Israeli Cinema Goes Dark

There’s a radical type of film being made in Israel now, one where sexual relations are humiliating, home is a place of anxiety, and reality is precarious and unstable. Israeli films about war and the occupation are giving way to a new wave where the danger lurks within.

A girl’s body beheaded by a pedophile, two boys who lock a girl in their bomb shelter, a high-school girl who has to cope with a series of sexual harassments – these are just a few of the disturbing stories and images that Israeli cinema has foisted on us in the past year.

The obsessive preoccupation with violence continues in two recently released films: “She’s Coming Home,” a provocative debut by Maya Dreifuss that makes extensive use of violence; and the blood-drenched zombie parody “Cannon Fodder,” directed by Eitan Gafny.

Dreifuss is part of the recent wave of female directors in Israel, a group that is painting a strikingly depressing portrait of present-day reality: Hagar Ben-Asher’s “The Slut” (2011) deals with pedophilia; “Alice” (2012), directed by Dana Goldberg, is a skilful depiction of a dysfunctional mother who finds it difficult to function as a mother; “S#x Acts” (2012), directed by Johnathan Gurfinkel from a screenplay by Rona Segal, is a psychological horror drama in the guise of a coming-of-age story; and Michal Aviad’s “Invisible” (2011) tells the story of two women who were assaulted by the same serial rapist. And even now, with Keren Yedaya (“Jaffa”) making a film about incest, the current wave has clearly not crested.

This recent trend can be traced back to Yedaya’s “Or” (2004) and films by the siblings Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz (“To Take a Wife” from 2004 and “7 Days” from 2008), all of them disturbing, thought-provoking works in which female directors have held up a highly unflattering mirror to the Israeli society of the early 21st century.

It’s a society that sanctifies masculine values of militarism, sexism and the use of force. And this cinematic trend does not characterize only films made by women. In the past few years, they have been joined by young male directors whose films depict a vernacular experience permeated by violence. They include “Big Bad Wolves” (2013), codirected by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado (again about pedophilia); and “Youth” (2013), directed by Tom Shoval, focusing on 18-year-old twins who decide to kidnap a girl from their high school); as well as Idan Hubel’s “The Cutoff Man” (2012) and Amir Manor’s “Epilogue” (2012).

Different as they are from one another, these films share a great deal in terms of story, style and themes. Taking the “New Sensitivity” movement of the 1960s and ’70s in Israeli cinema as a model, the current wave might well be termed the “New Violence” movement, whose features could be described within the following categories:

Sadistic men, masochistic women

Whereas the men are pedophiles, rapists or simply confused adolescents who vent their wrath on random girls, the women tend to accuse themselves. The feminine body is a constant source for pain, which generally does not cause pain to others (although “She’s Coming Home” plays with this convention). Thus, in most of these films sexual relations are experienced by the woman as a trauma involving humiliation and violence, even if she is the initiator. You won’t find sex scenes here that reflect love and mutual passion. In fact, the line that divides consensual sex from rape is blurred to the point of nonexistent.

An ‘ideology-of-having-no-ideology’

This is how the film scholar Prof. Ella Shohat categorized the common denominator of the New Sensitivity filmmakers in her seminal book “Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation” (1987). Like the French New Wave-inspired personal cinema emerging in Israel during the 1960s and ’70s, as a counterresponse to the Zionist filmmaking of the 1950s, the New Violence filmmakers also shy away from any direct exploration of politics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – a choice which is just as political today as it was then.

Despite the almost complete absence of Arab characters (other than one secondary character in “Big Bad Wolves”), and even though the words “occupation” or “Palestinians” are never mentioned, the reality these films depict is one in which the street has become a battlefield and violence is the quintessential definer of Israel’s unstable existence.

Accordingly, militarism enters the characters’ lives indirectly, as a backdrop rather than the central theme – but precisely because of this recurring thematic choice, the feeling is that it is all-pervasive. There is the army weapon that makes it possible for the twin brothers in “Youth” to kidnap the girl and imprison her in a bomb shelter; the uniform that Zeev wears in his first meeting with Michal (when he is on his way home from reserve duty) in “She’s Coming Home”; the military experience of the protagonists of “Big Bad Wolves,” which enables them to kidnap and torture a suspect; and the mundane exchanges of the boys in “S#x Acts” about their motivation to serve in a combat unit.

The personal is universal

Again, as in the New Sensitivity wave, it’s easy to forget where New Violence films were taking place while viewing them. The characters never read newspapers, listen to the radio or surf the Web. There are no stormy political arguments; in fact, there is no direct reference to current events. If the characters weren’t speaking Hebrew, we could easily imagine that we are viewing a film shot in a nameless European or American suburb.

With the exception of “The Slut,” in which the location is integral to the plot, the other films erase any reference to their “Israeliness.” The result is films that aspire to a universal, ahistorical image, freeing themselves from spatial and temporal specificities. Indeed, some observers brand them, contemptuously, “festival films,” claiming that they seek to curry favor with a non-Israeli audience, although this is a contentious allegation.

Even as they are influenced largely by European or American cinema (more recently also by Asian cinema), the New Violence filmmakers give constant expression to the tension between their Israeli identity and a desire to locate themselves within the global community in which they are operating and to which they are referring.

The home is a battlefield

Israeli cinema has always contained scenes of violence, but they were generally confined to the battlefield. From “Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer” (1955) to “Beaufort” (2007), “Waltz with Bashir” (2008), “Lebanon” (2009), “Infiltration” (2010) or “Rock the Casbah” (2013), violence mostly has been associated with the conflict and the occupation. Even when it penetrated Israel’s “home front,” in films such as “Ajami” (2009) or, more recently, “Bethlehem” (2013), it was clear what needed to be done to deal with it. The enemy was identifiable and could therefore be fought against (even at the price of losing one’s moral compass). And, it followed, violence entailed weaponry: rifles, tanks, bulldozers, pistols.

In the New Violence films, however, the battlefield is the domestic sphere, and the body (mainly the male body) is the weapon. War movies helped repress the ever-growing price Israelis and Palestinians were paying for the occupation – by translating the chaotic reality into a filmic narrative with a beginning, middle and end. The New Violence films, on the other hand, refuse to afford us the narrative pleasure of a classically structured plot and a cathartic closure. Instead, they offer open, frustrating endings that leave room for the viewer’s imagination. (It’s interesting, in this context, to compare the similar open and ambivalent endings of “Or,” “S#x Acts” and “She’s Coming Home.” In all of them, rape is experienced as a continuing nightmarish reality rather than a singular, one-time event.)

The violence is new

In the past two years, due to the use of special effects and higher production values, Israeli filmgoers have encountered scenes of violence of an intensity never before seen in their national cinema. In contrast to the war movies that depicted their violent subject matter from a safe distance by using aesthetic techniques like animation or discrete camerawork (such as exclusive soldiers’ point-of-view shots that render the enemy distant and invisible), “Big Bad Wolves” (and Keshales and Papushado’s previous film, “Rabies,” from 2010) contain graphic violence that aesthetically converses with contemporary Asian (mainly South Korean) cinema.

Low-budget experimental films like “Cats on a Pedal Boat” (2011), directed by Yuval Mendelson and Nadav Hollander, and Gafny’s “Cannon Fodder” use special effects and makeup to present more comic versions of graphic violence, including amputated limbs, close-ups of internal organs and rivers of blood. “Cannon Fodder” is not a salient representative of the New Violence movement, as it tells the story of an Israel Defense Forces special-forces unit that enters Lebanon in order to capture a senior Hezbollah figure, and as such deals directly with the protracted conflict in the region. However, the use of special effects to create a violent, blood-drenched reality reflects the new trend of ever-more-extreme graphic images.

Concurrently, the films directed by women show visceral and aggressive sex scenes that are difficult to watch, involving physical and mental violence that arouses physical responses in the viewers as well as in the characters on the screen.

Violence is the routine

Even in films that don’t show a drop of blood, such as “S#x Acts,” “Alice,” “Epilogue,” “The Cutoff Man” or “She’s Coming Home,” violence is present in almost every scene. Contrary to the accepted (and comforting) conception that violence is a gash, an exceptional “rupture” or a “deviation” from everyday reality, in the New Violence films the lack of violence is the exception rather than the rule. The mundane everyday existence is violent, unstable, temporary.

The political and economic instability is translated into an emotional malaise that the protagonists carry with them wherever they go. (The veteran actor Moshe Ivgy succeeds in charging that malaise with heartrending emotional depth in “The Cutoff Man” and “Youth.”)

Art is violence

In a society in which the stimulus threshold is redefined every day, artists and filmmakers feel a need to meet the new standards. To shock viewers in 2014, it’s not enough to hint at a pedophilic act – you have to show an image of the body of a beheaded girl. It’s not enough to talk about rape – you have to confront viewers with sex scenes saturated with violence, humiliation and traumatic power games.

The violent nature of these works is therefore twofold: the victims of the violent acts are not only the characters, but the viewers as well. Even when the tension is broken with comic scenes, the viewing experience creates a cumulative unease that stays with us long after we have left the theater.

In a society that does not enable its youngsters to express feelings of frustration, anger and anxiety, it need come as no surprise that these are channeled into cinematic storytelling and other endeavors. In this sense, the New Violence films resemble the classroom geek who one day gets fed up with the daily ritual of public humiliation and knocks out the bully who’s been bugging him for years.

The filmmakers themselves know better than anyone that that fist cannot – and will not – change reality substantively. But by refusing to provide their viewers with a narrative catharsis, they are transforming the occupation, the recession and the gender discrimination from incorporeal specters into a concrete reality, driven by a feeling that to acknowledge the problem is a necessary step toward the long journey toward its possible solution.

Of course, all these categories are generalizations to some extent, and not every one of the films I mentioned fits each category to the same degree. Still, despite the stylistic divergences, it is apparent that most of the young filmmakers in Israel today are expressing powerful feelings of outrage, claustrophobia, instability and temporariness.

Whether in dramas or in genre-bending films like “Big Bad Wolves,” they deliberately challenge and blur the boundaries between “battlefield” and “home front”; “consensual sex” and “rape”; “sadism” and “masochism”; “victim” and “assailant.” They do not always make for pleasant viewing. Hardly ever does a “happy end” await us – indeed, there is an untoward inflation of suicides, whether metaphoric or concrete, in the New Violence films.

But taking into account the political, economic and social situation in which these directors are operating, it is easy to understand why the portrait they paint is so pessimistic. Precisely because for Israeli artists in their twenties and thirties the New Violence is, in fact, the familiar old violence – the violence that has accompanied their lives from childhood in the shadow of the first Lebanon war to maturation in the period of the second intifada – it’s worth listening to what they have to say. Even when the feeling is that someone has just punched us squarely in the stomach.