Israeli film 'Orange People' pits modernity against tradition
Three generations of Moroccan Israeli women grapple with issues of the past and ethnic traditions in Hanna Azoulay Hasfari's directorial debut.
Orange People Written and directed by Hanna Azoulay Hasfari; with Rita Shukrun, Esty Yerushalmi, Hanna Azoulay Hasfari, Meytal Gal Suissa, Yoram Toledano
The past haunts the heroes of “Orange People,” Hanna Azoulay Hasfari’s directorial debut, whether they grapple with it or try to leave it behind. The movie itself is haunted by a memory – that of “Sh’Chur,” the 1994 picture written by Azoulay Hasfari and directed by Shmuel Hasfari. “Sh’Chur” is still one of the best, wisest and most important Israeli films ever made. “Orange People,” which (like the earlier movie) has an autobiographical dimension and uses some of the same materials, is not.
“Sh’Chur” was a harsh,
severe work that subjected both past and present to a demanding, even cruel scrutiny; it also avoided lapsing into sentimentality or savoring its folkloric and “exotic” contents. The movie handled the traditional mysticism of the Moroccan Jews in a direct, blunt way that refused to romanticize it, and the result was jolting and disquieting. Thanks to all this, “Sh’Chur” managed to touch one of Israeli society’s most exposed nerves – the dilemma of Jewish society’s various ethnic legacies, presented in the movie as destructive whether they were embraced or abandoned. The film explored issues of identity and memory with a courage that few Israeli movies display, and this, along with the skillful writing, directing and acting, gave it its ongoing importance.
Comparing a filmmaker’s picture to her own previous work rather than letting the new movie stand on its own may be somewhat unfair, but it is also inevitable, especially when the two films have similar strategies and themes. “Orange People,” too, moves between present and past, and it too tells the story of three generations of women in an Israeli family of Moroccan origin. Here, too, we find different characters who represent different attitudes toward the past and ethnic traditions, each grappling with these issues in her own way and paying a different price for her choices. This time, however, all this happens in a far more routine manner, as part of a formulaic melodrama with folkloric trimmings – the latter, as we have already seen in too many movies, focused on food, in this case the secret family recipe for couscous that gives an orange hue to the skin of those who eat it.
The three generations in “Orange People” are represented by Zohara (Rita Shukrun), her daughters Simone (Esty Yerushalmi) and Fanny (Hanna Azoulay Hasfari), and her granddaughter, Zohar (Meytal Gal Suissa). Zohara, who lives in Jaffa, near the sea, is a psychic known for her ability to fall instantly asleep and have prophetic dreams. Tired of the burden created by her mystical powers, she is looking for a female heir to continue the family tradition in her stead. The only real candidate is Simone; Zohara believes she has the requisite talents. But Simone, who is married to a cop (Yoram Toledano) and runs a restaurant, is not interested in succeeding her mother. She wants to live her own life and build up her business, which specializes in that mysterious family couscous. By contrast, Zohar, the granddaughter, would like to follow in Zohara’s footsteps, but she does not have the necessary skills.
The balance of power
between the three generations is thrown into turmoil by the return of Fanny, the second daughter, after many years in Paris, where she trained as a gourmet cook. Like Azoulay Hasfari’s character in “Sh’Chur,” a woman estranged from her ethnic background and living in a cold, heartless present, Fanny has cut herself off from her roots, created her own individual identity, and must cope with the void left behind by this act. This time, however, her character – like the other characters in the movie – is not portrayed in real depth. Despite the skilled performances, the conflicts between them are predictable, even schematic at times.
“Orange People” raises the question of whether it is better to keep tradition alive or abandon it; but to what end? One reason why “Sc’Chur” was so powerful was that it portrayed the break with tradition as a step toward the creation of a young, new Israeli ideal that required that the past and its unique ethnic legacies be jettisoned. The movie explored the cost of such a sacrifice, as well as the breakdown of the ideal it was supposed to serve. “Orange People” is more ideologically vague – and, as a result, weaker. Perhaps it is the 20 years that separate “Sh’Chur” and “Orange People” that created this difference. The passing years may also be why in “Sh’Chur,” the break with tradition was situated in the past, whereas in “Orange People” it occurs in the movie’s present. There is something believable about the way Azoulay Hasfari has relocated the dilemma from a national context to a private, everyday one, but as a result her movie is less sharp.
In many ways, “Orange People” lacks the creative discipline and deftness of “Sh’Chur.” The earlier film was more distant, but that was actually what pulled us so powerfully into the story. There is too much fervor in Azoulay Hasfari’s first feature as director, though without question she has much to contribute to Israeli cinema as a writer, filmmaker and actress. Her ability to touch the nerve centers, origins and memories of Israeli existence is considerable and admirable, but “Orange People” has something elementary and unpolished about it that makes it a step backward from “Sh’Chur.”
Despite that, I think very highly of Azoulay Hasfari; perhaps this regression contains the seeds of a new beginning.