Without a Single Misstep

Asaf Korman makes the transition from editor to director with wisdom, decency, maturity and artistic discipline.

Asaf Korman has an impressive résumé as an editor who worked on some of the most notable Israeli films of recent years, such as “Jaffa,” “The Slut,” “God’s Neighbors,” “Big Bad Wolves” and “Farewell Baghdad.” When editors – even very good ones – try to become directors, the transition is not always smooth, as various past cases have demonstrated. In Korman’s case, however, the shift is more than flawless: His debut feature, “Next to Her,” is one of the best Israeli movies of recent years – an achievement made all the more impressive by the film’s subject matter. Watching it again now, I was even more forcefully impressed by its excellence than when I first saw it at the Cannes Film Festival.

“Next to Her” is a masterful display of wisdom, decency, maturity and artistic discipline, but the feat is not Korman’s alone. He had at his disposal an excellent, semi-autobiographical screenplay by Liron Ben-Shlush, his wife and one of the film’s stars. It is entirely possible, of course, to ruin a fine screenplay, but Korman realizes Ben-Shlush’s writing in the most appropriate way.

“Next to Her” is the story of two sisters: Chelli (Ben-Shlush), a security guard at a Haifa high school, and Gabby (Dana Ivgy), who has severe mental disabilities. Chelli’s life is devoted to Gabby’s care, but their relationship begins to change when she meets Zohar (Yaakov Zada Daniel), a substitute gym teacher at Chelli’s school.

Movies about a mentally challenged hero or heroine face numerous pitfalls, and the fact that “Next to Her” manages to sidestep all of them is already a major accomplishment. This is not a movie about a “problem” – namely, Gabby’s mental disability and the burden it places on her surroundings. What makes Korman and Ben-Shlush’s work so thrillingly mature is that they manage to make the film much about more than that. While offering a painstaking account of Chelli and Gabby’s routine, “Next to Her” manages to move out of the “problem” niche and become a drama, or even a melodrama, about a family formation within which Gabby’s disability carries a symbolic weight.

It was not by accident that I described “Next to Her” as a movie about two sisters, not as a movie about a woman caring for her disabled sister. There have been many movies about this complex bond, from Ingmar Bergman’s “The Silence” to Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters,” and it is to this category that “Next to Her” primarily belongs. Without denying the power of Dana Ivgy’s performance as Gabby – on which more below – it is Chelli who is the heart of the movie. As we are made to see in depth, caring for Gabby fills her life and gives it meaning; she is just as dependent on Gabby as the latter is on her, and their bond arouses in her a contradictory mix of emotions. Ben-Shlush – who is as fine an actress as she is a writer – manages to convey this ambivalence with great delicacy, and that is what gives “Next to Her” its exquisite emotional balance. By treading such a delicate path, the movie steers clear of sentimentality, represses excessive melodrama and thus also allows the two other main characters, Gabby and Zohar, to display their human complexity with the same wise subtlety that defines the movie as a whole.

“Next to Her” does not misstep once: Every scene is good, its careful design enhancing the movie’s portrayal of a human reality and eliciting the right response from the audience. Few movies warrant such unhesitating praise. Ben-Shlush, as I’ve said, is excellent at highlighting her character’s emotional complexity. Yaakov Zada Daniel is also wonderful, managing to communicate his character’s blend of kindness and something else, more disturbing. Few movies manage to be human and generous when handling such qualities; “Next to Her” does, providing yet more evidence of its wisdom.

All this leaves us with Dana Ivgy. We’ve already seen Ivgy in a wide range of roles, including this year’s endearing comedic turn in “Zero Motivation.” Her performance as Gabby suggests that her range may be infinite. Playing Gabby might have caused an actress to become theatrical and try to steal the focus; Ivgy does not. Her acting is so precise and perfectly proportioned that the result is breathtaking. Ivgy has the ability – which cannot be taught in acting school – to touch our hearts, whether in comic or dramatic roles; this ability is especially evident here, even as she too manages to avoid sentimentality. Given the high risks of the role, her achievement is especially impressive.

“Next to Her” is another feather in the cap of Israeli filmmaking; it is a feat for Korman, Ben-Shlush and their cast, a movie deserving every kind of respect and praise, which I hope it will indeed receive.