'Six Acts’: Power and Sex Among Israeli Teens

What prompted a male film director to make a movie about the sexual exploitation of a teenage girl?

Shany Littman
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Shany Littman

From the first minute, it’s clear that Gili has no chance. She comes at night, in a taxi, to the parking lot of the Cinema City theater complex in Glilot, after being invited by Omri, a friend of the boy she’s in love with, Tomer. The two boys who are waiting for her – tall and handsome, polite and intelligent – quickly make it clear that she has an important role to play: giving Tomer sexual satisfaction. And Gili obeys. She’s trying to fit in socially, but from their perspective, she has one and only one function: providing sexual services to the gang. From here, things can only go downhill.

The opening scene of Jonathan Gurfinkel’s film, “Six Acts,” is direct, crude and gut-wrenching not because of some daring sex scene – in fact, it doesn’t have any of those – but because of the clarity and bluntness it uses to show the exploitative relationship among the teens, which it presents without filters or defenses. It’s a social jungle in the heart of the Dan region, Beelzebub at the mall. The balance of power among Israeli teens is depicted with brutal, piercing simplicity, devoid of any illusions.

“Six Acts” arrived in movie theaters this week with almost perfect timing, since the case of singer Eyal Golan and his father, who are under investigation for having sex with minors, is still at the front of the public’s mind. And if anyone is wondering how much self-awareness a girl of 15 or 16 has in choosing her sexual partners, “Six Acts” offers a chilling answer through its screenplay, written by Rona Segal. The starring role is played by Sivan Levy, whose performance won her the Ophir Prize for best actress.

‘Who is stronger?’

“What preoccupied me was the question of solidarity: Who is exploiting his power, who is stronger?” Gurfinkel said. “The idea is that we sometimes see someone who wants one thing and we want something else, and we have the ability to hide this from him, and at that moment, we put him an inferior position and exploit it.”

While Gurfinkel and Segal were working on the screenplay, they conducted research that helped them craft the precise language of the teens in the film, and also to understand just how troubling a view of sex teenagers have.

“Many parents react to the film with shock, because they feel as if they’ve been given a glimpse behind their children’s closed door,” Gurfinkel said. “The parents thought they knew what’s going on there, because they also have a Facebook account. But when you’re 16 and you don’t want your parents to know something, they’ll never know it.”

This is the 37-year-old Gurfinkel’s first full-length feature. He’s spent the last several years working in television, mainly directing skits and sketches. He began working when he was 19, which was Channel 2 television’s first year on the air. Initially, he directed skits for entertainment programs, and later directed sketches for the “Only in Israel” program with Erez Tal and Orna Banai. He then moved on to the Keshet company’s hit satire show “Eretz Nehederet” (“A Wonderful Country”), where he directed sketches for four seasons. He left “Eretz Nehederet” six years ago, but his ties with Keshet, which produced and broadcast the show, haven’t ended, and the company participated in making “Six Acts.”

Gurfinkel was born into the film world: His father was cinematographer David Gurfinkel, one of the founding fathers of Israeli film, who did the cinematography for “A Hole in the Moon,” “The Policeman,” “Kazablan” and several dozen other films during his 50-year career. When Jonathan, his youngest son, was 13, David Gurfinkel bought him a video camera. The son claims that’s the moment when he decided to be a director.

Sticking close to home

The younger Gurfinkel studied film at Yigal Allon High School in Ramat Hasharon, but while there he was already working as his father’s photography and lighting assistant. It seems as if more than a bit of his childhood has remained with him: He still lives in the building where he was born and raised, on Tel Aviv’s Ussishkin Street, on the banks of the Yarkon River. The apartment he shares with his girlfriend is two floors up from his parents’ flat.

He met journalist Rona Segal when he was offered work on a daily program called “Masechim” (“Screens”), which she wrote. “I discovered a writer who isn’t capable of faking a millimeter and doesn’t write a single word that doesn’t come from her heart,” Gurfinkel said. “Immediately after we’d finished filming, I said to her, ‘Let’s do something else together.’”

At their very first brainstorming session, the two decided to make a film about sexual exploitation in high school. Both knew of such incidents from the high schools they attended, but the incident their film centers on isn’t a true story.

“This is a fiction film inspired by hundreds of incidents,” Gurfinkel said. “I think the film’s power, and what challenges people who watch it, is that the movie’s heroine is active, not passive; she takes the initiative. She comes of her own free will and hooks up with the boys even when they no longer invite her. This makes the whole story very confusing. The viewers get very angry with her.

“The media often present the girl in such cases as an absolute victim and the boys as absolute monsters,” he continues. “The reality is much more complicated. She’s clearly weaker than they are; she’s clearly coming from a lower rung on the social ladder. But even for the heroine, it’s convenient to see reality in a certain way. In a scene with the other girls, they tell her, ‘He’s exploiting you.’ And she tells them, ‘No, I’m exploiting him.’”

How did you, as a man, manage to connect to the story of a girl who is sexually exploited?

“Clearly, this is a film a man couldn’t have written. But I was curious about this issue long before we began working on it. I think I connected to the social statement about the balance of power in our society, which this story encapsulates. This privilege that the strong permit themselves, of ignoring or riding roughshod over the weak – that’s something we’re instilled with at a very young age. It’s present in numerous aspects of our society. Parents educate their children to castes, like in India, from age zero. If you were born to rich parents, then you deserve more than the poor.”

No artistic pretensions

Even though “Six Acts” has earned praise from critics and prizes at festivals, including the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain and the Haifa Film Festival, Gurfinkel rejects any attempt to attribute artistic pretensions to him, and grumbles a bit when he’s asked to talk about cinema. When discussing his artistic choices, he speaks of “we” rather than “I.”

In the end, he agreed to list some of his sources of inspiration, but he insisted on puncturing this balloon a bit as well whenever he thought it was getting too inflated.

“Keren Yedaya’s ‘Or’ is a movie that influenced me greatly in making ‘Six Acts,’ due to its fatalism and pessimism,” he said. “My favorite movie is Uri Zohar’s ‘Big Eyes’; that’s a brilliant film. I also like Mike Leigh’s ‘Naked’ a lot, and the French film ‘La Haine [by Mathieu Kassovitz]. And I like American films, [Martin] Scorsese. I don’t have particularly European tastes. In fact, is ‘Naked’ by Mike Leigh or Ken Loach?”

Why don’t you write your own screenplays?

“I don’t think you have to write. The minute you meet people who are much more talented at it, you simply lose the desire. I don’t believe in the phrase ‘A film by.’ It’s a film by all of us. We all worked on it.

“On the other hand, I don’t think it’s any less the director’s film because he didn’t write it. Many of our beloved directors don’t write their own stuff. Scorsese, for example. In America, that’s more accepted. Apparently, I’m not an ‘auteur.’

“In general, I’d be happy to move my film from the culture pages to the news pages. I have nothing to say about cinematographic vision or expression. I don’t know how to analyze things. I know what I need. I don’t know what I want. I need it to be believable.”

You describe yourself as an intuitive director.

“Yes. Just that. I don’t talk with the cinematographer, for instance. He’s a cinematographer who’s worked with me for 15 years already, Shark De Mayo. He was my father’s photography assistant, and I was his assistant. He’s a great cinematographer, in my opinion. And we don’t plan; we don’t make a scenario with the shots. We simply cover it from every angle. You could say it was filmed like a poor studio sitcom. We should have all the shots so I can cut during editing, so it won’t be some kind of one-shot deal and afterward I’m stuck with it and cursing myself because it came out shit.”

From Six Acts: A social jungle in the heart of the Dan region, Beelzebub at the mall. Credit: Shark De Mayo
Jonathan Gurfinkel.Credit: Kobi Kalmanovich
On the set of 'Six Acts'.Credit: Shark De Mayo
Sivan Levy in role of the Gili, the heroine: Choosing her partners. Credit: Shark De Mayo

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