Can a Movie With a Conscience Be a Box Office Hit?

An Israeli director's debut feature is intimate, expansive and important - but will anyone go to watch it?

Manpower Written and directed by Noam Kaplan; with Yossi Marshak, Shmulik Calderon, Shimon Udi Pampas, Sun Intusap, Tal Friedman

At one point in the movie “Manpower” – director Noam Kaplan’s first long feature, which competed at the recent 30th Haifa International Film Festival and is now showing at local theaters – one of the four heroes, Erez, faces a committee that will decide whether to grant his request to join the Israel Defense Forces. Erez was born in Israel, grew up here, went to school here – but he is a Filipino. Is he Israeli enough to become an Israeli soldier, even a warrior? One of the ways in which the committee requires him to demonstrate his authentic Israeliness is to show that he knows Israeli music. Erez, a shy but resolute young man – he not only wants to join the army but is determined to be in a combat unit – says that he does. So sing a song, the committee members say. Even this will not deter him. After asking whether he might stand up – a request the committee graciously grants – he rises from his chair, and sings.

Erez’s delicate inquiry, whether it is okay for him to stand up to sing and prove he is Israeli, is a question that Sun Intusap, the actor playing Erez, manages to fill with humility, without kowtowing to the representatives of Israeli authority. This is the most heartbreaking instant of this excellent scene, the most touching of Kaplan’s film. “Manpower” thus makes a fine new addition to the selection of quality Israeli movies now showing in theaters.

This is not the first time Kaplan has demonstrated his abilities. Exactly a decade ago, in 2004, Kaplan – then a student at the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem – made a 53-minute film called “Blue White Collar Criminal,” which even enjoyed a theatrical release. Though I did not see it at the time (for reasons I cannot remember), I did see it now, after viewing “Manpower.” What I discovered is a work that, had I watched it earlier, might have prepared me for the talent, wisdom and decency of the new picture. “Blue White Collar Criminal” combined elements of feature and documentary while telling the story of a young man from Tel Aviv (Kaplan himself) who organizes a drug deal with a Palestinian from the occupied territories. The hero plans to sell the drugs to the crowd at an “anti-Occupation rave” scheduled to be held in front of the Tel Aviv Museum.

Kaplan’s new movie is entirely fictional, but his ability to take a credible look at the physical, human, social and cultural reality around him and to situate his characters within it is still apparent. “Manpower” follows the stories of four Israeli men in crisis; but while many other movies track parallel plot lines in order to bring them together, that is not Kaplan’s main goal, even if some of the stories do intersect eventually. Rather, by looking at all four stories, Kaplan tries to offer a portrait of Israeli masculinity that emerges somewhere on the blurry lines between the center and the margins of Israeli society – on the margins, mainly.

Beyond Erez and his desperate desire to join Israel’s combat troops, “Manpower” also follows Meir (Yossi Marshak), a longtime police officer who, struggling to make ends meet, takes a senior position in a special Immigration Police unit working in south Tel Aviv. There’s also Haim (Shmulik Calderon), a widower still haunted by his service in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Haim founded a cooperative of taxi drivers; his daughter left for Canada years ago, and now his son (Tal Friedman) is preparing to do the same. The fourth hero is Bamba (Shimon Udi Pampas), an immigrant from Nigeria. An educated man now working as a cleaner, Bamba has a wife and a son, Eitan, and is one of the leaders of the immigrant community in south Tel Aviv; for that reason, he faces deportation.

Occasionally “Manpower” becomes too blunt in what it has to say, but it almost always manages to step back in time. Kaplan has a striking ability to balance drama and restraint, observing events from a distance and yet involving us deeply in what we see; this balance gives his movie much of its power. Another source of strength is his delicacy. This is a movie that avoids judgment, opting for compassion even when it could easily have pursued an agenda; but Kaplan’s delicacy does not make the result less powerful. On the contrary; it enhances the movie’s edge, allowing it to offer a picture of Israeli reality that is at once intimate and expansive.

I will take this opportunity to express my concern for Kaplan’s movie. Social issues may be trendy nowadays, but Israeli films that explore social problems in a way that is sharp and intelligent, not sentimental or melodramatic, do not tend to do very well here. I still remember the sad cases of Mushon Salmona’s “Vasermil” from 2007 and Ami Livne’s “Sharqiya” from 2013 – two impressive pictures that, although praised by critics, passed through our theaters without leaving much of a trace. I hope that “Manpower” will fare better and win an audience able to appreciate not just its ideological significance in today’s harsh reality, but its emotional complexity and cinematic quality.

Kudos are due to cinematographer Iddo Soskolne for the way he directs the camera’s gaze at the urban reality in which the movie unfolds, as well as to the four main actors. Shimon Udi Pampas and Sun Intusap are precise and poignant. Yossi Marshak’s fine performance here joins his previous good role in “Hill Start,” also currently showing (and it managed to make me forget his appearance in “Kicking Out Shoshana,” where he looked thoroughly embarrassed), and Shmulik Calderon once again demonstrates his ability to craft a character with restraint and gentleness. “Manpower” offers us a picture of contemporary Israel that exposes and documents what it is like; you would do well to take a look.