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Houston Filmmakers and Actors: Politics and Prostitution: Israeli Filmmakers Chart Broad, Gritty Territory

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Politics and Prostitution: Israeli Filmmakers Chart Broad, Gritty Territory


Joseph Cedar directed "Campfire," a film about the settlement movement.



A scene with Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

December 13, 2004
Politics and Prostitution: Israeli Filmmakers Chart Broad, Gritty Territory
By STEVEN ERLANGER

TEL AVIV, Dec. 12 -
Tiny countries with big problems tend to make somber, self-conscious films. In this instance, at least, Israel is no exception.

Still, Israeli directors are making more of an effort to entertain as well, working harder to fit lifelike characters around bigger themes of sexual and religious politics.

One of the most successful is perhaps among the least likely: an American-born Orthodox director, Joseph Cedar, whose portrayal of religious settlers has brought cries of betrayal down upon his head.

His second film, "Campfire," released in Israel this year, is a story of sexual yearning and awakening, set in 1981, as a widow with two daughters seeks companionship and community in the early settler movement. The eldest daughter is saucy, the other meek. When the younger daughter is molested during a holiday campfire, it sets off confrontations and quandaries that cause the widow to reject what she comes to see as a repressive communalism.

The leader of the settlers urges her to hush up the incident to protect the community; unsurprisingly, she chooses to support her daughter.

In a slightly awkward effort to be uplifting, given its themes, the film ends cheerily, with the widow finding contentment with the only man in the film who is nice to her.

"She, who wants to fit in, needs someone who has given up on fitting in," Mr. Cedar says in an interview. "They awaken something for each other."

Mr. Cedar, his eye on the larger world of film distribution, insists that he could have set this family drama anywhere, and that the fundamental human themes supersede the intricate Israeli context. "The big trick in making any foreign movie is that it must be specific enough so local audiences don't feel you're turning them into something exotic, but universal enough so that others will recognize themselves," he said.

But this insider's view of the early days of the settler movement is inevitably political. It is also fundamentally brave.

What interests him, he says, are "characters who are able to break out of the community's tribal embrace." But he also admits that the cynicism, hypocrisy and elitism of his fictionalized settlers and their leader are meant to comment on the current situation in Israel, where the settler patriarch Ariel Sharon, the prime minister, has prompted fury by his desire to dismantle all Israeli settlements in Gaza and four tiny ones in the West Bank. "There is something about our reality now that is undeniably influenced by the settlers' movement," Mr. Cedar said. "I resent that, and that resentment is there in the movie."

His first film, "Time of Favor" (2000), was more of a potboiler-thriller about a plan - born of misconstrued religious teaching and unrequited love - to blow up the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine.

The anger his first film created among his own tribe of national-religious Israelis helped provide the spark for this one. "People said, 'When we finally have one of our own, why do you show such things?' I thought I was making a film as a representative of a tribe and found people angry with me. I needed to think about how much I needed to be accepted and loved by that tribe. And this movie is a response," he said.

At the center of "Campfire" is the effort to silence scandal. There has been a similar response to the film, Mr. Cedar said. "That's the flak I'm getting: 'How can you put this out? It's a sacrilege!' The hard core can only deal with me as someone who has left the fold and is betraying confidentiality. But it's about me, too. I'm part of the fold."

"Campfire" ("Medurat Hashevet" in Hebrew) won the top Israeli prize for best feature film this year from a field of 24, and is Israel's nominee for the foreign-language category of the Academy Awards. (It is still seeking a United States distributor.)

With few exceptions, the Oscar has gone to obscure foreign films, "but it can make a difference, especially in the United States, where people pay attention to prizes," said Ruth Diskin, who distributes many Israeli documentaries and features. The last Israeli film to be an Oscar finalist was "Beyond the Walls," 20 years ago.

Israeli films tend to be made on the European model, as joint productions of various companies, with some money from state finances for homegrown cinema. Israel had about $13.6 million to distribute this year.

"Campfire" received money from the state, which provided about 70 percent of its budget; from two television channels, one of them cable; and from private financing. It was made for about $900,000 compared, for example, with the multimillion budget for Baz Luhrmann's two-minute advertisement for Chanel No. 5, starring Nicole Kidman.

Mr. Cedar, 36, came to Israel at the age of 5 when his parents emigrated to Israel from New York. He attended Israeli schools and served as a paratrooper in the Israeli army, but then went to New York University's film school, graduating in 1995.

"Time of Favor" was also the Israeli nominee for the foreign-language film Oscar. The critic Stephen Holden praised it in The New York Times for "its underlying concern with the consequences of words and with the complicated emotions fueling terrorist acts." But he also said the film was "quite crudely directed."

Mr. Cedar has improved, it is fair to say. In The Jerusalem Post, Talya Halkin called him "arguably the Jewish state's first-ever Oscar-class filmmaker."

He has also managed to make two films about settlers without a single Palestinian, which comes up a lot, he says, at foreign festivals. "Being an Israeli at a European film festival is one long apology," he said. "The European press expects you to be in exile, and to meet their expectations is to be self-hating."

There have been other strong films this year, none of them very lighthearted. Two of the best deal in different ways with prostitution and the exploitation of women in Israeli society. Amos Gitai, 54, one of the country's best and best-known directors, did "Promised Land," a feature with a documentary feel about the transport of women from the economic mess of the former Soviet Union (in this case Estonia, although Moldova is the most prevalent example) through the Sinai Desert to tatty destinations in Haifa and Tel Aviv.

"I was looking for fields of Jewish-Arab cooperation," Mr. Gitai said. "There's music, and then crime. And Israelis try to be excellent in everything they do, whether it's high-tech or the smuggling of women for sex." In a well-researched tale of exploitation, the film mixes Bedouins in Sinai with native and newly arrived Israelis from the former Soviet Union. Internationally known actresses like Hanna Schygulla and Anne Parillaud take gritty roles, while Rosamund Pike, a former Bond girl, plays a mystifying character - a tourist or semijournalist who identifies with the prostitutes and joins them.

Even harsher, if possible, is "Or," a film by Keren Yedaya, about an H.I.V.-infected prostitute and her and horrified teenage daughter, named Or, played with awkward grace by Dana Ivgy. This is an enormously angry film: men here are evil and ridiculous, made childish or brutal by sex. But the tractlike nature of the film is redeemed by good acting and an unsweetened look at the mother, who gives the same, insincere patter to her daughter as to her clients.

"Many people, feminists included, choose to maintain the illusion of choice, or the illusion of the power of women who work as prostitutes," Ms. Yedaya, 32, said. Or does not want to become a prostitute, but is battered repeatedly and broken, she said. "Or," which means skin in Hebrew, is French for gold, and this French co-production is also known as "Mon Trésor," or "My Treasure." Or's descent into prostitution will strike some as forced or diagrammatic, but we're a long way from "Pretty Woman."

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