Gei Oni, a film review

Gei Oni, directed by Dan Wolman
(2010, 105 minutes, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Arabic with English subtitles)

— Ben Burrows

Gei Oni, a film by Israeli producer-director Dan Wolman, was shown this weekend at Drexel University as part of the Philadelphia Israeli Film Festival. Wolman introduced the film, and took questions afterward. A film of light or darkness, of wide expanses or of tightly enclosed spaces, the cinematography is gorgeous, and focuses the audience on its major characters, Fania and Yechiel, with its deceptively simple visual palette. Fania arrives in Jaffa from late 19th century Russia with her baby daughter in tow, accompanied by Shuvale Mandelstam, who may be her husband, but later claims to be her uncle. They are fleeing the Russian pogrom, which killed Fania’s parents, and which has driven her brother Lolik mad and silenced. They are surprised when their relative in Jerusalem has not come to meet them at the port, and Shuvale travels to Jerusalem — only to find his relative, a newspaper editor, has fallen on hard times — so the new immigrants must rely on the charity of strangers. While Fania waits for Shuvale to return, she meets Yechiel, a recently widowed local farmer with two children from his previous marriage. Yechiel is clearly stricken by Fania’s beauty, although he must know she possesses few household skills, when she causes a small explosion while lighting a lantern near the hotel where she waits for Shuvale to return. A marriage is quickly arranged and celebrated, but there is a dark secret which prevents Fania from consummating the relationship. She tells Yechiel that she still mourns the death of her daughter’s father. Yechiel decides to accept her reluctance for the time being, and accepts responsibility to support her brother Lolik. Shuvale retires from the scene, and the new family returns to Yechiel’s village of Jauni.

More after the jump.
Wolman admitted during questioning to a number of interests in making this movie, from the novel Gei Oni by Shulamit Lapid. He wanted to portray a time when Jews actually purchased land from their Arab neighbors. He was interested in the positive romantic aspects of the novel, and did not include Yechiel’s death from malaria or Fania’s remarriage, as dramatic over-complications. He wanted to portray the different Jewish, Syrian Christian, and Arab Muslim cultures coexisting uncomfortably, with different levels of communication layered by the different practical experiences of male and female experience. As I watched the story unfold, I could not help but see parallels between the story of Fania and Yechiel with the stories of Sarah and Avraham. For so long as they pretended that Sarah was Avraham’s sister, the patriarchal couple brought plague to the land of Egypt, where they were sojourning. For so long as Fania kept her secret shame from Yechiel, one misfortune after another befalls the little settlement of Jauni. The Zionist and Biblical patriarchal couples seem equally distant to the modern eye, and both situations are resolved by a return to the Land, the Divine provision of additional people and resources, and the discovery of their mutual love for one another. By the final scene, Yechiel and Fania have brought new life into the world, and the village has begun to produce wheat from their rocky and difficult terrain.

Gei Oni is celebrated as an early feminist Israeli novel. The Jewish Women’s Archive describes Lapid’s Fania and her place in Israeli literature:

After several collections of short stories, Lapid first gained readers’ attention with her popular novel, … , which was the first Israeli book to be labelled “feminist.” Its feminism is, however, displaced, the action taking place in Palestine of the 1890s, thereby establishing a precedent in Israeli fiction for masking feminist protest by historical distancing. Framed in a narrative about first-settlers struggling with a harsh motherland, in a culture that kept gender roles distinct and separate, Lapid’s heroine, Fania, stands out in her attempt to cross boundaries. She is both mother and merchant, venturing out on the road alone, even defending herself against armed Arab horsemen when attacked.

The author had a life of her own, and made a family with Tommy Lapid, of blessed memory. Tommy Lapid was a member of the Knesset, and a champion of secular Shinui Party, which fought the influence of haredi restrictions into everyday Israeli life. Later in life, Tommy Lapid directed Yad VaShem: Preserving the Past to Ensure the Future.

Gei Oni had a difficult time finding distribution in Israel, despite Wolman’s extensive oeuvre, and his track record at attracting audiences. After being rejected multiple times, Wolman at last found a distributor willing to show his film. When Wolman saw the terms of his contract however, he saw that he might never be paid a cent, after the costs of the distributor (never enumerated) were subtracted off the top. When Wolman asked for a more specific enumeration of costs, or for an estimate of audience head count which might be required to achieve some payback, none was forthcoming. It was then that Wolman decided to arrange for his own private distribution of the film, at theaters who had shown his films in the past. He wrote and emailed everyone he could, and urged his friends to see the film in the first two weeks, explaining his predicament. The guerrilla distribution plan worked, and the film’s success in Israel has brought the film here to Philadelphia.

15th Annual Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia

The Matchmaker, directed by Avi Nesher
Saturday, February 26 at 8:00 PM and Sunday, February 27 at 3:00 PM, International House, 3701 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia
(2010, 112 minutes, Hebrew with English subtitles)

Eight Prize Winning Films Over Six Weeks

The Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia celebrates its 15th Anniversary Season with eight prize-winning films by Israeli filmmakers over a six-week period beginning February 26th with screenings in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs.  The Festival celebrates Israeli cinema with the aim of enriching the American vision of Israeli culture and society through film.  (See our coverage of the Israeli Film Festival in 2006 and 2009.)

Advanced ticket sales are available online.  There are a limited number of free tickets for high school and college students at each screening. Reservations for student tickets can be made online and must picked up one hour prior to each screening.

According to Nurit Yaron, the Film Festival’s chair,

Each season the Israeli Film Festival presents a slate of feature films and documentaries that are carefully selected to represent a diverse reflection of Israel.  It is our goal to celebrate the creativity of Israeli filmmaking and vibrancy of Israeli culture. Our program includes award-winning feature films and documentaries that have received wide recognition both in Israel and abroad.

The Matchmaker

The Festival opens on Saturday, February 26th with The Matchmaker directed by Avi Nesher.  Winner of the 2010 Israeli Film Academy for Best Actor and Best Actress Awards, The Matchmaker is an enchanting coming-of-age tale about the redemptive power of love and the manifold incarnations of friendship.  Yankele Bride, a Holocaust survivor who makes his living as a matchmaker, hires 16-year old Arik to scout potential clients throughout the bustling port city of Haifa.  The quirky characters Arik meets on the job – Clara, a beautiful, fragile woman whom Bride loves from afar; Sylvia, a survivor of Josef  Mengele’s Nazi experiments who yearns for a husband; and Meir, a librarian – open his eyes to a world of wonder, pain and longing.  Avi Nesher made his feature film debut with The Troup and has since made Turn Left at the End of the World (the biggest grossing movie in Israeli history) followed by The Secrets.  The Matchmaker will have two screenings, both at the Philadelphia International House, on Saturday, February 26th at 8:00 PM and again on Sunday, February 27th at 3:00 PM.

Information and trailers about the other seven film after the jump.

Precious Life, directed by Shlomi Eldar
Sunday, February 27 at 7:00 PM, International House, 3701 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia
(2010, 82 minutes, Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles)

Precious Life

Precious Life, a searing documentary about Israeli/Palestinian relations by Shlomi Eldar, will screen at the Philadelphia International House on Sunday, February 27th at 7:00 PM.  The movie brings to light the plight of a Palestinian baby who was born without an immune system, a genetic disease that had killed his two sisters.  Eldar helps facilitate funds for a bone marrow transplant through an anonymous Israeli donor whose own son had been killed in the Army.  He also documents the drama of the Palestinian doctor taking the matching blood samples across the border checkpoint.  The winner of the Best Documentary from the 2010 Israeli Film Academy, Precious Life highlights the complex dynamics reflecting the personal and political ambiguities in the region.  

Gei Oni, directed by Dan Wolman
Saturday, March 5 at 8:00 PM, Drexel University, Edmond D. Bossone Research Enterprise Center, Mitchell Auditorium, 3128 Market Street, Philadelphia
(2010, 105 minutes, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Arabic with English subtitles)

Gei Oni – Valley of Fortitude

The Festival continues on March 5th at Drexel University’s Mitchell Auditorium with Gei Oni, directed by Dan Wolman and based on the classic novel by Israeli author Shulamit Lapid.  A historical epic, Gei Oni interweaves the story of the first wave of Jewish European migration to Palestine at the end of the 19th century with an unusual love story.  Fania, having escaped the pogroms of Russia, seeks a new life in late 19th century Palestine.  She meets Yechiel, a widower with two young children.  Agreeing to marriage as a means of survival, Fania follows the farmer to a hard pioneer life in his tiny village near the city of Safed.  Gei Oni is a dramatic narrative of the Jewish dream of returning and rebuilding the land of Zion.  Director Dan Wolman will be the guest speaker following the screening.

Lebanon, directed by Samuel Maoz
Sunday, March 13 at 7:00 PM, Bryn Mawr Film Institute, 824 West Lancaster Avenue, Bryn Mawr
(2009, 94 minutes, Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles)


The Festival moves to the Main Line’s Bryn Mawr Film Institute on March 13th with Lebanon, directed by Samuel Maoz.  Taking place during the first Lebanon War in 1982, a novice crew of Israeli soldiers enters the ruins of a Lebanese town previously bombed by the Air Force.  Young men who have never fought before find themselves trapped within a tank as they are thrown into a situation that quickly spins out of control.  Winner of the Golden Lion Award from the 2009 Venice Film Festival, Lebanon was also the winner of the European Discovery Award and the Carlo di Palma Cinematographer Award, both from the 2010 European Film Festival, and Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Sound and Best Supporting Actor, all from the 2009 Israeli Film Academy.  Dr. Elna Yadin, a psychotherapist from Byrn Mawr College, will be the guest speaker after the film.

This is Sodom, directed by Adam Sanderson & Muli Segev
Saturday, March 26 at 8:30PM and Sunday, March 27 at 3:00PM
International House, 3701 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia
(2010, 88 minutes, Hebrew with English subtitles)

This is Sodom

The Festival returns to the Philadelphia International House with two screenings of the comedy This is Sodom, directed by Adam Sanderson and Muli Segev, on Saturday, March 26th at 8:30 PM and again on Sunday, March 27th at 3:00 PM.  A delightfully raucous, slapstick comedy, This is Sodom reenacts the moment of the birth of the Jewish people, as the patriarch Abraham bargains with God for the life of his nephew, Lot, supposedly the only righteous person in the infamous city of Sodom, the biblical capital of gambling, sex and corruption.  This is Sodom set the record for the most tickets sold for an Israeli movie in its first weekend.

The Human Resources Manager, directed by Eran Riklis
Sunday, March 27 at 7:00 PM, International House, 3701 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia
(2010, 103 minutes, Hebrew and Romanian with English subtitles)

The Human Resources Manager

Israel’s Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film, The Human Resources Manager, will be shown on Sunday, March 27th at 7:00 PM at the Philadelphia International House.  Based on the novel by A.B. Yehoshua and directed by Eran Riklis, The Human Resources Manager won Best Feature Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Soundtrack and Best Supporting Actress, all from the 2010 Israeli Film Academy.  In this touching tragic-comedy, a Human Resource manager at Israel’s largest bakery is blamed for not noticing that one of his employees is missing.  After discovering that the employee is a victim of a suicide bombing, the manager finds himself the unlikely escort of the young woman’s coffin back to her hometown in Romania.  Eran Riklis is the acclaimed director of The Lemon Tree and The Syrian Bride which was screened in Philadelphia at the 2006 Israeli Film Festival.

Missing Father, directed by Yair Elazar
Saturday, April 2 at 8:45 PM, Gratz College, 7605 Old York Road, Melrose Park
(2009, 86 minutes, Hebrew with English subtitles)

Missing Father

Missing Father, a documentary by Yair Elazar, will be screened on Saturday, April 2nd at 8:45 PM at Gratz College.  Decades after the death of Israel’s legendary but discredited Chief of Staff David Elazar (Dado), his youngest son launches a personal investigation into the life of the national celebrity and military genius.  Now a father himself, Yair Elazar feels compelled to understand the father whose many absences from home made him an enigma to his children.  Through a sincere and lucid requiem, the director takes a journey in his father’s footsteps, aiming to penetrate the web of myths shrouding his father’s memory, and to overcome his anger at him for sacrificing family life for a military career.  Yair Elazar will be the guest speaker following the film.

Voices from El-Sayed, directed by Oded Adomi Leshem
Saturday, April 9 at 8:45 PM, Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, Jewish Federation Campus, 272 Bryn Mawr Avenue, Bryn Mawr
(2009, 75 minutes, Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles)

Voices from El-Sayed

The Festival concludes on Saturday, April 9th at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy with Voices from El-Sayed directed by Oded Adomi Leshem, winner of the 2009 Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award.   The Bedouin village of El-Sayed in the picturesque Israeli Negev desert is home to the largest percentage of deaf people in the world.  Hearing and non-hearing residents alike live in silence, and all use a variant of sign language adapted over several generations to local needs and habits.  One member’s decision to get a cochlear implant for his son brings into sharp focus how the gift of hearing may feel like the loss of community and identity.  Director of the film, Oded Adomi Leshem, will be the guest speaker following the film.


For further information about the festival or any of the screenings, please call 484-904-5421 or visit the festival’s website.