Every time I hear someone mention “the state of Tel Aviv,” I want to scream. The same goes for every time the city where I was born and have lived my entire life, except for a few years overseas – and beyond which I cannot imagine living – is described as a “bubble.” Tel Aviv is not a separate state, it is not a bubble (a word that always carries the threat of ending in an explosion). The problem is that there are those who accept the stereotype, not because they agree with it but because they want to avoid the social, cultural, economic and political minefield that Tel Aviv seems – and only seems – to represent.
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Despite the fact that Israeli films have never depicted Tel Aviv as a bubble or separate state, it seems as if the current crop of directors find it difficult to show it on screen, perhaps out of fear. And so, for several years, the city has nearly been banished from the movies. Israeli films are no longer set in Tel Aviv, and if they are set among the Israeli bourgeoisie, they take place in the city’s suburbs.
It wasn’t always this way. Since the 1960s, Tel Aviv has been depicted in Israeli film as combining the center and the margins, and without any guilt or embarrassment about the city’s centrality to the Israeli experience. Among the many movies in this context are Yoram Gross’ “Rak Ba’Lira” (“A Pound a Piece,” 1963), about a pair of homeless people; “Ulai Terdu Sham” (“Dreamboat,” 1964), directed by Israel “Puchu” Wissler and Amatsia Hiuni, about the relationship between a nomad and a lonely boy; and the greatest Tel Aviv comedy of all, Ephraim Kishon’s “Te’alat Blaumilch” (“The Big Dig,” 1969), which turned my city into an arena of surrealist satire. All these movies depicted a city that would surely have been horrified to discover that within a few decades it would be walled off as a separate state, a bubble.
In the 1960s, Israeli films occasionally ventured into Jaffa, such as in Menahem Golan’s “El Dorado” (1963) and Shlomo Suriano’s “Nini” (1962). Both movies, and others, depicted migration from the social, cultural and even religious margins of Jaffa to the good life in Tel Aviv.
Farewell to Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv continued to have a presence in Israeli film in the years that followed. Among the many movies in which the city featured, a few must be singled out. They include Nissim Dayan’s “Or min Hahefker” (“Light out of Nowhere,” 1973), which is set in a poor neighborhood in south Tel Aviv. In its style and daring, Dayan’s film represented the antithesis of all those movies that came before it that explored the ethnic gap in Israeli society. And, of course, we cannot ignore Uri Zohar’s 1970s trilogy – “Metzitzim” (“Peeping Toms,” 1973), “Einayim G’dolot” (“Big Eyes,” 1974) and “Hatzilu et Hamatzil” (“Save the Lifeguard,” 1977), the director’s farewell to film, Tel Aviv and secular life.
Two of the most important Tel Aviv movies were made in the 1980s: Eitan Green’s “Ad Sof Halaylah” (“All Night Long,” 1985) and Haim Bouzaglo’s “Nisuim Fiktiveem” (“Fictitious Marriage,” 1988). Both of them used Tel Aviv as the backdrop for adventures of identity – in the former, of a bar owner and ex-military man with a Jewish mother and a Christian father; in the latter, of a history teacher from Jerusalem who pretends to be traveling overseas but instead checks into a small hotel in Tel Aviv, where he impersonates first a former Israeli living in America, then a mute Arab laborer from Gaza.
Assi Dayan played the main character in “Ad Sof Halaylah.” Is it merely coincidence that, seven years later, Dayan set his own “Ha-Chayim Al-Pi Agfa” (“Life According to Agfa,” 1992) in a bar in Tel Aviv, creating what may be the most important Tel Aviv movie of all time – depicting a reality that is a theater of blood but whose very last scene shows a cityscape of rooftops that promises a new day?
In the early 1990s, in the wake of “Shuroo” (“The Lookout,” 1990), which was released just before the Gulf War, Ayelet Menahemi and Nirit Yaron’s “Sipurei Tel-Aviv” (“Tel Aviv Stories,” 1992) and Moshe Zimerman’s “Erev Bli Na’ama” (“An Evening without Na’ama,” 1992) introduced into local cinema language the notion of “Tel Aviv movies,” which I believe no one would dare use today.
The director Eytan Fox and writer Gal Uchovsky were not afraid to return to the Tel Aviv of the silver screen in their film “Ha Bu’ah” (“The Bubble,” 2006), but they included the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the reality it depicted, as did Michael Mayer in his “Alata” (Out in the Dark,” 2012). Like “The Bubble,” it shows the sad outcome of a romance between a Jewish man and a Palestinian man.
There is one more film that must be mentioned in this context – David Perlov’s “Yoman” (“Diary,” 1983), the most important movie in the history of Israeli film. In addition to all its other virtues, it is the most beautiful movie ever made about my city, as reflected in the gaze through a window – initially that of Perlov’s apartment on Manne Street, which overlooked the synagogue across the street, on the day the Yom Kippur War began; and later from the 14th floor of the high-rise apartment building on the southeastern corner of Ibn Gabirol Street and Shaul Hamelekh Boulevard, on top of London Ministore.
My Tel Aviv is embodied in that gaze, that I send from the window of my life to my city, and the complaints made against it say nothing about the city and everything about the crisis that has taken hold of Israel as a whole.