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Claus Mueller

Claus Mueller is a Film Festival Ambassador to

He is based in New York where he covers the festival scene.


New York: 2019 Israel Film Center Festival

Held for the 7th time at Manhattan’s Marlene Myerson Jewish Community Center from June 3-12 this year’s edition continued its celebration of the New Israeli Cinema including a special section with Israeli Television programs. The program consists of eight feature films, an Avi Nesher  retrospective with two of his films, three TV programs,   a special discussion session at  Temple Emanu-El with screening clips from the acclaimed television series SHTISEL, a two day conference on presenting Jewish films and festivals  as well as a conversation about the international audience of Israeli Television which has  become  a leading cultural export product.

One of the compelling features of the Israeli Film Center program was the emphasis on the development of and reaction to the growing orthodox population in Israel, a topic which dovetails with  Israels experience over the last years.  Demographic changes specifically among the Haredis, the ultra-orthodox Jews with a per family birthrate of more than  six children, their traditional messianic orientation and right wing firm  support for the Likud Netanyahu government  contrast strongly with the liberal democratic  convictions still shared by most Israelis and centrist opposition parties,. Haredis make up about 30 percent of the West Bank settlers and support the pro-settlement movement. Further, observant Jews in Israel have moved closer to the orthodoxy. Haredis remain fully religious receiving support for their institutions for their backing of the government. As Gol Kalev observed earlier this year the Haredi share of the population will increase to 27% by 2059 and since they vote in larger numbers than the Israeli public they already have now a disproportionate impact. Thus, the ultraorthodox are likely to enlarge the influence of religion over the everyday life of the Israelis. They  support to annex more of West Bank Palestinian land and to diminish liberal democratic tendencies. They have been able to defend their privileges.

What happens in Israel and its multifaceted population groups, from Haredis to Palestinians is well presented in documentaries and films in major streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, the large number of  Jewish film festivals, including Israeli and Sephardic ones, and well-organized public diplomacy projects by private and official agencies. In most cases Israel’s position is displayed with the Palestinian perspective rarely articulated. There are many Israeli productions that can be accessed readily through major streamers and others, including the specialized New York Israel Film Center Stream. The Jewish Film Festivals organization published data showing that there are now  111 listed Jewish film festivals in North America, including 11 Canadian ones, a rapid rise from the 60 I identified about ten years ago. Many institutions support the production and distribution of Jewish themed films in Israel and overseas.  The representation of the ultra-orthodox life and its problems and clashes with more secular values are well presented on streaming services. Thus SHTISEL, a 2013 television 24  part television series by Yehonatan  Indursky a director raised in a Haredi family, enjoyed great success on Netflix even generating a SHTISEL fan club with more than 6000 members. Indursky also created the AUTONOMIES series of which two episodes were shown at the Israel Film Center Festival.

Several other features broadened the understanding of ultra-orthodox life.  Jospeh Madmony and Baez Yehonatan Yacov directed the opening film for the festival, REDEMPTION. It depicts the turmoil a devout middle-aged single Hasid father faces when he is forced to return to his former life as a rock star in order to cover the medical bills for his daughter.    As a grocery clerk he cannot pay for them and his former friends were alienated when he turned into a devout Hasid. Yet despite their secular orientation, still they support him and he can retain in that environment his newly found beliefs.  In this emotional story of reconciling the past and the present father and daughter deliver a great acting performance with a subdued perfectly balanced appealing script. Moshe Folkenflik won the best actor award for playing the father at the Karlovy Vary film festival.

THE OTHER STORY a feature by Avi Nesher presents a veritable inventory of the dysfunctional characteristics of a secular liberal family, the Abadis, whose granddaughter Anat is about to marry an ultra-Orthodox man, Shakar a yeshiva student and musician. The film also covers the problems of Shakar’s family, though they are not as manifest as the problems of the bride’s family. Anat and Shakar knew each other through their joint experiences in their secular passage through drugs and a wild life when they were young. Now they crave for a firm predictable life abiding by the ultraorthodox code of conduct. The film has multiple subplot stories, the bride’s grandfather Shlomo, a liberal psychologist asks his son, Yonatan, who works the same trade to join the family for the wedding, though apparently, he wants him to be there because Shlomo is ailing. The son comes from the US but does so since he tries to escape a fraud trial no one knows about. Anat’s mother Tali is opposed to the marriage since the many children Anat may have will prevent her from seeing the daughter. Thus, all members of the Abadis family scheme to prevent the marriage. Their tool will be photos of Shacar buying drugs, thus showing him to be a liar. The screenplay written by Nesher and a psychologist is nuanced and convincing in spite of well-integrated sub plots involving the feminist Sari from a Haredi background now attracted to paganism to cleans her past, the joint treatment by father and son  of Sari’s  marriage and her prone to violence husband, Anat’s involvement in Sari’s psychotherapy and other plots. Though there seems to be a harmonious ending to the film, what comes across from the story, are mutual deceptions, dishonesties and a general inability of being transparent with each other, behavior aggravated by the emotional complexities and constraints of the family relations.

The most startling production screened at the festival were segments from the 2018 miniseries AUTONOMIES by Yehonatan Indursky. This series depicts an alternate Israel in which the country is divided into the “Haredi Autonomy” zone of Jerusalem governed by the ultraorthodox and the liberal secular zone governed from Tel Aviv. Jerusalem is strictly separated from the rest of the country, has its own judicial and law enforcing system, and everyday life is firmly governed by ultraorthodox Haredi rules. The conflicts between liberal democratic morality and authoritarian orthodoxy are obvious. This dystopian presentation of Israel results from past violent clashes between these groups in the series; clashes that were resolved by setting up the autonomous Haredi zone of Jerusalem. Coming from an ultra-orthodox Haredi background Indursky presents picture-perfect images of the Haredi life in their zone and of the interactions between the religious officials, functionaries and the people they govern

AUTONOMIES provides a problematic vision of Israel’s future. Liberals live in the State of Israel with Tel Aviv as their capital.  The ultraorthodox live in the “Haredi Autonomy” of a walled off Jerusalem, protecting their identity by rigorously enforcing codes of behavior.  The Secular Jews on the outside resent the costly support for the “parasite” Haredi  enclave Jerusalem yet realize that this arrangement ensures a modicum of peace and precludes open violence between the groups.  AUTONOMIES with its narrative of intersecting religious and political issues and presentation of the personal conflicts rooted in them is an outstanding topical achievement by Indursky. He manages to articulate an original story about an alternate reality Israel.  Growing influence by religious political parties have already restricted personal freedom. The unrestrained communication of the secular lifestyle is a perceived threat to the strictures imposed by the ultra-orthodox Haredi faith. In the secular group religion plays a small role, if at all, and contemporary living is defined by individualism and an orientation to consumerism. For the ultraorthodox Jews the opposite holds.  Their everyday life is determined by subordination to religious codes and rabbinical guidance limiting the modern expectations of consumption, sexual equality and emancipation. In contemporary Israel having an autonomous Haredi sector is not an option given the growing power of the orthodox and Haredi segments of the population. May be Tel Aviv as an enclave for secular liberal and democratically minded Israeli is a more realistic template for future screen writers.

Claus Mueller









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