Israeli Cinema: Identities in Motion, edited by Miri Talmon and Yaron Peleg (University of Texas Press Austin, $55.00), is an intellectually rigorous and thought-provoking collection of 24 essays on this burgeoning industry and locus for cultural investigation in contemporary Israel. The quality and quantity of Israeli cinema has exploded in the last 11 years, since the passage of the 2001 “cinema law” which mandated that filmmakers receive a percentage of licensing fees paid to the government by commercial and cable TV. Simultaneously, there has been a proliferation of Israeli and Jewish film festivals in North America, which have made these films accessible to an American audience.
Many of the academics who contributed to this collection mention Ella Shohat’s landmark 1989, book Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation. Shohat’s book seeded every major mode of cinema analysis — psychology, identity politics, feminism, deconstruction, Orientalism and queer studies —in this fine new survey of Israeli film criticism.
Israeli Cinema is dense and requires an alert mind, but the payoff is a highly stimulating overview of what makes Israeli cinema unique and what makes Israeli cinema Israeli, including the richness and conflicts of a multi-cultural society; the prevalence of war imagery and the relationship of Israel’s citizens to warfare and loss; the legacy of the Holocaust and the trans-generational impact it has had on both the aesthetic and psyche of Israeli film directors; the centrality of Judaism, or a reaction against it; and the representation (or sometimes lack of it) of the Occupation.
The book is organized into seven parts, and while there is no single section devoted to feminism, several of the essays throughout the book look at Israeli cinema from a feminist perspective. Israeli cinema, like many cinemas of the world, is still made predominantly by men and often espouses a macho phallocentric narrative — not a surprise in a culture that was hell-bent on leaving behind the image of the exilic Jew and embracing the rough and ready Sabra, manifested on screen mostly as a man with a gun. Essays on the representation of women (there are none on women behind the camera) include Yael Zerubavel’s “Coping with the Legacy of Death: The War Widow in Israeli Film,” a thoughtful look at how this image was first explored in such films as Peter Frye’s The Hero’s Wife (1963) and Gilberto Tofano’s Siege (1969). Both films were Israeli productions, made by foreign directors. Interestingly, Zerubavel posits, “The first films to focus on the Israeli war widow were made by men who were not raised in the national Hebrew culture that shaped earlier films and benefited from their female leading actors’ insights into their characters’ experiences.”
An essay by Nava Dushi on women and religious oppression examines the roles of women in Amos Gitai’s achingly beautiful Kadosh (1999), a film about two sisters who are stifled by their Orthodox community. Anat Zanger writes about the biblical myth of the binding of Isaac through her analysis of two films, Joseph Cedar’s epic Beaufort (2007), about Israeli soldiers stationed at the Beaufort fortress in Southern Lebanon — a film that functions as a metaphor for the fear and claustrophobia of war — and David Volach’s My Father, My Lord (2007), a melancholic film about the death of a young Orthodox child on vacation at the Dead Sea.
This anthology provides unparalleled insight into representations of war, the conflict, women, ethnicity, and gender identity in Israeli film and society. In her perceptive concluding essay, editor Miri Talmon explores how Israeli cultural identity is formed and influenced by its cinema. “Cinema…is not a mirror held up to our faces, both as individuals and imagined communities, to reflect our identities as they already exist, but a form of representation that enables us to negotiate our identities, discover who we have become, constitute ourselves as new kinds of subjects, and rediscover hidden histories.”
Nancy K. Fishman is a film distributor and programmer in Oakland, CA. She was the program director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival from 2003–2009.