Accolades have been heaped on Asaf Korman’s film “Next to Her,” which this month won the best Israeli feature prize and best screenplay award at the Haifa International Film Festival.
Over and above the fact that it’s a splendid directorial debut, with outstanding performances by Dana Ivgy (who won the Ophir, Israel’s equivalent of the Oscar, for her role) and Liron Ben-Shlush (who also wrote the screenplay), this film is important because it forces viewers to do something unusual in cinematic terms: They spend an hour and a half with a young woman who suffers from severe mental disability, without distraction in the form of subplots, comic moments or a broad collection of other characters.
Ben-Shlush plays Chelli, a security guard at a high school who devotes most of her life to looking after her sister, Gabby (Ivgy), who was born with severe mental retardation, and cannot communicate properly or perform simple routine activities. Film history is filled with “aberrant” characters – from the autistic to the mentally ill – but these characters tend to be good-looking in a way that prettifies their disability. (Consider the character the young Leonardo DiCaprio played in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.”) And even though there is no cinematic shortage of hysterical, depressed or dysfunctional women, it is rare to find screen depictions of women suffering from severe mental disabilities.
From this point of view, “Next to Her” (Hebrew title: “At Li Layla”) is a daring work, which confronts viewers with a young woman who’s hard to watch – she salivates, roars like an animal and lacks control over her body. Ivgy’s performance is completely physical: Her body language and her comportment break every taboo of feminine sexuality (in one scene, she disrobes completely in front of her sister’s boyfriend). Instead of softening these elements, Korman and Ben-Shlush make Ivgy the chief protagonist of their film, a woman who undergoes some sort of developmental process against all odds.
Through the complex character of Gabby and the physical repulsion she generates, “Next to Her” gradually constructs a rich inner world, one from within which communication with the outside is impossible. But at least we can understand that that world exists. At the same time, the film avoids idealization; Gabby’s condition is tragic, and it’s pointless to deny it. As Chelli learns first-hand, life with someone suffering from severe mental disability constitutes an endless series of efforts to cope in a world that has zero tolerance for the Other.
In contrast to Hollywood films, “Next to Her” offers neither redemption nor a deus ex machina that will transform Gabby into a functioning woman, sound of mind and body. What it does is remind us that there are stories without redemption, where only sporadic moments of grace illuminate a dark existence of unbroken suffering.