Courtesy Shlomi Elkabetz
Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz in a still from ‘Black Notebooks,’ (2021)Courtesy Shlomi Elkabetz
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Reflections From the Jerusalem Film Festival

A trio of movies offers radically different ideas about identity, memory, and the significance of forgetting

Izabella Tabarovsky
November 01, 2021
Courtesy Shlomi Elkabetz
Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz in a still from 'Black Notebooks,' (2021)Courtesy Shlomi Elkabetz

This past August, the Jerusalem Film Festival returned to its home at the Jerusalem Cinematheque after being shut down for in-person viewing and switching to a digital format the previous year due to the pandemic. Held under strict Ministry of Health guidelines, the festival required attendees to display vaccination certificates and IDs at the entrance. Masked ushers walked through dark theaters, directing wayward viewers to pull their masks back up over their noses. At any moment, one felt, the festival might be cut short, pursuant to some updated ministerial instructions. Questions hovered over the largely domestic crowd: Should I get a booster shot? Will my kids go back to school this fall? Was it foolish coming here just as the delta variant was taking over the country?

And yet, here we were, sitting next to one another in sold-out theaters, enjoying the long-forgotten and now-guilty pleasure of watching motion pictures on a big screen. During breaks one could walk out on to one of Cinematheque’s terraces overlooking the Old City and draw some comfort from the fact that this city had seen a plague or two before. It would get through this one too, and we would do as well.

One of the festival’s sold-out events was the screening of Black Notebooks (Machbarot Shchorot)—director Shlomi Elkabetz’s tribute to his sister and creative partner, the celebrated actress Ronit Elkabetz, whose death from lung cancer at the age of 51 shocked the film industry and viewers alike. The two-part, 3 1/2-hour film is Shlomi’s attempt to come to terms with his personal loss, ask questions, and lift the veil from over Ronit, who largely remained a mystery to her fans despite her trademark onscreen emotional openness.

To a considerable degree, Black Notebooks is a conversation between Shlomi and Ronit—both real and imagined. Shlomi weaves the movie out of footage from their released films and the abundant behind-the-scenes material he shot over the years, including of the siblings’ life in Paris and interactions with their Israeli-Moroccan family. But there is a third party in this conversation—Viviane Amsalem, the main character in a trilogy that defined the siblings’ careers (To Take a Wife; Seven Days; and Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem), and a role that Ronit inhabited for a decade. The trilogy focuses on Viviane as she navigates a deeply unhappy marriage to her religious husband. Whenever Shlomi fails to find an answer to a question that torments him among his footage of Ronit as Ronit, he turns to footage of Ronit playing Viviane. So crucial was Viviane Amsalem to Shlomi’s reflections on Ronit that he credits her appearance in Black Notebooks as if she were a real person.

One of Shlomi’s preoccupations is the deep emotional connection between Ronit and the siblings’ mother, Miriam. Years earlier, a Berber fortuneteller warned Shlomi to worry about his sister, adding: When she is gone, it will be hard for your mother—they are practically one woman. Shots juxtaposing Ronit, Vivian, and Miriam underscore the degree to which Ronit drew from her mother to play Viviane, borrowing both her mother’s body language and her state of mind. Viviane’s fight for freedom from her troubled life is the fight that Miriam wished to fight but never did. It is somewhere in Ronit’s willingness to assume her mother’s pain where hints of answers to Shlomi’s questions about his sister’s life and death might be found.

One of Black Notebooks’ gifts to the viewer is showing Ronit as she was known to her closest family and friends. She stands on the balcony of her beloved Parisian apartment, where she felt free to dream and create. She lounges in a bathrobe, giggling with delight at the rave review of To Take a Wife on French radio. She reenacts for her brother a juicy story about a teenage night out on the town. She teases her fiancé (Do we know each other? What’s your name?) as she leans in for a kiss. She wraps her signature thick black hair on top of her head for a glamour shot. Later, she removes a bright African headscarf to reveal that the hair is gone.

Ronit’s illness coincided with the promotion of Gett. The film had become an international success, and interview requests were pouring in. She declined them. What could she say about herself in that moment, when cancer was changing her from the inside out?

Then gradually things began to improve. Her hair started to grow back. She showed up at the 2015 Golden Globes sporting a chic short ‘do, as if it is nothing more than a radical change of style. Ronit had new hopes, new dreams. She is finally going to leave Viviane Amsalem behind. Her next role is Maria Callas, a stunning beauty full of dramatic prowess—and a character who would unleash the full power of her gift. We see Ronit daydreaming as she listens to Callas’ Casta Diva.” Then she vanishes.

Eighty-four-year-old A.B. Yehoshua is one of Israel’s most celebrated writers, and the screening of filmmaker Yair Qedar’s The Last Chapter of A.B. Yehoshua attracted a sold-out crowd. Former President Ruvi Rivlin was present. Hili Tropper, minister of culture and sports, offered introductory remarks, describing Yehoshua as the explorer of the human soul. When a festival official announced that Yehoshua himself was in the audience, everyone rose in a standing ovation and turned toward a small man with a shock of white hair who was sitting just behind me, pressing himself into the chair and looking down, as if embarrassed by this display of adoration.

I, too, was thrilled to find myself in Yehoshua’s presence. I had read his novel Mr. Mani shortly after arriving in Jerusalem last year. The pandemic was in its seventh month, and a shutdown was keeping everyone within a 1-kilometer radius from home. Jerusalem was all around me and yet it was entirely unreachable. What was this city really about, aside from its holy sites and tourist attractions? Yehoshua told me through his epic story of a Jerusalemite Sephardi family. Jerusalem, I heard him say, was a city where boundaries were both hardwired and notional; where one’s identity was both fundamental and illusory; where every step one took had karmic consequences and was in itself a consequence of steps taken by others many centuries ago. In this city, one changed identities, crossed boundaries, became a different person, and remained who one was.

This crossing of boundaries and identities is a central part of Yehoshua’s portrayal in the film. Yehoshua was born in 1936 to a Sephardi father whose family had lived in Jerusalem for several generations, and a mother who was a recent immigrant from Morocco. His father, a scholar of Jerusalem and the Middle East, spoke fluent Arabic and English, and worked as an interpreter in the British Mandate administration. Yehoshua explains that he loved his father’s Middle East scholar side and the Arab guests he often brought home. But the Jerusalem of his youth contained multiple worlds, and he inhabited them all—from the religious Sephardi to the Ashkenazi Zionist to the Hebrew University intellectual. When the time came, he enthusiastically embraced the newly born Sabra identity.

A still from 'The Last Chapter of A.B. Yehoshua,' (2021)
A still from ‘The Last Chapter of A.B. Yehoshua,’ (2021)Courtesy Yair Qedar

Yehoshua still demands the freedom to travel among different worlds and to define himself as he wishes to this day. In the film, we see him conspicuously ignoring a giant Israeli sign at the entrance to Ramallah forbidding entrance to Israeli citizens, as he is being driven to meet with the Palestinian Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society. When a friend, a journalist and Mizrachi activist, tells Yehoshua that he has been an inspiration for Moroccan Israelis like himself, Yehoshua rejects the compliment: His father’s Sephardi family has been in the land for generations, he says. What does he have to do with Morocco? When his friend insists, Yehoshua looks off-camera in exasperation. I’m having a heart attack here: They are attaching me to the Moroccans, he says wryly, before suggesting that others will surely come and attach him to the Sephardim.

Yehoshua is a riveting presence on screen: effervescent, humorous, sharp, kindly, angry, sarcastic. He has been talking about old age, loneliness, and his impending departure from this world for some time. With his friends and comrades in arms Yehoshua Kenaz and Amos Oz gone, he feels like the last guard on duty. One of the most evocative moments in the film is his visit to the old Sephardi cemetery in the lower section of the Mount of Olives—a place where his father is buried and which he once described as having “the most thrilling view in Jerusalem.” He himself left Jerusalem a long time ago for Haifa, but Jerusalem—and his complex feelings about it—are ever present in his life and writings.

Yehoshua claims to be ready to cross the final boundary. But he worries about what he is leaving behind. He mourns the dreams that he and his fellow writer friends had dreamt about the future of the country. One thing he wishes we would all stop doing is rummaging in the past. It paralyzes us, he says. Jews and Arabs both should get “a little dementia” so that we can place “good things” into our heads. Forget the roots that no longer nourish you. Take the good and forget about the bad, he advises.

When it comes to remembrance and forgetting, one imagines that Sergei Loznitsa, the director of Babi Yar. Context, would disagree with Yehoshua—certainly when it comes to Babi Yar. The September 1941 massacre of 33,771 Jews in a ravine on the outskirts of Kyiv has for decades been a symbol of erasure and forgetting. For Loznitsa, who used to hang out at the site as he was growing up, unaware of its horrific past, Babi Yar. Context is one step toward doing away with collective amnesia.

Loznitsa constructed the documentary out of Ukrainian, Russian, and German archival footage, digitally remastered to endow the film with the crispness and visual depth of a feature. The sound in the film had to be reimagined, designed, and added separately. To reconstruct the dialogue, Loznitsa lip-read the footage. The result is a rare sense of immediacy and presence, as if one traveled through a time tunnel to witness the events with one’s own eyes.

The film begins in June of 1941, at the approximate start of the German invasion of the USSR. A faraway explosion interrupts a peaceful summer day in the Ukrainian countryside. German troops ride into a village and immediately begin reorganizing life to meet their needs—counting and sorting people into groups, shoving some into backs of trucks, and leaving others sitting on the ground. One imagines that these choices have life and death implications, but at these early stages, nobody—possibly not even the Germans themselves—understand them yet. There is an eerie lack of fear on the faces of the captured men. Soviet soldiers surrender to the Germans with smiles—and why not? The hellish four years of total war and horrific atrocities—including vis-à-vis Soviet prisoners of war—still lie in the future. For now, there is mostly the uncertainty and chaos of one totalitarian military bureaucracy displacing another.

Soviet POWs being used by the Nazis to cover a mass grave after the Babi Yar massacre, 1941
Soviet POWs being used by the Nazis to cover a mass grave after the Babi Yar massacre, 1941Courtesy Jerusalem Film Festival

Loznitsa includes scenes of Ukrainians greeting the Germans with parades and taking the lead in attacking Jews. Elegantly dressed residents of stately Lviv (also known as Lwów, Lemberg, or Lvov, depending on who’s in charge) beat and humiliate their similarly well-dressed Jewish neighbors, or simply stand by watching. There is a loud clap of a stick landing on a young Jewish man’s back and the laughter of a crowd as he scuttles away trying to avoid another hit. The footage of the most infamous scenes from this urban pogrom—those of Jewish women being stripped naked in the streets—is, mercifully, left unrestored. There are things one does not need to see with digital-level clarity.

Collaboration is a painful subject in today’s Ukraine. Much effort has been put into trying to erase it or explain it away. To be sure, there is plenty of context to understand why some Ukrainians might have welcomed the Germans—from the Holodomor in the East, to the suppression of Ukrainian nationalism in the West, to the hope that Hitler would give Ukraine independence. But no amount of context can assuage the shock of seeing men and women in gorgeous national Ukrainian dress Sieg-Heiling to the Nazi officers observing the parade. A banner with the name of Andriy Melnyk, one of the nationalist leaders of the era, reminds the viewer that some among the crowd envisioned independent Ukraine to be free of foreign elements such as Jews and Poles.

There are hints at the coming erasure and rewriting of history. A Red Army commander giving a speech upon the retaking of Lviv blasts the fascist enemy who “encroaches on the Slavs.” (Stalin’s propaganda claimed that the Slavs were the primary object of Hitler’s hate, erasing the Jewish genocide in the process.) As we watch the public hanging of Nazi officers in Kyiv in January of 1946, a Russian voice reads an official proclamation declaring the hanging to be retribution for the brutal executions of “peaceful Soviet citizens.” The substitution of “peaceful Soviet citizens” for the Jews would continue through the end of the Soviet Union.

Loznitsa is, naturally, well aware of the ongoing battles over the memory of Babi Yar. “The subject of Babi Yar represents a kind of frontline in the war of memory—the war between groups with conflicting opinions about how this event should be remembered,” he said recently. He explained that he does not take sides or offer interpretations in the film: He presents the events chronologically and allows the audience “to work out what happened.”

It is a choice one can respect. But it is also here that the film’s Achilles’ heel lies. A viewer who is intimately familiar with the history of the German-Soviet war would have no trouble reading Loznitsa’s visual clues. For those less prepared—likely most of the film’s Western audiences—the lack of explicit clarifications can make for a confusing viewing experience. Some in the audience told me as much after the screening. Nor was I surprised to come across English-language reviews that misinterpreted the events of the film. One couldn’t help feeling that Babi Yar. Context required more context to make itself understood to the average viewer.

Loznitsa’s decision to leave the Babi Yar massacre itself out of the film can add to the confusion, coming across as an incomprehensible and glaring omission. But one can view it as an illustration of the erasure of Babi Yar from Soviet historiography and collective memory. Introducing the film at the festival, Natan Sharansky noted that Loznitsa’s intention was to demonstrate how life in Ukraine went on as normal even as 33,771 Jews of Kyiv—and, in the end, 1.5 million Jews of Ukraine—disappeared.

This approach is consonant with the reflections of the Soviet writer and journalist Vassily Grossman, who traveled with the Red Army and was among the first to recognize what had happened in the Jewish towns that had once burst with life. In his bloodcurdling essay Ukraine Without Jews, which scrolls onscreen, Grossman attempted to describe that for which in 1943 there still was no term: a murder of a people. The cobblers and the tailors, he wrote, the builders and the dentists, the porters and the woodworkers, the studious girls and the flirty girls, the architects and the night watchmen, the young women and the stately matrons: An entire tree of life has been murdered, and the only sign of the people’s absence is the absolute quiet hovering over Jewish towns and villages.

The film’s narrative flaws notwithstanding, it is a must-see. The restored historical footage it presents is deeply valuable. Equally valuable, and rare, is the way it conveys the atmosphere of the time, when the Soviet and Nazi patriotic marches, propaganda posters, and names of towns displaced each other with dizzying speed—as did citizens’ apparent loyalties. Importantly, this is not Loznitsa’s final word on Babi Yar. His work with the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, which commissioned and financed the film, continues. One may disagree with his choices and directorial decisions. But after decades of silence and forgetting, it feels like enormous progress, and a great relief, to say that the story of Babi Yar is being told out loud at last.

Izabella Tabarovsky is a Tablet contributor. Follow her on Twitter @IzaTabaro.