Another Filmfest Hamburg has come and gone and I am left contemplating which movies inspired me most, what underlying themes emerged and finally yet importantly what I would like to write up for the Currents Magazine readers. Of the ten films I saw, six of them dealt with families and their struggle to function, some of them successfully and some failing miserably. Two of these films, AMERICAN PASTORAL (American Idyll)and BEYOND THE MOUNTAINS AND HILLS, particularly caught my attention because, even though they took place in different countries and at different times in history, the films, themselves, and the message they conveyed have many similarities. Each film centers around a seemingly intact family in the beginning scenes but as the film progresses, the families mirror the dividedness and political unrest in their own countries.
AMERICAN PASTORAL, which opened the film festival and probably was the most anxiously awaited film as it was Ewan McGregor’s first daring attempt at directing,takes place in and around Newark, New Jersey, beginning in the 1950s and ending in the 1990s.The opening scenes introduce us to Seymour “Swede” Levov (Ewan McGregor), a Jewish high school football star who went to war as a marine and came back home to successfully take over the family business and marry the non- Jewish, former Miss New Jersey, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly). They move to a farm in the idyllic hills of Old Rimrock, have a charming daughter, named Merry (Hannah Nordberg, later Dakota Fanning), and basically live the American Dream in the 1950s. Then come the ‘60s and not only does the Viet Nam War break out and divide the country, but it also breaks up the all-American Levov family when Merry joins a revolutionary protest group and blows up a post office killing a man. Merry disappears, Schwede is obsessed with finding her and trying to figure out what he did wrong, and Dawn is at first hysteric and distraught, but then, after having plastic surgery, is ready to start a new life with a new face and another man.
In contrast, Eran Kolirin’s BEYOND THE MOUNTAINS AND HILLS takes place in Israel in the modern-day world. Nevertheless, despite this difference in time and place, the beginning is similar to that of AMERICAN PASTORAL. Lieutenant Colonel David Greenbaum (Alon Pdut) is being honored for 27 years of military service and his seemingly intact family is there to celebrate happily with him. However, as the movie progresses, David is no longer a leader of men, but just an ordinary guy looking for a job and a new place in society. He decides to try his luck at marketing dietary supplements, but fails. His friend tells him, “Success means doing unpleasant things,” and this statement does not just apply to David but also to his country as a whole. Not only is he then disillusioned with the capitalistic world and his job, but also with his family. He discovers that his schoolteacher wife, Rina (Shiree Nadav-Naor) is having an affair with a student, his teenage daughter, Yifat (Mili Eshet), is attending anti-war protests and trying to befriend some Arabs, and his adolescent son flips out when he learns about his mother’s affair. He tries to talk with them, but he does not connect. David, like Swede, is having great difficulties understanding and coping with the changing political and familiar world. They both want to be and do good but it does not seem to fit or work in a new world that does not reward good behavior. Likewise, both of their wives try to find comfort in starting a different life by having affairs and the daughters both resort to joining revolutionary groups. Merry, however, with an anarchic “Weathermen” approach, and Yifat with altruistic intensions.
Both directors use the setting to help interpret their stories, which becomes evident right away in the titles. AMERICAN PASTORAL offers golden-toned Eduard Hopper inspired pastoral scenes in the first part of the film as a metaphor to portray America’s innocence, Swede’s perfect family life as well as his assimilation into the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) society. Later the scenes become darker when America and the Levov family fall victim to chaotic dissidence. An example of this is the scene when Swede, after many years of searching, finally finds Merry, a broken soul, wandering through the dark streets of the slums of riot-torn Newark. In BEYOND THE MOUNTAINS AND HILLS, the Greenbaums live on one side of the barren hills and the Arabs on the other; it is a physical as well as social barrier. There is a no-man’s land between the hills, but who is willing to meet there? The explosive political situation in Israel is literally felt in the scene at Rina’s school during the daily bomb drills. It reminds us of the constant threat and fear of attack. Similarly, this barrier of hills also signifies the distance and discord between the family members.
Music is an important mood setter in both movies. McGregor, for example, uses Jasmine Thompson’s Mad World to set the tone: “Hide my head I wanna drown my sorrow, no tomorrow, no tomorrow”. It creates an atmosphere of despair. Kolirin also employs pop music; for example, Yifat listens to the Lebanese singer Fairuz and at the beginning and end of the film, the family is together at a celebration singing popular songs. At least this is a way to communicate with each other, when talking together does not work.
The turning point in each film comes in with a big bang. In AMERICAN PASTORAL the serene and quiet scene of a man raising an American flag at a countryside gas station (like the one in Edward Hopper’s painting) is suddenly destroyed when a bomb explodes inside the gas station killing the owner. Up until this time, Merry had been just a rebellious teenager, but now she has become a terrorist and disappears. This not only tears apart her family, but also symbolizes the explosive potential in America in the ‘60s. In BEYOND THE MOUNTAINS AND HILLS the big bang comes from David. In frustration with not being able to cope with his family or job situation, he fires some shots into the hills that separate Israelis from Arabs. For him it is at first therapeutic, but later we see that it triggers the events (some tragic) which happen afterwards. Unknown to him, Yifat met a young Arab on this same hill earlier that evening and unfortunately, one of his bullets accidently kills this young man. The rest of the film conveys mainly how each member of the family deals with their guilty feelings. However, even though they try to talk with each other about it, they do not seem to get through to each other and there are no consequences to their actions.
Both films deal with an age-old theme that is as crucial for us today as it was in the ‘60s or 500 years ago. If the family structure falls apart, the individuals become lonely, unsatisfied, hurt and this can lead to violence and rebellion in the family as well as in the country or between countries. Even though both films have their weaknesses in execution and most likely will not win any Oscars, I can advise everyone to see these thought-provoking, creative and most of the time entertaining works that cause us to pause and take a moment to look more closely at our world and our place in it.