Last June 8th at the Teresa Yuchengco Auditorium, the Israeli Embassy hosted the 14th Israeli Film Festival with a showing of Natalie Portman’s directorial debut, A Tale of Love and Darkness.
This year’s theme for the festival was “Romance in the Holy Land,” featuring Israeli films which will be available for viewing in different Cinematheque branches all over the Philippines. When asked about the theme, Deputy Chief of Mission from the Israeli embassy Hadass Nisan informs us that she finds that “the kindness of the Filipino heart is something I cannot compare with anyone else in the world.” After all, Filipinos love love.
The film is set during the first years of the State of Israel after the 1948 UN Resolution, and gives an unapologetic view of the range of human emotions against a backdrop of war. A film primarily in Hebrew, it is steeped with Jewish culture and emotion.
Yet, we are a people who do not only love love, but love the accompanying kilig, as well. So to bring this film, with its serious ruminations on love in the time of war, to the Philippines, Mrs. Nisan makes a thoughtful point: “We can take this love,” she refers to the syrupy, chocolate-and-flowers type of love, “and understand it in a different point of view.”
The story of a boy
A Tale of Love and Darkness, from its title, suggests a duality. Love and darkness are not two polar concepts, but are themes that mesh together in the lives of many people throughout history. This duality is most apparent among the Jewish people. Forced into exile from Europe during the time of the Holocaust, they flee to Palestine, driven by the idea to reclaim the land of milk and honey.
The film, in particular, is the autobiography of one of Israel’s most esteemed writers, Amos Oz. Adapted into the big screen by none other than the award-winning actress-turned-director Natalie Portman, this film is more than just the story of a Jewish family. “History is entwined with [Oz’s] story,” Nisan informs us.
The story starts with Oz telling the story of his childhood, which was before the UN Resolution that favored the establishment of the Israeli nation, a time when the Jews in their community lived quiet lives speaking in hushed whispers. We are introduced to Oz’s father, Arieh Klausner (Gilah Kahana), a stern and unapologetic Jewish writer, but more light is shone on the romantic Fania Klausner (Natalie Portman), Oz’s mother and once a student of philosophy in Prague. They meet when both of their families arrive in Jerusalem to escape Europe.
In the first few scenes, we see the disparity between mother and father, the former being more caring, more understanding of Oz. We see Portman’s character at night climbing into bed with Oz, telling him stories that take on the guise of anecdotes, heroic myths, cautionary tales, or sometimes all three. Fania’s Ukranian bourgeoisie roots are also shown through scenes of her childhood with chandeliers and high-window interiors, as well as her futile attempts at cooking a Jewish dish to their relatives’ liking.
Portman’s skill comes from the fact that she transcends the limits of the author’s third-person storytelling and gets inside the psyche of a mother disillusioned and exhausted by a dream. After the UN resolution, we witness her slow descent through depression, starting from when Oz sees his mother slapping herself in the privacy of the kitchen, to nights when she sits up on the couch staring out the window. Slowly and gradually, in the height of the war, we notice that the dining table remains unset and the space beside Oz’s father in the bed is empty.
“Loneliness is like a hammer blow that shatters glass but hardens steel,” Oz recalls his mother saying in one the opening scenes of the film. His mother only once speaks of a hero that will save the people from suffering, but this hero takes the form of a recurring character in the film, a poet and farmer who overcomes adversity. The hero notably appears in Fania’s dreams when she is deep in depression.
One scene shows the family together, eating under a sprawling tree in a meadow. From the somber, dirty streets of downtown, for the first time, this particular memory glimmers. And as if on cue, the sound of a bomb detonating in the distance rips the seams of this dream, reminding us that the land of milk and honey hides deep wounds. Only by looking back at that moment of broken reverie do we, together with Oz, begin to understand his mother, Fania.
The story of a people
In an interview with Amos Oz by Alain Elkann, when asked about the birth of the state of Israel, he says, “Israel was born out of dreams, not because of geography or demography. There were many different dreams. The dreams of the fathers and mothers of Israel.” The day came during the 1948 UN Resolution.
The Jewish people’s hope of an independent nation arose not only from Zionist belief, but was a consequence of the atrocity suffered by their people during the Holocaust. After the resolution was in favor for the establishment of the state of Israel, revolts against it by Palestinians forced celebrations to a halt. By recollecting these threads of history, Nisan asserts, “The history of the Jewish nation is incomparable. We could be diminished, we could disappear, but we are still here. And after 2,000 years of exile, there was no other nation in the whole world that survived the exile. It’s a miracle.”
She refers to Amos Oz as one of the most important writers in Israel. She describes him as a very political writer in the way that he tells stories about himself, but also manages to give his own opinions on the state of Israel. “For him it was very personal. Something very private, but is also for the community, on the other hand,” she adds.
“After sixty years, Israel has a sense of disappointment precisely because it was born of a dream. But it isn’t disappointment about the nature of Israel as much as the nature of dreams. The only way to maintain the sense of a wonderful, perfect dream is to never try to fulfill it. The moment in which you fulfil it, the disappointment starts. Israel is a dream fulfilled and thus there’s disappointment,” Amos Oz explains in his interview. But seen today, Israel thrives as the one of the leading countries in technology and start-ups. Even when the past digs deep into every Jew, their resilience surfaces and the dream persists.
The story of a friendship
What a lot of us may not be aware of is that the Israeli-Philippine friendship isn’t anything recent. This is a friendship that stems from history and took shape from an act of kindness. During the UN resolution, the Philippines was the only Southeast Asian country to vote yes for the establishment of the state of Israel. Our late President Manuel Quezon himself issued 10,000 visas to fleeing Jews during the Holocaust in the 1930s.
“We consider the Philippines as one of the most important and deep friends of ours. It’s not something just nowadays; this friendship has roots in the past,” Nisan shares. Because of President Manuel Quezon’s heroic act, there is now a monument in the Israeli city of Rishon Lezion honoring the kindness our country showed to the Jewish people during a period when they were persecuted.
While only 1,200 Jews were able to accept the visas before the Japanese invaded the Philippines, thus halting their immigration, that doesn’t lessen the significance of what the late President did. Some of the Jewish refugees in Manila were able to relocate to Israel and continue their family line—there are people in Israel descended from those very refugees.
Quezon’s actions were part of the beginning of a decades-old friendship that continues to evolve and change with the times. Because of the Philippines’ Open Door policy during a crucial time in Jewish history, Israel is now one of the countries in which Filipinos do not need a visa to enter. Israel welcomes us with open arms as we did for them in the past.