Two Jewish Film Festival Films (28 cents)

As part of the Washington Jewish Film Festival, I saw two films by Israeli director Dan Wollman. Each was interesting in its own way and their one shared characteristic seemed to be that they were made primarily to be shown on Israeli tv.

The first was a feature film, Gei Oni, based on the book by Israeli author Shulamit Lapid, and loosely structured on the early days of Rosh Pina, a Galilee settlement dating from the early 19th century. The story is all fiction. A teen age girl, her uncle and young baby are able to get to Ottoman controlled Palestine following a pogrom in Russia. A young widower from Rosh Pina (in the film, Gei Oni) also arrives at the port of Jaffa to find some seeds that he can bring back to the determined, but struggling, drouth-ridden community. He has two children and needs a wife to look after them. She has no money and no prospect of getting any and her uncle convinces her that this is her own best chance.

The movie chronicles the story of this determined and, it turns out, quite talented young woman, her relationship with her new husband and the struggle of her new community. It ends rather abruptly, with promise but no conclusion, although the book’s ending is apparently quite different.

This is a full length film, adapted from a six part television series. My guess is that it made for better tv entertainment than as a film. The story is a bit trite. The dialogue (Yiddish, Hebrew and English with some Turkish and Arabic thrown in) is not lacking inapparent cliches. There is a little too much “Yea, Israel” in it. The lead actors are recent theater school graduates without prior film experience.

But this does not mean that the film is not of interest or value. It is very good visually, although some of the breaks are a bit abrupt, and it gives you quite a bit to think about. The difficulties of those early years. The opulence of the small Turkish governing class. The horse and cart and donkey and camel as the primary means of transportation. But having said that, it is not clear how representative of actual conditions the movie really is.

The second film, “Yolande”, is quite different. A made for tv documentary, it was expected to be shown on israel’s channel one last week but was preempted by the Carmel fire. It tells the fascinating and true story of a young, attractive, elegant, bright and seductive Egyptian Jewish woman who, which living in Alexandria and Cairo, during the 1940s was able to ingratiate herself with all levels of Egyptian society, from the king on down, gaining information about, first, German arms and movements and, then, Arab and Arab League activities and pass them on to Jewish sources in Palestine. Eventually, she was arrested, although released shortly, after which she continued to maintain her relationships with her Egyptian friends because, in truth, she was never anti-Egypt inane way. Eventually, she left Egypt and moved to israel where, although she knew virtually every governmental and intelligence official. But she was a fish out of water – her European style (in those days, Alexandria was more european than today) did not take well to pioneering Israel and she was unable to fit into the new governing structure. Plus she became ill and at early age died, unremembered and unmarked for everything she accomplished.

Interviews with many people who knew her (all now in the 80s or 90s), conversations with her son, old family pictures, vintage newsreel and other footage of Cairo, Palestine, and Paris, contemporary filming of the same places, plus Alexandria. Fascinating on their own, but carefully woven into the story.

But how was it possible that Yolande Harmor, so well known amongst the early leaders of Israel, was so marginalized? She was not the only person to be so treated. I was reminded of Reszo Kasztner, who saved many Hungarian Jews and tried to save so many more, as told in Anna Porter’s “Kasztner’s Train”, about which I wrote several months ago, He, too, was ignored by the Jewish society that he thought would treat him as a hero.

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