This past month, I participated in the Cincinnati-based Mayerson JCC's 35th annual Jewish and Israeli Film Festival, a local celebration of Jewish and Israeli cinema. Due to the pandemic, I viewed the films virtually from the comfort of my home. There were twelve films in total, of which I selected four full-length features and one short film.
dir. Asaf Saban
Starting off the festival off strong is Asaf Saban's short film Paradise. Ali (Ala Dakka) is a young Palestinian man who returns to Israel for his sister's wedding. Upon arriving, he receives a tense phone call from his father. Before reuniting with his family, he decides to spend a few days in Sinai, Egypt. The beaches of Sinai are typically a tourist hotspot, but when Ali arrives, they are vacant.
Staying at the same hostel is a group of young Israelis, Ali introduces himself as "Eli" to avoid tensions that may arise from being Arab. He strikes up a romance with one of the Israeli girls (Roni Koren) and essentially lies to her about his true identity. Most of Ali's time spent on-screen depicts him laying around on the beach, snorkeling, and passive-aggressively correcting the Israeli's mispronunciation of maqluba (traditional middle eastern “upside-down” rice dish).
Paradise is an excellent short film; I just wish it was a smidge longer. There's not enough time for the characters to develop or show much personality at all. It seems like Ali's only personality trait is that he is a closeted Arab and really likes maqluba. Some scenes in Paradise made me nostalgic for this past summer when I was in Israel. The chaotic opening of Ali arriving at Ben Gurion Airport is right on the mark.
200 Meters (2020)
dir. Ameen Nayfeh
The first full-length film, 200 Meters, follows a Palestinian family separated by the border wall. Salwa (Lana Zreik) lives on the Israeli side, while Mustafa (Ali Suliman) lives in the West Bank. Salwa desperately wants him to live with her and their three children on the other side of the wall. Mustafa could acquire a permit to live in Israel, but he refuses to become a citizen and is apprehensive about leaving his mother alone. For now, he works at a Palestinian temp agency. Salwa is tired of the back and forth and Mustafa not being present; it creates a bitter tension between the two throughout the entire film. Every night, Mustafa shines a light across the wall, and his children reciprocate by shining a light back. It's a small gesture, but besides talking on the phone, it is the only way for him to communicate with his children while they are apart. One day, his son unexpectedly gets admitted into the hospital, and Mustafa must make it across the border, illegally.
The process of crossing the border is lengthy, and to make matters worse, Mustafa does not possess the proper papers. About 50,000 Palestinians work in Israel, and around 30,000 cross the border illegally every day from the West Bank. There is little work in the occupied territories and jobs in Israel on average pay double the amount they do in the West Bank.
Ali Suliman was born to play Mustafa. The character has so much genuine depth and complexity. I'm not one to cry at movies, but Mustafa's determination to see his son brought me to tears. Some aspects of the film cause it to seem like a thriller even though it's considered to be an adventure film. Suspenseful moments like people hiding in trunks while the police inspected the vehicle made my heart race. I didn't expect to enjoy 200 Meters as much as I did. The thorough, easy-to-follow plot allowed me to better understand the crossing process and the daily struggles people face when separated by borders.
Kiss Me Kosher or Kiss Me Before it Blows Up (2020)
dir. Shirel Peleg
You know those corny Hallmark movies that are constantly on throughout the holidays? Well, Kiss Me Kosher is like the Israeli version of that. Shira and Maria are a lesbian couple, and if homosexuality wasn't taboo enough in Israel, at least outside of Tel Aviv, Maria is German. Despite criticism from both of their families, Shira and Maria are in a happy relationship. Kiss Me Kosher also features John Carroll Lynch, so it was nice to see a familiar face in one of the films.
Upon arriving in Tel Aviv, Maria accidentally proposes to Shira when she drops a ring out of her backpack. Shira's grandmother strongly disapproves of her dating a non-Jewish German woman, but little does she know, her grandmother is secretly seeing an Arab man.
The plot is a little chaotic and without consistent flow. Problem after problem arises, and none are resolved. There are simply too many loose ends, and I was genuinely confused about what was going on. Shira and Maria are supposedly star-crossed lovers, but it doesn’t seem like they actually like each other. They had only been dating for three months before Maria's accidental proposal. Their initial interaction in the film is literally the first time they meet in person.
Now, I'm no expert, but how is the audience supposed to root for two people with nothing in common who just met and show no signs of chemistry? The subplot of the grandmother and her “secret lover” is casually brought up a few times, but it seems arbitrary to the storyline. The film could have easily done without it, and I could have easily done without the film.
With No Land (2021)
dir. Aalam-Warqe Davidian & Kobi Davidian
With No Land is an engrossing documentary regarding Ethiopian Jewry and the efforts made to rescue and bring them to Israel. When people think of Jews, they tend to think of Ashkenazi (European) Jews. The Ethiopian Jewish community often gets overlooked. When Israel became a country, most European Jews could immigrate to Israel safely. In contrast, Ethiopian Jews had and still have more difficulty receiving help to immigrate to Israel due to racial prejudice from Jewish communities around the world.
Usually, documentaries that cover topics as sensitive as this one tend to be one-sided. The documentary did a fantastic job of getting a wide variety of perspectives with intriguing contributions from Ethiopian Jews, native Israelis, European immigrants, and Americans who assisted the effort. About 160,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, and that number is still increasing. The story of the Ethiopian Jews is often overlooked, but their story is just as important as the other Jewish diasporas across the world.
Aviva Armour-Ostroff & Arturo Pérez Torres
Lune was by far the weakest film I saw at the fest. I'm confused as to why the film is even part of the festival because the Jewish aspects are minuscule.
Lune follows Eliza (Chloe Van Landschoot), an aspiring dancer, and her bipolar mother, Miriam (Aviva Armour-Ostroff). Miriam is originally from South Africa and she grew up during apartheid. Now, she and her daughter live in Canada. The year is 1994, and Nelson Mandela is up for president of South Africa. Miriam considers herself a radical, and she is determined to fly back to South Africa and vote for Mandela.
There isn't a linear plot of the film; everything sort of centers around Miriam and her accumulating mental health obstacles. If one thing is for sure, it is that I am not a fan of how bipolar disorder is portrayed in the film. It is insensitive and crude.
The storyline is a little bit all over the place. I had difficulty following along with Eliza because Miriam constantly interrupted her. I think the audience was supposed to root for Eliza, but I found myself actually rooting against Eliza. Whenever Miriam was clearly in need of assistance, Eliza would refuse to help her and even belittle her by calling her names.
There is a scene about halfway into the film where Miriam and Eliza's boyfriend Mike (Vlad Alexis) smoke a little bit of weed, and the scene ends with her in black face and him in white face. How did we get here? I have no idea. Little things like that prevent the film from cohesion.
On the positive side, Aviva Armour-Ostroff is a zany actress who brings a lot of energy to the screen. I don't think the character of Miriam suits her, but I would definitely watch something else of hers in the future.
Something I didn't expect to get out of the festival was education. Not only did I pick up some more Hebrew, but I was also informed on Ethiopian Jewry, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Israeli culture.
I did enjoy the films and had a few good laughs along the way. It was refreshing to step back and watch Jewish films that weren't exclusively focused on the Holocaust or anti-semitism. I'm glad I participated in the festival; it was a unique experience, and I hope to attend next year (in-person, hopefully). Special thank you to the Mayerson JCC for putting this festival together.