Short Israeli Film Shows the Power of 'Transparent' Mizrahi Women

'Hounds' doesn’t resort to commonplace slogans but draws us gently into the characters’ world.

Matan Green

Discourse that becomes widespread is often vitiated by slogans and assumes crude black-and-white hues, becoming disconnected from personal stories and their subtlety. Good art, in contrast, emphasizes the small details from which a character is constructed and a story is woven. As such, its portrayal of the social-political situation articulated by public discourse is more natural and, above all, far more moving.

“Hounds,” the first short film (27 minutes) by Omer Tobi, a director of commercials and clips, is just such a work. It’s a very precise portrayal that shifts adroitly between the comic and the dramatic in addressing a painful subject: the limited possibilities available in Israel’s labor market to women of weak social status. The movie accomplishes this – directs our gaze at this issue – simply by bringing the viewer into the world of the characters in the story. They don’t have to show their pay slip or effect a look of misery, or look weak in some pornographic sense, for the viewer to grasp that there are women in this country who cannot dream about and realize their future through the channel of employment.

Produced as part of the recent Tel Aviv International Student Film Festival, , “Hounds” tracks four female guards in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. In real life, women in that job would probably be from the former Soviet Union, but in the film they are Mizrahi women (of Middle Eastern or North African descent): Iris Kadosh (played by Orna Banai), Elvis (Ilanit Ben-Yaakov), Estie (Eti Levi) and Ilana (Dalia Beger).

When an important sculpture is broken, the four, along with a young female volunteer doing her National Service at the museum (in place of military service), are imprisoned inside the museum while an investigation into the incident is carried out. It becomes their space, and for some of them one that gives their life some meaning. But it’s also an alienating space for them – whether because of their social class, education and origins, or because that’s the nature of museum spaces.

Tobi creates a realistic but symbolically charged space between the white, clean, cold museum, and the guards’ blue uniforms and the sculpture. The film moves between the open, illuminated galleries and the narrow corridors from which the guards emerge after changing their clothes. Usually, this behind-the-scenes area is the only space allotted to guards specifically, and it’s there that they celebrate Elvis’ birthday and exhibit fixed patterns of behavior, notably the rivalry between Ilana and Kadosh. But because of the emergency, the whole museum becomes their space, and it’s that sense of emergency that also imbues the film with a surrealistic aura at times.

“Hounds” opens with a conversation between the museum’s director (Anat Vaksman) – an authoritative, stressful voice – and Kadosh, who’s been working in the institution for 16 years. Certain that she’s about to be told she’s been fired, Kadosh tries to preempt and argue against the decision, telling the director about her long hours of work and her commitment to the museum. To her surprise, however, she’s told she’s being promoted and will become the museum’s director of operations. Fear of dismissal turns into joy – despite the feeling of estrangement in the scene – and Kadosh’s self-perception undergoes a transformation.

Tomer Appelbaum

Heartfelt script

This is comic actress Banai’s first dramatic screen role, and she says she saw it as a challenge, just as she saw Kadosh as a character far removed from her life but one who touched her heart.

“It was a gamble,” she relates, in an interview with Haaretz. “After reading the script, which I felt I couldn’t turn it down. I met with Omer and with the producer [Gil Sama], and I was surprised, because there is a lot of warmth in the script and Omer [who also wrote the screenplay] looks like a tzfoni [a snob from north Tel Aviv]. After a short conversation, I discovered that he’s from Be’er Sheva, of Moroccan descent, and that he wrote the script with his heart’s blood.

“But even after knowing all that,” she continues, “it’s still not clear to me how he was able to create the wonderful vision that he weaves into the film. Iris Kadosh is a simple, ‘transparent’ woman. Whenever I visit a museum and see the guards, I can’t help thinking how boring their work is, what a measly salary they get and how they are so often transparent.”

Banai slides into her character naturally, as does Ben-Yaakov with the character of Elvis, the butch guard. Beger is precise in the role of the embittered Ilana, who begrudges Kadosh her promotion. For Levi, who has a 24-year singing career behind her, this was her first screen role. She says she met Tobi at an Arissa event – Mizrahi gay parties – that he produces together with Yotam Pappo, which has changed the party scene in Israel for members of that population.

“Omer and I are good friends, and I adore him,” Levi says, “but when he offered me the part I told him, ‘Omer, I’m not an actress.’ He replied, ‘I don’t want an actress: I want you to be you and to be natural.’ That’s what I did, I was natural.”

Casting wasn’t easy, Tobi says: “I knew I needed Mizrahi actresses, but many of those who auditioned presented a caricature of the Mizrahi. I am half-Moroccan and half-Tunisian, and my family is sometimes at high volume and sometimes at low. As the auditions proceeded and actresses ended every sentence with a guttural ‘ch’ sound, I tried to think whether that was something I was familiar with from home – and it didn’t seem so. That’s when the idea came up that Eti might be suitable. There’s something about her energy that’s positively charming. And she was able to strip away the character’s Mizrahi stereotype.”

Estie, Levi’s character, is unfazed by what has happened and says, “Who will hear about it? One less sculpture in the world doesn’t sound so terrible to me.”

Tobi, who’s all of 25, has a CV that includes a semester in Tel Aviv University’s film department. He left because of the campus atmosphere – “a collection of cement structures with hundreds of people in them,” he explains. “There was something depressing about it, and I was afraid that my intuition would be affected; it didn’t seem to me that honing intuition was part of the curriculum.”

His first film attests to an understanding of the cinematic medium and, above all, shows a penetrating sensitivity. The Mizrahi element is present – subtly, but without being blurred – through the story of each of the four women. The fact that through Tobi’s eyes they cease being the Other and are no longer on the sidelines, mute, but are positioned in the center, is no small thing.