and violence. At the same time, she has to deal with the inevitable invasions of her privacy by her parents and with the discomfort that a too-close look at their daily life causes her.

The unrestrained screenplay, which Dreifuss wrote, the spot-on casting and her skilled direction combine to create a film that will make you laugh until you cry, while also being touching, infuriating and frustrating. Her cinematic genre is basically sui generis.

“Someone told me it starts off like a [Israeli filmaker] Shemi Zarhin movie but ends like a [Danish avant-garde director] Lars von Trier film,” she said. “I wanted to combine the styles. I wanted to change genres in the middle. Each genre on its own – the viewers are already immune to it. What the viewer experiences is parallel to what Michal experiences. Because her world turns inside out.”

Dreifuss is well acquainted with the film’s basic situation: She, too, returned to live with her parents at age 30, after breaking up with the boyfriend she had been living with for the past three years. Until then, her life had followed the standard track to success: She began studying psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, switched to studying film at Tel Aviv University, and was quickly marked out as the most promising student of her year. Two short films she directed were accepted to the Cannes International Film Festival, and her final project, the film “Bikur Holim,” even tied for second place in the festival’s short film competition, while also winning prizes at festivals in Beijing, Taiwan and Tel Aviv. Immediately after finishing her degree, she began studying screenwriting at Tel Aviv’s film department.

But after this dizzying success as a director of student films, Dreifuss became blocked. The weight of expectations, combined with her tendency toward obsessive doubt, paralyzed her. Everyone who met her during that period knew there was one question it was forbidden to ask if they wanted to keep living: “So, what’s with your feature?”

What Dreifuss did manage to write was an outline a few pages long about someone who returns home to live with her parents. Thanks to this outline, she got a development grant to write the screenplay from the Yehoshua Rabinowitz Foundation for the Arts. She returned to Tel Aviv without having written a single word of the screenplay, rented an apartment in Jaffa and began to write.

A strong woman isn’t sexy

In contrast to the comforting feelings aroused by the phrase “coming home,” the movie doesn’t contain a drop of acceptance or maturation. “She refuses to play the role she’s expected to play,” Dreifuss said of her main character. “That is what characterizes all the characters in the film: Not one of them feels comfortable in his role. And I think that’s true in real life. Nowadays you can’t open a dictionary and find a written definition of what a woman is supposed to be or do. I think she tries to find what’s right for her, but from among the models she has, that’s no big prize.”

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The climax of the encounter between Michal and Zev happens in a hotel. But instead of a moment of erotic harmony, Dreifuss has created a rather long scene in which the bed becomes a battlefield.

“In relations between the sexes, the question of who dominates is always there,” she said. “There are bloody power relations between men and women. We’re in a war, and we aren’t aware of it. I think this ultimately reaches sex – sex as a power relationship.

“Why, in interviews, does a successful woman always say that at home, she’s the littlest woman that ever was? Because she doesn’t want to spoil the fantasy, she doesn’t want people to think she’s not sexy. The man says, ‘If you’re in a position of power, you’re not sexy in my eyes.’ It’s a matter of education. To men, it’s not sexy for a woman to be too strong. And women capitulate to this hegemony.”

But the character you suggest as a model, the story you tell, is about a woman who challenges herself by means of a man.

“I think sexuality and desire are the key to male control of the world. As long as sex is something that the man wants and the woman gives, the men set the tone. A woman must be in control of both money and sex. The first thing a woman must do is free herself of people telling her how to behave. The film doesn’t deal with issues between him and her, but with issues between her and herself, by means of men.

“Many people have trouble with Michal’s long masturbation scene in the movie. She doesn’t masturbate by candlelight, she’s just horny. Perhaps it’s hard for people to understand that when women masturbate, they’re more similar to men than it might have seemed. What causes the shock here is that women have a sex drive. This doesn’t receive enough expression in films – the fact that women have a pure sex drive that isn’t solely connected to a man. A woman also has an erection, a woman also comes or doesn’t come.”

Not a classic feminist film

Even after “She Is Coming Home” was finally finished, Dreifuss didn’t feel as if she had reached the promised land. The film did win three prizes at the last Jerusalem Film Festival, as well as an Ophir award for Liora Rivlin’s acting, but it wasn’t accepted to the Cannes Festival, which was a great disappointment for Dreifuss. She hinted that this wasn’t solely due to the film’s quality.

“The proportion of female students at student film competitions is about 50 percent,” she said. “And then you go to the big competitions, and suddenly they’re pushed down to 10 percent. All the girls crowd into a single line for what is virtually the only slot for female directors in the official competitions of major festivals. And then they have to decide if you present the most interesting female character and if they want to choose you.

“I haven’t become a worse director since the short films that did so well worldwide. But perhaps there’s something in this film that isn’t easy to digest, from the standpoint of its framework. It’s not a classic feminist film about a woman who learns to box and embarks on a campaign, or about a woman who’s a victim.

“What you mainly see in cinema is the male view of women,” she continued. “There aren’t many opportunities to see complex women in films. Most of the festival directors are men, and the image I present is very challenging, particularly to certain men. In my film there’s sometimes a feeling that the man’s place is almost superfluous. It’s infuriating.”

The local scene has also given her some difficult experiences. In a pre-opening screening in Holon in honor of International Women’s Day, before a relatively mature audience, Dreifuss was forced to cut short the discussion after the film because of the furious responses of some viewers. Toward the end of the film, a few audience members demonstratively got up, shouted at the screen and walked out.

“They asked me what connection this film has to female empowerment,” Dreifuss said. “They said it was about a crazy woman who ought to take pills. Not a single woman backed me up or condemned the men’s attacks. They told me, ‘This weak woman – that’s what will improve women’s status?’ As if being honest weren’t empowering.”

For anyone who was wondering, her family isn’t related to Alfred Dreyfus. But she says the family name nevertheless entails an obligation.

“If you bear this name, you feel that an injustice has been done to you,” she said. “I’ve been sensitive to injustices ever since this family relation, who is no relative of mine, was sent to Devil’s Island despite his innocence.”

Shai Peleg
Guy Kushi and Yariv Fein