By Anna Weinstein.
Rachel S. Harris’s book Warriors, Witches, and Whores: Women in Israeli Cinema (Wayne State University Press, 2017) is a fascinating feminist study of Israeli cinema and changes in the film industry since the 1990s. The book examines film representations of Israeli women, including narratives in classic Israeli films as well as those in contemporary feminist films. Her book reveals how many feminist filmmakers in Israel have used the medium to reclaim women’s stories, showcasing accounts of sexual abuse and prostitution, as well as the rape culture and the often “negative impact of militarism on women’s experience.” In the past decade, Israeli female filmmakers have also been including subjects in their films from “society’s geographical periphery,” such as female foreign workers and women refugees.
Harris’s book examines how contemporary Israeli films are beginning to reconceptualize women’s experiences in feminist ways and how some Israeli films are recovering women’s narratives that have been silenced or marginalized until now. Her book is an important and timely study of Israeli culture as embodied through film and how Israeli women filmmakers are fighting against social and cultural inequities that have long been accepted as norm.
Harris interviewed with Anna Weinstein via email to discuss her book.
Could you tell me about your background and how you first became interested in representations of women in Israeli cinema?
I work on Israeli literature and culture and have always been interested in questions of women’s writing and representation. I began planning a new course for my students on Israeli cinema and was watching a lot of films and periodically hunting for scholarly material to help me prepare, and texts that I could assign students, and I was really surprised that I couldn’t find very much, and certainly very little existed in English about the female characters. So I wrote a short piece that turned into an article on women in films about the conflict, and then I won an award for it. Then I wrote another essay for a book I was editing on war about two chick flicks and the Gulf War. And then I took a step back and realized I had so much more to say, that I had enough material for a book.
You discuss in the book Israeli films that are considered “feminist films” and representations of female characters that might also be considered feminist. Could you describe what you mean by “feminist representations” in the context of Israeli cinema?
Feminist films are films in which women have subjectivity. That is, women make decisions about their identities, we see things from women’s perspectives, and we see things about women’s lives, emotions, experiences, treatment, thoughts, and desires. This is different from a long tradition of films in which women are treated as objects that are there to serve male gratification, male interests, and male desires. This can play out in different ways, but one of the most obvious is to think about who is naked on the screen. In Israeli cinema, it is really common to see naked female body parts while all the men in the scene are fully dressed, and you don’t realize how socialized you are to accept that and think it is normal for women to be this exposed until you see a naked man straight on, which can be really jarring. Feminist films often make you rethink not only the plot and characterization of females, but use editing and camera angles to challenge our complacency about inequality.
For a long time, women played marginal characters in Israeli films, and the focus was always on male heroism with the expectation that women were supposed to facilitate male exploits and then stay out of the way. The first feminist film, Tel Aviv Stories (1992), flipped that paradigm. It’s a collection of three short films, and in each film a woman takes control of her destiny. The idea that women could rescue themselves and make the final decisions about something that mattered to them was novel, particularly as the films included all kinds of women, from different social classes, ethnicities, and professions. It also showed women of different ages, which has had a major impact of feminist filmmaking.
I wonder if you could discuss the relationship between female filmmakers in Israel and feminist portrayals of women on screen.
For a long time, there was only one female filmmaker, Michal Bat-Adam, and she had very little public recognition. In the late 1980s and 1990s, there were several women who began directing, including Michal Aviad, Ayelet Menahemi, Nirit Yaron, Orna Ben-Dor Niv, Julie Shles, Amalia Margolin, and Orna Raviv—but it wasn’t until 2004 that a significant shift took place. That year, Keren Yedaya and Ronit Elkabetz both made their first films as directors, and Yedaya won several major awards at Cannes with her film Or: My Treasure in which Elkabetz stars, leading to international recognition for the work they were doing for feminism. They incorporated feminist messaging not only in their films but in their approach to the film industry, and with Michal Aviad they set up the Forum for Israeli Women Television Artists and Filmmakers. This network has served an important role in bringing together women in the film industry and identifying areas for advocacy. For example, they noticed that there weren’t any women film reviewers included in the ratings for films, and that there were few women who sat on the funding committees to award monies to get films made—and they worked to change the situation. The growth of women within the industry itself has also resulted in an increasing number of films with feminist political agendas dealing with topics such as rape, sexual harassment, domestic violence, prostitution, and questions of human rights abuses.
How would you describe how these contemporary feminist filmmakers are developing and presenting female characters for contemporary audiences?
What is so incredibly positive about the growth in the number of women in the film industry is that they come from a wide range of backgrounds, and this has resulted in a much more diverse cinema. This is particularly noticeable in the number of religious women, particularly from the ultra-Orthodox community who are involved in filmmaking, Palestinian women, and Mizrahi women. In turn, we are seeing a much broader range of stories about women and a move away from the tendency to relate everything in Israel to the military and the national project. Recent hits such as Gett: The Trial of Vivianne Amsalem explored the patriarchal control over the mechanisms of divorce in Israel that continue to disadvantage women; The Women’s Balcony explored gender dynamics in a small traditionally religious community and the power of female networks; and Fill The Void is a love story set in the Ultra-Orthodox religious community. Most recently Michal Aviad’s new film that was just released, Working Woman, is a thoughtful exploration of the impact of sexual harassment in the workplace and the dynamics that impact when a woman speaks out and how she experiences her own complicity in the violence. Its topicality can’t be avoided and shows the ways Israeli feminist films can also speak to an international reality and a shared universal sisterhood.
You bring so many feminist Israeli films to our attention in this book. If you had to pick two or three films with particularly compelling protagonists, which would you choose? And what makes these women interesting character studies?
One of my favorite films is little known even by other filmmakers. Bye Bye to Love is a mixed media film that combines narrative with performance vignettes. It’s a table of women discussing the breakdown of their relationships and their attitude to love and to their children. What stands out about the film is the huge efforts the director put into rethinking filmmaking from a feminist perspective. It’s clear she wanted to confront all the ways that films have been dominated by men and a male gaze (how women are objectified) and see if she could propose a feminist filmmaking aesthetic. Among the things she does is to have all the cameras on a track around the table so that the camera is always angled to women’s faces, and she kept the machinery of filmmaking out of the set space and in a different room so that there could be an organic interaction between the women in the place without the hierarchy of a director calling for cuts and the women feeling like they were being watched by everyone outside the scene of action.
I really enjoy Michal Aviad’s most recent documentaries, The Women Pioneers and Dimona Twist. Both films are explorations of the gap between hopes and reality, in one case in the kibbutz movement of the early twentieth century, in the other in a development town in the Israel desert in the periphery of the country during the 1950s and 1960s. Both highlight women’s efforts to create independence and respect within communities in which men dominated.
Could you speak to the representation of Israeli militarism and how that has evolved in films over the years? What about the role of female characters in films that tackle issues surrounding the Israeli military?
For a long time working the land and serving in the military were the epitome of heroism, not just in film but in Israeli society. By the late 1970s, filmmakers had become more introspective about how militarism impacted soldiers and the bombastic nature of films about epic battles gave way to a tradition of representing soldiers as isolated, traumatized, and afraid. In the early years, women were often depicted as girlfriends or widows, so their role was really symbolic and they were on the outside of the real action. As the films became more critical, women disappeared almost entirely. With the exception of You’re in the Army Now [Banot, 1985], about a female unit, it wasn’t really until the last ten years that films featuring women soldiers at the center of the plot emerged. In general, I think that while these have tried to showcase women’s experience, and even criticize the occupation, they often fall into old traps about how women are represented and seem to point to women as irresponsible and unheroic, a contrast that seems anti-feminist when the male soldiers in the films are often still competent and capable.
Your chapters of representations of sex and sensuality in Israeli cinema are particularly interesting. Could you share how women’s sexual desire has been depicted in Israeli film? How would you describe the role of religion in these cinematic portrayals of intimacy?
The idea that women would have their own desires didn’t fit within a national Zionist paradigm. The idea of individuality was really at odds with a national collectivism, and women (like men) were expected to sacrifice themselves for the project of building a new country. What is noticeable, however, is that women were really paralleled to the land to the point that they were almost erased, and their purpose remained as something to be fertilized, much as the men were fertilizing the barren soil.
Later, as films became more sexually exploitative, women were to be chased and caught, and the image of rape is not only pervasive but is often the subject of amusement, such as in Avi Nesher’s Dizengoff 99 where the male protagonists often joke about raping the female lead. Rape and sexual violence also served as cinematic shorthand for criticizing different groups in Israeli society. Showing a woman being abused by a Mizrahi man, an Arab, or an Ultra-orthodox Jew offered a way to critique those communities. Even though the films ignore the woman’s trauma, her experience facilitates the male heroism, so the Ashkenazi man rescues the woman from the Mizrahi, the Jew from the Arab and the secular Israeli from the Haredi.
Michal Aviad’s fictional Invisible tackles how society erases women in stories of rape, using a real life case of a serial rapist in the 1970s, and it argues for a feminist filmmaking that refocuses our attention on women’s narratives and the trauma of their experiences. I also think there have been several new films that highlight women’s sexuality in positive ways that showcase women’s desires as natural and a sign of their own identity, such as Tali Sharon’s portrayal of the lead in She’s Coming Home.
Are there other aspects of women’s representation in Israeli film that you would like to discuss?
To me the most interesting thing in Israeli film at the moment is the way that women are using cinema to advocate for causes they believe in. The spate of films about foreign workers was an effort to showcase an area that is heavily gendered (seventy percent of foreign workers in Israel are in the healthcare field, and most are women). This labor force has enabled Israeli women a degree of independence by caring for aging parents, children, and domestic tasks, all while they are living away from their own families. Moreover, the abuses of the system, the lack of civil rights that the workers are entitled to, and the transient nature of the work negatively impact the foreign workers’ lives. The filmmakers have created sympathy and worked to advocate for changes to the legal system.
Similarly, women have been working to change the treatment of female workers in the film industry and have helped rewrite the laws on sexual harassment and sexual discrimination. Israel even had its own #MeToo moment a year before the Harvey Weinstein scandal in the U.S. that led to indictments against a leading Israeli movie star. I think what Israeli feminist filmmakers can teach women in other places is that speaking out can change the climate and lead to real changes within the film industry.
Anna Weinstein is a frequent contributor to Film International. She interviews feminist film scholars and female filmmakers for her “Diva Directors Around the Globe” series. Anna is editor of the PERFORM book series (Routledge), which features volumes on directing, screenwriting, producing, and acting.