The appearance of Shimon Peres on stage for the opening night of Doc Aviv's 10th anniversary was an early indicator that the Israeli documentary scene deserves attention. The 84-year-old former Prime Minister, who now serves in the more ceremonial role of President, addressed the packed house at Tel Aviv's Performing Arts Center. Often such an occasion is susceptible to formulaic remarks. Think of the political welcome letters that preface most festival catalogues. But Peres surprised this jaded festival goer with his eloquent perspective on the role of documentary film. Speaking in Hebrew (translated on headsets for international guests), he observed that memory has a tendency to focus on the best of times, whereas the documentary camera can keep a more accurate record of the things we might prefer to forget. He wryly noted that Israel supplies so much drama that it's an ideal home for documentary makers.
Very true. This year, Israel celebrates its 60th year of independence while Palestinians mark the occasion as the "nakba" (catastrophe) that took away their land. Today, the country seems as embattled as ever with over 3 million Palestinians living under occupation. Meanwhile, Israelis feel terrorized by Hamas launching thousands of Qassam rockets into the town of Sderot (a couple hours south of Tel Aviv), following the country's pullout from Gaza. The latest cover of the Atlantic Monthly asks, "Is Israel Finished?"
Despite the turmoil, Doc Aviv's co-founder Ilana Tsur hasn't dropped her Cheshire smile or determination in growing the festival from 8,000 to 30,000 admissions over the decade. Still, in her opening remarks, she acknowledged a pessimistic mood, noting that when the festival started 10 years ago, the central leitmotif was shedding light on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now, she said, the dream of peace is becoming more distant.
As a first time visitor to the country, serving on the Israeli competition jury, I wasn't sure what to expect. I've long been impressed with Israel's culture of journalism and publishing that supports critical voices like Amira Hass, Tom Segev and Benny Morris. Their spirit of self-examination has been increasingly present in Israeli documentaries distributed abroad - from the bizarre tale of pornographic literature in "Stalags" (currently playing at Film Forum) to the poignant look at Palestinian workers in "9 Star Hotel" (airing on POV this summer).
After screening the 12 films in Doc Aviv's Israeli competition (selected from 80 submissions), I can say those films trickling into the international market aren't rare exceptions, but rather representative of a thriving output.
The jury's two top awards went to films that look at very different sectors of Israeli society through the prism of marriage. "Brides of the Desert," winner of the Best Film award, opens up the world of Israel's minority Bedouin population in the Negev desert and its customs of polygamy. Director Ada Ushpiz gained extraordinary access, following the work of a female Bedouin wedding photographer. The intimate cinematography of Danor Glazer documents several families in which the wives cope with the trauma of their husband taking another bride. In a society so insular, escaping the cycle is unthinkable.
In the more comic film "Yideshe Mama" (winner of the Young & Promising Award), directors Fima Shlick and Genadi Kuchuck examine what happens when love crosses ethnic boundaries. The hour-long film skillfully reveals the prejudices that underlie Israel's mass absorption of new immigrants. That theme is also explored in "King Lati the First," a competition film directed by Uri Bar-on, in which an African guest worker dreams of making his Israeli-born son a future king in Senegal.
Audiences experienced different versions of hell in two other award winners. Israel's 2006 war with Lebanon gets a first person treatment in "My First War" (winner of a Special Jury Nomination). Director Yariv Mozer concentrates solely on the Israeli side, as he witnessed it. When he was called up for service as a reserve officer in the Israel Defense Force, he tied his camera around his neck with a shoelace and took it to the frontlines. He captures raw feelings of frustration and depression from his fellow soldiers who express dismay in their leadership and the mission. The film signifies a growing discontentment with the military in a country that requires three years of compulsory duty for men and two years for women.
"Six Floors to Hell" (winner of the Editing Award) follows Palestinian workers squatting in the underground parking garage of an unfinished shopping mall in Tel Aviv. The central figure Jalal endures the hardships with resourcefulness and good humor in order to save money for his marriage. Director Jonathan Ben Efrat explores new facets of adversity with a strong emotional impact. In one memorable scene, the Palestinians enjoy a rare night of recreation in a Tel Aviv park full of guest workers from other countries. "We built Israel," remarks one Palestinian ruefully. But after the wave of suicide bombings in the second intifada, Palestinians are increasingly segregated behind the security wall while cheaper labor is imported.
The struggle over land arises in numerous films that are bound to earn attention on the Jewish film festival circuit. "Adama" (winner of the Photography Award) looks at an older generation of Israeli farmers whose way of life is disappearing as their sons adapt to a globalized economy of importing food. Cinematographer Ran Aviad beautifully photographs both landscapes and characters in this elegiac portrait. "Strange Death" harkens back to the land battles during World War I, when the Jewish underground movement Nili was assisting the British in their fight against the Ottoman Empire. A controversy still lingers from that era over who betrayed Nili leader Sarah Aharonson, resulting in her death. As filmmaker Shachar Magen digs into the mystery, "Strange Death" finds that descendents in the community are deeply reluctant to discuss the Nili legacy in any way that might be unflattering.
In a departure from politics and conflict, Doc Aviv selected the light-hearted "My Beetle" for its opening night. The film will make its North American debut later this month at Hot Docs. Director Yishai Orian takes a first person approach. He has a cartoonish look, squinting through thick glasses, with his curly long hair pulled back in a pony tail (as many Israeli men groom their hair after military buzz cuts). In the film, Orian's pregnant wife wants him to get rid of his vintage Volkswagen beetle and its failing engine. He's desperate to save it and sets out to meet all his previous owners.
Their stories are quite dramatic, with incidents ranging from birth to death. But the impact of their interviews is undermined by scenes that seem obviously set up by Orian for the sake of the film. In one instance, he visits a junkyard, allegedly intending to scrap the car, only to make a last minute change. The scene looks so scripted, it calls to mind the concoctions of Morgan Spurlock's misbegotten "Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?" - though "My Beetle" has more charm and less grandiosity. The two films even share the plot device of a pregnancy deadline. Perhaps this new sub-genre should be called a "concoc-umentary."
Beyond the Israeli competition, Doc Aviv featured a rich sampling of international work. "Ironeaters," directed by Shaheen Dill-Riaz, focuses on the ship breaking yards of Bangladesh and won the top international prize at the festival. A special jury nomination went to "A Father's Music," directed by Igor Heitzman, about his father the German conductor Otmar Suitner, who led a double life traveling between East and West Germany. Other festival highlights included a collection of Krzysztof Kieslowski's short films and a retrospective of French director Nicolas Philibert (best known in North America for "To Be and To Have").
After my festival duties were over, I took an opportunity to cross the green line into the Palestinian territory that Israel has occupied since the 1967 war. I was traveling in the company of Oren Yakobovich who works with B'Tselem (www.btselem.org), the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. In Hebrew, B'Tselem means, "In the image of."
We visited Hebron, the epicenter of the Israeli settlers movement whose violent history is well told in the recently published book "Lords of the Lands" by Idith Zerdal & Akiva Eldar. Over 250,000 Israelis have settled strategically throughout the West Bank, despite opposition from Israeli groups like Peace Now. We walked through an area in Hebron's city center documented on B'Tselem's web site where settlers supported by Israel Defense Forces have forced the closure of a once bustling Arab market and the evacuation of over 1,000 Palestinian homes. In response to such aggressive force, B'Tselem started a project called "Shooting Back" that gives cameras to Palestinians in high conflict zones to document settlers' violations. B'Tselem's video footage was used in "To See if I'm Smiling," the documentary about Israeli women soldiers that won the Audience Award at the 2007 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. Yakobovich is eager to make footage available to other filmmakers.
Israel has been locked in conflict for its entire 60-year history and many outsiders can't see the country beyond that. One European visitor to Doc Aviv confided to me that she was pleasantly surprised to find such a wide range of self-reflection at the festival - both on screen and in discussions. The air of the festival has a political urgency and engagement lacking in more subdued cities. Whatever preconceptions you have of Israel, a visit to Doc Aviv will give you fresh perspectives.
[Thom Powers is the host of Stranger Than Fiction at the IFC Center and the documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival. He served on the jury at this year's Doc Aviv.]