November 21, 2018

Los Angeles Israeli Film Festival put focus on social justice — and secrets

Critics and audiences alike can try to search for a political message in the 23rd Israeli Film Festival’s premiere films.

It’s not easy being apolitical when it comes to Israeli films — films that foreign audiences often view through the prism of the Israel-Palestinian/Middle East crises and hopes for the future.

Take the “The Band’s Visit,” Eran Kolirin’s poignant and humorous feature about an Egyptian police orchestra that gets lost in a small Israeli town. Although the film portrays Egyptians and Israelis, Jews and Muslims, the story is more about cultural understanding, love and friendship than any high-falutin’ political statement.

But New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis insists on putting “The Band’s Visit” into the context of a political landscape.

Trailer: ‘The Band’s Visit’

“Mr. Kolirin also seems to be saying that a specific loneliness haunts Israel as well,” she wrote in a Dec. 7 review. “Surrounded by desert, a few longingly invoke the sea, summoning a desire, but for what? Mr. Kolirin, I think, suggests that this longing is for something the poet Marcia Falk calls the ‘Eternal wellspring of peace.'”

But they won’t find a political message in “The Secrets,” which premieres opening night, June 12, or in the spotlight premiere screening of “Noodle” on June 14.

That’s because neither film deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the crisis in the Middle East or military life and its consequences, as many movies have in the past.

“The Secrets” is a tale of two rebellious ultra-Orthodox girls who befriend each other at a yeshiva seminary in Safed and try to help a woman using kabbalistic remedies. “Noodle” is about a Tel Aviv flight attendant who must deal with a young Chinese boy after his mother, her cleaning lady, is deported from Israel.

Religious themes? Yes. Social themes? Maybe. Political? Not at all.

The two films are part of Israel’s growing trend toward smaller, character-driven films that cast Israel in a far different light from what one we might expect from watching CNN or reading the newspaper.

“If you make a movie about ‘the situation,’ which is bigger than anything else, you might as well write an essay in a newspaper,” said Avi Nesher, director and co-writer of “The Secrets.”

“People are no longer compelled to make a movie about this one subject; I think it’s a maturing of the country and the culture,” he said.

This trend might be one of the reasons behind the startling fact that Israelis, for the first time, went to see their own local movies more than American imports. For the second time in 20 years, Israeli films hit the $1 million mark at the local box office with five films: “The Band’s Visit,” “Noodle,” “The Secrets,” “Jellyfish” and “Beaufort,” Joseph Cedar’s Oscar-nominated film about the Lebanon withdrawal, the only one with a war theme.

“Israel is about many things, and if you stick to one subject, you trivialize it,” Nesher said.

Nesher, 53, knows from politically themed films. His first, at age 23, was “HaLahaka,” which has since become a cult classic, about an Israeli-type USO troupe entertaining soldiers after the 1967 war. It was actually another of his political films, “Oriental,” a 2004 documentary about the failure of the peace process, that got him thinking about what would later become the apolitical “Secrets.”

“The more you talk to people, the more you see that there is this whole agenda: women’s rights,” Nesher noticed after interviewing Israelis and Palestinians for “Oriental.” There is a “revolution” for women’s rights all over the Middle East, he said. “That’s one of the main themes, as far as I’m concerned.”

To call a driving theme of “The Secrets” women’s rights is somewhat surprising.