Dancing Arabs

“Jerusalem is one of the strongest brands in the world!” Thus was contemporary marketing jargon applied to a 5,000-year-old city by Nir Barkat, the city’s mayor, speaking at the opening night reception for the 31st Jerusalem International Film Festival, on the lawn of the Jerusalem Cinematheque. This was shortly after we, the assembled, had been given instructions as to what to do in case of air-raid sirens. As hostilities between Israel and Hamas ramped up in the days before the festival began, the world-premiere screening of Eran Riklis’s Dancing Arabs and the subsequent gala which had been arranged to occur at the Sultan’s Pool outdoor auditorium were canceled, and this less conspicuous event, which had quick egress to safe cover, had been slotted in its place.

Barkat was wearing a natty sharkskin suit. One of my fellow journalists, who’d been born on a kibbutz in the north of Israel and who knew the country well, commented that the mayor would’ve been wearing shorts and flip-flops 20 years ago. Much, evidently, has changed. Jerusalem is flush with money. Israeli cinema, once regarded with derision at home and abroad, has achieved an international prominence. Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher, for example, arrived at JIFF after eliciting much talk at the Cannes Critics’ Week, while Talya Lavie’s Zero Motivation, a black comedy about life in the Israeli military, won top honors at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. However, for those looking to reminisce over a bygone, less prestigious, less self-important era in Israeli movies, the JIFF offered the documentary The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films, a tribute to the flashy buccaneer team of Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan, both of whom were present for the screening. This must have been one of Golan’s last public appearances before his death last Friday, and he was on the grind to the very end—Screen Daily reported that he had a hand in a forthcoming “kibbutz horror picture set on the eve of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.”

In the days since we were gathered together on the Cinematheque lawn to hear Mayor Barkat boast that the city had in recent years acquired “four or five times more culture,” the Jerusalem brand has encountered pretty heinous PR. This was Thursday, July 10, when the kill count was reportedly Israel: 77, Hamas: 3, before a thousand opinion pieces, and #FreePalestines, and calls for boycott, and Sean Hannity posing with his hand on the Wailing Wall as though he’s leaning against an extended cab Ford F-250 flowed through the social media timelines of the world. Some hearts and minds have been won: I am writing on the eve of an announcement by London’s Tricycle Theatre that it won’t be hosting the U.K. Jewish Film Festival, as it has for the last eight years, so long as the Israeli government continues to finance the event.

During my week at the JIFF, the IDF continued to run up the body count, while Hamas kept up their scattershot campaign of rocket attacks, which only periodically blundered their way so far north. Approaching Jerusalem from Ben Gurion Airport, my party and I saw fading contrails over the city, left by defensive missiles from the touted Iron Dome interception system. As reported, the Hamas attacks seemed to have little effect other than disrupting the function of day-to-day life—I shared my flight back to New York with a group of American kids returning from Birthright wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “WE DIDN’T HAVE TO GO HOME THANKS TO THE IRON DOME.” This mere “disruption” becomes rather more disturbing, however, when you witness a panicked mother shrieking Allez! at her children as she’s dragging them towards cover, and when you have to contemplate that, as French speakers, they’re very possibly among the influx of Jews leaving France because of rising anti-Semitism in Paris and across Europe.

Two productions by the subjects of The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films

Taken altogether, it’s enough to make you want to quit the human race entirely—or at least the Old World, as in the case of Dancing Arabs screenwriter Sayed Kashua, who a week before his movie was slated to premiere stirred up controversy in his Haaretz column by announcing that he was leaving Jerusalem, and Israel, once and for all because “the lie I’d told my children about a future in which Arabs and Jews share the country equally was over.” Dancing Arabs is based on two novels by Kashua who, like the film’s gifted protagonist Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom), is an Arab Israeli from Tira who attended an overwhelmingly majority-Jewish Jerusalem boarding school in the late Eighties and early Nineties. The stitches resultant from sewing two books together still show a little in the film’s uneven tone, but journeyman Riklis (The Syrian Bride, Lemon Tree) manages a more-than-usually engaging pop drama thanks to a breakout performance by Barhom, whose talent merits more than the IMDb page full of “Islamist” and “Terrorist #2” usually reserved for Arab actors.

The film’s title, presumably, refers to a scene in which Eyad, on a school vacation during the First Gulf War, watches his father and neighbors cheer on a Scud missile on its way towards Jerusalem—I thought of this scene often in days to come while reviewing the much-circulated footage of Israelis cheering on terminal missile strikes in Gaza. By this point in the film, Eyad has a Jewish girlfriend living in the Holy City, and in this moment he realizes the full extent of his alienation from his family and his background—which is not to say that he henceforth becomes peacefully integrated into Israeli society. The film’s rather pessimistic conclusion, arrived at through a number of identity-switch narrative contrivances that I won’t get into here, is that the best chance an Arab has to get ahead in Israel is to become a Jew.

On the screen and off, one was never far from discussion of what was euphemistically called “the situation.” In a press interview at the close of the festival, Noa Regev, the first successful CEO successor to emerge since the retirement of Cinematheque and festival founder Lia Van Leer, put a positive spin on holding such an event on the cusp of all-out war, calling the JIFF “an event where people from all over Israel—people from the cultural life here—came together and had an open dialogue about the situation.” There were also, of course, visitors from abroad. David Mamet was reportedly in attendance—I didn’t see him, but imagined him walking around shirtless save for a bulletproof vest, à la 50 Cent. Ulrich Seidl, scheduled for a master class, stayed home, while Spike Jonze apparently got into town before waffling on his, releasing a statement that said “it felt like the wrong time for me to be talking about movies with everything going on.”

As days passed and the death toll mounted, this was increasingly the sentiment. I attended one panel discussion on film criticism where the ongoing crisis of the profession was among the items discussed, and it must be said that this topic, which on the best of days is tempest-in-a-teapot, seemed rather egregiously irrelevant amid a real tempest. On the festival’s seventh day, a group of Israeli filmmakers called a press conference to issue a statement calling for a cease-fire, which read in part “in these violent days, it is impossible to talk only about cinema while ignoring the killing and horrifying events around us.”

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

The Kindergarten Teacher’s Lapid was among the signatories, as were the brother-sister team Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz—he is an instructor in the film department at Sapir Academic College, adjacent to Gaza. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, which played in Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes this past May, and on which the siblings are co-credited as writer/directors, was far and away the most affecting and fully realized Israeli film that I saw in Jerusalem. It’s the capstone of a trilogy outlining the domestic misery of Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) and Elisha (Simon Abkarian), a married couple who, as the film begins, have been living separately for some time. (One doesn’t need to have seen the previous entries in the series to find an access point to this one—I had not.) Viviane is seeking a gett—an official writ of divorce—and Elisha steadfastly, perversely refuses to grant it, something the learned rabbis sitting in judgment of their case, conducted according to the dictates of Orthodox Jewish law, have little power to influence.

The action of Gett is almost exclusively confined to the courtroom, through an endless procession of hearings spaced out by two months, three months, six months, stretching into years. The execution is formally stringent; Viviane is introduced as a structuring absence, the other characters being shown through her point of view before she herself appears. The cinematographic restraint allows performance to come to the fore, with particular notice due to Sasson Gabai (best known from 2007’s The Band’s Visit) and Rubi Porat Shoval, as Elisha’s sanctimonious brother and Viviane’s snappy sister-in-law, respectively. The linchpin of this Divorce Israeli Style, of course, is Elkabetz, whose taut self-regulation finally snaps with a Magnani-like explosion directed towards the court, to a resounding round of applause from the audience.

It may be that the imperative to forever be addressing “the situation” hampers the Israeli cinema’s freedom of movement. Even the social issue at hand in Gett—a result of the lack of separation between church and state in democratic Israel, very much at the heart of contemporary troubles—condemns the film to relevance. Other Israeli films on the slate exhibited another certain tendency in the national cinema, earnest exercises in representing marginalized groups and figures: the Ethiopian-Jewish immigrant community in Bazi Gete’s Red Leaves; a man whose entire life is swallowed up by his endeavors to rescue pit bulls from dog-fighting and euthanasia in Tal Michael’s documentary Pit Bulls: Flesh & Blood. But in this year’s crop of films, one favored topic asserted itself over the others. As the festival wore on, it became a bit of a running joke to mention “that incest movie,” which equally might refer to That Lovely Girl, Ben Zaken, or Princess—and that’s only of what I saw.


That last film, which was written and directed by Tali Shalom-Ezer, was the best of the three, which is to say that it was good enough for one to want it to be better. The main attraction is the performance duet between Shira Haas and Adar Zohar-Hanetz, respectively playing 12-year-old Adar and Alan, the lookalike “twin” whom she brings into her family’s apartment after a mysterious encounter on the street. The uncannily synchronized movement of their bodies in play and mock-sexual roughhousing, seen in extended takes, stayed with me long after leaving Jerusalem, though these intriguing pathways finally deliver the film to an overfamiliar destination. (Princess shared the festival’s Best Israeli Feature Film Prize with Gett, which also won the audience award.)

In addition to having free license to wander at will between screenings in the Cinematheque’s four houses, we media guests were presented with assorted evidence of the vitality of Israeli cinema, watching international filmmakers pitch projects developed under the auspices of the Film Lab at the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School. Because of the small domestic market for Hebrew-language films, the School’s slightly Walter Matthau–esque head Renen Schorr explained, a healthy Israeli film industry relies on exportability by way of the festival circuit. Does the popularity of incest as a theme stem from a fear of international isolation, seemingly realized by the Tricycle Theatre’s boycott? Thinkpiece to come! As to how exportability will be affected by “the situation” remains to be seen—though it comes pretty far down on the list of concerns.