The Sapir College faculty member who introduced Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch, screened at this year’s Cinema South Festival in Sderot, said that Dumont seeks in his films to understand the intricacies and intimacies of religious faith. Hadewijch is a technically fine, formally intriguing film, one in which it is clear that the director has given great thought to each shot and frame. But for a film about faith it is curiously soulless.
The story is about a girl named Celine, who has, as a pre-novice at a convent, taken the religious name Hadewijch, after a medieval visionary who wrote of her passion for Jesus. Her superiors, worried at her over-asceticism, send her back to her huge, ornate, and loveless home. For a convent girl, she has surprisingly few compunctions about allowing herself to be picked up in a café by a low-life from the projects whose devout Muslim brother convinces her to take part in a terror operation. Throughout her preparations, and in the film’s coda, in which Celine seems somehow to have survived the explosion, she insists that her only great love is for Jesus. We see that love, but we do not feel it.
The next day’s screening of Dumont’s Flanders left me with the same sense that Dumont’s carefully planned exteriors do not connect with the interiors of his characters. In this film, a silent and unexpressive farmer, Demeste, has a purely carnal affair with a neighbor girl, Barbe. They have cursory sex with their clothes on and he is unwilling and unable to express his love. Demeste and some other boys from the area go off to an undefined war in a Middle Eastern setting, where they commit attrocities and have brutalities committed against them. Demeste is the only one of the group to survive and when he comes home, and after Barbe accuses him of leaving one of his comrades, who has also been her lover, to die, he finally breaks down and tells Barbe he loves her.
Dumont was probably not thinking of an Israeli audience when he made the film. Had he thought that his viewers might have military experience he would not have had his soldiers go about their business in ways that would make a basic trainee blush. Demeste’s squad breaks every rule in the book. They walk bunched together when they are fully-exposed through open territory, so that a single artillery shell or sniper can easily pick them off. When they enter a house suspected to be a terrorist hideout they blithely walk by windows from which they can be targeted and then they all run in through the front door and look around, making them sitting ducks for anyone sitting in a dark corner who wants to open fire on them.
His ignorance of tactics is matched by his ignorance of the mental lives of soldiers. In a question-and-answer period following the film, Dumont explained that in this film war symbolized the loss of all humanity, and that only by going through this brutal existence could Demeste come to understand love. But soldiers know that armies are not brutal and loveless. On the contrary, the love quotient runs high in armies; soldiers love one another intensely and that is why they are willing to risk their lives for each other.
Dumont’s cinematic language, as he explained it to the audience in Sderot, sounds interesting on paper. He works with non-professional actors and does not believe that the viewer’s emotional reaction to the film should be produced by the expressions on his actors’ faces. Rather, his landscapes and frames symbolize the inner feelings of his characters, to which viewers connect through their own inner feelings. It’s fine as a French theory, but it doesn’t work in practice.
As I have written in past reports from Cinema South, this festival, held each year on Israel’s geographical and social periphery, seeks to celebrate peripheries of all kinds—political, ethnic, and psychological. The three short student films I saw this year took up this challenge in different ways.
In “Avshalom,” Meir Fridman offers an intriguing take on Yona Wallach’s poem “Avshalom” (“Absalom”), in which she uses the biblical account of the death of King David’s rebellious son as a metaphor for her abortion. Fridman interweaves the story of a young Israeli woman undergoing an abortion with a reworking of the biblical story. Like the poem, the film is surreal and shocking. Fridman, unlike Dumont, gets a lot of emotional impact out of his actors and staging, even if, ultimately, he gets lost in his own metaphor.
Eran Ben-Am’s two-person drama, “Trail People,” displays fine work with two actors who play a young man who has lost his father and a father who has lost his son. Ben-Am’s story is based on an old trope, but his characters, who meet in the wilderness, on the Israel trail, are convincing. Here the landscapes complement the actors faces rather than seek to offer what the faces cannot.
Roman Shumonov also worked with non-professional actors, whom he cast as young Russian men living a marginal life in Ashdod. No One But Us is about Andrei, who decides in desperation to sell drugs in order to buy his dying father a treatment not covered by his health insurance. It’s an old story and Shumonov fails to do anything new with it. But he does succeed in showing us the life of a group of forgotten people on Israel’s periphery. In a reverse of Dumont, here love leads to violence, not the other way around, and the violence leads to tragedy, not epiphany. Dumont could learn something from Shumonov.