“One month, no work. “
Cab drivers in Bethlehem are unctuous and indefatigable, but who can blame them? They haven’t had many tourists in the last few months, the local economy provides little chance of prosperity and political restrictions ensure upward social mobility is a chimerical dream. No wonder they latched on to a colleague and me—there to visit the Nativity Church—and our driver took us on a tour of the city even though we didn’t want to. It got him ten shekels more.
That was the only time I toured a part of Israel against my wishes. During the rest of my eight-day stay at the recently concluded Jerusalem Film Festival, I tried to explore as much of the land as possible. It seemed wasteful to cocoon oneself inside the Jerusalem Cinematheque the whole time, mainly because of the horrific situation all around. Even the editor commissioning this story thought my being there was “crazy.”
Yet, this turmoil made for a unique visit; soaking in the atmosphere during the festival was particularly enlightening. Each walk through the streets revealed something new about mood on the ground. Each conversation with a local helped me understand what the people truly wanted. The aforementioned cab driver couldn’t be bothered with territory; he just wanted peace so he wouldn’t have to go to bed hungry. Each new turn uncovered another magnificent historical monument. I’ve been a devout atheist since I knew what the term meant, but seeing the holiest sites for three of the world’s major religions together in one frame was a moving, and humbling, experience.
So, I ended up seeing a grand total of six films in the eight days I was there. Three of those six films were seen in a single day, one where there was little else to do. Here is an account of that day:
Eran Riklis’ Dancing Arabs was the opening film of the festival, and one of its most high-profile Israeli premieres. An adaptation of two bestselling novels by Sayed Kashua, a popular Israeli Arab author and columnist, Dancing Arabs is the story of Eyad, an Arab boy from a small village who is sent to an elite boarding school in Jerusalem. Once in the metropolis, Eyad must tackle his issues of identity, self-confidence and ambition while caring for Yonatan, a Jewish boy with muscular dystrophy.
The credits in Dancing Arabs are in three languages—Hebrew, English and Arabic—reflecting the film’s multicultural outlook. A lot of the film feels lived in and authentic; there are several clichés—of course the villager new to a boarding school has trouble identifying the signs—but they are also rooted in such specificity and regionality it feels unfair to deride them. For example, Eyad is bullied when he’s new to the school, but it’s mainly because he can’t pronounce “p,” a sound many Arabs have problems mastering.
Tawfeek Barhum plays Eyad and does so well. His body language is particularly impressive; a memorable bathroom scene depicts how exuberantly happy he can get but how quickly he panics when someone shouts at him. Apart from that, Dancing Arabs has few perfect decisions: especially the one to mash two distinct books together. It’s obvious that the story consists of mismatching halves; as Eyad’s care of Yonatan increases, the questions of identity and self-doubt vanish from consideration. By the end, the bizarre plot has to make so many quick jumps that the climactic loopholes cause disinvestment.
As the next film, an Israeli competition feature called Ben Zaken, started, I should have seen the film school logo and warned myself. Unfortunately, I didn’t. This is a tale about a young, frustrated man who lives with his mother, elder brother and daughter in a rundown neighborhood. A satisfactory job is hard to come by; tensions keep flaring up between the house’s residents. Life is drudgery for these people, and first-time director Efrat Corem seems intent on making us empathize with that feeling. (That we barely even sympathize with any of them isn’t a concern, apparently.)
Ben Zaken is the single most boring film I’ve seen in ages. The ultimate superficial complaint about art cinema is that “nothing happens” in it, and Ben Zaken doesn’t bend any stereotypes there. The amateur filmmaking harms the case further; Corem’s reliance on static, single-camera setups falls flat because of his lack of skill with frame compositions and blocking. Perhaps the budget for Ben Zaken was extremely low, because a “cutting corners” vibe oozes through the various confrontational scenes where all fighting takes place just off screen. Faced with tracking the sad lives of a stunningly impotent protagonist and his rather cruel daughter, the last note I took down while watching this slog was the word “INTERMINABLE.”
After Ben Zaken I moved to see Tali Shalom Ezer’s Princess, another Israeli drama in competition. I had pinned all hopes of mood revival on the intriguing synopsis: “Role-playing games between twelve-year-old Adar and her stepfather move into dangerous territories.”
Perhaps it was because the last film I had seen was Ben Zaken, but Princess and Ezer have undeniable cinematic flair. The mise-en-scène is much more dexterous and a couple of moments smartly filmed. The performances—to use a cliché—by Ori Peffer, the stepfather, and Shira Haas, the twelve-year-old daughter, are extremely brave. It couldn’t have been easy to go into the “dangerous territories,” but they never waver from a determination to do justice to the disturbing nature of events.
Yet, all of this is in the service of something morally repugnant and emotionally hollow. When you want to shock your audience and/or leave them in outrage, one colleague later observed, you have to earn it by making the rest of your movie good. Princess doesn’t do this. Its denouement has just shock and gross value because it’s engineered its way so shamelessly to that particular sequence that as an audience member I felt like I had been taken for a ride. Ben Zaken just left me hilariously bored; Princess made me angry on a molecular level.
Give me a walk around Jerusalem over any of this, please.