This Year Jerusalem

Even if you already knew Israel was a complex and ancient land, it's well worth a look

Things seem to come in waves in South Florida. We have hurricane season, snowbird season, and come spring, film-festival season. There seem to be dozens of them, rolling in with the regularity of summer thunderstorms. Next up is the seventeenth Israel Film Festival, a presentation of Israel's latest cinematic fare. The event is not homegrown; it's a traveling cine-circus that already has been screened in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The Miami screenings take place May 5 through May 10 at the AMC theaters in Aventura.

Israeli film often reflects the realities of that culture: Spare, unsentimental, laconic movies seem to predominate. And many echo themes from American Westerns, such as the tragic clash of modern and traditional cultures, the ghosts of the past, the loneliness and dislocation of societies in the midst of painful change. Technical aspects of Israeli films are solid, while political and social points of view seem to stick to the left of center. While this slate of offerings certainly tackles difficult subject matter, there's little stylistic experimentation in evidence.

This year's lineup features work from both Israeli film and television, including features, ongoing series, and documentaries. The feature Farewell My Cousin recounts the story of an Israeli Army traitor who sells military secrets to Iran. It Will End Up in Tears is a documentary about a young lesbian's complex relationship with her bewildered liberal parents. Another documentary, The Line U, reveals the daily struggles Palestinians face with Israeli government officials. In a new television series, Reaching for Heaven, a family is thrown into turmoil when the father converts to Orthodox Judaism.

Tamara Dain and Gal Zaid in the mystery Facing the Forest
Tamara Dain and Gal Zaid in the mystery Facing the Forest

The festival certainly offers controversial topics, but even the more sedate story lines contain political undercurrents. Take, for example, Facing the Forest, a made-for-television mystery by Daniel Wachsmann. A bespectacled Ph.D. candidate takes a job as forest-fire warden at a remote lookout station while he's working on his dissertation about the Crusaders, the medieval European warriors who invaded ancient Palestine, determined to save it for Christianity. While on his watch, the scholar stumbles on a dead body, which may or may not be that of his missing predecessor. The forest boss and his son don't want the scholar to investigate further, but of course he does. Along the way he encounters a recalcitrant Arab caretaker, a friendly but suspicious woman, and a secret involving the very Crusaders he has been studying.

This whodunit plot appears to spring directly from an English detective novel, the sort of small-scope puzzler that shows up regularly on the A&E Mystery Movie series. Like a number of films from this festival, Facing the Forest is plowing familiar narrative terrain. What makes it interesting is the political subtext. While laying out a routine murder mystery, the film also can be seen as a parable of national identity, as secular Jews, religious Jews, and marginalized Arabs struggle over the right to interpret, and thereby control, the past. Like a spirit world, history hovers over this story, an oppressive atmosphere that seems to be inescapable.

A similar pessimism pervades in Yellow Asphalt, a presentation of short films by Danny Verete. What's interesting here is the setting and casting. All three films are set in the Judean desert, a stark landscape that offers some terrific visuals -- deep ravines and sweeping parched vistas set against the stark blue desert skies. Yellow Asphalt also is remarkable in its use of Bedouins, many nonactors, to play onscreen characters. This is a rare opportunity to take a look at the traditional desert culture that circles modern Israeli society. The shorts examine the collision between the two cultures.

In Black Spot that collision is literal. A petrol truck barrels along a desert highway. Coming around a bend in the road, the two drivers spot a little boy crossing the road with his donkey. The truckers can't react in time, and the boy is killed. Panicked, they toss the body off the road and try to flee, but their truck won't start. Bedouin tribesmen appear from the rocks and ridges, encircling the truck. They discover what has happened, and a tense standoff develops.

In Here is Not There, a council of tribal elders must decide the fate of an estranged, veiled wife and her angry husband. She wants to leave their tent and return to her faraway home. The husband refuses. The elders agree with him. But in the night, the wife takes off with her two young daughters and a chase ensues.

The final and most complex film, Red Roofs, centers on an illicit romance between a prosperous Israeli settler and his housekeeper, a married Bedouin woman with a suspicious husband. When the affair is revealed, the woman must run for her life. Fearing tribal vengeance against his wife and children, the philandering Israeli is faced with desperate alternatives. The story plays out in a suspenseful, harrowing narrative that's as gripping as it is bleak. "Time heals everything," one character says, but by the story's end, that sentiment seems bitterly ironic.

There are problems and vast chasms among the peoples of the desert, but as these films scan the far horizons, no solutions are in sight.

 
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