In Israeli Director Eitan Green's Films, Family Is Savior

'Indoors,' Eitan Green’s latest film, does not shrink away from setting the record straight: Every happy family is unhappy, in fact, in its own way

A scene from 'Indoors.'
Shai Goldman

I’ve noticed that when people speak or write about Israeli film director Eitan Green, they tend to mention that they’ve been aware of him and his work for X number of years. Indeed, productive filmmakers like Green, who can be “relied upon” to churn out the product consistently, to a certain extent give a rhythm to the time spent moving through life of a lot of other people. But sometimes, the need to plot the coordinates of their acquaintance with an artist on our own personal time line is an attempt to compensate for some sort of a gap or absence, by way of projecting objective validity of reality on an elusive and indecipherable experience. This friction, between the strange and the familiar, is highly familiar to me from my viewing of Eitan Green’s films.

There is a link between the sense of absence that drives Green’s engagement in the familiar and the domestic, and the function played by family in all of his films. The family in Green’s work is at one and the same time whole and deficient, familiar and alien, and it lives in a home that is simultaneously very enclosing, an object of yearning, but is also breached and encroached upon by the anxiousness of the home’s residents to separate from it. Green investigates with the tender touch of a fine jeweler and the severity of a basketball coach that movement between convergence between the walls of the home, and being cast out from them.

The fundamental cinematographic demarcation between inside and outside is incessantly challenged in his cinema, such as in the lengthy scene of a basketball game in his latest work, “Indoors,” that unfolds like the perfect representation of an inner-psychic event. Not long ago, I happened to re-watch an early Green movie, “It All Begins at Sea.” All of a sudden, my daughter was calling out: “Dad, look – it’s a snake.” In fact, a huge snake had appeared on the screen, which during my previous viewings had apparently slipped into my unconscious before I could even notice it. At this point, we might introduce into the conversation Freud and the concept of the “Unheimlich” – something that is uncannily familiar, rather than simply mysterious.

Sigmund Freud’s household was composed of father, mother, six children, the mother’s sister who lived with them (and with whom Freud did or did not have an affair), a cook and housekeeper. At certain points, Freud was financially supporting two of his sisters and his mother. Freud provided for this entire tribe from his office, which was in the apartment. It is impossible not to wonder how a man who was caring for so many people and dealing with so many family matters had the time to write a single scientific line, let along found a new branch of science. How is it possible to conduct 10 analytic sessions a day while six children are running about in the apartment?

“You cannot say about my father that he was a family man,” wrote one of Freud’s sons, “but as children we knew that we had the right to be saved by him.”

For some reason, this formulation, “the right to be saved” by father, is associated in my mind with the place that family assumes in Eitan Green’s films. The family is the arena in which we are saved. Or not. I could not enumerate here all of the sorts of tragedies and rescue actions involving children and parents that show up in Green’s films. It began back in his first feature film, “Into the Night,” in which the life of the son (Assi Dayan), who had become involved with criminals, is saved by his father (Yosef Millo), a Christian, who is murdered in his place.

What, then, is the thing from which the family in Green’s films needs to save the hero? It saves him or her from the Unheimlich, the uncanny.

Engagement in the uncanny preceded Freud. In art, there have been quite a few attempts to reconstruct by visual or literary means the sense of anxiety that arises from the encounter with the familiar and the domestic that is at the same time also concealed and mysterious. Freud provided a theoretical-psychological explanation for the everyday experience with the help of two basic psychoanalytical terms – “repression” and “unconscious.” Through them, one can understand the sense of alienness and terror that suddenly ignites from what had been domestic and familiar (for instance, the panic that rises in a person at seeing a face in a store window that turns out to be his own reflection). Essentially, the experience of the uncanny reinforces on one foot one of the tenets of psychoanalytic thought: the place in which the ego feels most at home is the unconscious, which is at the same time also the place in which the ego is alien to itself.

The young journalist (played by Icho Avital), whose epilepsy causes him convulsions at the most inappropriate times in the film “American Citizen” (1992); the young man (Avi Grainik), whose restrained tears begin to flow whenever he tries to pass a driver’s test in “As Tears Go By” (1996); the child who sleepwalks through the rooms of the house and urinates in the wrong places (and on the wrong people) in “Indoors” – Eitan Green is the “symptom virtuoso” of the Israeli cinema.

Avram (Yuval Segal) is a Jerusalem building contractor who wants more, and in seeking it gets himself involved in projects that are way beyond what he’s capable of. His wife, Dassi (Osnat Fishman), a nurse, is afraid he’s getting in over his head, but this doesn’t prevent him from getting involved in something that leads him to take on debt he cannot possibly pay back. His son, Doron (Ido Zaid), 14, is a gifted basketball player who finds an escape from the hardships back home on the court, and uses his success there as an emotional force to help his father in his time of need. As the story opens, Dassi is off in Romania, as part of a medical delegation on a humanitarian mission. Every member of the family goes through a rough experience under the threat of the father’s financial undoing, but in their shared effort to help Avram, they rediscover the strength of their family ties. 

Much as in his previous films, the protagonists of “Indoors” have not only complex personalities or unfulfilled desires, but also an unconscious that serves as a background for their individual maturation. The symptom – whether it is the father’s depression or the boy’s sleep-walking disorder – does not in and of itself imbue the character with any special knowledge about itself or about the world. Yet the mental-physical symptom has, in Green’s films, an effect that extends beyond the banal or melodramatic neurotic dimension. The moment the symptom appears, the moment in which the unconscious “rises to the boiling point,” is the moment in which it possesses a transformative potential. But in order for this to happen, the heroes of Green’s films are implanted deep within their family, and thus bestow on us viewers a more profound understanding (more profound than that with which Tolstoy, for example, as evidenced by his notorious opening line for “Anna Karenina,” was graced) of the nature of this institution.

Family is a device for survival, in the psychological sense. It serves as a lightning rod for symptoms. It saves its members from the colossal force of the uncanny, and from the terrible loneliness that a prolonged encounter with the uncanny can effect on them. “Indoors,” Eitan Green’s latest film, does not shrink away from setting the record straight: Every happy family is unhappy, in fact, in its own way.