Esther Broner: A Weave of Women. Directed by Lilly Rivlin. New York: Women Make Movies, 2013. 62 minutes.
Her Israel. Directed by Marjan Tehrani. New York: Tru Films, 2003. 57 minutes.
The Queen Has No Crown. Directed by Tomer Heymann. Tel Aviv: Heymann Brothers Films, 2011. 82 minutes.
Marjan Tehrani created her debut documentary, Her Israel, as a project for her MFA degree at City College, New York. The film features three Israeli women in their late twenties: Galit Lavi, Hayat Abou-Shmess, and Victoria Schwartz. All reside “within five miles of each other in the city of Tel Aviv/Jaffa. These are their lives in the summer of 2000.” The women’s close geographic proximity, their similar ages, and their shared gender (and gender struggles), we are made to understand, serve only to highlight the fact that the women occupy radically different worlds.
Galit is single and middle-class, works for a design firm, and likes to party. She tells us that her mother is Ashkenazi, the daughter of Polish immigrants, while her father’s Sephardic family goes back six generations in the country. Hayat, married with three young children, is also middle-class, a schoolteacher/political activist and Jaffa city-council member. She introduces herself as “an Arabic Palestinian woman” and tells us that her family has deep roots in Jaffa — “a difficult place and a special place.” Victoria is single, living hand-to-mouth as an actor at the Arabic/Hebrew Theatre Jaffa with occasional stints in commercials and in a popular TV series, Tironut (Basic Training). She emigrated alone from Ukraine at the age of eighteen — sometime after having discovered that she and her family were, in the words of a classmate, “stinking Jews.”
The film cuts fairly seamlessly, sometimes even lyrically, back and forth among the women at home, at work, in transit, and in monologue responses to prompts by the off-screen filmmaker. The focus remains fully on these women throughout, save for one scene of a random speech from a right-wing settler rally at which none of the women are present. This provocative insertion is among a handful of instances in which the filmmaker appears to push the film’s political narrative beyond the point where the women’s words and workaday lives alone will take it.
There is rich material here to invite discussion in a variety of classroom settings. The focus on three female characters (all citizens of Israel) helps to difuse, to some extent, the pat and polarizing dualisms that so often undermine genuine conversation involving Israel. This also makes the film useful for exploring themes of self-presentation, narrative construction, home, identity, and difference, as well as ideas about women’s lives, gender, and, of course, Jews, Palestinians, and Israelis.
The Queen Has No Crown draws its title from the queering of a wistful love song to Israel that haunts the film: “The queen has no home, the king has no crown.” Three queens share the absent crown at the heart of this autobiographical meditation on home, homeland, and family: Noa, the filmmaker’s tough and long-suffering mother; the Land of Israel, Noa’s alter ego and the hard gravitational core of the family’s identity; and director Tomer Heymann himself, whose voyeuristic camera lingers, by turns, on his mother’s grief, his family’s and country’s woes, and on not a few gorgeous boys with slender hips and sculpted torsos.
Heymann combines clips from home movies shot by his father and grandfather with years’ worth of his own camera’s-eye-view conversations with family members and lovers, and events ranging from holidays and gay-pride parades to departures and homecomings. He reads in voiceover from an autobiographical narrative throughout, while the passing of time is marked in the strains and wounds of relationships, the successive departures to America of three of Noa’s five sons (two of whom later return), and the annual ritual of the Passover Seder. The Passover table at the film’s beginning is filled, we are told, by “Mom, Dad, their five sons, three daughters-in-law, and six grandchildren.” By the final Passover of the film, the parents are long since divorced; only the two unmarried sons, Tomer and Barak, remain in Israel; and their mother’s Passover table is now filled by the sons’ friends, gathered to assuage the sons’ and mother’s growing loneliness. Even this small consolation is soon shattered by the massive Hamas suicide bombing of the Park Hotel in nearby Netanya that same night (March 27, 2002) and by Heymann’s subsequent reflections on a decade of increasing repression and intolerance of dissent in Israel.
With its themes of memory and belonging, loss, regret, and acceptance, the film would lend itself well to courses in ethnography and memoir, and to topics such as aging, family, and homeland/diaspora. The intimate feel of Heymann’s work also personalizes and renders accessible complex psychosocial dynamics important to courses in Jewish studies, Israel studies, and gender and queer studies.
The Passover Seder plays a still more central role in Lilly Rivlin’s labor of love, Esther Broner: A Weave of Women. Part memorial tribute (Rivlin did the same for Grace Paley in 2010),1 part conventional feminist historiography, part nostalgia fest for generations (including my own) who came of age in the Jewish feminism of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, the film weaves together standard documentary devices and content with scenes from the feminist Seders led by Broner annually since she began the practice in 1976. We follow Broner and her cronies in the flush of youthful, revolutionary fervor; we observe as they and their movement age gracefully and ungracefully; and finally, at the last Seder before her imminent death, we watch Broner, puffy from medication and on oxygen, offer a kind of last will and testament to those same cronies—now crones like her. Broner’s granddaughter, Alexandra, is the single young face at her table.
Toward its end, the film descends into a kind of sad, poignant irony as we watch Alexandra, eyes demurely lowered, singing the traditional Sabbath greeting with its masculine nouns and pronouns all restored. Then, at Broner’s burial, we hear a lone male voice chanting the Mourner’s Kaddish—unaccompanied by either Broner’s daughters or her feminist “sisters.” In the wake of Broner’s The Women’s Haggadah—a powerfully reimagined and revoiced Jewish ritual—and of Mornings and Mourning: A Kaddish Journal—in which Broner recounts her struggles to recite the daily Kaddish in her own woman’s voice, in an all-male community, in the year following her father’s death—these final scenes feel terribly retrograde.2 We sense the passing of an era and wonder about its legacy.
This film is well suited to Jewish adult-education classes. Undergraduates in American Jewish history, women’s studies, or documentary-studies courses will find it fascinating, quaint, and sweet—akin to thumbing through an old photo album while sitting on a cozy couch beside a beloved grandmother.
1 Grace Paley: Collected Shorts, directed by Lilly Rivlin (Waltham, MA: The National Center for Jewish Film, 2010), 75 minutes.
2 E. M. Broner and Naomi Nimrod, The Women’s Haggadah (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), first appeared as a supplement in Ms. magazine in March 1977; E. M. Broner, Mornings and Mourning: A Kaddish Journal (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994).