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Conversation with Rachel S. Harris

Wesleyan’s Contemporary Israeli Voices shines a spotlight on women in Israeli cinema

By Stacey Dresner

MIDDLETOWN – In 2010, while trying to develop a college course on Israeli cinema she was planning to teach, Rachel S. Harris set out to watch as many films produced in Israel that she could.

With the assistance of a few friends and colleagues – all of whom had an interest in and were knowledgeable about Israeli film – she viewed hundreds of examples of Israeli cinema, from early Zionist films of the 1930s to the “emergence of feminist filmmaking in the 1990s and beyond.

Not only did she create a course on Israeli cinema, which she has taught for several years now as associate professor of Israeli Literature and Culture in Comparative and World Literature and the Program in Jewish Culture and Society at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, but her exhaustive research resulted in her book, Warriors, Witches and Whores: Women in Israeli Cinema (Wayne State University Press, 2017).

Harris will share her research and discuss her book as the first guest speaker at Contemporary Israeli Voices, the annual fall lecture series of Wesleyan University’s Center for Jewish Studies. The series this year is devoted to women’s voices in arts, literature and cinema. Harris’s talk will take place on Monday, Nov. 5, 8 p.m., at Russell House.

Other programs in the Contemporary Israeli Voices series will include a performance of “The Strawberry Girl,” a one-woman play based on a short story by Israeli writer Savyon Liebrecht, which will be performed on Thursday, Nov. 29 at Wesleyan’s Daniels Commons.

Recently, Rachel Harris shared with the Ledger some insights about women in Israeli cinema.

JEWISH LEDGER (JL): Many early Israeli films in the ‘50s and ‘60s centered on the building of the new nation and the role of men as heroes. How were women involved in the industry at that time?

RACHEL HARRIS (RH): It’s important to remember that television doesn’t arrive in Israel until the late 1960s, with only one channel until the 1990s, and that film consumption in Israel during this period was huge, even though the local film industry was right at the beginning, fairly primitive, and had few resources for a long time. But like everywhere else in the country people in the Israeli film industry in the 1950s and 1960s, believed that they were engaged in a pioneering project. They thought that they were showcasing Zionist achievements to the world, and also helping the new immigrants learn the Israeli ethos and Israeli values. The films in this period are either very serious and are framing the history of the new country, or they are satirical comedies often made in the style of the particular brand of Israeli humor that had come out of the entertainment troupes in the army, and the comedy revues in Tel Aviv in the 1930s and 1940s.

Early actresses saw themselves as part of this pioneering effort, but there were also women in major roles behind the scenes. Margot Klausner, the daughter of a rich German industrialist, was a real visionary. She had helped produce on of the first Zionist documentary films in the 1930s and after the new country was declared she set about building the first television studios in Herzeliya. There were also a lot of women in the editing room, and many had been trained in Europe so had skills that local Israelis hadn’t yet learned.

JL: The title of your book describes women in Israeli cinema as “Warriors, Witches and Whores.” Is this how women have been depicted in Israel films through the years?

RH: In Israeli cinema women were historically presented as auxiliary figures such as nurses, sisters, girlfriends or mothers. Their role was to support the men at the center of the action. Even when women did have central roles in films, they were put in subservient positions. The book’s title calls attention to the rise of films that did create major female characters, and reflects on the fact that even then they were typecast into demeaning roles that continued to make male heroism the central feature. In these cases men would rescue women from other, less desirable men, making the dramatic tension about the central male conflict.

While many films represent Israeli soldiers (male and female) there has been a significant rise in the number of films in which women’s military units are represented in recent years like Close to Home, Room 514, and Zero Motivation. What was interesting for me as a film scholar is that while I noticed the films were playing with the boredom and sexism in the army, they often perpetuated negative representations of women. This negative bias is even more evident in the portrayals of witches and whores, which have been used as a way to stereotype and marginalize ethnic minorities, particularly “Russian” Jewish women and Mizrahi women. It’s been a way of saying they aren’t really respectable and deserve whatever happens to them.

The book really looks at this racism and prejudice of the film industry and how it has been directed towards the representation of women in different ways, but also how an increasing awareness of this pattern has resulted in some thoughtful and positive films that flip these negative images around and create powerful films that embrace these stereotypes and then turn them on their head. I particularly recommend Marco Carmel’s My Beautiful Sister (2011), which makes us rethink our expectations and negative assumptions.

JL: You mention that when you started this project there were about 500 Israeli films available to view. Why wasn’t the Israeli film industry more productive over the years? Was the country too busy being built and surviving to focus on filmmaking?

RH: Filmmaking is really expensive and requires a lot of infrastructure: studios, film-processing labs, editing suites, cameras, sound equipment, etc. The first studios start to be built at the end of the 1940s but it takes until the 1960s for them to be profitable and one of the things that had a major impact is the Eichmann trial. Television stations from all over the world had to buy the film and screening rights from the Israeli studios who had a monopoly on the courtroom footage.

There was also a change in the 1960s after the huge success of the American film production “Exodus.” The Israeli government had provided funding for the film and local filmmakers were incensed that they weren’t getting any money, so a new law was created that funded the film industry. It still works the same way today, the government gives money to certain film funds (who also raise other money independently) and then filmmakers at every stage can apply to different grants (screenwriting, seed money, finishing funds) in order to get their films funded. But the government’s funds are still pretty limited and meant that only about 10 films could get made a year.

Things changed with cable and international cooperation agreements with places like Sundance, Channel 4, etc. which made more money available and so now more films are being made each year but the biggest impacts from this additional funding have only been seen in the last two decades.

JL: Did the depiction of women in Israeli films change at all during the 1960s and 70s?

RH: The 1960s and ‘70s were particularly bad for women in cinema. There were three kinds of films being made during that period and none of them were particularly favorable. This is the decade of sexual comedies: Uri Zohar’s films such as “Metzizim” (1972), Avi Nesher’s “Dizengoff 99” and “The Troupe,” and Boaz Davidson’s coming of age film “Lemon Popsicle” all promoted the ideas of sexual promiscuity and women’s sexual conquest as a measure of a man’s prowess and heroism.

The 1960s and 1970s are the height of the “Bourekas films” which were ethnic comedies and melodramas often made by Ashkenazi directors that brought together different national groups in Israel. The women in these films are either tragic figures in abusive patriarchal Mizrahi family homes, or they are bustlingly maternal and unattractive, or they are prey. This is also the period of New Sensitivity cinema, a movement that sought to bring together aesthetic and artistic values and was heavily influenced by French New Wave and Italian Neorealism. These films often tried to emphasize human emotion and psychological introspection and focused on individualism, but they frequently depict male fantasies about women and their inner lives, mostly providing an opportunity to stare at naked female bodies under the pretext of ‘art’ such as Moshe Mizrahi’s film Women.

JL: What happened in the 1980s and 1990s in terms of Israeli films and women? 

RH: Feminism happened. That sounds quite glib, but feminism was pretty late to become mainstream in Israel compared to other western countries. Part of this was because there was full emancipation for women who were given the right to vote from the beginning, and Israel had the first female Prime Minister in the world – Golda Meir – and this created the illusion that women didn’t need to fight for equality. We begin to see feminist activism in the mid-1970s and this wave leads to the creation of rape crisis centers and hotlines, but it isn’t until the late 1980s that feminism is really being discussed outside of universities.

In the 1980s we see a number of films that are written by women about their own mothers, or that have roles in which women are central in the roles that were traditionally occupied by men. In my book I refer to this as a “proto-feminist” phase in Israeli filmmaking.
The first clearly feminist film is “Tel Aviv Stories” (1992) a collection of three short films that feature storylines in which women have the power to decide their own fates. The casts have a range of women characters including from different ethnic and social groups and women in different professions, and it’s remarkable today to think how radical that was to represent. To put this in context, many in Israel actually date the start of film feminism to 2004, the year that “Or: My Treasure” (Keren Hedaya) and “To Take a Wife” (Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz) came out. That year there were sixteen films made, and only these two were made by women directors. This was also the year that the Forum for Israeli Women in Film and Television was established to engage in consciousness raising and advocacy for women in the Israeli media industry.

There have been setbacks too. The Rehovot International Women’s film festival was cancelled due to lack of funding after 10 years of operation and hasn’t been able to reopen since 2014. But I think that through the annual festival, and through the grants for screenwriters that it began and which have continued despite the closure of the festival, we are seeing a new generation of women filmmakers, what we might regard as a second generation in artistic terms, and this is significantly impacting the quantity and variety of the films being made.

JL: Which group do you think has gotten the worst treatment in Israeli cinema – Mizrachi women, the Ultra-Orthodox…?

RH: I actually think that the portrayals of women from different minorities and ethnic groups has significantly improved as women from those groups have entered the film industry as writers, producers or directors or as actors with star power who have influence over their representation.

Perhaps the two groups that have had the most stereotypical and unfair depiction are “Russian” women and Arab women. Historically Russians were represented as prostitutes, chattel, or engaged in superstitious black magic. It’s really Yevgenia Dodina who has appeared in more than 30 films and numerous television series who has had a huge impact on changing that by giving us more complex, varied and thoughtful female Russians. Similarly, the change for Palestinian women from peripheral and invisible characters, often played by Jewish actors has changed significantly through the writing of Suha Arraf, and the acting of Hiam Abbas and Reymond Amsalem. Both Arraf and Abbas have also gone on to direct their own films, which I think is expanding the range that we are seeing on screen for Palestinian and Arab women.

JL: How do you see the future for women in Israeli cinema, both in terms of their depiction on film and as female filmmakers?

RH: There have been a huge number of films recently addressing women’s empowerment, their sexuality and sexual violence. The #MeToo movement actually arrived in Israel before it arrived in the U.S. (https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-harassment-of-women-prevalent-in-local-film-and-tv-industry-1.5458598), and two years later we are seeing a large number of films coming out that are addressing issues of masculine control, gender and sexual violence. I’ve seen several films recently addressing this topic and I recommend Michal Aviad’s recent “Working Woman” (2018) as a thoughtful and sensitive portrayal of sexual harassment in the workplace. There have also been a number of documentaries recently about important female figures in the film industry made by women filmmakers and it is nice to see these women getting the recognition they were denied for such a long time.

I’d like to see more comedies written by women in Israel, I think that there has been a tendency to turn to drama and documentaries particularly as many of the women are feminist activists about not only recovering women’s history but telling all kinds of stories about women’s marginalization and oppression, and I think that as women filmmakers gain more confidence, public recognition and are awarded more funding by the film industry we might see them moving into this area which has traditionally been dominated by men.


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