As the opening film of this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, The Unorthodox establishes a context for the necessity of compromise—personal, political, and otherwise—in the pursuit of what one believes to be the greater good. The origin story of the ultra-Orthodox Shas political party in Israel, which was established in Jerusalem in 1983 and was the first to explicitly represent the interests of ethnic and religiously observant Jews, the film delineates how Ya’akov Cohen (played by Shuli Rand) created the party in defiance of ethnic prejudice inflicted upon his daughter at her school. Cohen was then unable to sustain his control of the party’s development due to his refusal to concede his idealism to the necessity of corruption and the proliferation of falsehoods, namely in the form of signatures that were necessary to fake in order for his party to be legitimized in the eyes of the state.
The Unorthodox‘s tone vacillates consistently between gravitas and lightness, juxtaposing moments of complicated seriousness about the often shady political system in Israel with small human touches, such as when a pious man celebrates an election win by listening to “How Deep Is Your Love” by the Bee Gees in the privacy of his car. Riddled with in-jokes about Israeli politics and the relationships between its multiple competing factions, writer-director Eliran Malka’s film marked a brief look inward in what was otherwise a largely international festival program that promoted vibrant conversations about crossing borders and listening to voices from the other side of both metaphorical and devastatingly literal walls.
The screening of The Unorthodox broke with the festival’s tradition of almost always showcasing a foreign film during its opening-night celebration. On the night of the screening, the Sultan’s Pool amphitheater—a striking outdoor venue in the heart of Jerusalem from which you can see the lightly illuminated walls of the Old City cascading up over hills dotted by lush green gardens—was crowded not just with filmmakers, critics, and industry representatives, but also with observant Jews who came to see their community represented on screen in a very public forum.
A short promo film offering brief statements from local politicians—including Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat—preceded the screening, and the crowd grew suddenly hostile at the appearance of Miri Regev, the Israeli Culture and Sport Minister who has called for funding to Israeli filmmakers to be cut unless they allow her ministry to supervise and control the development of their projects. And the audible outrage about the power of the state of Israel to control individual freedoms, even simply via its government subsidies, was not unfamiliar to me, even after such a short time there.
I arrived in Tel Aviv only a few days before the opening of the festival late during a massive protest by more than a hundred thousand gay rights activists in the city’s Rabin Square almost immediately following the passing of what’s now known as the nation-state law, decisively exclusionary and racist legislation that further limits the already fledgling rights of the nation’s Arab minority. The law establishes Israel as the official state of the Jewish people, thus limiting the right to self-determination to Jews alone, a move that has been met with significant backlash from the international community and the overwhelming majority of the Jewish diaspora.
And while the official reason for the protest in Tel Aviv was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vote against surrogacy rights to same-sex couples that he’d vowed to support, the passing of the nation-state law—made possible by Netenyahu’s anti-LGBT vote in a typically convoluted deal between multiple Israeli political parties—had only further emboldened the atmosphere of liberal dissent expressed by the protesters. And the context of my arrival in Jerusalem was that the law had named the city—one of the most complicated and contested in the world, violently partitioned over thousands of years and still home to a literal wall between Jewish and Muslim claims to the city’s most holy sites—as the “whole and united” capital of the Jewish state.
The film festival took place only a few short months after news broke that the United States Embassy would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in what has been recognized as an endorsement by the Donald Trump administration of Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territories, and I was told that American flags were flown from countless windows in Jerusalem following the announcement, openly celebrating the collusion between America and Israel in perpetuating some of the most exclusionary politics in the world.
Meanwhile, I arrived in Jerusalem during the week leading up to the city’s Pride celebration, vibrant rainbow flags hanging high along the wide streets that I walked to attend film screenings. I’d already been told by a Jewish friend in New York that Israel engages in what’s known as “pink-washing,” the practice of appearing to openly embrace the queer community—and thus appear tolerant of difference—in order to offset attention from its government’s human rights violations in other spheres. From the rooftop of my hotel, I could see over to the other side of the wall separating the east from the west, the Palestinian territories visible from my vantage point as an endless desert expanse, so close and yet so far away. The ways in which I’d been trained in politics by what I’ve come to realize are largely Western binaries had not prepared me for the sense of ambivalence I felt as a queer American liberal in a city purportedly celebrating some of the intractable elements of my identity but to an end blatantly at odds with others.
Lukas Dhont’s Girl, a vibrantly expressionistic Belgian film which debuted earlier this year at Cannes, was one of several expressly queer titles screening at the Jerusalem Film Festival. The film is meditative character study of a 15-year-old girl named Lara who dreams of becoming a successful ballerina and who willingly puts her body through grueling, often painful manipulations toward achieving that goal. Lara is told by her teachers that she will struggle with dance because her toes and ankles have not developed in ways that are congruent with the demands of ballet, but these teachers are at the same time impressed by Lara’s tenacity and dogged work ethic, and she improves her technique and skill level despite the limitations of her body.
But even as she manipulates her physical form toward a particular outward aesthetic, Lara is also in the process of beginning her transition from male to female, first with hormone therapy and ultimately with gender reassignment surgery, and this more interior transformation is revealed slowly to the viewer due mostly to Lara’s—and, by extension, actor Victor Polster’s—ability to already pass as female. She’s desperate to become something that she’s told repeatedly that she already is. But each of Lara’s attempted transformations mirror each other even as they undermine each other.
The physical exertion of Lara’s dance practice comes to be at odds with her body’s ability to respond to the hormones, and the drama of Girl lies in Lara’s increasing frustration—and, ultimately, the heartbreaking effects of her desperation—with the fact that the two identities most precious to her do not sustain the presence of the other. As she dances feverishly through both her physical and existential pain, the camera tightly framing her increasingly exhausted face as she spins and leaps as prescribed by the choreography she has been assigned, the audience, too, is trapped in the gulf between what she desires for herself and the future that’s actually available to her.
Several films programmed at the festival were overtly curious about clashes between the old and the new, the traditional and the secular, native homeland and far-flung diaspora. Perhaps most notable among these was What Will People Say, Norwegian-Pakistani filmmaker Iram Haq’s harrowing sophomore feature, which follows 16-year-old Nisha (Maria Mozhdah) as she’s forced by her father, Mirza (Adil Hussain) from her home in Norway back to her family’s native Pakistan, where she’s never been, because he believes her to have been contaminated by Western culture.
Mirza discovers Nisha in her bedroom with her Norwegian boyfriend (Isak Lie Harr)—barely kissing, barely touching—and condemns her to the much more conservative environment of his youth, falsely believing her to have had premarital sex and thus be unworthy of a respectful future marriage. As the film opens, we see Nisha successfully code-switching between her traditional Pakistani household and the more relaxed sphere that she shares with her Norwegian peers. But when the careful balance between her two worlds is dangerously tipped, the passion with which her father reacts to what he believes to be her undoing is terrifying insofar as it plainly demonstrates the inviolability—and frightening limitations—of his belief system.
In an early scene, in which Mirza essentially kidnaps Nisha and threatens her with physical violence, and even death, we’re made strikingly aware that we can’t quite comprehend the limits of what this man might do in the name of his faith, and in the name of his pride. For us, the other—in the form of a man whose value system we cannot comprehend—has become unreadable. Nisha’s father has deceived her into thinking that he has forgiven her for her transgressions while actually escorting her to the airport to enact her banishment, and her dawning recognition of her lack of agency in the situation she has found herself in is communicated through a tightly controlled shot structure that vacillates between her own increasingly forlorn facial expressions and the coldly blank stoicism of her father’s.