The Cinema of Poetry

Edited by David (Neo) Buhbut
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Movie Clips


Reading a book, whether it be prose or poetry, is an intimate, abstract, nearly hallowed experience, with any attempt at lending it some form of visual representation seemingly destined to fail. And yet, we all know those singular, rare moments when film is able to entice and enrapture the spirit just as great poetry can. How does this magic come about? How does a film deliver a poetic or literary experience?

The encounter between film and literature can take on a variety of forms. The first, and perhaps most obvious one is the film adaptation of literary works. Israeli film, throughout its history, has seen more than its share of such adaptations, and this collection brings you selected scenes from some of the finest to date. The common thread shared by them all is having successfully tackled the artistic challenge of adapting the inner core of a literary work to a “foreign” film language, whilst creatively conquering the inevitable constraints that are part and parcel of the transition from a verbal language to a visual one.

Oftentimes, breaking boundaries is essential if one is to achieve a truly sublime film adaptation. Take Three Days and a Child for instance, Uri Zohar’s 1967 big screen adaptation of a short story by A.B. Yehoshua, and one of the most important films in Israeli film history. Whilst the author did go on the record to say that he did not approve of the script’s interpretation of his story, he did nonetheless acknowledge the inherent change that must take place in the transition from literature to film, “I believe that a good director must write their own script, seeing as how the film’s artist is the director. This was an Uri Zohar work ‘based on’ my story, just as there are musical variations ‘based on’ the work of one composer. Increasingly, it emerges that literature and film are in fact two very separate disciplines. […] When the film is overly ‘literary,’ that constitutes a fault.”

Zohar created an avantgarde, free-flowing, autonomous piece articulating both his artistic influences and aspirations. And though it may have drawn inspiration from the literary source text on which it is based, it ultimately has its own artistic truth. Perhaps that is what ultimately enshrined the work’s canonical status in Israeli film as the highly influential harbinger of an emergent style and as the most important, successful, and utterly exquisite local adaptation ever produced.

Another facet of the encounter between film and literature lies in the former’s artistic language, form, and style. This collection brings you an assortment of scenes that capture poetic beauty at its finest. Films that have stopped me in my tracks, prompting me to recite a pagan ode to the gods of poetry. But what do we even mean by film poetics? What forms does it take? And what characterises it?

One of the most fascinating observations in this regard was made by Italian film and literature giant, Pier Paolo Pasolini, in an essay he had published in 1964 bearing the title, The Cinema of Poetry. Pasolini’s milestone cinematic manifesto was written against the backdrop of then-institutionalised film’s gradual drift towards commercialised middle-class content that became embedded in the capitalist assembly line, enticing audiences to flock to cinemas whilst highlighting the medium’s entertaining values via the same “good old narratives,” that are in fact the furthest thing from good.

Pasolini identified the existence of two artistic languages in film, “cinema’s language of poetry” and “cinema’s language of prose narrative,” and made a passionate plea for a return to the former, from a belief in its ability to rouse the language of film from its slumber. The cinema of prose narrative refers to classical, narrative film in which the camera’s presence is hardly felt, and which was made according to traditional artistic conventions. Whereas in the cinema of poetry, the true protagonist is style which the creator breathes life into using the arsenal of film tools at their disposal: directing method, cinematography style, pace of editing, acting method, mis-en-scène, and soundtrack. It’s not that there is no narrative, just that for the most part it plays out nonlinearly, “unfolding in ellipses, whilst using flashes of imagination, fantasy, and innuendos.”

Therefore in the cinema of poetry, for instance, one can hardly miss the camera’s presence and its frequent closeups of all types of objects in an attempt to magnify and maximise them; the blinding shots facing away from the light; erratic and borderline neurotic camera movements, and chaotic and intentional editing “mistakes.” All of the above are not just there in service of the narrative but are also acting on behalf of one’s personal style which draws directly on the creator’s own poetic wells of inspiration. No doubt the uningratiating, avantgarde, experimental nature of these works may well breed some strokes of utter genius as the creator passionately endeavours to rewrite and reimagine the values of film form; however, in the process – like in the art of poetry – they are also running the risk of creating something that is ultimately inaccessible, pretentious, and amorphous (or to call a spade a spade, up its own arse.)

That same unique poetic quality also rears its head in film through the medium’s protagonists. In this collection, you will find scenes from the films Intimate Grammar, Aviya’s Summer, Three Days and a Child, The Kindergarten Teacher, and Saint Clara – all films with a particularly dominant child or teen-centric point of view. In the course of compiling and curating this collection, it was difficult to overlook the fact that many of these lyrical films had opted to make a young boy or girl their protagonist, which is no coincidence. The poet does as the child does (and vice versa). Both make and mould their world out of their imagination, whilst also independently developing their arsenal of expressive tools.

Aaron from Intimate Grammar, Clara from Saint Clara, Aviya from Aviya’s Summer, and Yoav from The Kindergarten Teacher are all quirky, unique, and extraordinary child characters. Their language is alien, alternative, and enigmatic. Their inner world is a winding, twisty labyrinth of meaning. Their angelic spirit hovers over the threshold between inner and outside world, and between imagination and reality, whilst their unusual point of view of reality makes them the quintessential outsiders with the soul of an artist.

Making a child the protagonist of a film is a particularly potent dramatic move. Childhood, in and of itself, is a major protracted inciting incident, underscored by constant seismic shifts. Every sight and sound has the potential to upend one’s world, shape their personality, spawn an identity or drive a stake through it. Therefore, it is enough to delve into a child’s inner world to produce feelings of suspense, intimacy, and empathy.

The collection also features films that explore childhood’s encore – old age (Slow Down, Floch, Eagles). Like childhood, old age too – that forward, fateful, hyperconscious march towards oblivion packs quite the fatalist punch which further bolsters the work’s dramatic potential.

And finally there is the tangible, human meeting of the two creative branches – the filmmakers and literary folk. Israeli film has known more than its share of such rendezvous and as such, this collection does also feature scenes from films that were either made by a literary author or featured appearances by them. Beyond the delicious treat that is watching some of Israel’s most beloved poetry grandees step in front of the camera as charisma-oozing film protagonists (don’t miss poet Avraham Halfi in Hanoch Levin and Dan Wolman’s Floch), these are mostly films whose lyrical quality is deeply woven into them, both narratively and visually, before even taking into account the fact that they feature living, breathing actual lyric poets.

This collection is an opportunity to experience and celebrate the glorious meeting of film and literature which, at first glance, one might think was not such a given. Influenced by New Wave-era Italian and French avantgarde cinema, several films in this collection were made with the intention of defying then-prevalent filmmaking norms that dominated the Israeli landscape; that is, until their release. Whereas the other films did stick with traditional film language, somehow along the way and rather inexplicably, they also managed to make poetry. When it comes to film adaptations of literary works, their poetic nature is in no small part the product of the sheer quality, style, and inspiration the script had drawn from the literary source text, however much it may have departed from it dramatically.

One is inclined to conclude with this iconic quote from celebrated Israeli poet and author Leah Goldberg who once described (in a distant pre-PC world) the act of literary translation as “resembling a woman. If she is handsome, then faithful she is not; and if she is faithful, then handsome she is not.” Her words seem to ring especially true when it comes to the meeting between literature and film. In this instance too, we are treated to but “a kiss through the veil” of the source language (As Bialik so brilliantly put it.) The act of adaptation is film language’s way of flirting, as it were, with the language of literature, or courting it if you will. However, this passion can never be consummated as there will always be this gap – whether as wide as a chasm or thin as a veil – that will come between them just as lips are about to lock. Whatever the outcome, satisfaction is guaranteed.

Movie clips

Slow Down

Directed by Avraham Heffner, based on a text by Simone de Beauvoir – 1967

Avraham Heffner’s Slow Down that won the Best Short Film award at the Venice Film Festival, is a melancholy cinematic piece about love and ageing. The script is made up of a montage of excerpts and sentence fragments taken from an essay by Simone de Beauvoir which Heffner had compiled and reedited. These snippets were then spliced together to form a heartfelt personal monologue which plays out in the background as voiceover narration for the film’s entire 13min duration – narrating the protagonist’s inner world, emotional state, and heart’s desires. Slow Down stars Fanny Lubitsch as an elderly woman who has just learnt that her husband (Avraham Ben-Yosef) has been lying to her.

Film language is predominantly visual, communicating with its viewers through a range of tangible means such as sights, imagery, actions, and deeds. As any first-year film student will tell you, the script will only feature that which you can “see and hear.” In Slow Down, Heffner is able to surmount the hurdles of film language in an innovative way. Voiceover narration emerges as a highly effective tool for expressing verbal, more abstract and philosophical content, just as literary musings behave in modern existentialist literature.

Not one word is spoken throughout the film, nor are there any verbal exchanges whatsoever that would otherwise be heard in objective reality, save for the woman’s pre-recorded speaking that accompanies the visuals in the form of a deeply intense monologue. Her interactions with her husband play out and are only heard through her thoughts. Her tumultuous internal monologue echoes in the background even when onscreen, she and he seem to be sharing a heavily pregnant pause. The contrast between the punchy, explicit, emotional content heard in the voiceover narration and the film’s introverted atmosphere (evident in the predominantly laconic acting style, the editing’s snail’s pace, and the slow shots that reveal a bleak domestic existence) creates a profoundly poetic tension.

The explicitness of the spoken narration stands in stark contrast to the film’s otherwise reserved visual appearance, not to mention the “increasingly slower” pace that is so synonymous with old age. The contradictory use of the various expressive elements at play here produces a form of organised, stylised, borderline harmonious chaos. And it is what ultimately gives Heffner’s short film its full poetic weight and expressive importance as a trailblazing harbinger of the New Sensitivity movement in Israeli film.

“We shot the film in our home with a total of four crew members, and wrapped in two and a half days,” Heffner recalled in an interview that took place between 2007-2008 as part of Marat Parkhomovsky and Avital Bekerman’s New Media documentary project, Israeli Cinema Testimonial Database. “Uri Zohar who, back then, was a mate of mine and who’s now mates with the Lord watched the film in the editing suite before we recorded the soundtrack and said to me, ‘don’t you do anything else to it, don’t you add any words, leave it just as it is!’ except I did want words, the text meant a great deal to me.”

As said, the film was shot at lightning speed by industry standards. Fanny Lubitsch who starred as the main protagonist felt rather displeased with the end result, seeing as how she was denied a proper opportunity to show off her full set of acting skills. “She warned me that when the time came for her to record the voiceover, she would finally have her chance to act, and acting she obviously knew how to do,” Heffner recalled in that same interview. “At first, she was doing it really slowly, but when I suggested that maybe we cut some line or another so that we don’t go overtime, she insisted that nothing was to be cut. She could just do it faster. […] in the end I suggested she record everything in the order it appears in the script, she delivered the whole text in one go, and that’s what ended up in the film.”

Slow Down is a humanist film, driven by a deep-seated sense of empathy which the film also endeavours to rouse in the viewer. The monologue evolves dynamically, from its inception in thoughts of existential heresy to its conclusion as a form of emotional catharsis. The woman’s wrath over her husband’s lie sets up an intimate confessional occasion, at the end of which she returns to the comfort of the love she has for her husband and their sense of partnership, thereby validating her right – old age notwithstanding – to a life of truth and emotion. It was the husband’s lie all of things that ended up stirring in her the urge to articulate a far greater, deeply buried truth about herself and her life. The fear of getting old, as reflected (in both of them) in the body’s demise, is the fear of acknowledging the fundamental, irrefutable fact that neither of them really has anywhere else to go.

Courtesy of the Avraham Heffner family.

Slow Down is available for online streaming on the Israel Film Archive website. Click to watch.

Hole in the Moon

Uri Zohar, based on a script by Amos Kenan – 1964

Three years before Heffner conducted his pioneering cinematic experiment, in 1964, Uri Zohar’s momentous groundbreaking film, Hole in the Moon, came out and cemented its status as the great, single most influential harbinger of Israeli avantgarde film. Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once wrote, “He who truly seeks to toil, shall give birth anew to his father, his maker.” With that in mind, Hole in the Moon was indeed a colossal, onetime explosion of courage, talent, and passion that not only “gave birth” to a new Israeli film – but to a whole new era of Israeli film.

It is a film that feeds on inspiration, being that it is chiefly a parody of various film genres with an emphasis on local, nationalist film, i.e. Zionist, collectivist, heroic cinema. It sought to challenge the conventional use of expressive film elements (directing approach, cinematography, writing, editing, and acting) and instead introduce a novel, revolutionary approach to how one might employ them, influenced by innovative directors who were part of the burgeoning New Wave movement such as Godard, Antonioni, and Pasolini (the latter of whom was also a renowned, highly-regarded poet and author.)

“The fundamental difference is between a cinema of prose and a cinema of poetry,” ruled Pasolini. As such, it is not hard to establish the school of thought to which Zohar’s film belongs. A wide range of cultural icons rose to the occasion and surrendered their soul to this new (cinematic) science being established before their very eyes, that was – and remains – far greater than the sum of its stars who, indeed, were a formidable cast of A-listers including Uri Zohar, Shaike Ophir, Dahn Ben Amotz, Shoshana (Shoshik) Shani-Lavie, Arik Lavie, Israel Gurion, Zaharira Harifai, Shlomo Vishinsky, and Yechezkel Ish Kasit (to name but a few).

Hole in the Moon is an Ars-poetic film, starring the language of cinema, itself, as its main protagonist. It is teeming with homages galore, packed with pastiches, and heaped with references demanding that one have knowledge of the history of the film medium. Combined, all of these elements go towards cementing the film’s historical status as the most delectable elitist delight to those in the know. Having said that, one would struggle to accuse Zohar of elitism. Zohar was every bit the entertainer as he was the artist and craved the masses’ attention like oxygen. This versatile quality was an inextricable part of the rare charisma he had been gifted, as someone who knew how to soar high enough to punch a hole through the moon – but also how to get back down and play the whole thing for a laugh.

“Who’s the one overseeing everything here on the frontline, is that me or you?” Avraham Heffner asks Uri Zohar (or rather, Schkolnik – his character), in a brilliant scene that features an intoxicating mix of subtext and nonsense, buffoonery and sheer genius.

Courtesy of Shoval Films.

Hole in the Moon is available for online streaming on the Israel Film Archive website. Click to watch.

How Wonderful

Amos Kenan – 1969

Urban legend has it that Hole in the Moon was a complete act of improvised chance – a wholly spontaneous coming together of top celebrities and chic café hoppers (e.g. Tel Aviv’s legendary Café Kassit) – and that it was shot on the fly, “without there having been a script.” This is, of course, a complete and utter falsehood. The film did in fact have an incredibly ambitious script it was based on (did it ever!), however loosely, that was the figment of author Amos Kenan’s vivid imagination. Well, going by Pasolini’s distinctions, Kenan who was chiefly known as a master of prose emerges here as a rather distinctly lyrical filmmaker.

In 1969, five years after Hole in the Moon, Kenan wrote and directed the short, How Wonderful – a work of unapologetic mindfuckery. The film was this totally unhinged avantgarde experiment, completely unchecked and untethered; although from the perspective of time, one can certainly appreciate why some were put off by the pretentiousness of these cheeky experiments, whose dabbling in European avantgarde showed borderline estrangement from the place, time, and context in which they were made. And yet, it is admittedly hard not to be enamoured with the expressive beauty of some of the utterly bonkers, experimental film fragments appearing here, that were spliced together in the editing suite on the sole basis of some loose token affinity, with nary a trace of any causal relationship between them.

How Wonderful is an insane exercise in style and form – a local ‘toolbox’ experiment inspired by French and Italian avantgarde film. The sequence brought to you here, featuring charismatic powerhouse duo Uri Zohar and Arik Lavie, showcases one of those splendorous moments of madness and regression; absurd flashes of shameless, uninhibited nonsense that, whilst not free of foreign mannerisms, did ultimately thrive on the most genuine artistic freedom. Back in the day, it was dubbed ‘New Sensitivity’, however nowadays a more appropriate label might be ‘cringe’.

Kenan employs the artistic expressive elements at his disposal in way that mirrors ‘stream of consciousness’ writing in literature. This refers to a writing style which instead of abiding by linear or narrative logic, adheres to human consciousness’s unprocessed, internal, raw order. That is to say, in a way that is far more associative than linear. The insane parallel editing that the film has opted for, complete with all the chaotic cuts – speaking of inexplicable uses of running motifs – creates an artistic effect that mimics the chaotic, fragmentary nature of human consciousness which is made up of a similar enigmatic cocktail of hallucinations, impulses, urges, and desires.

Courtesy of Amos Kenan Family.

How Wonderful is available for online streaming on the Israel Film Archive website. Click to watch.

Three Days and a Child

Uri Zohar, based on a novel by A.B. Yehoshua – 1967

“Personally, I wasn’t too pleased with the interpretation,” A.B. Yehoshua conceded, on the release of the film. “Of course the film has its own quality, however it is different to the story. In my view, a good director must write their own script, seeing as how the film’s artist is the director. This was a work by Uri Zohar ‘based on’ my story, just as there are musical variations ‘based on’ the work of another composer. Increasingly, it emerges that film and literature are in fact two very distinct fields. On the contrary, when the film is overly ‘literary,’ that constitutes a fault.”

A.B. Yehoshua’s above words dispel the erroneous underlying assumption that any resemblance or allegiance to the literary source text will necessarily also benefit the work’s artistic success within a filmmaking framework. Zohar presented an autonomous, free-standing avantgarde piece that portrayed his values, influences, and artistic inspirations at the time. Granted, it may have drawn inspiration from the literary source text, but it does have its own truth. And that perhaps is what ultimately enshrined the film’s historical, central, defining status in Israeli film history, both as a hugely influential local harbinger of style, and as one of the finest most successful, important adaptations the country has ever known.

The success of Three Days and a Child was a milestone moment, not just in the way that it artistically elevated the industry, but also practically: it was enough to convince the local film funds that held all the purse strings that there is also room for films whose protagonists are not necessarily army alpha males or ethnic cardboard clichés; films that lean into the intimate, psychological, and universal.

Ellie (Played by Oded Kotler who won Best Actor for his performance at the Cannes Film Festival), a student and maths teacher who grew up in a kibbutz and now lives in Jerusalem, is approached by Noa (Judith Solé), his kibbutz ex who got away and her husband (Misha Asherov), both of whom ask him to look after their three-year-old, Shye (Shai Oshorov) for three days. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, the two are seen out and about exploring Jerusalem. Ellie is wholly immersed in his interaction with the boy and even pulls a couple of pranks, like sticking a lit cigarette in a monkey’s mouth, to charm the boy and hopefully win him over.

Later, they play hide-and-seek in an old graveyard. Ellie, the so-called responsible adult hides behind a tall headstone and is reluctant to show himself even when he can clearly see that Shye is having an anxiety attack. This grown man is consciously (and one might add sinisterly and malevolently) flirting with the young boy’s separation anxiety and will not respond to his distress signals, as though he were trying to stretch his responsibilities here to the limit, as well as Shye’s abandonment complex. “Pal! Pal! Where are you? I’m scared,” Shye calls out, “I call time! Game over!”.

Ellie shirks his adult responsibilities (in a far less endearing way than he had at the start of the scene) and goes AWOL on the boy whom he had promised to look after. This is his way of exacting revenge on Shye’s mother, his old flame. “Aren’t you scared of being out on your own?”, Ellie asks Shye just moments later, in what seems like a way of gaslighting the boy into thinking he hadn’t abandoned him but that he (Shye) was in fact being independent. However, Shye is clever enough to not fall for it and calls bullshit (“you said we could go on the swings.”)

The abandonment scene is recalled as an especially traumatic event for a number of cast members; the kind that blurred the lines between script and reality. Decades later, Oded Kotler described it as “one of the cruellest, most harrowing moments” of his career in an interview he had given as part of a documentary series (HAGIGA: The Story of Israeli Cinema). “Uri Zohar said to me, ‘you’re going to play hide-and-seek with him and either he finds you or he doesn’t, and in the end you’re gonna hide and you’re not going to answer [him calling].’ I thought we were going to be done with it pretty quick, but he just kept going and going. Then suddenly, we realise that the boy is making his way out and that he could end up on the busy main road. It’s basically part documentary. I have to go grab him at one point, but the moment I was given the okay to go ahead and do it, my ‘action’ call, it came a second… too late, I would say. I was beside myself. It messed me up bad.” So fasten your seatbelts, folks, because this scene’s going to be a bumpy ride!

Courtesy of United King Films.

Three Days and a Child is available for online streaming on the Israel Film Archive website. Click to watch.

The Way of Words

The Way of Words caused quite the controversy on the film’s release and broadcast by the Israel Broadcasting Authority in 1975. It was dubbed “pornographic” but also “the whackiest, most intimate film ever to have been shown on the soulless box” [i.e. television – EE]. In an alternate reality, one might assume that Michael Lev-Tov’s film would most likely have become an Israeli cult classic; the mockumentary film genre’s very own Hole in the Moon, if you will. A gripping avantgarde piece, this is a film that pushes the boundaries of form and expression to their furthest limit, whilst defiantly challenging the medium’s language conventions.

The film follows the life story of poet Yair Hurwitz [also ‘Hurvitz’], one of the most unique enigmatic writers Hebrew poetry has ever known during its Modernist golden era. Lev-Tov leaves out no essential biographical detail in his effort to carve out the poet’s profile: from his brutally tough early years in the shadow of his father’s death, through his symbiotic relationship with his Polish mother (whose prominent presence in the film, not to mention comedic timing do not go unnoticed), his torturous childhood throughout which he was the victim of endless bullying at the hands of other children (the title of his well-known book, Salvion, was inspired by one of the many slurs he’d been subjected to), and all the way to his becoming a lauded, one-of-a-kind, captivating poet.

The Way of Words is one of the first mockumentaries to have been made in Israel. It is based on an original, altogether novel format in which everything is able to remain simultaneously scripted and authentic; documented and allegorical. Lev-Tov successfully created an exceptionally poetic film about a remarkably lyrical character, without ever denigrating from the protagonist’s own personality nuances both as man and poet – quite the opposite. In fact, the film is able to summon the poetic energy of its focaliser, providing it with the most wholesome, extraordinary cinematic expression.

Yair Hurwitz surrenders himself to Lev-Tov and also reveals an impressive capacity for humour at his own expense, not to mention impeccable comedic timing. Dori Ben-Ze’ev who stars in the film, plays a sort of parodied hologram of a host. The result is a cinematic piece that announces the arrival of the Beat generation on the first Hebrew city’s soil so that however briefly, one might even mistake Tel Aviv for San Francisco. A spectacularly serious, nonsensical piece, immaculately written, directed, acted, and edited, the film is full of sophisticated, poetic, and hilarious climactic peaks showcasing a brilliant formula for mastering literary filmmaking. In his creative flight, Lev-Tov was able to capture the ever-elusive bird that was Hurwitz and portray him not only as a poet but also in his child-like, transparent, most human simplicity. And in true Beatnik film form, there is no divide in sight between man and his work, and between “life” and the act of artmaking. The Way of Words is a once-in-a-lifetime film about a once-in-a-lifetime protagonist. A true cult classic if ever there was one.

The film was not available for viewing except in particularly indie circumstances, or as part of studies at film schools. Following the work on the collection before you, along with the comprehensive digitization project of the Israel Broadcasting Corporation’s film archive treasures, I am excited to announce that efforts have matured to make Lev-Tov’s film available for free viewing for the general public on the Kan Archive website.

Aviya’s Summer

Eli Cohen, based on a novel by Gila Almagor – 1988

The Headlice Scene

This deeply unsettling scene, taken from Eli Cohen’s award-winning film adaptation of celebrated Israeli actor, Gila Almagor’s autobiographical novel (who was also part of the script-wring and adaptation process) opens with some brutal cross-cutting: one shot features a closeup of the mother’s (Gila Almagor) hands as she fills a deep bowl with piping hot water. In the parallel shot, Avia (Kaipu Cohen) is seen sat on the bed in her dark, boarded up room. This space, much like all other spaces in the house, seems like one giant silhouette – orphaned of any and all light, just as Avia is of her father.

The camera then proceeds to trace the hyper-focused actions of the mother’s hands with a series of harsh closeups: after the boiling water, they pick up a small barrel and pour kerosene into the bowl, then open a drawer, pick up a pair of scissors, grab Avia by the hands, pulling at them with force and violently sitting the girl down in front of the steaming bowl before shoving her head in. Avia is wailing, pleading with her mother to stop. But her mother’s hands, almost possessed, are relentlessly toiling away at the act of shearing, trying to defeat the enemy that has invaded her child’s head.

This unnerving scene was shot with the utmost sensitivity, alternating between the mother’s point of view, the scissor’s cutting angle, and a lower angle meeting the girl at eye level. In one frame, through the thinnest crevice formed in the space between hands, scissors, and hair, the mother’s expression is revealed in the act: it is the face of madness, so dehumanised to the point of cruelty and yet somehow, all the while – thanks to the multi-faceted script and Almagor’s phenomenal acting – still maintaining an ever-elusive sliver of empathy. “No daughter of mine will have lice,” the mother chants over and over again, “no daughter of mine will have lice.”

In this scene, we the viewers witness the mother’s shockingly brutal mental projection onto her daughter in a hyper realistic sequence of ice-cold hands in action; a series of small practical acts that together, comprise a harsh and violent drama. As an actor (and one cannot overstate this massive, multi-layered feat) Almagor embodies Avia whilst portraying her mother whereas as a screenwriter, Almagor embodies her own mother whilst portraying Avia. In fact, at all times she plays and embodies two girls in the film – one adult ‘girl’ whose life has burdened her with great shame, and whose head is infested with figurative lice of depression and madness; and another younger girl named Avia – fatherless and forced into adulthood before her time, whose head is literally crawling with lice. Except it’s not the lice that are the source of Avia’s shame but her mother – and the metaphorical lice crawling through her head. Like all the traumas and neuroses, the lice too have taken root deep inside the head – exactly the place that the mother is trying to attack and purge with the blade of her scissors.

This is Almagor’s tour-de-force moment – not just as a remarkable, canonical actor but also as a filmmaker of the highest calibre.

Courtesy of United King Films.

Floch - Part 1

Hanoch Levin and Dan Wolman – 1972

One cursory glance at the names of Floch’s creators and its eye-wateringly delicious cast list is enough for anyone to realise that this is indeed an Israeli film unlike any other. Local playwright extraordinaire, Hanoch Levin, co-wrote and co-directed this exceptional film with renowned director and Israeli indie forefather, filmmaker Dan Wolman. In this instance, what we have here is not so much a big screen adaptation of a literary work but rather literary writing for film, which marked Levin’s debut foray into the world of screenwriting and filmmaking. His distinctive style as a playwright and theatre director is unmistakable in the film’s theatrical nature and style of writing. Just like his plays, here too there is a constant whizzing back and forth between the tragic and ironic, and between the existential and absurd. Incidentally, Levin himself even has a small acting cameo in one of the scenes.

As if that weren’t enough, Levin is not the only writer for whom Floch is their first dip in the film medium. In the movie, equally iconic literary powerhouse – poet and stage actor Avraham Chalfi plays Floch, the titlar character (with an abundance of talent and class.)

In the scene we have here, Floch embarks on a new chapter after leaving home. He slowly makes his way down the dark alleyways, suitcase in hand, en route to a roadside motel where he plans to spend his first night away from home. Sitting on the bed, an intimate closeup of his dishevelled face bespeaks the sad dissonance between the fatigue that suggests his impending demise, and his words that yearn for a new beginning. Floch closes his eyes, as if in silent reverie, and makes a vow to himself: “I hereby officially declare that starting tonight at 12am, I shall indeed become a new man. At approximately 12am I will forget my previous life. I shall take up exercise every morning and find myself a woman who would have my child. The declarant: Floch.”

How can you possibly watch Floch, this solitary nocturnal scene before us, without having the immortal lines by the same refined poet who plays him so brilliantly, echo through your heart: It is hard at night with no one/ Daytime is no good with people / Ascending in their time to sow / nocturnal stars / faint lights. / And the city streets like a chasm. / At night a lumbering sadness. / It is hard in the daytime with people, / At night they are blameless.”

Courtesy of Dan Wolman.

Floch - Part 2

Hanoch Levin and Dan Wolman – 1972

Elderly Floch has lost his son, daughter-in-law, and beloved grandson in a horrific car wreck. And as if that weren’t enough, the accident occurred immediately after a massive row, after which the two young parents decided to turn their backs on him and keep his beloved grandson away. In response, a dejected Floch hurls two rocks at their car; the same vehicle in which, shortly thereafter, they will meet their demise.

The film is a highly theatrical work, as one would expect of a cinematic piece penned by a playwright, and whose titular character is portrayed by one of repertoire theatre’s most seasoned actors. What is more, this feature is also highly present in the way that Dan Wolman and Hanoch Levin chose to design and stylise their mis-en-scène (take note of the composition, cinematography and as a whole, everything comprising the setting and framing.)

In the throes of depression, Floch decides to leave his wife and embark on a new life, in the course of which he hopes to meet a new woman who will have his child. “Gerda, I’m going. Don’t be angry with me,” he tells his wife in a heart-rending scene that so beautifully captures (as you would expect of a script written by Levin) the typical trajectory along the fine line between the comedic and tragic that is in the very DNA of both the Levinian screenplay and Avraham Chalfi’s character as an actor, poet, and human being.

Watching the film makes one doubly excited. Viewers will revel in a most enchanting, naïve protagonist; a ‘lower case’ man with a larger-than-life spirit whose life has shown him great cruelty and has slipped through his fingers, and who is now unable to recapture any of it. Meanwhile, poetry afficionados will struggle to suspend, whilst watching, their knowledge of Chalfi’s body of work as an actor and poet – this quintessentially sad clown who had reduced himself to the size of an anonymous dot so that his body weren’t a nuisance to the divine kingdom; who had been Yossi the sad parrot and Rumpelstiltskin, and who loved children with all his heart yet never got to have any of his own. Floch’s romantic journey is as sad as it is pathetic, however, thanks to Chalfi it is so profoundly pathetic that it must be equally as poetic.

Courtesy of Dan Wolman.

Saint Clara - Opening Scene

Ari Folman and Ori Sivan – 1996

Saint Clara’s opening scene starts with a slow-reversing travelling shot along the dolly camera tracks, down the corridors of Golda High School. Speaking of backing away at a steady pace, the camera focuses on a statue of former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, after whom the school was named. The decision to shoot the opening scene as a travelling shot is loaded with allegorical meaning which aims to highlight a direct transition from cause to effect, i.e. the roots of the national ethos whose fruits have gone sour in the present. PM Meir is now seen at the far end of the frame, at a distance, a diminutive, gradually forgotten figure that becomes ever blurrier as we advance towards the present. The frame is then rocked with an explosion of violent energy as a group of teenagers come charging down the corridor, with the dolly camera accelerating accordingly.

The atmosphere is in no way surprising. From a storytelling point of view, whilst the plot may be set in 1999, the film was in fact shot in 1996 in a fragile, highly combustible Israel that was still very much in the immediate aftermath of late Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin’s murder. Saint Clara’s apocalyptic vibe is entirely on par with the overwhelming sense of despair gripping the country at the time, during one of the peak unravelling moments of the nation’s democratic fabric. “Something most extraordinary has happened in this class,” says the grotesque teacher played by screenwriter and playwright Joe El Dror, referring to the paranormal mystery at the heart of the film. However, at the same time he is also expressing a sense of existential bemusement by the deep societal fracture that ran to the country’s core at the time.

The reference to Golda Meir is laden with symbolic meaning: like the school’s administrative staff, Meir too is a symbol of false, smug national consciousness that is playing a game of Russian Roulette (or Blind Cow, if you will) with reality, and is late to recognise all the signs of impending disaster as it slowly makes its ominous advance on its doorstep. The petty educational staff become seemingly obsessed with an exam cheating trend, all the while remaining utterly oblivious to the unruly chaos and anarchy that have seized control of this veritable crime scene that is still referred to as a ‘school’ – much like Meir’s own smugness in ‘73 or Rabin’s ill-fated naiveté in 1995. They too, being so out touch with reality, failed to recognise the danger until it was far too late.

Saint Clara is one of the most daring coming-of-age films ever made in Israel – the product of a stylised, outlandish, unapologetically uninhibited masterpiece boasting a visually and narratively bold film language (the script is based on Czech author, Pavel Kohout’s story The Ideas of Saint Clara.) The film stands out in its highly skilled use of the expressive tools at its disposal which, combined, present a breath-taking surrealist, psychedelic, and apocalyptic aesthetic cocktail, teeming with symbols and meaning: the visuals are fearless; the dialogue, razor sharp; the cinematography, jaw-dropping; and the acting? An unparalleled talent feast featuring all the rising stars of the nineties in Israel (Menashe Noy, Orly Silbersatz, Maya Maron, and others), all the Gesher Theatre grandees (including Evgenia Dodina and Israel Sasha Demidov), and of course Lucy Dubinchik – a spellbinding girl with fire in her eyes and raw electricity in her soul, playing the titular role of Saint Clara.

Israeli rock legend Berry Sakharof’s piercing guitar riffs – in a gothic soundtrack that gives the film all the qualities of a modern-day rock opera – play their own powerful part in the shaping of this nightmarish reality and in doing so, also help to establish the film’s status as an iconic work of art. This timeless opening scene brilliantly showcases all of the above.

Courtesy of Transfax Film Productions.

Saint Clara is available for online streaming on the Israel Film Archive website. Click to watch.

Saint Clara - The pedagogical team pays a visit to Clara’s home

Ari Folman and Ori Sivan – 1996

The pedagogical team pays a visit to Clara’s home

The scene before you is set in Clara’s (Lucy Dubinchik) home – a charmed young girl from a family of Russian new immigrants. The house’s grotesque design is borderline fantastical, which suggests that this no more than an imagined interpretation of the “Russian” home, taken to extremes. Nearly all the characters in the film seem to be living some mythical, farfetched version of themselves, with no relation whatsoever to objective reality. As such, the snow falling out the windows, like the sausage strings swinging from the ceiling, the taxidermied elephant hanging on the wall, and the bear fur (or is it tiger?) the mother is donning on her person, all echo some form of imagined, mythical, snowy Russian home they had left behind.

Saint Clara is a film work that operates on simultaneous physical and metaphysical planes. A hard-hitting social satire that takes on Israeli migrant society and the lost youths – the same ‘fucking generation’ whose teenage boys and girls are having to grow up in a no-boundaries, all but abandoned reality in the shadow of risible, unhinged adults who are mostly obsessed with satisfying their own private desires, oblivious to the fact that the children they’ve been raising at home have since metamorphosed into proverbial demons. At the same time, the piece operates as a universal celebration of imagination and artistic teenage rebellion that defies not only a particular tangible reality but beyond that, the very concept of reality and what fundamentally even constitutes ‘real’.

The encounter between Clara, her friends and family, and her form tutor and school headmaster, is the essence and epitome of the characters’ exaggerated representation; an absurdist, chaotic spectacle if ever there was one. Against the backdrop of Israeli reality, Clara’s family could not seem more out of place, whilst the paranormal powers she inherited from them are used not only as a main storyline, but also as an allegorical means that further emphasises former Soviet Union migrants’ existing position as perennial outsiders. The family are more than just immigrants, they are literal aliens. Their language is foreign, not just in a narrow, cultural sense but in relation to human nature as a whole: it is prophetic, encrypted, mystical, and follows Kafkaesque logic.

The headmaster and form tutor try to explain to the family using a range of scientific tools (probability calculations) the fact that their daughter seems to possess powers that cannot be rationally explained. The adult characters here are portrayed, accordingly, through the teenagers’ point of view as diabolical, pathetic, despicable, and petty, full of glaring perversions, and ridiculous desires. Despite the fact that all characters are carrying on as though they were on a mind-blowingly poetic acid trip, Clara and her family are the only ones in whom the mythical is authentic and supported by the force of ancient knowledge, truth, and sage wisdom. “Headmaster, you must leave. Golda’s on fire,” Clara prophesies at the end of this powerful scene in yet another outlandish line of dialogue that could not possibly be any more cinematic or literary.

Courtesy of Transfax Film Productions.

Saint Clara is available for online streaming on the Israel Film Archive website. Click to watch.

Intimate Grammar - Part 1

Nir Bergman, based on the novel The Book of Intimate Grammar by David Grossman – 2010

A stunningly lyrical film that brings to a climax the torn, internal monologue of young boy Aaron (Roee Elsberg) who is living with a genetic defect that is stunting his growth – with inner child Aaron, his spirit is rich and wholesome, growing wild and unchained; this without any contact with the outside world. The more inner Aaron grows, the further he pulls away from here-and-now Aaron, i.e. physical, corporeal Aaron.

Nir Bergman’s film follows a predominantly classical narrative structure. The plot moves along a linear timeline, driven by logic and causality as one would expect of a realistic period piece that seeks to portray reality as it is seen through the eyes of the protagonist or narrator. That being said, at the same time the film also features a splendorous exploration of film form and expressive elements whose cinematic language hails from an altogether different school of thought which Pasolini (remember that guy?) would no doubt have dubbed, “a cinema of poetry.”

Visually, the lyricism is expressed through a transition from the real to the surreal. Surrealist language – which seeks to unchain itself from the shackles of reason, and to sanctify associative, imaginary, and dreamlike thinking – possesses all the necessary tools to portray the abstract, emotional sphere into which our childlike protagonist “disappears” (almost as if he, himself, were Houdini – his revered illusionist) in moments of dissociation, suspension, and disengagement. Essentially, Aaron is disappearing on his PTSD-riddled, insane, and unfit Holocaust survivor parents – his stern, narcissistic mother (Orly Silbersatz) who is emotionally abusive to him and tries to emasculate him, just she had already done to his father (Yehuda Almagor) – a bumbling, emotionally-stunted immigrant who can barely string a sentence together.

In the scene before you, Bergman; or rather Aaron; or rather, Grossman washes his hands of plot structure and linear time limits in order to embark on a Little Prince-esque poetic voyage of introspection. Rowing along on his paper boat, he seeks to bridge the gaping inner chasm between one Aaron and the other, and to handpick from the sum total of his memories also those rare moments of mental well-being; some positive infrastructure that just might allow him to establish some form of identity that would permit him to get in touch with himself.

The real “danger” to Aaron’s spirit rears its head towards the end of the scene, of all times, when Aaron opens his eyes and returns to the living hell that is reality: “Aaron, this is Aaron, do you copy? What do I do? What do I look for? What do we do? We’re looking for memories. It’s all a wasteland. Aaron, what do we do? First of all, we have to leave whatever’s left. All the good and bad memories, we take and we transfer to a new brain under the heart. We’re building a brand-new brain.”

Courtesy of Norma Productions.

Intimate Grammar is available for online streaming on the Israel Film Archive website. Click to watch.

Intimate Grammar - Part 2

Nir Bergman, based on the novel The Book of Intimate Grammar by David Grossman – 2010

In this scene, Aaron is walking around like a ghost amongst the many happy revellers. Their simple and straightforward natural joy marks the fault line between himself and the rest of the world. Where their glee begins is where Aaron ends; his shrunken form, far too narrow to contain all this smothering joy around him. He is swallowed in the masses and is overcome with a sense of alienness that tears him right out of the situation. This dissociation is his every defence mechanism’s doomsday weapon, and it has now kicked in as Aaron’s psyche finds itself overwhelmed and utterly unable to cope.

The scene highlights the protagonist’s claustrophobic distress, in the face of society and its set of norms. Everyone else’s perfectly normative happiness shines a deeply painful light on everything he’d been deprived of, and the fundamental sense of otherness triggered in him by what is otherwise normal existence. The scene’s composition highlights just how diminutive he is in the space he is occupying, how invisible. Shooting the scene from Aaron’s shoulder height as he makes his way through the crowd emphasises his short stature whilst his inner musings are heard through voiceover narration. The soundtrack disengages itself from the sound of the bustling party, putting it on ‘mute’, thereby pulling viewers’ focus to whatever is going on inside Aaron’s head.

These expressive artistic tools set the scene for the crushing, dramatic internal monologue that follows: “But why won’t I grow? What am I doing wrong? Maybe I’ll just stay this way forever and it’ll just be my thoughts that keep getting older and older? Look at them celebrating those bodies of theirs. But what have they had to give up? Perhaps nothing at all? No, no. They did give up something. Oh yes. Yes, they’re already on their way there. It’s just that they’re already on their way to death, that’s all. They’ve started their journey towards death whereas I haven’t yet. But how’s any of that my fault? What’s she doing going around saying I’m doing this to her on purpose? It’s not that I don’t want to. Of course I want to. What do you want, to be just like them? Is that what you want? Yeah, like them.”

The monologue accompanying this scene in the form of the boy’s voiceover narration provides a potent echo of the powerful literary source text, with Bergman’s adaptation refining the poetic essence of the script’s forefather. A very wise choice on Bergman’s part was to turn to Grossman whilst writing the screenplay; an experience which, according to him, gave him profound insight into the narrative’s true intentions. “I still have some of his handwritten notes on the scripts,” Bergman once revealed in an interview.

Courtesy of Norma Productions.

Intimate Grammar is available for online streaming on the Israel Film Archive website. Click to watch.

Intimate Grammar - Part 3

Nir Bergman, based on the novel The Book of Intimate Grammar by David Grossman – 2010

This scene features the moment when Aaron well and truly loses the plot. Not figuratively as we are often prone to say, but quite literally. At the end of the scene, not only has he lost his mind, he also loses consciousness and effectively dissociates from reality. On his return home, Aaron grabs a pencil and writes a single sentence in his notebook that bespeaks a plea, a lament, and also an order: “Wake up, pituitary gland!” He then tears off the piece of paper with the sentence written on it, scrunching it up into a tiny ball which he shoves up his nose, pushing it with the pencil up his nostril – as hard and as deep as his sorrow runs.

There is a magical, mystical, almost Kabbalistic power to the meaning Aaron ascribes to the written word and its ability to impact reality. Aaron’s unique, poignant use of language is characterised (as the work’s title suggests) by its fundamentally intimate grammar, loaded with an emotional truth so bold and profound that no one else, other than him, could ever begin to understand. This is one of the film’s core subjects and as such, it is indeed highlighted on several occasions. For instance, when Aaron finds himself contemplating why, unlike English, Hebrew does not have the present progressive tense and starts playing around with potential verb forms for this alternate language (adding English’s -ing suffix to all kinds of hybridised English-Hebrew sentences) within which he could grow and develop, in a present continuous tense, like all other children. In this scene, Aaron commits his existential plea to writing, comprising just four explicit, utterly desperate words.

It is a brutal, crushing scene with all the machinations of a black magic ritual. A pained, conflicted prayer, devoid of any faith or trust, as it is ultimately doomed to end with the spirit succumbing to the body it seeks to awaken. If until now, Aaron’s dissociative disconnect was forced upon him as a defence mechanism which allowed him to maintain his distance for survival’s sake – it now becomes a conscious choice, opting to disappear into another life on another planet. That is to say, realising his desire to embrace the void and surrendering himself to his yearning for death. It is a symbolic transit stop that sketches out the narrative’s tragic outlines and marks the protagonist’s point of no return.

Amos Oz once said how each and every one of us is carrying inside the child they once were, but that there two kinds of people: those who carry around a living child, and those with a dead child in them. According to him, the ones carrying around the dead child may enjoy an easier life, but those with the living child will certainly benefit from a life far more interesting. Paraphrasing Oz, Grossman’s Aaron is an enigmatic, disarmed entity – a living child who’s already got a dead child he is carrying around inside.

Courtesy of Norma Productions.

Intimate Grammar is available for online streaming on the Israel Film Archive website. Click to watch.


Dror Sabo, based on the novel Vultures & Dead Flesh by Yoram Kaniuk – 2010

The disturbing opening scene of Eagles, a film adapted from a five-part series directed by Dror Sabo and based on the York Kaniuk novel, Vultures & Dead Flesh, starts off with a sequence of dark, bleak, and suspenseful shots: Ephraim (Yossi Pollak) is a bitter, depressed, elderly Ashkenazi in his eighties; a former Jewish resistance (Palmach) fighter reduced by old age to no more than a pressure cooker of existential rage. He is now a ticking timebomb of revenge plots (very much of the sadistic kind) that end up leaving a bloodbath in their wake, and a trail of wretched Tel Avivian bastards – vultures who’d fucked around with the wrong geezer and found out.

Ephraim is lying slumped in his bed, inactive and heavy like a sack of potatoes, staring in abject despair at a cheerful baby onscreen, starring in a nappies advert. In the background, trans music is blasting out from a party somewhere in the building that’s making his blood boil. Just a handful of shots and few bits of dialogue are all it takes to produce this opening sequence’s depressing mis-en-scène – a potent cocktail of pain, despair, and biting sarcasm.

Building on the sheer force of the Kaniukean source text, the opening scene illustrates the deep-seated existential angst that becomes the driving force at the heart of the subsequent killing spree. The hate-fuelled monologue that comes out of Ephraim in the form of a punchy, alarming voiceover narration says it all: “They’re selling nappies to babies, as if the babies would put on the nappy and get laid straight away. Parading them with their little arses. It’s awful, it is, watching them make outright pornography with Jewish babies’ arses. Selling my missus all these lotions for her cracks with their smooth faces. And this is a woman who was our commander in the resistance, who’d be sticking pegs in sandbags and shout out, ‘I want to see blood in their eyes!’… parties all day long. Jumping about on rooftops like there’s no tomorrow. They’re a godless lot, all of them. They have nothing. Only themselves.”

Ephraim’s tortured, hate-ridden opening monologue is a universal “ode” to loathing that bemoans the pitifulness of old age and projects the full combustible weight of its baggage onto the local social context, represented by the young – the same “motherfuckers who won’t stop passing through our shop windows, tearing our hearts out with how they look. As if they were these blobs of moving jelly, strutting about like bloody pudding. With their jeans, and internet, and their Walkmen shoved up their ears – and their nose turned all the way up to the heavens. And from all the way up there, at the top, they mock you (the bastards.)”

The film urges the viewers to feel a sense of disdain mixed with empathy – a type of emotion that no one really wants to indulge in. When Ephraim watches the baby in the nappy advert, it suddenly dawns on him that they are both seen to have a similar status – consumers of a product meant to soak up their discharges as they are incapable of looking after themselves. His ego is trampled, and he is offended by his old age. This profound, all-consuming affront that warrants resistance at all costs is the driving force of the narrative.

Courtesy of HOT and Lee Yardeni Buchris.

The Kindergarten Teacher

Nadav Lapid – 2014

“I’ve got a song! I’ve got a song!”, little Yoav announces, charging the air with a sense of anticipation. It is a joyous spiritual moment, building on the momentum of inspiration. Yoav, this little tyke who likes to wax poetic, has his kindergarten teacher – poetry-loving graphomaniac Nira – completely besotted with him. In the following scene, through crosscutting, Nira tells her husband about this crown jewel of a boy at kindergarten who has left her completely bedazzled, whilst the husband is slumped on the living room sofa in his underwear, either watching or just staring at the TV that’s on. “One of the kids at nursery is called Yoav. I know that Yoav’s being raised by his dad, though I’ve never met him. The au pair drops him off in the morning and collects him in the afternoon. Hadn’t noticed him until now. A child.”

Now back to Yoav who is walking around, to-and-fro, in excited circular steps along the sand in the kindergarten yard. He’s got a song, he’s got a song – there it is, the usual lyrical “seizure.” His au pair (Ester Rada) is quick to fetch a pen and commit these flashes of verse to paper as they go from figments of the boy’s imagination to written content. I’ve had enough  / I’ve had enough / Upon her house / it’s raining gold / Heaven’s sunshine realised. For Yoav, this is so much more than just whimsical verbal play. On the contrary, he is showing the utmost respect to these flights of inspiration he goes on. For him, coming up with the song comes with a sense of urgency. He intuitively recognises the power and value of poetry/songwriting, even if he can’t quite get his head around them.

The boy’s character gives the film a unique perspective that validates the use of poetry’s alternative language. “Poetry is thin, whimsical, written in a flash, read in a flash, often indecipherable,” creator Nadav Lapid explained. “The hidden, chaotic, inexplicable place from which a song/poem comes, where the boy’s lyrics also come from, stands up to the kindergarten teacher’s attempts to find order, to come up with an answer [to the question] – where do words come from?”.

Instead of using voiceover narration as a way of expressing one’s inner world, the boy – whose emotional content is neither processed nor regulated but rather expressive and associative – communicates his abstract inner life through poetry. Lapid opted to use authentic lyrics that he, himself, came up with in his early childhood whilst in therapy; then too, it was the “au pair” who was wise enough to commit these moments of inspiration to writing. Using these beautiful, untainted, authentic texts charges the piece with a truth so intimate that it turns the film into so much more than a mere successful experiment in form and expression. Lapid puts his own childhood lyrics in his poetic protagonist, Yoav’s mouth, in an act that perfectly captures the director’s deeply personal connection to the lyrical medium.

One would be right to wonder why the film is called The Kindergarten Teacher and not The Kindergartener, for instance. Perhaps it’s because the kindergarten teacher’s character plays an essential representational role that extends well beyond her narrative function. She is completely enamoured with the lyrical magic and is utterly spellbound by Yoav; however, her own talents are limited and as such, only allow her to come up with mediocre verse of her own. Her passion for poetry remains unfulfilled. And when she discovers Yoav’s lyrical gift, she simply goes mad. As the plot progresses, her eagerness to nurture his poetic spirit reaches pompous, batshit, borderline messianic new heights. The kindergarten teacher recognises that this is a bona fide poet she has before her and tries to covet his gift by taking him under her wing. Under the guise of caring and wanting to nurture young talent, the adult woman takes ownership of the words that in fact belong to the boy – despite the fact that his talent is in no need of any nurturing whatsoever as it came from him, inspired by him and no one else, and will certainly survive with or without her.

As a film, The Kindergarten Teacher successfully captures poetry’s alchemistic spirit onscreen with great style and sensitivity. In its own unique language, the film is able to portray what Bialik described as “the secret of poetic language’s great influence. It is a stimulant of one’s responsibility instinct, the sweet terror of rising to the occasion.”

Courtesy of Pie Films.

Bonus archive entry: The lost film Aviva, starring Alexander Penn

Based on the novel, Tenuvah, by Avigdor Hameiri – 1933

Poet Alexander Penn, aka “the Hebrew Majakowski”, wrote some of the most stunning love poems Hebrew poetry has ever known since the establishing of the State of Israel. Granted, some might argue that his lyrical oeuvre (save for the odd triumph here and there) never quite came close to the Olympian heights of his contemporaries and peers such as Avraham Shlonsky, Uri Zvi Greenberg, and Nathan Alterman. That being said, one would struggle to dispute that Penn was without a doubt the fittest, handsomest, and most photogenic of the lot. This, on top of the fact that he was an irresistibly charismatic womaniser, a diehard communist, a noble Russian savage, and a (certified) ‘punk poet’ who managed to win over even the most desirable woman at the time: Israeli theatre’s then-grand dame Hanna Rovina, with whom he went on to have a love affair that time has since turned into the stuff of local tabloid gossip legend.

The local culture scene which, at the time, was still very nascent needed some worthy A-listers with whom to sustain itself – certainly A-list celebrities such as Penn who was so much more than a gorgeous man with a perfect head of hair. His bohemian lifestyle was underscored by a voracious appetite for booze that would often further escalate his machismo tendencies, making him behave like a hot-headed musketeer. It is therefore of little wonder that Hebrew’s answer to Majakowski ended up with the reputation of a Tel Avivian sex symbol who was never not busy weaving Hebrew women and words together in rhyming verse, and why he of all people was cast to play the starring role in Aviva – the pioneering Hebrew film shot 15 years before the establishing of Israel which, had it not been shelved for a range of financial and other reasons, would surely have held the title of the first Israeli film ever made.

Aviva is a film adaptation of author and poet, Avigdor Hameiri’s book, helmed by director Lajos Lázár who was one of the founders of Hungarian film and an avid Zionist. The film creators put together the cast through an X Factor-esque talent competition that was advertised in a local paper and attracted scores of would-be actors and actresses who were trying their luck, hoping for the chance to take part in this pioneering project. Penn’s co-stars included theatre actor and director Avraham Ninio, and singer Sarah Osnat Halevi who, at the time, was hugely popular.

However, the film never even made it to the editing suite. All that survives of it is 40min of raw footage that was unearthed just a few years ago by the staff at the Jerusalem Cinematheque’s Israeli Film Archive. And whilst the visuals may have survived and have since even been digitised using all the latest technology, both audio and script are unfortunately lost.

The film follows Penn as he goes through a series of mundane day-to-day tasks that showcase daily Zionist life in 1930s Palestine, ranging from construction work and labourers’ lives to an understated, minimalist leisure and pastime scene that can be boiled down to sitting at the period’s (admittedly far-from-chic) cafes, reading the paper, and sipping milk.

Around the time the film was about to start shooting, local daily paper Davar ran a story that did the unthinkable, launching an attack on the film with the argument that it was allegedly “part of an antizionist campaign” – notably, before the film had even been shot, let alone edited. The story made Penn’s blood boil, who then wrote a rebuttal letter to the paper in which he insisted that the film was a piece of “antizionist Zionism in every sense of the word,” and in true form spared them no pathos or venom. “It was only 7-10 months ago that we were fighting for the Land of Israel, whilst still under Yevsektsiya’s rule [a Jewish section of the Soviet communist party – EE.] We’ve been through the nine circles of Soviet hell, endured the torture of exile in the furthest, most godforsaken reaches of the USSR – and you have the temerity to accuse us of antizionist propaganda?!”

Penn signed off his letter offering his best wishes to the burgeoning project with some choice words that leave an inevitable, tingling taste of ‘shade’ in their wake: “We do hope that the news story, the product of a reporter who has not even seen the film, not resonate with our fellow comrades and all other Tel Avivians, and it is not for us – who already have more than our share of tremendous obstacles to surmount in our work here – to waste any more of our time and efforts, combatting any misunderstanding on the audience’s part. We believe that the workers’ community, and all other residents of the Land of Israel will lend us a helping hand, for the success of this thing concerns and honours not only our small group but rather all Hebrew creations in the Land of Israel. A. Penn. The Dawn Group.”

What can be said about the single-most important Israeli film that was never finished? Well, all we can do is sign off, ourselves, with Penn’s own words: “Yes, it wasn’t terribly good, it was spectacularly awful.”

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