Wrapping Up a Successful Docaviv Film Festival

With the screenings packed, audiences engaged and diverse subject matter, perhaps 2014 will also be a breakout year for showing documentaries in commercial move theaters.

Oded Kirma

This year’s Docaviv International Film Festival, which ends this week, has been particularly successful — both artistically and in terms of audience response. The theaters were mostly full. Even on mid-week mornings, if you hadn't bought your seats in advance, you would have likely sat in the aisle or missed out on the screening altogether.

The Israeli competition was varied in many ways — first of all in terms of its human makeup including veteran, gracious artists such as Julie Shles, Lena Chaplin, Yair Kedar and Ibtisam Mara’ana-Menuhin. They appeared alongside directors who had debuted their first films, such as Sivan Ben-Ari, Noa Shabtai, Nitzan Ofir and Eri Daniel Erlich. Particularly cheering was the fact that this year, most of the films in the competition were directed by women — ten films, as compared with only four films that were directed by men. Not that I have anything against male directors — perish the thought! It is simply refreshing to toss the statistics up on occasion. It gives you the feeling that at least in documentary film, the women directors finally succeeded in reaching a place of equal opportunity, and that from now on it is possible, at least regarding women, to stop the slightly annoying accounting and concentrate on the film’s quality rather than its creator’s identity.

The films themselves were all highly deserving, and brought in a spectrum of topics — political, social, personal and cultural. Many of the filmmakers had succeeded in coming very close to the subjects of their films, which created a feeling of great honesty and a particularly deep viewpoint that enabled the audience to look in a new way even at seemingly routine issues. Examples of this include the argument between vegans and meat-eaters in the film by Eri Daniel Erlich, “Life According to Ohad,” and the encounters that various groups organize between Jewish and Arab children, such as in “Almost Friends” by Nitzan Ofir and Barak Heymann.

I found two films in the Israeli competition particularly moving: “Write Down, I Am an Arab” by Ibtisam Mara’ana-Menuhin and “Probation Time” by Avigail Sperber. Mara’ana-Menuhin’s film, which is about Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, showed via two dramatic love stories from the poet's life, one with a Jewish woman and one with the daughter of a Syrian diplomat, the dual tension of his life. First, the tension of being a peace-loving, romantic private individual and poet and his transformation into a political person and a symbol of Palestinian resistance, and second, the tension between his poetic view of the world and the prosaic nature of life. Sperber’s film, which is about her adoptive sister Ariella and her family’s difficulty in dealing with Ariella’s tendencies toward criminal behavior, addiction and suicide, brought profound parenting dilemmas to the screen and probed the nature of the connection between feelings of duty and love.

Politically speaking, the choice to bring in many films dealing with current events in Africa, including Goran Olsson’s fascinating film “Concerning Violence” and Keren Shayo’s important film “Sound of Torture,” was a clever way to provide food for thought about what is going on very close to us. Anyone who viewed those films could not fail to make the proper comparison.

The creation of a new competition, entitled "Depth of Field," was a double-edged sword. The films that were included in this category were described as deserving if they stretched the limits of the documentary genre into more distant, artistic places. This division is problematic because it allows documentary films to be conventional in the way that they are made, but draws a distinction between form and content. The major avenue for documentary films, as defined via the two main competitions, still includes films that the television channels are willing to broadcast, and they have a similar pace and satisfying literary development. The others, which mix reality and imagination, refuse to surrender to the dictatorship that is editing, and choose instead to make the viewer watch a silent person, sometimes for many minutes, are defined as “other.”

Still, it would be a good thing if the success of the festival and the audience's flocking to it were to lead to an expansion of regular commercial showings of documentary films in the movie theaters, since, as it happens, there are quite a few people who understand the advantages of watching films of this type on the big screen.