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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Israeli Cinema: Identities in Motion, edited by Miri Talmon and Yaron Peleg.  Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011.  372 pp., including Film Index. $55.00.


The publication of a book on Israeli cinema, such as Israeli Cinema: Identities in Motion, is to be heartily commended. The paucity of books on this subject may be due to two main reasons, contradicting one another. Either there is nothing worth writing about Israeli cinema (?!) or else there is, but something is amiss in the research and publication process. Since about 2004, Israeli cinema has flourished and prospered, and the list of international prizes awarded to the films is noteworthy. Israeli directors such as Keren Yedaya, Yossi Cedar, Ari Folman, and Shmulik Maoz have earned international recognition for their capabilities and their works. Articles have been written about some of them, while others have been the focus of polemics, including on the pages of the periodical Shofar. However, in contrast to the earlier Israeli films subjected to research published in the academic literature, few of these producers and their oeuvres have been exposed to adequate research. A new wave of research literature on the subject has appeared lately, in which the most notable is the book The Modern Jewish Experience in World Cinema (ed. Laurence Baron [Brandeis University Press, 2011), examining new films coming off the Israeli production line not only with a critical eye, but as a commentated analysis of Israeli society and the Jewish nation.

              The book Israeli Cinema: Identities in Motion also attempts to correct this oversight, by discussing contemporary Israeli cinema. Edited by Miri Talmon and Yaron Peleg, this book tries, through the new generation of scholars, to observe Israeli cinema with new spectacles. As implied by its title, the book focuses on multidisciplinary research through dynamic observation of the social and cultural phenomena that characterize Israeli society and are unique to it: the relationships between the religious and secular sectors of the population against the background of a problematic democracy that does not separate religion from the State; military-civilian relationships in a country where the majority of its citizens are soldiers; political and social questions confronting political and fashionable ideological declarations.

              Miri Talmon is a scholar of Israeli culture, cinema, and television. Yaron Peleg, of George Washington University, is Associate Professor of Hebrew. The combination between Peleg’s linguistic and cultural insights and Talmon’s multidisciplinary outlook succeeds in creating a harmony apparent in the choice of the articles in this compilation. They both use their academic standing in order to establish new contentions, and legitimize them by collating them into a scientific book, providing a broad horizontal platform that sees the State of Israel as a living organism, worthy of scrutiny in all its component parts.

              The book is multi-faceted; as a historian who researches cinematography, I naturally choose to read the book mainly from this point of view.

              It starts off with a group of articles based on the contention that Israeli cinema has always been, and still is, ideological cinema; cinema that is driven by a strong, almost uncontrollable, affinity with Ashkenazi Zionist institutions, seeing Zionism as a society that invented itself and was founded on utopian ideas expressed in a Zionist-colonialist agenda, which meted unfair treatment to the Israeli-born Palestinians and “others” who did not form an integral part of the myth and ethos of the “Israeli Sabra.”

              Over the years, if I may sum up, according to this accepted direction of research: the narrative of Israeli creativity is composed of the “good” Israeli cinema, which rebelled against this ideology and confronted it—its creators and their oeuvre repeatedly feature favorably in the studies—as opposed to “bad” Israeli cinema, which expressed a patronizing and condescending attitude towards the encompassing society.

              This assertion —inaccurate historically, socially, culturally, and perhaps even politically —unfortunately became the criterion according to which most of the research on Israeli cinema was assessed for many years. Studies that supported this paradigm were published, while other voices went unheard. The cinematic perception of the cultural and social pluralism that is so prominent in the multi-layered Israeli society dissolved in this acidic medium .

              The editors of the anthology, who were well aware of these tendencies in the research, succeeded in subtly overcoming the constraints of using the ideological narrative as a connecting thread and common denominator in Israeli cinema. They appeared to go with the stream, but they diverted it in their direction. On the one hand they provided a platform for archaic writing by authors who return to the origins of Israeli cinema and apply it to contemporary Israeli cinema, repeating the hackneyed mantra of ideological Zionist cinema. On the other hand the editors voice their opinion and write: “But with changing social and cultural realities this mythic and utopian model eventually became irrelevant.” From this point on, the book becomes a fascinating compilation of fresh new studies by young authors. The study subjects chosen are first and foremost an expression of inter-generational transit: from first person evidence to second person observation. Remembrance of events becomes reflexive, and flows from the experience of doing to that of observing and recounting; from representation of memories to activating a critical mechanism, relevant and perspectival.

              Prominent in this context are the writings of Jan-Christopher Horak, who extends the limits of the accepted research paradigm of Israeli cinema and reinforces the curious and interested look—the artistic and esthetic—in shots of Israel in the early twentieth century. Yael Zerubabel writes on war-widows in Israeli films, and Olga Gershenzon on the presence and influence of the Russian immigration on both sides of the camera. Two new stars in this field of research are Dan Chyutin, who confronts the question of devoutness and oppression of women in the Jewish religion as represented in the films of David Volach (in “My Father, My Lord”), and Nava Dushi, in her outstanding article “Seeking the Local, Engaging the Global,” which observes and compares the representation of the religious woman in Israeli and world cinema. In the seventh section of the book, “New Cinematic Discourses,” Gilad Padva’s article is noteworthy, as it deals with the identities of homosexuals in Israeli film after 1988 (the year when anti-homosexual laws were rescinded). Eldad Kedem places the question of the Israeli kibbutz on the operating table, and asks whether the kibbutz is represented in Israeli film as a fundamental myth or whether the creators transcribe the kibbutz narrative into the critical discussion on Israel as a country and a society. Space does not allow me to mention all the authors.

              In conclusion, a definitive book, strongly recommended to all cinematography scholars, historians, and social scientists who wish to become acquainted with Israeli cinema and how Israeli society, in all its identities, both real and imaginary, is reflected in the eyes of its artists and scholars.

Yvonne Kozlovsky-Golan

Culture and Film Studies

University of Haifa, Israel