Saturday 16 June 2012

The Fifth Heaven: Seret UK Israeli Film and Television Festival


Last night I was privileged to attend the first UK screening of the Israeli film "The Fifth Heaven". The title is a reference to the Talmud's seven heavens, the fifth of which is "home". Home is very much a focus of the film which is based on Rachel Eytan's novel of the same name.

At the centre of the story is Maya, a young girl, abandoned by her mother and placed in an orphanage by her re-married father who is unable or unwilling to look after her. The orphanage is home to most of the girls placed there and the film is set in pre-state Israel where the Jews that the world doesn't want are trying to establish their homeland.

The film addresses many issues, including petty rivalries and bullying between the girls. The imperious Bathesheba is the "queen" of the orphanage, waking the other girls to accompany her to the toilet in the middle of the night, bullying one girl in particular and referring to her as "monkey girl" due to her darker, Mizrachi appearance. She selects Maya, wonderfully played by (at the time) the eleven years old Amit Moshkowitz, as her successor once she is taken in to live with her uncle. Maya herself then goes on to display similar, although less pronounced behaviours.

We also see rivalries and jealousies played out between the adult characters. Dr. Markowksi, the orphanage director tries to win the heart of Frieda the "head counsellor" at the home but loses out to Wolfson, the play boy son of the home's main benefactor. The school nurse suspects her boyfriend Duce of having eyes for Maya rather than for her whilst central to the story is the jealousy between Maya's father and Doctor Markowski who we learn had an affair with the girl's mother and may even be her true father.

Set against all this is the struggle against the British during the Mandate period - Duce is involved in the underground movement and the struggle for independence whilst the orphanage cleaner, Berta, running away from a strict Orthodox family meets and falls in love with a married British officer who promises to leave his wife and marry her "after the war".

Berta believes he will rescue her from her unfulfilling life at the home but on discovering she is pregnant the truth dawns on her that this is unlikely, and there is a devastating denouement. To encourage visiting benefactors to donate money to the home, the girls have "planted" saplings to give the appearance of agricultural work. Berta appears, in a state of miscarriage,  pulling the saplings out in front of the guests and shouting "no roots, no roots" - a clear reference not only to herself, but also to the girls in the orphanage and the Jews, unwanted in Europe but unable to escape.

Amit Moshkowitz shines in the role of Maya. She gives a haunting, understated performance beyond her years as she plays out the awakening of a young girl and her struggle to understand who she is and her place min the world. Yehezkel Lazarov is equally effective in the role of Doctor Moshkowitz veering from passionate suitor of Frieda to caring guardian of the children but also unable to understand where he really belongs. And I completely loved Esti Zakheim as Pani Paula, orphanage cook and former "Queen of Warsaw nightlife".

Film director, Dina Tzvi-Riklis was present and answered questions from the audience following the screening. she explained that the film was autobiographical based on Rachel Eytan's experiences. This is born out by the scenes showing Maya writing her own stories on the roof of the orphanage.

The film was part of London's first Israeli Film and Television Festival - Seret which has included some great movies, the excellent The Flood (starting my all time favourite actress Ronit Elkabetz), hit TV series Ramzor, Tomer Heymann's brilliant documentary The Queen Has No Crown and tomorrow night  the Academy Award shortlisted Footnote. Rather annoyingly I left it way to late to book  for the festival and couldn't get a ticket for Footnote. I also missed this at last year's Jewish Film Festival and the DVD does not include English subtitles. Note to self, book early in future.

The festival is the result of much hard work and dedication from Anat Koren, Odelia Mammon Haroush and Patty Hochmann who wanted to bring the best in Israeli film and TV to British audiences and to show that there is much much more to Israel than the usual newsreel items that inevitably concentrate on the problems the country faces. A big thanks is due to Anat, Odelia and Patty and everyone else involved in bringing this festival to us. I can't wait to see next year's programme.

Oh, and I got a free t-shirt too as did the rest of the audience! Thanks very much!

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