'Africa': Film Review | San Sebastian 2019

San Sebastian Film Festival
A marriage story, straight from the heart.

In Israeli writer-director Oren Gerner's feature debut, the filmmaker's parents play versions of themselves.

Rising like Olympus above the general run of low-budget debut features, Israeli writer-director Oren Gerner's Africa is a touchingly well-observed study of long-time marrieds starring the filmmaker's own parents as lightly fictionalized versions of themselves. This lovingly crafted gem is a prime example of the "small" film that can so easily get lost in the noisy maelstrom of the Toronto International Film Festival, where it premiered alongside 36 other titles in the Discovery section.

The international bow came later in September at the San Sebastian International Film Festival, where Africa only had 13 rivals for the €50,000 ($54,665) New Directors prize. Gerner missed out on that big pot, but his picture's success with audiences at the venerable Spanish event portends a healthy career on the festival circuit, plus potential art house release in receptive territories.

Five years ago, Gerner essayed similar territory on a smaller canvas with his 17-minute short Greenland (top prize-winner in San Sebastian's student film competition), in which he played filmmaker "Oren Gerner," paying a visit to his parents' house to collect his belongings before moving in with his girlfriend.

The two projects are the only screen credits for Gerner's parents Meir and Maya, who move center stage here with main focus on the paterfamilias. Having settled into a comfortable retirement dominated by his carpentry shop, the slightly crotchety Meir came into the world seven decades ago in 1948 — "the same year our country was born," as he proudly informs his grandson. He's now the same age as his own father when the latter died, prompting low-key reflections on mortality.

The world is moving on at a bewilderingly fast rate: Meir is shocked and disappointed that his village's annual celebration ceremony, which he has organized for 30 years, will now be mounted by a group of local youths. "Who are these brats?! What do they know about electrics and construction?" he grouses.

Flinty and fiery, Meir is frustrated to find he is not quite as physically or mentally sharp as he used to be. At the film's 20-minute mark, he takes a fall at home and is advised by his doctor to "rest and avoid stress." Fat chance. Meir — a former soldier who in his prime fought in several of Israel's most celebrated conflicts — is something of a lion-in-winter type, largely sympathetic despite his crusty surface and occasional fits of (violent) temper.

His rather more easygoing wife Maya, who still works as a therapist (operating from a clinic in the family house), tolerates Meir's mood swings with patient resignation. Their relationship is dramatized via organic, bittersweet episodes chronicling the daily life of a couple so close they can communicate volumes with a look or a touch, or merely a judiciously chosen silence.

The title refers to a recent holiday the pair took in Namibia, glimpsed by brief interpolations of actual home-movie footage, shot in a place where "it really feels like you're part of nature." This as opposed to Israel, where rats are a pesky menace and the Gerners' community is protected from wild boars by a high perimeter fence, nightly monitored by citizen patrols — the film is careful to avoid any mention of politics or religion, even in passing (the village ceremony seems to be an entirely secular affair).

Gerner, who pops up occasionally in a supporting role, elicits entirely believable performances from his mom and pop — playing oneself, even for non-pros, is seldom as easy as the Gerner clan make it look here. Smoothly handled on all technical levels (apart from one needlessly confusing sound bridge), Africa doubtless functions on one level as a kind of artistic "therapy" for all family members concerned: a chance to work through difficult emotions and to face up to the realities of encroaching old age and inevitable bereavement.

And if Gerner has inherited this practically oriented empathy from his mother, his attention to construction and detail suggest he's very much his father's son, too. A stealthy slow-burner, the film culminates with a couple of notably strong scenes: Meir's roughhousing with his grandson and boundingly energetic dog threaten to exhaust his energy and even trigger some kind of health crisis. Thankfully avoiding melodrama, Gerner instead elects to wrap up proceedings on a ruminative and peaceful note, crucially cutting to black at just the right moment. A commendable achievement, then, in toto.

Production company: Film Harbor
Cast: Meir Gerner, Maya Gerner, Oren Gerner
Director-screenwriter: Oren Gerner
Producer: Itay Akirav
Cinematographer: Adi Mozes
Production designer: Roi Alter
Editor: Gil Vasely
Composer: Yuri Pryimenko
Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival (New Directors)
Sales: Heretic Outreach, Athens, Greece

In Hebrew
81 minutes