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“How can you build a house upon another house?” asks a Palestinian construction worker in Bait (1978), Amos Gitai’s film about a building undergoing renovation for new owners in Jerusalem. More than two decades later, Israel’s filmmakers still draw force from their country’s divided and contentious history. This year’s Israeli Film Festival, running concurrently with a retrospective of Gitai’s work, features an unusually strong selection of fiction films and documentaries.
Time of Favor (2000), Joseph Cedar’s gripping debut feature, is a vivid insider’s portrait of the Modern Orthodox settlers’ movement. An action film and a love story, it’s loosely based on a 1985 plot by Orthodox students to blow up the Dome of the Rock, the Jerusalem mosque whose location is sacred to both Jews and Muslims. Cedar, who was educated at yeshivas and at NYU film school, completed his screenplay while living in a West Bank settlement, in the wake of Yitzhak Rabin’s 1995 assassination. His film is fueled by a sense of urgency about Israel’s insidious rightward shift. Asi Dayan (son of Moshe) is the charismatic rabbi who has decided that his daughter Michal (played by an actress named Tinkerbell) will marry his most brilliant yeshiva student. But she’s shyly in love with Menachem (Aki Avni), a respected army officer from a religious background. Strangely, the settlers in Time of Favor exist in a vacuum that mirrors their ideological isolation—the panoramic vistas of the West Bank surrounding them are strikingly empty of other inhabitants. Overly melodramatic at times, the film boasts strong leading performances, and its themes couldn’t be more timely.
Danny Verete’s Yellow Asphalt (2000) also focuses tightly on a community rarely seen in close-up: the Bedouin tribes of the Judean desert, whose world is shrinking before the advance of contemporary Israeli society. Starring both professional actors and members of the Jahalin tribe, this unusual film is occasionally voyeuristic in its depiction of violence against women, but its subject is broached with surprising complexity.
Anyone who thinks the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict caught fire in a moment should see The Line-Up, a documentary about the dilemmas of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Residents but not citizens of Israel, for years they have found themselves trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare—denied passports, health insurance, and other basic rights and services. The title refers to the endless queue that begins forming outside the Interior Ministry’s office before dawn as residents seek entrance, usually in vain, to plead their case before Israeli authorities.
I wish I could report that Field Diary, Amos Gitai’s 1982 documentary about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and southern Lebanon, seemed like a dated relic of the war-torn past. It’s screening in a 12-film retrospective, which includes Gitai’s early documentaries, lush Biblical dramas such as Esther (1985), films about Jewish history like Berlin-Jerusalem (1989)—loosely based on the friendship between a Zionist pioneer and a German Expressionist poet—and more recent fictional portraits of the ultra-Orthodox and the Israeli military, in Kadosh (1999) and Kippur (2000).
Field Diary‘s title suggests notes from a war zone; in fact, years before the intifada captured the world’s attention, Gitai’s film exposed the simmering violence of the West Bank and Gaza. Surprisingly lyrical, it proceeds with the force of a hallucination to record the tragic and surreal effects of occupation: a Palestinian leader who lost his legs in a car-bomb attack; the tin-and-plastic shacks of refugee camps in southern Lebanon; mythic Jewish military heroes from the first century A.D., who are reinterred in an official government ceremony. People repeatedly threaten to break Gitai’s camera; he’s continually poking the underbelly of a closed society. A young Israeli soldier suggests a method for dealing with the broader conflict. “Try to reach an agreement,” he says. “Nicely, at first. If they refuse, we use force. Trust Arik Sharon—he knows his job.” His words today carry an eerie power.