Israel is not just bedeviled by the occupation. It also struggles internally, with every manner of social problem. The two biggest winners of this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival could not do a better job of underlining this. Both films explore the insinuation of violence in Israeli society, by looking at the country’s Mizrahi and Bedouin communities.
Meni Yaesh’s debut, God’s Neighbors, was awarded the Pirchi Family Award for Best First or Second Israeli feature. The drama, which had premiered at the 2012 Cannes Festival and was awarded the Prix SACD, has already garnered enthusiastic reviews in Europe and the US, as well as in Israel. Yaesh’s feature is a thriller that tells the story of three twenty-something Mizrahi born-again Breslov Hasids, residents of Bat Yam, a poor satellite city of Tel Aviv.
Avi Bachar (Roy Assaf,) their leader, helps his father in his greengrocery and attends, together with his two friends, the lessons of a local rabbi. At night he smokes pot and puts together dance music for the Breslov music vans that cruise Israel’s streets, calling Jews to divine work through music and dance. The three young men, however, also serve as the self-appointed guardians of faith in their neighborhood. They are thus on the look for infractions—be it young Russians who play loud music on a Friday evening, a local merchant who fails to close his business on time for Sabbath, a vendor of pornographic videos, or Palestinian youngsters from the neighboring Jaffa who roam the streets defiantly. When violators fail to heed their warnings, they’re disciplined.
Yaesh’s film consists of scenes in which the three “teach a lesson” to violators, paying explicit homage to classic action films starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris. An encounter with Miri (Rotem Zussman,) a young woman who has just moved to the neighborhood, forces Avi to reconsider his violence.
At first, Miri is incensed by his comments on how she dresses. She is even more perturbed when he pays her a visit with his two friends to deliver a warning about the matter. Yet, as Avi endeavors to distance himself from his two friends and becomes ever more critical of their violent behavior, Miri adopts ever more Avi’s religious mores.
God’s Neighbors is about being saved by a combination of divine and earthly love. The latter, Avi realizes, is a manifestation of the former. Through the love between a man and a woman, God reveals his presence to humanity. Indeed, Yaesh’s film should be viewed in the context of the recent interest taken by Israeli filmmakers in the religious world. Many Israel films, however, manifest outright hostility to religion, which they present as oppressive and repressive, if not outright abusive.
Like Gidi Dar’s critically acclaimed Ushpizin, God’s Neighbors embraces a a decidedly religious perspective, seeing Judaism as the pathway to grace. Violence is a consequence of the characters’ search for redemption, in Israel. Everything inheres in God, is its message – the good and the bad – and therefore should be accepted. If every human action is derived from God, there is no freedom. Everyone is operating according to a script.
This does not just condemn non-believers (in God’s Neighbors, these include not only secular Jews, but also Avi’s two religious friends, who fail to internalize their faith.) It also makes it impossible to rationalize the this-worldly origins of violence and the rising social inequality in Israeli society. Everything is as God wills it, including the marginalization of the film’s Mizrahi characters. The message is decidedly reactionary.
Ami Livne’s debut feature Sharqiya, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and received the Haggiag Award for best full-length feature film at the Jerusalem Film Festival, tells a very different type of story. Relying on a non-professional cast, Sharqiya recounts the travails of Kamel (Adnan Abu Wadi), a young Bedouin man who reside with his brother Khaled and sister in-law in two corrugated iron shacks that constitute an “unrecognized village” in the vicinity of the southern city of Beersheba.
A veteran of the IDF, Kamel travels daily to the Beersheba Central Bus Station, where he works as a security guard. Through his commuting, we are apprised of the stark differences that characterize these two decidedly different parts of Israeli society.
On the one hand, Kamel’s village is cut off from the civil infrastructure. Unrecognized, its shacks are not connected to the electricity, water and sewage, and transportation grids. Its occupants have to provide for these themselves. On the other, the Jewish city, in the form of Beersheba’s central bus station, has all the obvious amenities: running water, electricity and, of course, a municipal transit system that appears to connect to all dots on the map of Israel (but exclude, as a matter of course, the Negev’s unrecognized Bedouin villages.)
Sharqiya follows Khaled as he goes back and forth between Bedouin and Jewish Israeli societies, seemingly mediating between the two, suturing them together with the very movement of his Arab body. To this end, the film repeatedly features Khaled as he makes the way by foot from his shack to the highway, and from there, by bus, to his place of work.
The suture Kamel performs is revealed to be far more fragile than it initially seems, and is almost undone when the Israeli authorities hand his family an order to demolish their homes, on land their family has occupied the land since the Ottoman era. Still, without a registered deed to prove it, the authorities view them as trespassers and threaten to evict them.
The demolition order brings to light Kamel’s tenuous position within Jewish-Israeli society. As a consequence, it becomes ever clearer to him that, words of camaraderie notwithstanding, at his place of work he is not treated as an equal, but is subtly and persistently discriminated against. The order also brings to the surface the tension between Kamel and his brother.
Kamel endeavors to become a true citizen of the state; following his military service in an elite unit, he pursues work for regular wage for a municipal transportation company. Khaled, Kamel’s older brother, continues to hold to traditional Bedouin occupations, which center on livestock and tending to the house and fields. Though the family relies on Kamel’s regular income, Khaled resents his younger brother for seemingly forsaking Bedouin ways, in favor integration into Israeli society. Khaled asks Kamel as especially difficult question: How can he serve a state that denies him the right to his own land?
Livne’s film follows in the footsteps of recent of Israeli features that portray the lives of Israeli Palestinians and Bedouins under Israeli rule, such as Tawfik Abu Wael’s 2004 Atash (Thirst) and Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani’s 2009 Ajami. Each of these films captures the cul-de-sac in which Palestinian and Bedouin youth find themselves, oppressed as they are by patriarchal community customs, and racist Israeli Jews.
One of Sharqiya’s distinctive narrative characteristics is how it portrays the difference between the rhythms of Bedouin and Jewish Israeli life. Tellingly, the director slows down the film’s pace to mimic that of is protagonist. In long tracking shots, uninterrupted by cuts, the camera follows Kamel walking. Keeping dialogue to a minimum, minimalist atonal music turns Kamel’s steps—whether on the Negev desert floor, on the asphalt of the highway, or the concrete of the sidewalks at the Central Bus Station—into the dominant sound of the film.
Kamel’s soft, metronome-like movement gathers momentum in accordance with his growing frustration. Suspense builds towards an expected explosion that would, ideally, result in his liberation. No such relief is provided. Kamel’s life continues on, without the violence necessary to free himself from his depressing situation. Like his Mizrahi Jewish comrades in God’s Neighbors, he is condemned to a pointless, Sisyphean Israeli existence, in which redemption, of any kind, is impossible.
The first in a two part series on the 2012 Jerusalem Film Festival. Screenshots courtesy of Meni Yaesh (#1) and Ami Livne (#2.)