December 13, 2004
Politics and Prostitution: Israeli Filmmakers Chart Broad, Gritty Territory
By Steven Erlanger
TEL AVIV, Dec. 12 - Tiny countries with big problems tend to make somber, self-conscious films. In this instance, at least, Israel is no exception.
Still, Israeli directors are making more of an effort to entertain as well, working harder to fit lifelike characters around bigger themes of sexual and religious politics.
One of the most successful is perhaps among the least likely: an American-born Orthodox director, Joseph Cedar, whose portrayal of religious settlers has brought cries of betrayal down upon his head.
His second film, "Campfire," released in Israel this year, is a story of sexual yearning and awakening, set in 1981, as a widow with two daughters seeks companionship and community in the early settler movement. The eldest daughter is saucy, the other meek. When the younger daughter is molested during a holiday campfire, it sets off confrontations and quandaries that cause the widow to reject what she comes to see as a repressive communalism.
The leader of the settlers urges her to hush up the incident to protect the community; unsurprisingly, she chooses to support her daughter.
In a slightly awkward effort to be uplifting, given its themes, the film ends cheerily, with the widow finding contentment with the only man in the film who is nice to her.
"She, who wants to fit in, needs someone who has given up on fitting in," Mr. Cedar says in an interview. "They awaken something for each other."
Mr. Cedar, his eye on the larger world of film distribution, insists that he could have set this family drama anywhere, and that the fundamental human themes supersede the intricate Israeli context. "The big trick in making any foreign movie is that it must be specific enough so local audiences don't feel you're turning them into something exotic, but universal enough so that others will recognize themselves," he said.
But this insider's view of the early days of the settler movement is inevitably political. It is also fundamentally brave.
What interests him, he says, are "characters who are able to break out of the community's tribal embrace." But he also admits that the cynicism, hypocrisy and elitism of his fictionalized settlers and their leader are meant to comment on the current situation in Israel, where the settler patriarch Ariel Sharon, the prime minister, has prompted fury by his desire to dismantle all Israeli settlements in Gaza and four tiny ones in the West Bank. "There is something about our reality now that is undeniably influenced by the settlers' movement," Mr. Cedar said. "I resent that, and that resentment is there in the movie."
His first film, "Time of Favor" (2000), was more of a potboiler-thriller about a plan - born of misconstrued religious teaching and unrequited love - to blow up the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine.
The anger his first film created among his own tribe of national-religious Israelis helped provide the spark for this one. "People said, 'When we finally have one of our own, why do you show such things?' I thought I was making a film as a representative of a tribe and found people angry with me. I needed to think about how much I needed to be accepted and loved by that tribe. And this movie is a response," he said.
At the center of "Campfire" is the effort to silence scandal. There has been a similar response to the film, Mr. Cedar said. "That's the flak I'm getting: 'How can you put this out? It's a sacrilege!' The hard core can only deal with me as someone who has left the fold and is betraying confidentiality. But it's about me, too. I'm part of the fold."
"Campfire" ("Medurat Hashevet" in Hebrew) won the top Israeli prize for best feature film this year
--Steven Erlanger/ The New York Times - Review
September 6th, 2005
Campfire: Gender Politics and Loud Metaphors in '80s Israel
By Akiva Gottlieb
For the right-wing Jerusalemites of this wannabe incendiary period drama, to settle is to settle is to settle. In the Israel-circa-1981 equivalent of suburban flight, recently widowed Rachel (Michaela Eshet) tries to join the founding group of a West Bank religious settlement along with her two teenage daughters. Ideologically extreme, sure, but she digs the real estate opportunity and potential for social acceptance. Invariably, though, this Noah's ark is a couples-only expedition: Does Rachel want the high-class cantor/egoist or the sweet, pitiable 50-year-old virgin (Moshe Ivgy)?
As it tracks Rachel's daughters, the film takes a blunt, aggressive detour into gender politics, boldly equating nationalism with rape and settling with, well, putting out. It's the overblown kicker in a movie loaded with loud metaphors, and we're eventually grounded in this disturbing micro/macro logic: A girl who won't fight for independence might end up occupied territory.
American-born, Israeli-raised filmmaker Joseph Cedar certainly aims to provoke—his muddled debut, Time of Favor, followed a young Orthodox soldier's attempt to blow up the Dome of the Rock—but his aesthetics are too conventional to provide the requisite gut-punch. Still, the timelier elements of Campfire, which cleared house at Israel's Academy Awards this year, are too salient to dismiss. The film points an accusatory finger at the pioneers' primitive social dynamics and propaganda peddling. Pre-military teens get pumped with screenings of Entebbe: Operation Thunderbolt while the Palestinian question is conspicuously brushed under the rug. Campfire's awkwardly triumphant final image, which could easily transplant to 2005, begs the question, Good work, but where are we headed?
--Akiva Gottlieb/ Village Voice - Review