'Ben Zaken': Berlin Review

Ben Zaken
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Just another hungry mouth to feed in the ghetto

First-time feature director Efrat Corem explores a sector of Israeli society rarely seen on screen in this hard-scrabble family drama

A bracingly austere slice of somber social realism from Israel, Ben Zaken is the debut feature of young writer-director Efrat Corem. The dramatic focus is an impoverished family living in a social housing project in the coastal city of Ashkelon, but the context could be almost any place where money is tight, jobs are scarce and living conditions basic.

While it is refreshing to see a rare contemporary Israeli drama that is not overshadowed by the Palestinian conflict, Corem's low-budget glumfest quickly starts to feel like a cheap holiday in other people's misery. Most of its scenes are filmed in cramped interiors in static shots, with no music and little tonal variation. Imagine a Ken Loach or Dardenne brothers move drained of all passion and humour. Screening in the Berlinale's Forum section this week, Ben Zaken is a dead-cert festival booking, especially with the perpetual political heat surrounding Israel. But distributors are unlikely to see a commercial angle.

Three generations of the Ben Zaken family share a small apartment on the edge of Ashkelon. Long-suffering matriarch Dina (Chani Elemlch) is still cooking and cleaning for her two grown-up sons, doting on the older boy Leon (Mekikes Amar), a terse alpha-male type who runs a construction materials business. The younger Schlomi (Eliraz Sade) is more problematic, a chain-smoking 34-year-old waster struggling to hold down a job while playing single father to his 11-year-old daughter Ruhi (Rom Shoshan), a fierce tomboy who is bullied and alienated at school.

Tensions run deep in this pressure-cooker environment, both between siblings and across generations. Ruhi constantly bickers with her father and grandmother, attracting concerned attention from teachers and child welfare workers. Unable to offer his daughter the life she deserves, Schlomi weighs up the option of sending her to a children's home, which would mean facing up to his failings as a deadbeat dad. His indecision hangs in the air as the movie ends, feeling like a lose-lose deal.

Corem's stated intention with Ben Zaken was to dramatize a section of Israeli society rarely seen on screen: the working-class residential townships with their shabby synagogues, dusty grocery stores and crowded immigrant population. This she achieves in a thorough but oppressively dour manner, stripping away any hint of sentimentality while laying heavy emphasis on drab domestic drudgery in spartan living conditions.

At least the cast provide some respite from all this relentless low-voltage gloom. Shoshan is a great find for the role of Ruhi, a prematurely wise head on a young body. Hollow-eyed and heavy-browed, she looks like a Frida Kahlo painting made flesh. Batel Mashian also stands out in a minor role as a 20-year-old neighbor with an obsessive crush on Leon, her luscious beauty and lustful energy seemingly beamed in from an entirely different film.

Inevitably, Corem soon shuts down this subplot before it contaminates her movie with too much joy. Because nobody is allowed to feel pleasure in Ben Zaken, it seems. Nobody smiles, or dances, or falls in love, or has sex, or even expresses a tender emotion. Laughter and poetry and messy, bittersweet, hope-driven humanity are all banned from this cinematic ghetto. Corem has made a worthy and thoughtful debut, but she really needs to let a little more sunshine in next time.

Production company: Laila Films
Cast: Rom Shoshan, Eliraz Sade, Mekikes (Ronen) Amar, Chani Elemlch, Batel Mashian
Director, screenwriter: Efrat Corem
Producer: Itai Tamir
Cinematographer: Shafir Sarussi
Editor: Nisim Massas
Sales company: Patra Spanou Film Marketing & Consulting, Dusseldorf
Unrated, 90 minutes