Sunday 16 November 2014

Gett: the trial of Vivian Amsalem at the UK Jewish Film Festival

Viviane Amsalem, the woman at the centre of this film says very little for the first one and half hours of this gripping film. She sits in the religious court assembled to hear her petition for divorce from a husband she can no longer bear to live with. The three judges are men. Her husband, Elisha, is represented by a man - his Rabbi brother, and Viviane's legal representative is also a man. When through frustration and despair she eventually turns on the judges she is told "woman know your place" which well describes the position of Jewish women in these situations,  where their husbands have the authority to grant or deny a divorce and their freedom.

Ronit Elkabetz plays Viviane as well as co-directing with her brother, Shlomi Elkabetz, whilst Simon Akbarian plays Elisha. We have met these two before in previous movies - To Take A Wife and then Shiva, both studies of family life in more traditional Moroccan-Israeli families with a strong patriarchal tradition. Let's be clear. Elisha is not violent, he provides for her and the family, but he is cold towards her and they have not lived together for the best part of three years. Some of this is driven by his firm religious commitment whilst Viviane has become more secular and at the same time he appears to have limited powers of empathy. 

Various witnesses are paraded through the courts - relatives, neighbours and supposed friends of the couple. All sing the praises of Elisha before having their assertions called into doubt by Menashe Noy in the role of Carmel Ben-Tovim, Viviane's Brief. Although the men have the authority and are permitted to speak at length, it is the women characters that particularly struck me. Viviane's sister, although something of a caricature, tells it like it is saying its better for a woman to stay with a husband she doesn't love rather than be single and treated like an outcast - her assertiveness being way too much for the judges. She even causes Viviane to laugh openly at the shock on the faces of the judges unused to being spoken to in this way. 

Viviane's neighbour, the slightly older Donna Abecassis appears in court with her husband trying to answer on her behalf and although clearly  fearful of him, she tries to help the woman she describes as her friend. Her performance was especially moving and her own regrets are played out during her questioning. It is interesting that these characters appear towards the end of the film as the story reaches its denouement following interminable delays by the husband and the unsympathetic judges who are more annoyed by Elisha's failure to appear at some of the hearings and by Carmel's failure to wear a kippah than by the unhappiness visited on Viviane.

The film says much about the predicament of Jewish women in Israel who can only secure a divorce (called a Gett) through this method. There are a number of cases where husbands have either disappeared or refused over a number of years to grant the Gett and so the women remain married and unable to move on, indeed they are referred to as "agunah" or "chained".

Gett is one of 95 films featured in this year's UK Jewish Film Festival which runs until 23rd November. Tonight's screening at JW3 was introduced by Festival Founder and Executive Director, Judy Ironside, who said that if anyone had told her she would sit through almost two hours of a film located entirely in a religious court she might have had trouble believing them. I might have been inclined to agree with her, but Gett is a gripping, disturbing even shocking film that held the audience as might a fast moving courtroom drama right to the very end. At the same time it was hard not to feel the claustrophobia of being in that same barren, leaking courtroom month after month, year after year - the physical condition of the room perhaps reflecting the drama being played out there. There are also some very gentle touches - I liked the short piece when Viviane notices that Carmel's shirt collar is not straight and tells him to re-arrange it. A nice touch.

As ever, Ms Elkabetz is outstanding. For me this might be her best performance so far, whilst Sasson Gabai as ever, is excellent as Rabbi Shimon Amsalam, Elisha's brother and representative in a much less sympathetic role than he might normally play.  Good performances too by Menashe Noy and Evelin Hagoel, wonderful as Donna Abecassis. Another Elkabetz triumph and a film that lives the audience thinking a long time after the credits have rolled. Let's hope for a wider release. Oh,  and go  to see some of the films in this year's Festival - its a great programme. 

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