The Arty Semite

Israeli Films Show Nuance at Tribeca Film Fest

By Simi Horwitz

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Two films screening at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival show subtle and nuanced perspectives on Israeli life from a woman’s point of view.

Talya Lavie’s first feature, “Zero Motivation,” screening April 17 – 24, focuses on a unit of female Israeli soldiers at a desert-based human resource center awash in hierarchy, bureaucracy and pointless tasks. Tedium is the defining gestalt as they serve coffee, shred paper, and re-organize closets to fill time. Between chores they play computer games, sometimes with each other, often alone. The girls are isolated and, paradoxically, deeply interconnected. Friendships evolve and disintegrate in the face of betrayal, disappointment and thwarted ambition.

Despite its bleak backdrop the film’s signature is its good humor and light touch. Thanks to fine performances and, especially, Lavie’s subtle script and self-assured direction “Zero Motivation” is a fascinating look at a rarely explored subculture. This movie is both a character-driven work and a briskly paced entertainment.

The film is structured around three different girls and is divided into three sections, “The Substitute,” “The Virgin” and “The Commodore,” with one part flowing into the next and each informing the other two.

The well-known Israeli actress Dana Ivgy gives a multi-layered performance — enraged, hurt, and most of all keenly intelligent — as the virgin Zohar, who is determined to shed her virginity and in the process become more acceptable to her derisive female colleagues, all of whom are sexually schooled, or claim to be. Nelly Tagar as Zohar’s closest friend Daffi is equally convincing as the Chekhovian character who truly believes life would be wonderful if only she could be reassigned to a base in Tel Aviv. Shani Klein, making an impressive film debut, plays a harsh and arbitrary task master (“The Commodore”) whose disappointment is nonetheless touching when her unrealistic career ambitions for herself are not realized. By the end of the film each character has evolved, but not in any blatant way. The shift is gentle and organic.

Lavie, who served as a secretary on an Israeli military base, clearly knows her subject well. Indeed, her thesis film, “The Substitute,” also deals with the day-to-day lives of women in the armed services. Made at the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem, the short went on to win a number of international awards when it was released in 2005. It’s not surprising that “Zero Motivation” was tapped to participate in the Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Lab.

But credit must also go to the production team: Arik Lahav-Leibovich for his tight editing, and especially cinematographer Yaron Scharf and production designer Ron Zikno for vividly suggesting the women’s gray barracks and low-ceilinged offices, flanked on all sides by long stretches of desert. Composer Ran Bagno’s haunting score should be noted as well.

Shepherded by the talented Lavie, cast and crew have brought to life an entire universe and forged a film that ends far too soon. One is anxious to know how the women fare in the next chapter of their lives.

Leah Tonic’s 13 minute short, “Firstborn,” screening April 19 – 27, is impressive as well, all the more so when one realizes that Tonic is still a student (at least at the time the film was made), completing her third year of study at the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School. Indeed, “Firstborn,” which has been shown in a number of film festivals, won Best Student Film at the International Film Festival in Haifa.

“Firstborn” tells the story of Sheri (Yael Igra), a rebellious young woman who has left her ultra-Orthodox family to dress in a punk style, work in a bar, and live openly with her boyfriend (Yair Lehman). She seems content until her younger and guileless sister Rivki (nicely played by Sirenne Rosenberg) surfaces to announce that she is engaged and wants Sheri’s blessing.

Tonic’s sparsely written script and understated direction evokes Sheri’s conflicted world. So too does Igra’s nuanced performance of a young woman who loves her sister and simultaneously feels removed and is troubled by the breach. The upcoming marriage is unsettling, but Sheri expresses her heartfelt good wishes anyway. Indeed, she asks for a wedding invitation.

On some level, she wants inclusion. Yet, gazing out at the Orthodox community moving through a sun-baked terrain, bearded and clad in their long black coats, she is clearly not one of them. Her feelings of rootlessness are palpable, nowhere more poignantly than when she leaves her sister and bursts into tears.

Cinematographer Saar Mizrahi’s wide-angled shots of the over-dressed religious community in the desert makes the oppressive heat feal immediate, while his close-ups, zeroing in on Sheri’s facial expressions, underscore her confusion. She is not free at all, but entrapped between a claustrophobic universe that she has justifiably abandoned and her own inevitable ambivalence.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Tonic herself hails from an Orthodox family and declared her secularism at the age of 16. One looks forward to what comes next in her filmmaking career. It’s an auspicious beginning.

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