The most auspicious London Israeli Film & Television Festival (SERET) was in town last week. Who needs Cannes when you can watch films about unyielding intrastate conflict and old age pensioner high jinks in North London cinemas and Jewish cultural centres?
I had the honour of attending a screening of Bethlehem at Bafta. The actual showing was sandwiched between a drinks reception and a Q&A session with the leading actor – a kind of cushioning to soften the blow dealt by the heavy subject matter of the film. Bethlehem depicts a longstanding relationship between Israeli secret service agent Razi (played by Tsahi Halevi) and a Palestinian informant, Sanfur, as it falters. Sanfur’s brother Ibrahim is implicated in terrorist attacks and future plots; Razi discovers that he knows details about Ibrahim’s whereabouts and is hurt by his little buddy’s concealment; he pushes the boundaries to capture the brother; and as a result of alienating the already frustrated Sanfur, takes a sizeable rock to the head. There is far more to this complex tapestry of Israeli and Palestinian narratives, but those are the main threads of the story.
Bethlehem is gritty and faithful to the reality on the ground, but also reaches beyond the political discourse to tell the story of Sanfur: the luckless victim of circumstance. The boy has a serious case of Daddy issues, living in the shadows of his local hero, Bomberman-esque brother and often scorned for little apparent reason. He is let down by Razi, the more likeable and seemingly more compassionate paternal figure in his life, and then by the different factions of the Palestinian resistance movement. Sick of being treated like a pawn in the conflict by the various parties involved, Sanfur decisively takes control by shooting Razi and then bashing in his head with a rock. Smart move, Sanfur…
Then Razi appears from behind a curtain – seemingly unscathed – to take questions from the audience. Incredibly, this was Tsahi Halevi’s first major acting gig; he was better known previously for winning Israel’s version of televised singing competition The Voice! In the words of a proud Jewish mother: “Have you met my boy?! He sings, he plays guitar, he sympathises with the Palestinian cause, he speaks fluent Arabic, he takes rocks to the head…” The actor who played Sanfur (Shadi Mar’I) was also a non-professional actor. He now has another film under his belt and more work in the pipeline.
Seven days later, an entirely different kind of Israeli film was on the agenda: Hunting Elephants. Granted, the film was chosen from the week’s programme largely because Sir Patrick Stewart was turning up for Q&A. Cue an obnoxious question from the audience on whether he regrets Star Trek (FYI the answer is a decisive “no”).
The slightly ridiculous story is as follows. When Jonathan’s father dies of a heart attack at the bank where he works in security, the insurance “small print” means that widower and son are left penniless. Jonathan’s estranged grandfather, Eliyahu, is in an old people’s home where his wife Roda lies in a coma. Roda is of wealthy British heritage and inherited her father’s estate in Israel, while her brother Michael (Patrick Stewart) received nothing because he chose to pursue a theatre career. So both Jonathan and Michael are in need of some serious dosh – and thus a plan is hatched to rob a bank. Jonathan knows the security systems well; Eliyahu and his buddy Nick used to rob banks to fund Zionist terrorist activities; and if it all goes to pot, the oldies can claim senility. An iron-clad plan if there ever was one.
On the face of it a black comedy, Hunting Elephants is heavily weighted in favour of comedy. There’s a laugh a minute thanks to either elderly tom-foolery or Patrick Stewart playing the quintessentially British buffoon.
There’s also plenty wrong with Hunting Elephants, and it’s not just all the sex gags involving old people. There are no good female characters: Jonathan’s mother prostitutes herself to her deceased husband’s boss before his body’s even cold; the scantily clad attendant at the old folks’ home is eye candy for the male residents and the butt of sponge bath-related jokes; and Eliyahu’s wife is in a coma.
But the underlying message of the film does a lot to redeem it: children and the elderly are often overlooked or mocked in society, when they have just as much to offer as anyone else. In fact, Jonathan and Eliyahu successfully carry out the bank heist by playing on misperceptions of ineptitude to their advantage.
This film steers clear of politics – the line “So much for Israel’s open door policy!” in response to a slammed door doesn’t make the final cut – but this doesn’t dissuade a (mostly Jewish) British audience from asking Patrick Stewart what he thought of his time in Israel. Being confronted with the reality of a land surrounded by less-than-friendly neighbours, he was struck by Israel’s “intense state of vulnerability”.
And which country was next on Stewart’s around-the-world tour? Why, Bulgaria of course! Snap decisions to accept less orthodox roles are part of his newly-found joie de vivre – “In my earlier years, I wasn’t quite brave enough.” Next stop: Azerbaijan perhaps? Or another galaxy on the good ol’ Enterprise?