Silver Screen Stories of Migration, Identity and Modern Israel

Several films competing at the Women’s Film Festival in Rehovot, opening Monday, offer insights into the changing nature of Israeli society.

Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber

A Tel Aviv supermarket, a beauty school, the Ukrainian countryside and the beaches of Goa coincide at the Tenth Annual International Women’s Film Festival in Rehovot - opening Monday - as the settings of four documentaries that tell stories of immigration, migration and identity in Israel.

“Super Women,” one of 25 films in the Israeli competition at this year’s festival, documents the lives of five cashiers from Russian backgrounds who work at a branch of the Mega supermarket chain in north Tel Aviv. Filmed over two and a half years, the documentary by Yael Kipper and Ronen Zaretzky already garnered awards and acclaim at the Docaviv film festival in May. It takes viewers inside the world of the supermarket, where the colleagues support each other through the struggle of daily life.

“They all have stories,” says Kipper, who first became interested in the behind-the-scenes of the store as a customer. “Everything happens in the supermarket. They have this little room where they talk and eat, where dramas unfold.” More than a story about the challenges faced by immigrants in Israel, however, “Super Women” tells a social story, says Kipper. “This is a film about women who are surviving everyday life in Israel. There is a population like this here, and no one talks about them. People talk about how much the middle class can’t afford, but these women can’t live.”

When the film premiered earlier this year, “People had very, very strong responses to it,” she says, ‘”from wanting to protest outside the supermarket, or wanting to give them money, but they are very proud women.” Since then, however, “nothing has happened tangibly, like an increase in wages, but I hope that the film helped their self respect and esteem, because they are heroes.”

Across town, Judy Maltz and Richie Sherman give us a glimpse into the lives of eight women who, over the course of one year, either teach or study at Diana Beauty Academy, which first opened its doors in 1954. “From the Black You Make Color” has been screened at festivals abroad, and has even won some awards, but this will be its Israeli premier. It follows the school’s “most diverse” incoming class ever. The film’s cast of characters includes a Vietnamese woman who migrated for love, a labor migrant from Nigeria, an Ethiopian-born woman who came to Israel as a girl, a Russian immigrant who still struggles with her Hebrew, and an Israeli-born woman who lost her husband in a terror attack.

The film chronicles the women coping with issues such as bereavement and cancer, as well as the difficulties of being a stranger in a strange land. But it also shows us the changing face of Israel, which has seen significant waves of immigration from Russia and Ethiopia over the past two decades, as well as labor migration from Africa and Asia in recent years. Maltz, who is a frequent contributor to Haaretz, was struck by these changes after having spent years living out of the country. Like Kipper's experience at the supermarket, Maltz came across the school as a customer – she went there to get her haircut. As she sat in the hairdresser’s chair, “it became clear to me that this place was really a microcosm of modern Israeli society,” she says, “a society that had really changed so dramatically in the past 10 to 20 years.”

I film, therefore I cope

From the streets of Tel Aviv to Ukraine, Marina Gurevich documents herself and her family in “Loving from Afar.” The young filmmaker, who immigrated to Israel from Ukraine at the age of five, “didn’t mean to make a film,” she says. “I just started documenting. At first it started as an emotional coping method, like a diary.” About three years ago, Gurevich finished filming the footage of her mother, her younger brother, her grandmother and her father, who is now divorced from her mother and living in Ukraine.

The 21-minute documentary looks at the dynamics of Gurevich’s family from the very personal point of view. She explores the differences between the three generations of women in her family: the Soviet grandmother, who wants to teach her grandchildren to work the land; the mother, a former ballerina who, on arrival in Israel, had to work as a cleaner; and the young filmmaker herself, who feels like she belongs and doesn’t belong in both countries.

The challenges of growing up between two places are the subject of another documentary competing at the festival. In “Not Your Life,” first-time director and long-time editor Tal Shefi turns the camera on herself and her daughter, Kaya, who grew up in Tel Aviv and in Goa, India, and whose father is Nepali. In the documentary, Shefi and her daughter discuss the move from Israel to India, travelling the world together, and Kaya’s sense, growing up, that she did not belong in Israel, India, or Nepal.

Initially, Shefi had been making film about the boxing school her daughter attended in Goa; the documentary includes footage of a 13-year-old Kaya training and competing. What drew her to the school, says Shefi, was that it was “the only place in Goa, I think, where Indians and foreigners meet as equals. There is something colonialist about that bubble of foreigners.” In the editing process, however, Shefi realized the film was missing something. Years later, a visit to Goa with an 18-year-old Kaya gave her the additional layer the story needed.

More than a story about an Israeli family wandering the earth, however, for Shefi “this is a film about parents, what choices we make, how they influence our kids and how they affect our relationships with them.” But it is about identity and belonging, too. “Can you reinvent your own reality?” she asks. “Can you reinvent yourself outside of conservative definitions, like religion and nationality?”

The International Women’s Film Festival, Rehovot takes place from October 21-27. Special programs to mark the festival’s tenth anniversary include a showcase of ten female filmmakers, a screening of the first feature film made by a woman in Israel and three days of screenings at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. For information on this and other special events see the festival website.

"Rehovot film festival. Love from AfaCredit: Courtesy
"Rehovot film festival. Love from AfarCredit: Courtsey

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