It is no surprise that religious faith — the personal joy or torment it can entail; the social conflict or cohesion it can engender — is a key preoccupation of many Israeli films. Three films from the Australia Israel Cultural Exchange's Israeli Film Festival share these preoccupations, albeit within vastly different contexts and to varying degrees.
Walls (Kirot) is firstly concerned with social issues, especially concerning the violent mistreatment of women by brutish men. Galia (Olga Kurylenko, pictured) is a Ukranian woman enslaved as an unwilling assassin by the Tel-Aviv sex-traffic mafia. She befriends her Jewish neighbour Elinor (Ninette Tayeb), who is in an abusive marriage. Both women are beset by violence, yet each has an inner strength that they admire in, and offer to, each other.
Although a few of the film's action sequences are hokey and over the top, director Danny Lerner keeps the film moving at an engaging pace, while paying due respect to the human strengths and frailties of his two female heroes. There is a chaste sensuality to the women's friendship that contrasts with the unsettlingly rough treatment both experience from men (there is not a kind male character in this film).
In the film's most poignant sequence, Elinor takes Galia to be ritually cleansed. Before the cleansing begins, Galia breaks down, explaining to Elinor that she is afraid for God to look at her and see the terrible things she has done or been forced to do. This cuts to the core of the shame and brokenness experienced by the truly repentant. Galia is cleansed, and is liberated.
The writer-directors of Ajami, Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, have taken a page out of Alejandro González Iñárritu's (Babel) playbook to make a film with a disjointed time sequence and shifting perspectives, thereby offering a complex, humane portrait of a community riven by cultural conflict and social ills.
The players here include Omar (Shahir Kabaha), the next likely victim in a chain of retributive shootings; 16-year-old Malek (Ibrahim Frege), who is desperate to make a quick fortune to pay for his mother's much-needed surgery; Binj (Scandar Copti), who has been forced by his brother to hold drugs for him; and police officer Dando (Eran Naim), who is searching for his missing brother, whom he believes to have been murdered.
Copti and Shani are a Palestinian and a Jewish Israeli respectively. Their portrayal of events in the multi-ethnic Tel-Aviv locale of Ajami can be taken as a despairing allegory of Israel/Palestine itself; or as a cautionary tale in which poor choices and various failures to respect the humanity of the 'other' converge in tragic circumstances.
Human feeling and desire come into painful conflict with the expectations of religious belief in Eyes Wide Open (Einayim Petukhoth). Set within the socially and physically claustrophobic, ultra-orthodox Meah Sharim community in Jerusalem, it is the story of Aaron Fleischman (Zohar Shtrauss), a devout man, butcher and married father of four, who falls in love with a young, male, homeless Yeshiva student, Ezri (Ran Danker).
The most fascinating aspect of this film is not the conflict that the affair — driven by an insatiable, tender lust — causes within the pious community. Of greater interest is the conflict Aaron experiences within himself.
In initially rejecting Ezri's advances, he rationalises his sexuality as a test from God, a test that privileges him, as it gives him an opportunity to prove his resilience. When Aaron does succumb, it is to discard religious standards and instead be true to human feeling. This is rather more serious than simply a rebellion against an oppressive society, however. After all, Aaron is betraying his wife and family, not just his religious elders.
Director Haim Tabakman's first film, Eyes Wide Open was controversial upon its original release in Israel; its thematic nuances and a soulful performance from Shtrauss belie any incendiary intent.
The AICE Israeli Film Festival in runs from 17 to 22 August at Palace Como and Brighton Bay cinemas in Melbourne and from 31 August to 5 September at Palace Verona Cinema in Sydney. Session times and bookings online
Tim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Inside Film and The Big Issue magazines, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.