Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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OREN GERNER: AFRICA (2019) - - San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 2021 (July 22 - Aug. 1)

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MEIR GERNER IN AFRICA

Not so easy to let go

Israeli filmmaker Oren Gerner has shown an interest in everyday moments of significance in his shorts. In this first feature he makes his father Meir and mother Maya and their usual surroundings the focus and has persuaded them to play a version of themselves. Meir, a retired IDF officer, has little to do now but putter around in his wood working shop. Deprived of the job of planning the annual village celebration, turned over now, to his disgust, to teenagers, he has substituted the self-imposed task of buiiding his grandson, Guli, a bed. It's a metaphor, a ship for him and Guli to sail in searh of the blue lion. In his youth he dreamed of being a sailor.

Gerner's approach isn't some humble zen observation of the quotidian but a forthright manipulation of events to make clearcut points about his aging father's difficulties accepting lesser competence and a diminished role in family and community. His father, Meir, his mother, Maya, a therapist, as well as other family and community members, have all kindly volunteered to appear in this drama. It's hard not to be aware of this and to wonder what they think of it all - which makes the suspension of disbelief a bit difficult.

There is bravery on the part of all concerned. Some, like the young granddaughter, who administers a five-minute questionnaire from her school class to sum up his whole life, warning him "grandparents get only one page," has contributed only minimally, though little Guli, the grandson, puts a ferocious energy into his brief appearance to accept his new bed and play on it with his grandpa. (It's a fine gift.) Meir himself and his wife Maya have made the larger and more valiant contribution but teenagers and elders alike have also chipped in. It took a village.

When Gerner follows his parents to bed, we're out of docu-fiction territory because, how could a camera follow an old couple there without prior planning? The home movies of the halcyon holiday in Namibia are delicately used, but Gerber isn't quite up yet to making this into something haunting and suggestive. Likewise the plot line isn't suggestive enough to make the focus on Meir's overweight and aging body and still handsome face as resonant as they might have been.

This is a portrait of a macho type whose mindset makes him ill suited to accepting frailty and age. He claims to his neighbor that he retired from the village ceremony of his own volition. He gets not very good news about his cardiovascular system from his doctor, but pretends to Maya that he got a clean bill of health. He calls on his wife at inopportune times, even committing the unheard of offense of interrupting one of her therapy sessions (which we, through the camera eye, more intimately invade). He slaps a neighbor's son when he confronts a group of teenagers listening to loud music around an evening fire. When Maya suggests he is having a crisis and needs some therapy, he tells her "You know I don't believe in that stuff!" Even around his faithful German Shepherd Tsia he makes serious trouble, endangering the dog's life and harshly punishing her for a mistake he allowed to happen. (Tsia did not give informed consent before being spanked for a fictitious offense.)

Gerner is macho in his own way, because even though these things are everyday, it's somehow obvious that he's making them happen for the film. This is homely humor somewhat in the TV series vein (and in the living room, a big flat screen is always on, apparently), not a matter of delicate observation, of life subtly caught on the wing. Sometimes it seems as if disaster or the threat of it take the place of emotion or beauty in this feature debut. Gerner has made friends with the god of small things but not yet become an intimate companion.

Africa, 82 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 9, 2019, showing also at San Sebasti√°n, Calgary, Haifa, Thessalonik, Hamburg and Singapore and has received some awards and nominations, all in 2019. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (Jul. 22-Aug. 1, 2021).

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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