Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jul 27, 2022 2:16 pm 
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A prize-winning Israeli documentary in which a father explores the point of view of his six-year-old son, with reference to his own father

Hate to be a complainer but the only thing that's wrong with this little documentary is that it's too perfect. The filmmaker Ohad Milstein creates wonderful purity where nothing unnecessary intervenes. But this truly, clearly, is a very safe environment for the six-year-old Alva. This is a picture of six-year-old Alva, an Israeli boy who speaks Hebrew to his father and grandfather and French to his Swiss mother. The film witnesses moments in Alva's life in the summer before he goes off to his first school.

This is a prize-winning short film and so it is well constructed. The shape comes from moments: Alva asking his father about aging and, by implication (but skirted), death. A haircut by the father for the boy and similarly one by the father for his own father, who is less satisfied. Alva dancing in colorful tights; swimming; standing on a high diving board; running. In a whispered voiceover he talks about his fear of heights, but he comes off as graceful, athletic, physically well developed for his age. During an interlude in Bern, Switzerland, he also woos a girl his own age - without much luck, though. He offers her white chocolate which she won't take. "It's chocolate!" he says. Enough said.

Actually this may be more than anything about Ohad, the father's, relationship with his son. Hence also it takes time for Ohad to talk to his father, at first portly but athletic on the beach, discussing whether they ever had searching conversations when Ohad was small, as Ohad is having with Alva. That these conversations, because at night, are whispered not to awaken his little sister, makes them seem all the more magical. They did not have such conversations, or almost never. So we have the old theme of the son who tries to have with his son the intimacy and love he didn't have with his own father. Those magical whispered conversations between Alva and Ohad do contain declarations of love, and promises always to be there to help and support, to hug and kiss, but Alva decides he will do this, the hugging and kissing of his father, till he's 35, and no longer.

Time spent by Alva with his mother, in French, is spent more talking about school, assembling colored pencils, and a pencil case that delights Alva. It's as if French is for practical academic matters and courtship, while Hebrew (as is only fitting?) is for talking about love and death, God and the passage of time. "Do you believe in God, dad?" Alva asks. There is a nice irony in the way Ohad and his father discuss whether he should tell Alva the truth and he says yes, and not to say the stork brings babies, and then near the end when Alva asks where babies come from his father says the stork brings them, and Alva, saying "What stork, father?" seems to know that's a silly fiction.

A further development of the sub-theme of the grandfather is said elder's keeping his father's photo in a drawer all these years, and, chided by a discussion with Ohad, bringing it out to frame and hang on his wall at last. He, son and grandson and nephew of carpenters, he says, tries to make a frame for his father's photo helped by Alva, and badly botches the job. He takes the photo to a framer, and hangs the framed photo as we watch (i's dotted, t's crossed). But the mess of a job becomes a subject of joyous laughter for granddad and Alva. There is no shame, no pain; acceptance.

I probably long for a touch of imperfection, a moment of real awkwardness or tears. But this is simply a perfect film about a perfect boy, and a perfect age of curiosity, purity, and sweetness - and readiness to love. The neat shape of the film is that it's a long recollection about a summer. It reminds one of a more perfect, more complex film about the same age, or ages close to Alva's, Nicholas Philibert's amazing 2002 documentary about a French mountain country elementary school with a single dedicated teacher, To Be and to Have/Être et avoir. Where this film ends, that one begins.

Summer Nights, 53 mins., debuted Jul. 2, 2021 at Tel Aviv's Docaviv festival, where it won a best film award; also shown at Bologna Biografilm Festival. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 21-Aug. 7, 2022.

Thursday July 28, 2022
6:00 p.m.
Albany Twin

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