This year’s Tribeca Film Festival includes three new films from Israel, a continuation, one hopes of the Israeli cinema’s gold rush of quality filmmaking.
Two of those films — “Big Bad Wolves,” a vengeance tale by the co-directors of “Rabies,” and the documentary “Dancing in Jaffa” — we’ll discuss next week. This week’s Israeli offering, the North American premiere of “Six Acts,” is deeply troubling and more than little problematic.
In its opening credits “Six Acts” gives its title in English. The bleak little pun (‘sex acts,’ get it?) should serve as something of a warning about what follows. The film, which is lean and compressed, follows a 16-year-old girl, Gili (Sivan Levy) through six encounters with various classmates in Herzliya. She is a painfully insecure young woman who has recently transferred to a new high school in order to advance her social standing. Her insecurity plays itself out in those six acts (in both senses of the word) in which she ends up in a sexual situation with classmates. There is a rapid escalation in the intensity and intimidation from the film’s first scene to a finale of astonishingly powerful sleaziness.
Directed by Jonathan Gurfinkel from an original screenplay by Rona Segal, the film – seen here in Hebrew with English subtitles -- hits all the clichés of the teen sex drama, with Gili the victim of rumor-mongering, covert videotaping and the general disapproval of the other, hipper and more affluent girls. When a series of crushes lead either nowhere or to furtive and unappealing sex, Gili shifts allegiance repeatedly, but to no avail. When the object of her main hook-up tries to hand her off to his bar mitzvah-age brother, the film has gone as far as it can — or is willing to — go.
This is a hermetically sealed world of heavy-drinking-and-drugging teens living seemingly aimless lives in an atmosphere of pointless privilege. Almost the entire film takes place at night, most of it in public spaces lit by garish combinations of sodium streetlamps and neon. Gurfinkel chooses to shoot the entire film with handheld camera, which simultaneously gives it a certain immediacy while suggesting a world in which there is no moral center, a world quite unsteady on its feet, much like Gili herself.
What results is a sort of queasy car crash between “Alice Adams” and the smarmy faux kiddie porn of Larry Clark. Gurfinkel claims that because Gili is a (barely) willing participant in much of the action, the issues of consent and force become a gray area, and that this is a film “without a victim.” Ironically, the skill of his lead actress reveals that statement to be a lie. Levy is tiny, smaller than every male predator who seeks her, smaller even than her female classmates who offer her little protection. Her performance renders Gili as a bundle of frayed nerve endings whose bravado is even less convincing than Gurfinkel’s claims. (There is also the little matter of how much someone who is 16 and intoxicated is capable of consenting to sex.) Gili is a crushed blossom, such a painfully needy and incomplete figure that it is impossible to see her as anything but a victim, and almost as hard to see “Six Acts” as anything but a callous act of voyeurism.
Although the Tribeca festival has fewer Jewish-themed documentaries and features than in years past, at least one local team, Josh and Benny Safdie (“Daddy Long Legs”), is making its first excursion into the field of feature documentaries, albeit with a sports-related film that has no Jewish content. “Lenny Cooke,” the Safdies’ new film, tells the story of the eponymous Cooke, a schoolboy basketball star who made the mistake of coming out of school for the NBA draft just a bit too early. Cooke’s hoops career foundered when no pro team selected him, and the filmmakers show us the aftermath. It’s a potentially fascinating subject that fits in nicely with the Safdies’ interest in how losers cope when reality sets in.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs through April 28 at numerous venues around the city. Despite the relative paucity of Jewish-themed films, this year’s event features some very exciting debuts, including Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight,” a new film from Michaelangelo Frammartino, the director of the exquisite “Le Quarto Volte” and a world premiere documentary, “The Trials of Muhammad Ali.” For information, go to www.tribecafilm.com/festival.