A 'New Wave' Out Of Israel

ON FILMS

Films By Dan Geva And Others Double Down Under The Surface

February 05, 2010|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow @baltsun.com

Long live the consciousness of the pure who can see and hear!"

That declaration of the immortal Soviet filmmaker Dziga-Vertov also sums up the attitude of Israeli documentary-maker Dan Geva, who has come to Baltimore as a Schusterman Visiting Artist. The Schusterman program aims to connect Israeli artists of all kinds to universities and museums, and through these institutions to a larger American audience. The articulate and aesthetically adventurous Geva, who believes, with Dziga-Vertov, in the power of documentary images to shatter complacent presumptions, is an apt candidate for making the program's dream come true. He echoes Vertov's demand for "Conscious people, not an unconscious mass, ready to yield to any suggestion!" And he takes up Vertov's slogan, "Down with the scented veil of kisses, murders, doves and conjuring tricks!"

As part of a packed itinerary, Geva and his wife and creative partner, Noit, have taken up residency at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Geva is hosting a Thursday night series of contemporary Israeli documentaries at MICA's Brown Center (Falvey Hall) while also teaching two classes in partnership with MICA's video and film arts department and the film and media studies program at the Johns Hopkins University. In addition, he will be screening films at John Hopkins University Hillel in early March and at Goucher College in the spring.

American art-house audiences who have seen recent Israeli fictional films such as "Jellyfish" and "The Band's Visit" and the Israeli animated memoir "Waltz with Bashir" have come to expect a sometimes fierce, sometimes lyrical iconoclasm from this tiny country's native cinema.

Geva aims to bring Baltimore audiences the news that in the past six years, Israeli documentary-makers, rarely showcased in this country, may be creating their own "New Wave." A student and teacher of film history as well as a director and teacher of filmmaking, Geva doesn't use that term lightly. He has too much respect for French New Wave giants such as Jean-Luc Godard and Geva's own particular hero, Chris Marker, the mastermind of the avant-garde 1964 sci-fi classic "La jetee" (remade by Terry Gilliam as "12 Monkeys") and such avant-garde documentary classics as "Sans soleil" (1982).

Geva says that when he met with the notoriously elusive Marker to discuss the master's 1960 film about Israel, "Description d'un combat," Marker told him "the fate of the world will be decided in Israel." If the fate of the world can be decided in a country, the aesthetics of that country will be critical.

"When I talked to Marker," Geva says, "I knew we were both Dziga-Vertov people. It's something that crosses over generations and political and cultural agendas. It helps us see that art can be a shelter from the vulgar everyday notion of things." Dziga-Vertov made documentaries that question surface meanings and foster a healthy distrust in what is merely "visible." His work continues to teach filmmakers, in Geva's words, that "there's another level of meaning, beneath visibility. The documentary must try to decipher that meaning."

In his masterpiece, "Man With a Movie Camera," Vertov sets a prototype cameraman loose in an unnamed Soviet city. When he depicts a skilled female laborer swiftly putting together cigarette packs, she isn't being exploited - she's showing off her expertise. The camera becomes an agent of modernity and the director an engaged comrade who shares his tricks and know-how with the audience.

" 'The Man With the Movie Camera' is the Bible: it holds all the principles," Geva says. "A lifetime would not be enough to know them all. Just when I think I understand it more, I crack my head on it. But even then it gives me a masochistic pleasure!"

Dan and Noit Geva have tried to bring Vertov's questioning and experimentation to films as different in mood, subject and tone as "Fall" (2003), a portrait of dancer Deborah Bertonoff at age 80; "What I Saw in Hebron" (1999), a subjective look at a historical trauma, centered on the 1929 massacre of Jews in Hebron (and Noit's grandmother's survival, thanks to the help of Arab neighbors); and "Think Popcorn" (2004) featuring Geva as his own man with a movie camera, traveling through Israel and attempting to get his countrymen to speak the truth about matters such the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

Geva and his wife have selected films for Baltimore audiences that reflect their questing sensibility. With a streak of rueful humor that leavens his ardor, he says they programmed for MICA according to "the ultimate criterion: We picked films we liked. Of course, one of the films is our film ["Description of a Memory"] and we like it, but more important, we have to live with it."

This Thursday comes "No. 17," which Geva says fulfills their desire to present Israel to American audiences from "an inside point of view" that is also "cinematically fresh, very entertaining and philosophically very deep."

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