'People That Are Not Me': An Israeli Filmmaker's Debut Is Exhibitionist and Humble at Once

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Hadas Ben Aroya in 'People That Are Not Me.'
Hadas Ben Aroya in 'People That Are Not Me.'Credit: Gili Levinson

There’s something elementary about “People That Are Not Me,” the debut feature film of Hadas Ben Aroya, but along with it is a large dose of singularity and boldness. The result stirs interest in the movie itself, and even more, curiosity about the future career of Ben Aroya as a filmmaker. She produced, wrote, directed and stars in the picture, making it a one-woman show in the full sense of the term.

Of all these tasks, Ben Aroya’s decision to play the lead has a provocative side. The choice is rife with an unavoidable dimension of exhibitionism, which, far from trying to suppress, she puts to intelligent and demonstrative use. This connects with the film’s complete focus on the character she plays, the “me” around whom other people hover.

Throughout the movie’s 80 minutes, the camera, wielded by the cinematographer, Meidan Arama, hardly ever moves away from Ben Aroya’s face, and follows her for long stretches as she wanders the streets of Tel Aviv. (And it’s been a long time since we saw a film whose Tel Aviv ethos, as place and as essence, plays such a central role.)

The very first shot declares the picture’s exhibitionist aspect, by showing Joy, played by Ben Aroya, sitting bare-breasted at her computer one night, trying to communicate with her ex, unable to get over their breakup. This kind of opening shot, with its immediate provocation, demands courage; and what makes the movie stand out, and enhances its quality, is that there is a confrontation between that provocation and the simplicity, even modesty of the film as a whole.

The movie is cinema as a portrait of a young woman who is unable to cope with her unrequited love for Yonatan (Netzer Charitt). But the way in which Ben Aroya shapes the protagonist’s romantic distress raises the question of whether Joy’s disappointment stems from a deep, authentic love for Yonatan, or from the blow that their separation has dealt her ego.

One layer of the movie deals with the desire of a young woman to control her life, including the men who enter it. That doesn’t always work for her, but the doubts the film raises about the motives for Joy’s behavior cast her in an egocentric light – which is reinforced by the title with its ambivalent essence. As for the protagonist’s name, it seems to me that the choice of this unusual name in Israel, and its symbolic overtones, is a mistake. It adds nothing to the picture; an Israeli name would be more suited to the movie and to the character.

In the course of the film, perhaps as an attempt to get over Yonatan or to show that she still has control, Joy sleeps around, notably with Nir (Yonatan Bar-Or), whose psychological scars are gradually revealed, and a handyman named Oren (Meir Toledano). But these are nowhere relationships, which Joy accepts as such, merely part of the Tel Aviv ambience of her generation, through which she drifts.

Creative freedom

Something of the spirit of the French New Wave films, and occasionally of their style, too, pervades Ben Aroya’s movie, which began as her thesis project in Tel Aviv University’s School of Film and Television. At times, while watching “People That Are Not Me,” I was even reminded of several of Jean-Luc Godard’s early movies, though Ben Aroya’s picture does not match them in complexity and wholeness. It’s more insular than those films were, though that dovetails with the themes it deals with and also lends it a degree of contemporaneity. That quality connects the movie to what is happening on the margins of establishment cinema, which is frequently sated and fossilized.

These influences, if indeed they worked on her while she was making the movie, are seen in her controlled use of the limited cinematic means that were available to her. They are found in the minimalism of the story, in the emotional ambivalence it creates by focusing so intensely on its protagonist, in its everydayness and in the narrow social world that is her milieu, so much so that the closeness generates alienation. It exists as well in the movie’s style, which is characterized by a degree of creative freedom, even if that freedom at times seems to be spilling over a certain boundary.

If the film has weaknesses, they stem from Ben Aroya’s ambition to create cinema in her own way, cinema with her imprint, that is imbued with the desire to paint a portrait located in the existential lifestyle it represents. Still, these are features that – certainly in a debut work – are estimable.

And if the film has a high point, it comes at the conclusion, in a scene that is a brilliant example of cinematic writing and direction; it possesses the power to subvert and lends the whole film another level, perhaps more than one. Even if my memory of the film eventually fades, I doubt that I’ll forget that last scene.

It’s enjoyable to watch a movie in which we discover heretofore unknown filmmakers, including the actors, none of whom have previous acting experience. The question of whether they are doing good work is irrelevant to the picture; they are up to it, even in the measure of brusqueness they show. Hadas Ben Aroya herself has facial features to which the camera responds, but in any case, her decision to play the lead role in her first feature film is fraught with a general statement that is far more meaningful than the question of whether she plays the part well as an actress.

Because the maker of the film plays the lead role, the feeling grows, as one watches the picture, that the fictitious character Ben Aroya plays is also the one who is presenting her story to us. In other words, Ben Aroya, by choosing to star in the picture but to play a fictitious character, is both the “me” in the title and one of the people that is not she. That duality touches on the question of the human, existential and emotional authenticity the film seeks to evoke.

I’m always apprehensive about the fate of “small” Israeli movies that don’t have the crowd-drawing spectacle characterizing some of the Israeli films currently doing well at the box office here. The concern is that the small film will come and go too fast. I found “People That Are Not Me” more interesting than some of those other movies. I hope that it will draw an audience, because amid its elementariness and its pretension, with its virtues and shortcomings, lies a work that attests to creative thought and is worthy to be called art. Everyone for whom Israeli cinema is important should take an interest not only in what is happening at its center but also on its margins, where promise resides.

People That Are Not Me (Anashim Shehem Lo Ani) Written, directed by and starring Hadas Ben Aroya, with Yonatan Bar-Or, Meir Toledano, Netzer Charitt

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