Sundance festival: Israeli films explore family, war


Two female Israeli directors premiered their films last week at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The feature film “Princess,” directed by Tali Shalom Ezer, explores the challenges of adolescence, while Mor Loushy’s documentary “Censored Voices” looks unflinchingly at the Israeli military’s actions during the Six-Day War. Both films explore issues of power, victimhood and the ethical decisions of choosing whether to confront injustice.

'Princess'

“Princess” follows an emotionally distant 12-year-old girl, Adar (Shira Haas), who is at risk of being expelled from school. Her overworked mother, Alma (Keren Mor), holds down double shifts as a nurse while supporting her boyfriend, Michael (Ori Pfeffer), who stays home all day painting watercolors and getting into tickling matches with Adar. The disaffected Adar befriends the homeless Alan (Adar Zohar-Hanetz), who happens to be her doppelganger — or perhaps her invented fantasy. 

“A few years ago, I had this image of the girl and the boy, two children that look alike, and this image didn’t leave me,” said director Ezer, in an interview at Redstone 8 Cinemas in Park City. “I had to develop this image and to understand these characters. And that was the seed for the film.”

“Princess” shared the Haggiag Award for best Israeli feature at the 2014 Jerusalem Film Festival with “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” another film that looks critically at marriage and power. “I like to explore the dynamic within a family and between couples,” Ezer said. Her previous film, “Surrogate,” also dealt with issues of intimacy and trust. 

Ezer’s characters exist within a world that’s both sensual and frightening. The underlying sexual tension among Michael, Adar and Alan builds, and a naive playfulness gives way to violence. Meanwhile, Alma turns a blind eye to her boyfriend’s actions, leaving Adar alone to defend herself. In one haunting scene, Adar asks her mother, “Do you want to see the most terrible thing in the world?” Alma responds by shutting her eyes. “Her daughter is very important to her, but she has her own needs,” Ezer said of Alma. “This character is really dependent on the love and support of Michael and also Adar. She’s a little bit of a narcissist, and I think that if she were aware and not blind to what’s happening in the house, she feels that she would collapse.”

Yet, despite the horrors Michael brings upon the family, Adar proves to be a survivor and chooses to live, rather than be a victim. “She’s underage, but you see a little woman, and she’s strong and she can fight for herself and she can change her reality,” Ezer said.

Ezer is among a generation of young Israeli filmmakers receiving worldwide acclaim for producing films that bravely tackle challenging topics. “I see a lot of courageous films. My colleagues are telling stories that are so important to us. We’re full of rage. We want to say something to the world. We want to change the world,” Ezer said. “These are the kinds of stories that I want to tell.”

This is Ezer’s debut feature-length film and it’s received glowing reviews from Variety (“fascinating”) and The Hollywood Reporter (“a remarkable achievement”). Expect to see a lot more from Ezer in the future.

‘Censored Voices’

In June 1967, when Egypt, Syria and Jordan attacked Israel on all sides, there was a real fear that the country could be annihilated. Vastly outnumbered, the young nation fought back and quickly captured the Sinai Peninsula, West Bank, Gaza Strip and some of the Golan Heights. By the time of the June 11 ceasefire, fewer than 1,000 Israelis had been killed, compared to more than 20,000 from the Arab forces. Israel had tripled in size, and its soldiers were welcomed home as heroes. Euphoric crowds danced in the streets, soldiers kissed babies, children climbed on tanks, and political leaders drew comparisons to David slaying Goliath, or the Maccabees defeating the Seleucid army. But when author Amos Oz and editor Avraham Shapira spent two weeks traveling to kibbutzim and interviewing the soldiers, they heard other voices. 

“Censored Voices” Photo courtesy of IDF Defense Establishment Archives

The soldiers expressed doubt, fear and despair over the treatment of Arab soldiers and civilians. “There’s a sense of sadness that the newspapers don’t address,” said one. “I wasn’t at the Western Wall, I didn’t hear any trumpets, and I didn’t perform any acts of bravery,” a soldier admits. “I wanted to be left alone. I wanted nothing to do with the war,” said another. “I no longer have the will to steal other people’s land,” said yet another. 

The new documentary film “Censored Voices” exhumes never-before-heard interviews with those soldiers from the days following the Six-Day War. The Israeli military allowed 30 percent of the recordings to be released, which Shapira published as the 1971 international bestseller “The Seventh Day.” Director Loushy convinced Shapira to give her access to the full recordings. “A lot of Israeli journalists had tried to take these recordings, and I think that he felt responsibility for those recordings, because they were so intimate, so personal, so he didn’t want to share them with anyone,” Loushy said.

Loushy filmed the soldiers stoically listening to their recorded interviews from 47 years before. “For me, the powerful thing when I shot the characters was to look into their faces while they were listening for the first time. And I wanted to give the audience the same feeling that I had when I filmed them,” Loushy said.

Daniel Sivan, the film’s editor and one of its producers, acknowledges that the soldiers Oz and Shapira interviewed were not representative of the entire Israeli public. “When you are going around and talking to the soldiers in this dark basement about the pain of the war, soldiers that were really happy with it, and came back and were cheerful, wouldn’t go to this conversation,” Sivan said.

Yet even if the film feels a bit one-sided, the voices it contains provide a prescient look at Israel’s current situation. The soldiers express grave concerns about Israel’s future, heard over archival video of troops evacuating villages, bulldozing homes and recapturing Jerusalem’s Old City. “Are we doomed to bomb villages every decade for defense purposes?” one soldier asks. “Are we doomed to live in the pauses between wars?”

We’re accustomed to photographs of young, victorious Israelis conquering their enemies. This film uses well-preserved footage of Israeli troops kicking and shoving Egyptians, forcing them to march for miles with their hands up and, at one point, shooting a group of blindfolded, unarmed men. “The more horrors we did to them,” one soldier said, “I thought, good thing it’s not the other way around.” At one point, ABC reporter Bob Young glances at a sea of refugee tents in Amman, Jordan, and says grimly, “The only things growing here are the seeds of revenge.”

The filmmakers behind “Censored Voices” recognize the divisive nature of these antiwar messages, especially with an upcoming national election, and hope the film’s release will promote debate about Israel’s history and a possible path toward peace. “Our goal is to make people listen to these voices, see maybe where we took the wrong road in Israel and hopefully create a peaceful future for us, because it can’t go on like this,” Sivan said. 

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