A taste of Israel in a summer of screentime…

Jonathan Freedland looks back on the Israeli film festival held on his sofa

August 20, 2020 14:51

There’s an old song that’s become a constant refrain in our house during these last days of summer, an unlikely earworm I first heard 33 years ago and which I suspected I would never hear again.

The song is in Hebrew and its key line —the one my 16-year-old son has taken to incanting repeatedly and in unexpected moments – is Lo Rotzim, “We don’t want”, and it comes from the 1987 Israeli film whose English title is Late Summer Blues. With a nod to both Hair and Fame, it tells the story of a gang of artsy, musical 18-year-old friends as they while away the long summer vacation before heading off for three years’ compulsory army service.

I saw it when I was about the same age as the main characters, in a cinema in Tel Aviv the year the film came out. Back then I was left speechless by its punch-to-the-gut ending. Its key anthem — and its anti-war rejection of “generals” and “tombstones” — stayed with me too. But I never went back to it.

And yet in the late summer of 2020 I found myself watching it all over again. It was thanks to an initiative by UK Jewish Film, which wisely realised that an entire cohort of British Jewish kids has — thanks to the coronavirus — missed out not only on their GCSEs but also on what has long been a rite of passage in our community: namely, the post-GCSE trip to Israel. Keen to fill the gap, UKJF thought it might be an idea to give 16-year-olds a taste of the country via some of its films.

So for three consecutive weeks, they sent out a link to an Israeli movie. Not necessarily the best or most artistically accomplished, but films which gave a glimpse of Israeli life. Participants would watch the films with their families; afterwards, there’d be a Zoom call with an expert, followed by a Q and A session.

I admit I was sceptical. Surely yet more time in front of a screen could never compensate for the coming-of-age experience of that post-exams Israel tour: the long, drowsy bus rides; the hikes through deserts and waterfalls; the rush of previously unknown, adolescent freedom. And yet, a hint of it has come into our home these past three weeks, albeit via the moving image.

We sat together and watched Turn Left at the End of the World, a soap-ish drama set in a development town in the middle of nowhere. The film’s a bit of a mess — unsure whether it wants to be an Israeli Billy Elliot, an Israeli Full Monty, an Israeli Lolita or, as it turns out, a hodge-podge of all three — but it is evocative of the development towns that dot the Israeli periphery and of the Mizrachi migrants casually dumped there by an Ashkenazi-dominated state that afforded them no respect.

It brought back an unexpected memory of the Moroccan-born families who opened their doors to me and my fellow 16-year-olds in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Ashkelon, as part of our own Israel trip, all those decades ago.

We watched In Between, the story of three Palestinian Arab women, citizens of Israel, who share an apartment in Tel Aviv, becoming immersed in their battles against the men who seek to control them — whether a domineering father, boyfriend or fiancé — and against a majority-Jewish society that regards them with wariness and suspicion. (My memory may be faulty, but I don’t think a single encounter of substance with Israel’s Arab minority was organised for us back when I was on that tour bus in 1983.)

And, of course, we watched Late Summer Blues, set in 1970 and unabashedly located in the heart of Ashkenazi Israel. It’s easy to pull apart — not least for its blindness towards Mizrachi and Arab Israel — but it remains a tender and affecting film, one that serves as a reminder of the country that Israel used to be, and of how even the supposed ruling elite of Israel, the Jews who had fled a murderous Europe, were themselves carrying deep wounds.

All of this was possible thanks to a laudable initiative by one of the many Jewish institutions striving to adapt to the new normal of Covid, and using technology to do it. There is so much wrong with big tech’s domination of our lives, but tech also makes possible what would otherwise have been out of reach. How else could a group of families have sat in their homes and watched pretty obscure foreign films made decades ago, then joined with others to learn about and discuss them?

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will soon be upon us. For many, these will be the first High Holy Days without stepping inside a synagogue. A Zoom service may be their only way to connect with others. It’s not the same; it’s not as good. But it does make things more bearable, at least for now. Do we want it to be like this again next year? Let the song be our answer: lo rotzim.

Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for The Guardian

August 20, 2020 14:51

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