Tel Aviv Docu Festival Turns Its Lens on the Margins of Israeli Society

Tel Aviv’s largest film festival offers 10 days of documentaries from around the world, with this year's event putting the spotlight on refugees, immigrants and the city's downtrodden.

Vitali Krivich

While broadcasting her weekly call-in program for Eritrean refugees out of a small radio studio in Stockholm, Meron Estefanos pauses for a moment to reflect on the dissonance between the two worlds she straddles.

“I come from a country where animal rights are respected,” she notes. “You hit a dog in Sweden, you go to jail for six months. You kill a cat, you go to jail for three-and-a-half years. And here, I listen to people being tortured every hour. And the whole world is watching and doing nothing.”

An Eritrean-born refugee living in Stockholm, Estefanos is the subject a new Israeli documentary, “Sound of Torture,” that will premiere at the Docaviv International Documentary Film Festival, opening May 8 in Tel Aviv.

A social activist, she uses her radio program to assist and lend a voice to some of the most desperate people on earth – Eritrean refugees being held captive in torture camps in the Sinai Desert, and their distraught loved ones trying at all costs to rescue them.

As this hour-long film notes, in the past decade more than 300,000 Eritreans have fled the cruel military dictatorship in their home country, often risking their lives in the process. Because the doors of Europe have been closed to them, many have taken the treacherous journey to Israel by foot, via Sudan and Egyptian Sinai, in their search for a safe haven.

Ever since 2009, many of these refugees – men, women and children – have been caught by Bedouin smugglers in Sinai and held there in torture camps, their captors demanding tens of thousands of dollars in ransoms in exchange for their release.

In order to make their demands known, these smugglers provide their captives with cellphones, which are then also used to communicate with the radio-show host and relatives who have made the journey to Israel.

Their cries for mercy, as their bodies get cut and burned by their tormentors, can be heard clearly through these phones. Just as heartrending to watch are the facial responses of their loved ones, captured on camera, as they are forced to listen through it all.

'Sound of Torture,' by Keren Shayo Photo by Daniel Kedem

Directed by Keren Shayo, “Sound of Torture” is among 100 or so foreign and locally produced shorts and features to be showcased at this year’s 10-day festival, Israel’s premier event for documentary film.

With about 35,000 Eritrean refugees living in south Tel Aviv today – about a quarter of whom, according to the film, have experienced the so-called torture camps – it is a film that should resonate with local audiences who have grown accustomed to seeing these people in their midst, yet know so little about the hardships they’ve endured.

Another documentary shining a light on the less glamorous parts of Tel Aviv is Julie Shles’ opening night film, “Last Stop.”

As the title suggests, this film presents a mosaic of life around the city’s ginormous and maze-like Central Bus Station, a tense meeting ground of Tel Aviv’s Jewish underclass and often homeless African refugees.

On the one hand, it is difficult not to recoil from the comments being made by Jewish guards stationed at the site – as well as Jewish residents of the neighborhood. Yet on the other, it is hard not to pity them for the unfortunate circumstances of their own lives.

Take May Golan, for example, an articulate young woman bent on ridding the neighborhood of its African refugees. She lives behind bars with her mother, in a bid to stay safe.

Or the young mother, forced to give up her six children, who works as a security guard at the entrance to the station and who, with tears in her eyes, fantasizes about a day when they will all come home to her. As she complains about being forced to get near African people while doing her job, she also acknowledges that they are much nicer than the Israelis who pass by her.

And then there are the downtrodden refugees, constantly looking over their shoulders and never knowing what the day will hold in store.

'Voices from the Booth,' by Lina Chaplin Photo by Ofer Harari

A different type of outsider is the focus of Lina Chaplin’s latest film, “Voices from the Booth.” These are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who left behind illustrious careers to try their luck in a new land and somehow ended up in that most boring of jobs: sitting in a security booth for hours on end.

Each of the super-overqualified individuals featured in the film could justify a documentary in their own right: Easily, the female surgeon who eventually leaves Israel to go back to Russia, only to find herself back in Israel again, not feeling at home anywhere. Certainly, the heartthrob musician who, back in the old country, would cause crowds of thousands to swoon, and here in Israel is even beyond a nobody. Most definitely, the former curator and writer who spends his long hours at work writing short stories by hand the old-fashioned way, and somehow ends up getting noticed by a literary editor at this newspaper.

Docaviv runs through May 17, and in addition to the Cinematheque – Tel Aviv’s primary arthouse theater – screenings will be held at Tel Aviv Port, Habima Square, and at several venues in the south of the city, including Levinsky Park. To mark the 25th anniversary of the Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater, the festival will dedicate a special sidebar to documentaries on dance and choreography.