Beyond the bunker mentality: seven disobliging Israeli documentaries at Docaviv 2018

Probing aspirations for Israeli society ranging from isolation to outreach to armageddon, the native films at the 20th edition of Tel Aviv’s documentary film festival suggest that debate and dissent are not – yet – off limits for the country’s culture.


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Towards peaceful co-existence? Iris Zaki’s provocative interview documentary Unsettling

Towards peaceful co-existence? Iris Zaki’s provocative interview documentary Unsettling

At first glance, the programme for this 20th edition of Israel’s only dedicated documentary festival seemed designed, at least in part, to propagate the notion of Tel Aviv as a hotbed of creativity and tolerance. Docaviv 2018 featured substantial sidebars devoted to music and fashion, and showpiece events such as a free open-air screening of Matt Tyrnauer’s glossy nightlife doc Studio 54, followed by a public party inspired by the notorious Manhattan club.

While this all blended seamlessly with my surface-level experience of the festival’s hip, LGBT-friendly host city, it sat somewhat uncomfortably with news reports I read days earlier of unarmed Palestinian protesters being murdered in Gaza and West Bank by Israeli soldiers. I was also mindful of the BDS movement’s call for a cultural boycott of the country, on the grounds that “Israel overtly uses culture as a form of propaganda to whitewash or justify its regime”. While the festival is programmed independently, it receives financial support from the Ministry of Culture and Sport and other government agencies.

As I dug into Docaviv’s diverse Israeli line-up, however, what shone through was an impressive determination, on the part of both the programmers and the participating filmmakers, to speak out against social injustice and facilitate difficult conversations about the state of the nation.



Iris Zaki, Israel/UK

In Unsettling, director Iris Zaki spent a month in Tekoa, an Israeli settlement south of Jerusalem, unusual on account of its mixed religious and secular community, where she set herself up at a cafe table and invited locals to share their experiences. As a staunch leftist, Zaki’s mere presence proves polarising from the outset, and she refuses to mince her words for the sake of decorum – when one settler talks euphemistically about the Israeli “system” she responds, bluntly, “That’s what they call apartheid.” The film’s tensest exchange, between Zaki and one one of the community’s most openly rightwing residents, proves depressingly futile, with the latter using the historic mistreatment of Jews to justify her rabid nationalism, and laughing as she admits: “There is something fascist about me.”

Zaki fairs better at finding common ground with two former members of the Hilltop Youth – a religious-nationalist movement known for violent pro-Israel activism – who both recognise that they were essentially brainwashed as children. A real sense of hope manifests itself in the unlikely form of a devoutly religious woman named Michal, who was stabbed by a Palestinian teenager and interpreted this as a message from God that Israelis must “respect the foreigners living among us… and renounce this sense of entitlement”. She talks movingly about members of her assailant’s community visiting her to express their shame and sorrow, and explains how, by forging alliances with their Palestinian neighbours, settlers might pave the way towards peaceful co-existence.


The Disappeared

Gilad Baram and Adam Kaplan, Israel/Germany

In The Disappeared, which screened in the experimental Depth of Field strand, Gilad Baram and Adam Kaplan explore the often uneasy relationship between Israeli artists and authorities. Inspired by Baram’s own experiences as a young IDF conscript, it tells the stranger-than-fiction story of a lavish feature film produced around the turn of the millennium by the army’s Spokesperson’s Film Unit to explore the taboo subject of soldier suicide, which was abruptly censored and shelved shortly before its planned nationwide theatrical release. Splicing together recollections of numerous individuals involved in the production, Baram and Kaplan have crafted a lively, at times contradictory oral account of a bizarre episode in recent Israeli film history. To emphasise the unreachability of the original film, the audio is accompanied, for the most part, by a black screen.

In its playful exploration of the incompatibility of the film industry and the military, The Disappeared feels extraordinarily timely. Last September, culture minister Miri Regev condemned Samuel Maoz’s Venice Silver Lion-winner Foxtrot for being critical of the IDF, despite not having seen the film herself. Subsequently, she has threatened to deny state funding to films “that can be used as weapons of propaganda in the hands of our enemies”.

For Kaplan, currently based in Berlin, any kind of professional relationship with the state is out of the question: “It was very important for us to not have any Israeli institutional funding. We were lucky to secure money from international bodies supporting Jewish art. And now it’s complete, we won’t accept any institutional support for screenings or distribution. It was made with the least dirty money we could get our hands on!”



Ohad Milstein, Israel

Ohad Milstein’s Flood poetically expresses both wide-eyed reverence for the natural world and a profound sense of frustration at the state of Israeli society. The director draws clear parallels between the country’s chronic water shortage and its increasing isolationism, by spending time with spiritual people living, both literally and figuratively, on the fringes of society, including an eccentric settler and a pair of astrophysicists stationed at the northern border. As the landscapes they inhabit become more arid, the faith of these lone wolves is strengthened rather than called into question.

This deceptively gentle film ultimately reveals an explosive underlying thesis – that the quickest way to resolve conflict in the Middle East may be for another biblical flood to lay waste to the region. Milstein, who has screened all his features to date at Docaviv, has thus far secured institutional funding and found receptive audiences for his work. He concedes, however, that a steady slide towards right-wing populism leaves him concerned about the future: “The whole cultural map is a bit shaky right now. The culture minister is really trying to hold us close. What happened with Foxtrot is a good example – our freedom of speech is under threat.”


The Jewish Underground

Shai Gal, Israel

The Jewish Underground (2018)

A deep concern with the influence of Zionism on the national discourse runs through Shai Gal’s slick, nailbiting The Jewish Underground. The film offers an accessible primer in the titular rightwing terrorist organisation, and its plot in the 1980s to eliminate the Muslim presence in Jerusalem by blowing up the Islamic Dome of the Rock shrine that sits atop the sacred Temple Mount.

Gal gives equal weight to accounts from former members of the Underground, most of whom remain utterly unrepentant, and from members of the secret service who spent four years tracking the organisation, and who stress that, had the operation been successful, it would have likely instigated nuclear war in the Middle East. The filmmaker revels in the story’s inherent high-stakes intrigue, and indulges in the odd spot of hokey dramatic reconstruction. But these thriller trappings give undeniable heft to the final act, which documents how the plotters continue to exert an alarmingly powerful influence on mainstream Israeli politics.


The Candidate

Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudry, Israel

The Candidate (2018)

Offering a gentler but no less engaging critique of the present-day Israeli political system is The Candidate, by Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudry, who made waves internationally with 2016’s electrifying Death in the Terminal, a Rashomon-style reconstruction of a 2015 terrorist attack committed by a Bedouin Israeli citizen. Their new film is an intimate study of centrist politician Moshe Kahlon, tipped by some as a possible future prime minister, charting his recent journey to his current role as minister of finance. While Kahlon emerges, at least to this uninformed outsider, as a palatable potential replacement for Netanyahu, there’s something faintly depressing about his apparent willingness to abandon his principles for the sake of optics. And there are shades of Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It in the depiction of his perpetually on-the-fly 2015 election campaign.


Family in Transition

Ofir Trainin, Israel

Family in Transition (2018)

Amidst a wealth of provocative homegrown fare, Ofir Trainin’s Family in Transition was perhaps a safe pick for the festival’s best Israeli film award. But what at first glance appears to be a straightforward fly-on-the-wall portrait of a trans woman accepting her true identity soon evolves into an altogether richer exploration of the notion of the queer family.

Trainin spent three years with Amit, whom we first meet just as she’s beginning to present publicly as female, with the full support of her wife Galit and their young children. These early scenes are, for the most part, purely heartwarming, with the family banding together and approaching this new chapter of their lives with extremely good humour. But as Amit embraces her true self, Galit’s saintly facade begins to crack, and it becomes apparent that her own identity is in a profound state of flux. As tensions rise, the subjects become increasingly reliant on the filmmaking process as a form of therapy, making the most of Trainin’s presence as an objective third-party observer.

Ultimately, it transpires that the primary ‘transition’ of the title may in fact by Galit’s slow journey towards accepting herself as a gay woman, and the film ends with both her and Amit embarking on new relationships with cisgender female partners. Trainin asserts that “If I hadn’t made the film, I’m not sure [Galit] would have got her happy ending. I think the process with the camera allowed her to come to terms with herself.”

He also admits a degree of uncertainty about how the film will be received outside the liberal bubble of Docaviv, when it’s broadcast nationwide by satellite TV provider yes. “Israel is really a country of two parts – there’s Tel Aviv, and there’s everywhere else. I think that many people outside the city will have a problem accepting the film. But that’s why I wanted to make it. Twenty years ago I was living in a kibbutz, and my brother was the first person in the community to come out as gay. It caused widespread shock, and I think that acceptance of trans people in much of the country is about where acceptance of gay people was back then.”


A Sister’s Song

Danae Elon, Israel

A Sister's Song (2018)

Strained familial bonds are also scrutinised in Danae Elon’s A Sister’s Song, which picked up a prize for innovative filmmaking presented by the Australian International Documentary Conference. It’s an enigmatic, artfully constructed portrait of two Russian sisters, Marina and Tatiana, who emigrated to Israel as children and swiftly became estranged on account of Tatiana’s decision to join a Greek Orthodox convent as an impressionable teen. Now living in Haifa with her young son, Marina fears for the wellbeing of her sister, known today as Sister Jerusalem, and so travels to Greece in an attempt to lure her away from a life of extreme piety.

Initially, Marina is greeted warmly by her hosts, but tensions mount when when word reaches the head of the covent, known as the Gerontissa, that their visitor intends to take Sister Jerusalem back to Israel. In one remarkable sequence, the Gerontissa begins to confide to Elon her doubts about Marina, increasingly fixating on the fact that she’s been through two divorces: “What success does she have in life?… She has failed twice with a person she has chosen for life.” In a chilling instant, her sweet, smiling mask slips to reveal the petty, poisonous individual that lurks beneath.

Casting a sinister shadow over proceedings is the unseen male church elder who initially recruited the young Tatiana. Marina’s intentions are dutifully reported to him by the convent, and his subsequent instruction to Sister Jerusalem to return to Israel is alarmingly interpreted by the submissive nun as a test of faith, or perhaps even a veiled threat. Marina is deeply distressed by the hold he exerts over her sister – certainly, the dynamic appears to be that of a cult leader and his unquestioning disciple. But while our worst fears are never substantiated, A Sister’s Song emerges as a poignant study of the inherent incompatibility of religious zealotry and modern secular life. In the context of this festival, the film feels like an elegant expression of one of the fundamental, and perhaps insurmountable, obstacles faced by Israeli society at large.


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