Bruno Bombs, Students Shine at Cinema South

Haim Watzman

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.

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It’s a Guy Thing: Israel’s Oscar Nominees

Haim Watzman

For the third year running, an Israeli film is a nominee for the foreign film Oscar. I offer some thoughts on the difference between current and classic Israeli films in the current issue of The Forward:

When I was an adolescent growing up in America in the early 1970s, I knew of only two Israeli films. There was the soldier movie — that was Yosef Milo’s “He Walked Through the Fields.” And there was the one about Jaffa’s underclass — that was Menachem Golan’s “Kazablan.”

Four decades later, for three years in a row, Israeli films have been Oscar nominees for the best foreign-language film. Of the three, two are soldier films — Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort and Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir. The third is this year’s nominee, Ajami, Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani’s saga of the Jaffa underclass.

So what’s new?

The easy answer is that the two older films are inspiring and uplifting, while the three new ones are depressing and angst-ridden . . .

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The Scene At Cinema South I: “Afghan Star” and “A Love During The War”

Haim Watzman

Cinema South International Film Festival, June 8, 2009One presents an American Idol spinoff in Afghanistan as a training ground for democracy and the other how the decay of society under years of guerilla war has made rape the common fate of millions of women in central Africa. Havana Marking’s Afghan Star and Osvalde Lewat-Hallade’s A Love During the War, screened yesterday and today at Sapir College’s Cinema South International Film Festival in Sderot, southern Israel, offer glimpses of margins of the world that we hear of only when there is a genocide, or an earthshaking natural disaster, or a war so bloody that it briefly jars us out of our apathy. Tyranny, war, poverty, and distance from the West weaken and silence people, but the women who suffer them are often doubly silenced. Here some of them speak out.

Afghan Star follows an instance of that most insipid of modern entertainment genres, the televised popular song competition, and shows us how it has played an important role in building democracy and human rights in a society split by ethnic and religious conflict. Following the fall of the Taliban, Afghans are allowed to sing again—music and dancing having been banned by the fundamentalist regime, along, of course, with television, film, and freedom for women. An enterprising producer on one a new private television station decides to produce a song contest on a shoestring, and the film follows several of the contestants—including two women—from the program’s first airing to the night on which the winner is declared.

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Ropes of Fate: Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s “Shadow Kill”

Haim Watzman

In the final scene of Adoor Gopalakrishnan‘s film Shadow Kill (Nizhalkuthu), a young man, dressed in black, sets out to perform his first hanging. The young man, Muthu, is the son of the hereditary executioner of the south Indian principality of Travancore. He is a Gandhian nationalist and pacifist who has made speeches in his village against the death penalty. Yet upon his father’s death, during the night before the execution, Muthu accepts the doom of his descent-even though he knows that the boy around whose neck he is about to place the noose is innocent.

Such an end implies that we have just seen (at the Cinema South Film Festival in Sderot, see my post Cinema of the South: Celebrating Sderot and Kerala) a film about how Muthu wrestles with his heritage, resists, and then accepts it. But in fact it is not Muthu but his father, Kaliyappan, who agonizes, from the story’s first scene to its penultimate one, about having killed an innocent man the last time he was called from his village to perform his office. Emulating his hero, Muthu buys a spinning wheel to spin out string, which is taken to the local jail to be made into rope. It’s Kaliyappan who, like the Greek fate-goddess Atropos, cuts the rope-the rope of his last hanging, whose ashes, burnt in ritual and prayer, are a balm that heals the sick and troubled.

In keeping with tradition, on the night prior to the execution, the king’s police officers ply Kaliyappan with liquor and keep him from sleeping (he must not sleep, because his victim is certainly not sleeping this night) by telling him stories. The story that finally helps keep the elderly executioner awake is about a romance between a young teenage girl and an orphan flutist. The girl asks the boy to teach her to play his instrument; when he leaves her to practice, the girl is attacked, raped, and killed by her brother-in-law, who has developed an uncontrollable passion for her. The flute found in her hands implicates the orphan boy; the girl’s family knows who the real murderer is but protects him.

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Cinema of the South: Celebrating Sderot and Kerala

Haim Watzman

Sderot was celebrating yesterday–it’s been celebrating all week, in fact. Who cares about the missiles coming over from Gaza when you can catch a good flick–lots of them? The Cinema South Festival, held in Sderot each year under the sponsorship of the film school at adjacent Sapir College, is one of the most stimulating, and heart-warming cultural events on Israel’s calendar.

The day’s only Red Alert happened just as we emerged from our rental car next to the housing project where my daughter, Mizmor (finishing up her first year in the animation program) lives. We scurried to safety–well, it’s all relative–under one of the building’s outdoor stairwells until, seconds later, we heard a distant boom.

After dropping off some home-cooked food in her apartment, we drove over to the Sderot Cinematecque. The festival was in full swing. “South” here doesn’t mean Alabama and Georgia-it means Israel’s poor, forgotten, and bombarded Negev region. Sapir students were quaffing beers and muching on sandwiches and sticky sweets while a Kerala band played songs that sent my wife Ilana-whose late father grew up in Bombay, after his family moved there from Baghdad-into dreamy nostalgia.

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Cold Altruism: Cristian Mungiu’s “Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days”

Much has been written about the slow pace and the role of time in Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days. Less has been said about the societal decay it portrays.

This Romanian film, written directed by Cristian Mungiu, tells the story of an abortion. But it also depicts, intensely, the relationship between two women, and shows how an impersonal, heartless regime (Ceauescu’s Romania, in this case) can leave its citizens with nothing but impersonal, heartless relationships.

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