Academic journal article Shofar

Israeli Mothers in Film: "Re-Visioning" Culture, Engendering Autonomy

Academic journal article Shofar

Israeli Mothers in Film: "Re-Visioning" Culture, Engendering Autonomy

Article excerpt


In many Israeli films, mothers play conventional supporting roles. But several critically important films made between the 1970s and the first decade of the new century become culturally reflexive as they feature mothers who become the interface between family and culture. In part, these films clarify the difference between satisfying cultural expectations, and living satisfactory personal lives. In part these films perform what Adrienne Rich called a "re-visioning " of cultural assumptions through their effects on mothers. The first section of this paper examines gendered cultural assumptions common to the state's early decades. In the second section, seven films set in those decades mark maternal vulnerability to cultural imperatives apparently nourished by gendered assumptions. In the third section, four films by one filmmaker look back at a family's past and move beyond it. Having "re-visioned" the cultural intersection in which one mother suffered and broke down, this filmmaker's protagonists struggle through the first three films with the residue of the maternal ordeal; the repetitions and differences that figure in their memory of the personal past suggest the affective burden carried by recollective narrative. The protagonist of the fourth film in this series moves past personal remembering toward a more general understanding of mental distress that will engender her autonomy.


It would be comforting to think that we swim in culture like fish in water: simply nourished, supported, sustained. But contemporary scholarship tells a more complicated story. Culture has become for recent theorists a site not only of orderly systems that help us to grasp the meanings of our lives, and that teach us how to behave, but also a context in which "disjunctures and contradictions" are largely taken for granted.1 Not always compliant, we seem now to filter the culture in which we swim, to resist or negotiate as often as we accept cultural norms. And much of this activity may not be fully conscious, for we internalize elements of our culture and take its imperatives to heart-participating, whether we will or no, in practices that may not always validate our sense of ourselves, or secure our comfort in the world. This more ambiguous, more problematic, and more deeply conflicted sense of the intersection between individuals and their cultural contexts comes vividly to life in many Israeli films that feature mothers.

The power of films to represent cultural experience is rooted, anthropologists noted long ago, in the peculiar reflexivity of human performance. Because we are what Victor Turner called "self performing animals," we reveal ourselves to ourselves and to one another in performance; collectively, "one set of human beings may come to know themselves better through observing . . . performances generated and presented by another set of human beings."2 Like the earliest ritual dramas, which both sustained "social and cultural principles and forms" and also examined them, sometimes turning "them upside down,"3 films give us complex performative representations in which elements of character and narrative can become culturally reflexive. This paper extracts from several Israeli films one character: the mother-who becomes culturally reflexive as she brings into focus the issue of gender in Israeli culture, clarifying its effects on mothers and their daughters.

The first section of this paper contextualizes these films by examining, in the work of historians and sociologists, gendered assumptions that persist in the culture of the early decades. The second section looks at seven films set in the first three decades of the state's existence, selecting elements within the films that highlight the issue of gender. Characters foreground this issue as they perform the particular vulnerability of mothers to cultural imperatives apparently nourished by gendered assumptions. These films explore in their own time the often unspoken imperatives that had shaped the lives of Israeli women. …

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