A Lesbian and Her Calf, Ethiopian Teens in Love, and a Depressed Chassid Say Hello at the Israel Film Center Festival

Brandon Judell
Jun 9 · 5 min read
Ethiopian Jews in love in Aalam-Warqe Davidian’s Fig Tree

You might not know it but we’re in the midst of the seventh year of the Israel Film Center Festival. (It runs until June 12th.) The Center’s goal obviously is to promote Israeli films year-round, showcasing offerings both new and some not so new. Based at the Marlene Meyerson JCC on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, there’s also a streaming site, so even if you‘re living’ in Omaha, you don’t have to miss out.

(And if you are in Omaha, immediately catch up on Haim Tabakman’s tale of Orthodox men in love, Eyes Wide Open (2008); the wry comedy TV series Arab Labor; and Amos Gitai’s riveting look at the plight of Orthodox Jewish women forced into and out of marriage, Kadosh (1999).)

Moving to the present, there’s the imploding universes explored in three of the current fest’s highlights with their engaging dramatis personae, most of whom are bathed in a sort of existentialist miserabilism.

Avigayil Koevary as Benny in Tisivia Barkai Yacov’s Red Cow.

In Tisivia Barkai Yacov’s Red Cow, 17-year-old Benny (Avigayil Koevary) with her ginger locks is not unlike the holier-than-holy calf that her devout, widowed father, Yehoshua (Gal Toren), has recently discovered. This is a special find because a rare red heifer is used for sacrifices in a ritual that is believed to usher in a new age for Jews. (Check out the Book of Numbers.)

While the calf is isolated within a wire fence — it’ll be slaughtered in two years — Benny is penned in by her right-wing, pro-settler dad’s extreme religiosity and by his involvement in the politics of East Jerusalem. Yehoshua and his followers clearly have no qualms about killing a few souls, whether Muslim or pro-peace Israeli, if it comes to that: “We need to get up on the rooftops with guns and refuse to be evacuated. . . . Israel is a Jewish state.”

In response, Benny admits, “Sometimes I feel like a complete gentile.” She’s not a happy camper, not until the lovely Yael enters her life and sets her body on “fire.” They kiss . . . they make love . . . they are discovered by Dad. “You disgust me,” he notes.

What are Benny’s options? Not many.

Well acted and helmed, the power of this troubled coming-out story stems mainly from its setting and its contemporariness. Red Calf’s a fine addition to the growing genre of kosher lesbianism that includes Avi Nesher’s The Secrets (2007) and Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience (2017).

The men in the band reunite in Redemption.

Co-directed and co-written by Joseph Madmony and Boaz Yehonatan Yacov, Redemption ­could also have been titled The Book of Job. Yet another devoutly religious dad with a daughter to raise holds center stage here.

Fifteen years ago, Menachem (Moshe Folkenflik) was a singer of a semi-well-known band, but he gave up music to study the Torah. That didn’t work out too well so now he works in a small grocery store, sticking the prices on you name it. No wonder he’s walks about depressed. To top matters off, his wife has died from cancer and his 6-year-old child, Geula (a terrific Emily Granin), is now suffering from the Big C and needs experimental, costly treatments that he can’t afford.

What’s a guy to do? Why not go to a matchmaker to get a wife and then talk his former band members to reunite and play at weddings so he can make a living? The matchmaking doesn’t exactly go so well because such a catch Menachem isn’t, but the band does get together and surprisingly they are quite good. Only at these musical moments do you see how charismatic this man once was; otherwise, you might mistake him for a basset hound. Even his best friend Avi calls him “a regular stick in the mud.”

Happily, not to spoil it for you, Menachem winds up better off than Job, but still Redemption and Red Cow are not exactly advertisements for becoming a highly religious Jew. This might be one suspects because very few Israeli directors or screenwriters are of the Orthodox persuasion. Now if God had only given Moses a camera and some film, who knows?

Trying to keep love alive in Aalam-Warqe Davidian’s Fig Tree.

The best feature though, and possibly one of the better films of the year, is Aalam-Warqe Davidian’s Fig Tree. Here Betalehem Asmamawe, as a 16-year-old Mina, a young Jewish, impoverished Ethiopian girl stuck in the war-torn Ethiopia of 1989, gives a startling, vulnerable performance. She rummages through her soul to unearth a Juliet who must guard her Romeo, Eli (Yohanes Muse), from being torn away from her.

As the film instructs during its opening footage, “In the midst of the civil war, young men are hunted down and forced to join the army of tyrant Mengistu Haile Mariam.” Mina sees her male peers pulled out of classrooms and kidnapped off the unpaved streets of Addis Ababa. Her own brother has already lost his arm in this conflict.

One mother notes of her son: “I wish I could put him back in my womb.”

To survive, Eli hides in a fig tree. Mina visits him daily, supplying food and company, and although they have not yet made love, the couple’s dancing hormones have found more childish outlets to express themselves.

Meanwhile, Mina’s grandmother is going black market to get the proper papers for the family to emigrate to Israel. If she succeeds, will Eli get to go, too? Or will he be lost to quirks of his country’s history?

“Life is hell, but we have to beat hell, don’t we?” it is stated.

Masterful cinematography by Daniel Miller and a sterling cast help recreate Davidian’s childhood memories, having emigrated at age eleven near the end of the war herself. So with an unforgettable finale and all that has come before, one can only pray that Fig Tree garners the international attention it richly deserves.

For more information on Israeli film and the Center’s offerings. Check out: http://www.israelfilmcenter.org/

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