Thursday, March 23, 2006

Sentenced to Semi-Celebrity

In 2004, Anat Zuria's divorce documentary, "Sentenced to Marriage," exposed the misogynistic theocracy hiding within Israel's democracy. Before its release, few people even in Israel knew that women have no rights when seeking to end unhappy, abusive, or bigamist marriages in the Holy Land. Because all Jewish marital issues fall under the rabbinic court's jurisdiction, a shockingly outdated set of standards applies in divorce cases -- not just for religious people, who choose to let rabbis make many decisions for them, but for secular Jews as well. The situation is so difficult because the courts are controlled by ultra-orthodox rabbis, who assert a rare and fundamentalist interpretation of the Jewish code of law, whereby men have nearly limitless rights and women have next to none. All this in a modern society charged with being "a light unto the nations."

Zuria grew up secular but married an observant man 20-some years ago and now lives as an orthodox Jew in Israel. She faced reactions of all kinds when the film came out, from relief and gratitude to opprobrium and censure. Her insider perspective on Israeli fundamentalism makes her films extremely powerful ... and very controversial within the orthodox world. This week in New York and surrounding areas, she’s facing audiences of all kinds as she screens the film at a variety of Jewish venues and festivals.

We met six months ago in Israel, and though we hit it off and her story intrigued me, I didn’t find the time to see either of her films (both are unavailable on DVD here). So when I saw her name in the Makor Steinhardt Center's catalog a few weeks back, I emailed to let her know I'd be in New York too, and we made plans to meet.

At Makor tonight, I arrived just in time to hear the last line of her introduction to the film: "I hope you won't enjoy it." We said hi on her way out, and I slipped into the last row as the lights went down. The hour-long movie focuses on three women's efforts to extricate themselves from marriages to men who have abandoned them. A legal aid organization run by religious women attempts to help each of them deal with the trauma of the judicial system. Though Kafka is probably forbidden reading for the ultra-orthodox, the judges all seem to know his work well. For reasons that are never explained, they repeatedly delay decisions and require women to return in one, two, three weeks, even when the absentee husbands are known abusers, are not paying child support, have formed entirely new families, and are wanted by the police (one court clerk lets a fugitive father escape out the back door to evade a cordon of cops).

Eventually, after numberless court appointments, negotiations, and police stakeouts, two of the women secure their freedom. Rachel, a religious radio producer with four children, does so partly by becoming hysterical in the courthouse corridor, renouncing religion and denouncing her husband and the judges in a chilling, otherworldly howl of rage that draws stunned listeners from all over the building. The outburst helps, but perhaps not as much as her private detective, who secures scandalous sex photos of her estranged husband. The creep folds, and she gets her life back after waiting five years. The other woman, Michelle, just seems to get lucky after her own five years of court dates and police stakeouts.

The third woman, Tamara, gives up. After her bribe attempt fails, she just accepts the idea that she'll never be free of her husband, despite his new wife and children, so she focuses all her energies on pets and making art. Her legal "pleader" tries to reawaken a sense of outrage, but the trauma has been too great. She's done fighting. The film's last shot focuses on Tamara's fingers slowly weaving long needles into a wedding day photo of her with her husband (who looks just like Osama Bin Laden, another fine fundamentalist).

After the final credits faded and the lights came up, Anat ducked back in to field questions. She paced as she talked, hunching in her overcoat and slipping involuntarily into Hebrew as the hour deepened. The small room was nearly filled, largely with women. The first questioner wanted to know about the visual technique in the courtroom scenes, when, because taping actual legal proceedings is forbidden, the handheld camera claustrophobically paces the courthouse halls as we hear unseen people speaking. She explained that just as several faces in the film are blurred to protect identities, actors had to rerecord the judges' voices to keep them anonymous. So in the film we hear the actual women arguing with actors spouting the judges' words. Like dubbing, but different. You can’t see the lips not moving.

Most viewers wanted to talk about how horrible these stories were, but Anat said these were "soft" examples; she'd found far worse. On the other hand, she added that these cases are the exception. Most men in Israel behave decently in divorces, but a few turn rotten when they discover the power they have and see how much they can abuse the system and their wives. As the night wore on, people started arguing with each other about the coalition politics and broken promises that permit this shonda (Yiddish for "shame") to persist. Anat said that in fact, "Sentenced to Marriage" screened two years ago to a full house at the Knesset (Israeli Parliament), and change is afoot as a result.

By 9:30 she'd grown increasingly terse and most of the seats were empty, but a core group of women dug in. Long after a tired Makor employee had cleared the screening room and gone home, they hovered in the hall. One stout woman with wide, round eyes and a wig of orthodoxy said she was experiencing an equally impossible marital situation right here in Rego Park. Could Anat help? Anat listened, took her number, and said she would pass it along to people who might.

Finally the lingerers numbered just five. I felt like a stage-door Johnny myself. We made a break for the staircase, and they all fell into step behind us. It was like a low-grade rock star situation, except the groupies were ... well, they weren't ... they weren't groupies. Not like in Hammer of the Gods, anyway. As we reached the front door of the building, one of them seized the last moment to thank Anat and tell her how meaningful the movie had been, because she too is a filmmaker and --

But Anat, jet-lagged and tired of talking, interrupted with a collective brush-off saying, "Thank you very much and I'm sorry, but my friend and I have an appointment, so please excuse me," and that was that. She'd been speaking for more than an hour, and besides -- people expect Israelis to be rude.

Her first film, "Purity" (2002), a documentary on abuse of power in mandatory ritual baths, is also unavailable on DVD in the US. It is seen less often, she says, because her producer absconded with the money and some of the rights. She doesn't pay attention anymore. She's chosen not to fight, and to focus on her art and future projects ... just like Tamara.

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