On Tuesday night, the Manhattan JCC screened three short films by students of Jerusalem’s Ma’aleh School of Television, Film and the Arts. Afterwards, Neta Ariel, Ma’aleh director, and Einat Kapach, the school’s director of international relations (and a Ma’aleh graduate) answered questions from a fairly packed audience.
According to their website, Ma’aleh “trains filmmakers to produce work inspired by their Jewish heritage, fostering a unique connection between the world of media and Jewish culture.” The school, which was created primarily as a training ground for religious Jews to enter the film industry, encourages the mostly observant young filmmakers to address contemporary – and often controversial – issues of Jewish identity or Israeli life. Oh, and according to the press release for the event, “Because of the school’s grounding in traditional Jewish values, Ma’aleh’s films contain no vulgarity, no hard violence and no sexual content.” (Seriously: In lieu of a sex scene, one film shows cartoony neon hearts lighting up. This sure ain’t American cinema).
Though the films screened that evening ranged in subject and tone, common themes emerged – everyday clashes between religious and secular Jews, complicated family dynamics, modernity coming up against tradition – suggesting that on some level similarities exist between the students’ personal experiences. Rookie film critic though I am, as an American viewing films made by Israeli filmmakers at a religiously-oriented film school in Jerusalem, surely I am the target audience for these stateside screenings (a Ma’aleh delegation is screening student films in New York and California this month).
The audience was told beforehand that Cohen’s Wife, a 2000 film by Nava Nussan Heifetz featuring Yiddish dialogue with English subtitles, would be heavy. They were right – in the first few minutes Rifkeh is raped by a stranger who knocks on her door asking for charity. Because her husband, Motel, is a Cohen and thus of priestly descent, Rivkeh must wait for a rabbinical court to decide if Motel must divorce her. In a jarringly extreme portrayal of one’s individual fate being in the hands of ancient law and its arbiters, this difficult film considers the challenges, particularly for women, of reconciling modern societal norms with religious expectations.
Inbar Namdar’s A Shabbos Mother, first prize winner at the 2005 Jewish Film Festival in Jerusalem, depicts a family struggling in a different way. A recent widow’s three grown daughters, each quite distinct in personality and temperament, join her for a Shabbat dinner that brings long-standing emotional issues to the surface. With one daughter on the brink of motherhood, the women must navigate their relationships with one other while learning to embrace their own identities. Mother-daughter drama abounds in this film about women growing up and growing apart that beautifully depicts the complexities in every family.
As promised, the screening ended with a note of levity. Evacuation Order, a 2001 film by Shoshi Greenfeld, deals with what happens when IDF soldiers sent to evacuate settlers in the Samarian hilltops fall in love – with the settlers. A comedy, and a rather outlandish one at that, it gave me that slightly uncomfortable feeling that something is funny, but you know it’s supposed to be serious, and then you think maybe it’s funny because it’s serious, and then you think maybe you’re over-thinking it, and then your head starts to hurt… But this film – which in 16 minutes creates detailed characters through smart, truly funny dialogue – intentionally confronts the issue of settlements through humor. According to the film’s website, Evacuation Order “suggests that humor is a human tool which brings tenderness to painful and controversial areas of our lives.”
After the screenings, Ariel and Kapach explained that Ma’aleh films are influencing Israeli film and television by presenting well-developed characters that aren’t stereotyped portrayals. The nuanced and complex characters in the three short films support that notion.
Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.