Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: Shira Geffen
Screenplay: Shira Geffen
Runtime: 91 minutes.
Cast: Sarah Adler, Samira Saraya, Na'ama Shoham.
Trailer: “I'm missing a screw.”
Plot: Jewish conceptual artist Michal awakes with no memory of what the day ahead holds, or the meaning of her work. She must survive based on the cues and strange occurrences that make up her day; including a missing screw, something she had surgically removed and sent to the Venice Biennale, and a magazine interview. Nadine awakes within an Arab community and commutes to her job within Israel; fired for a missing screw. Something strange and surreal connects these two women as their day progresses and escalates.
Review: Self Made, a film by the Cannes Camera d’Or winner and Israeli director Shira Geffen, is currently being sold as a “black comedy” which seems a mistake. While there are a few laughs at the expense of the absurdity of life under the conditions the film presents, a better description of the film would be something like political surrealism. The fact that the ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ by Tchaikovsky accompanies many scenes is a strong tipoff; as are the slogans on the delivery trucks for an Ikea-like furniture company, which at first blush give the film its name. ‘Self-made dreams’ an early truck proclaims, while their commentary on the film evolves into the late truck slogan of ‘Everything is so strange today!’
Sarah Adler plays Michal, a widely celebrated conceptual artist who seems to champion the cause of the Arab peoples currently under Israeli administration; these cues to Michal’s past and political convictions are given by a perpetually interrupted interview she must give in her home with a German film crew. Her life is counterpointed with that of Nadine (Samira Saraya), who lives in an Arab part ofJerusalem and must commute to work through a series of checkpoints. This juxtapositioning of two lives seems to lead, at some point within the film, to an actual swap of the two actresses within the lives they are portraying; after a confrontation at a checkpoint Nadine is respectfully shepherded home mistakenly (or not) as Michal – where she yet again confronts the impassive questioning of the German film crew – and Michal as Nadine is left to wait in the hot sun of the isolation pen she is captive in. Both seem disconnected from their lives; in Michal’s case, after a fall, she seems to have lost all memory of her life and struggles to navigate what is an impressively busy day, with a stream of callers at her door. Nadine’s life is intertwined in a butterfly-effect manner with Michal’s, where the latter’s complaint of a missing screw for a self-assembly bed leads to the former being fired from her job packaging said screws. Many strange complexities are layered on top of this by Geffen; Nadine has memory loss and can find her way to a place but not back, leading to her practice of dropping screws to mark her path.
If this makes little sense to you, then the film has undoubtedly achieved the effect it seeks to create. It would perhaps be even better to approach it as performance art; a series of ideas that collide to create confusion but also heighten the tension and absurdity of Arab-Israeli relations. The tactic is a well-worn one; illustrating how broader conceptual and political narratives impact individuals in an existential sense, making their days difficult to navigate and creating the absurdities expressed in the set pieces such as encounters at the checkpoints. There is also an attempt to generalise and humanise the conditions of individuals on both sides and those responsible for enforcing the fence; one of the most touching portraits within the film is of a young Israeli border guard who simply wants to celebrate her birthday with her boyfriend. That this angst translates into her brandishing an assault rifle at a crowd of Arab workers forms one of the surrealist but political elements of the film. When Nadine’s cousin is shot by a guard in the leg for refusing to kneel, the guard remarks on the rubber bullets used that ‘it’s an Israeli patent. It doesn’t kill, it just hurts.’
The hidden tides of terrorist recruitment are also charted, in an equally as disjointed a way. One of the recruiters is Nadine’s lover, carrying a slip of paper which reads ‘look for lost people.’ A nice conceptual summation of his task; an existential comment on the characters; perhaps a political comment; and most certainly a poetic reference to the exile of the Jews, if not to the legacy of Isaac and Ishmael. Nadine’s equally cryptic response to that statement is ‘I collect what people lose. I remember what they forget.’ So the surrealism certainly works on many levels of meaning-creation; unfortunately it leans heavily on the ability of the audience to do the work themselves. This is not a film that meets the viewer half-way, rather like Michal’s cryptic and supposedly brave installations. The amnesiac Michal is horrified at the conceptual Michal, staring wide-eyed during an interview with herself at an exhibition.
And this is the broader problem with the film; also a problem with the art forms of conceptual or performance art which have been driven to these disconnected places through their overuse of the power of the shock, the contrast, the juxtaposition. The art presented as being Michal’s within the film has a very thin quality; it seems a series of ideas thrown together to see what sticks. In the hope the audience is suitably impressed by the elevated attention the nature of an exhibition (or the cinema) brings, and making them feel obligated to “get” the statement of the artwork by connecting the artist’s thrown-out sites of representation with gossamer threads of meaning. Self Made offers enough tantalising hints of an illusory coherency to make the audience feel guilty enough to try and do the work; and allowing the director some manifesto on they way their film relates to the audience, forces the audience to work, in a tone faux-philosophically convincing enough to let them off the hook. But after so many decades of these sorts of attempts, it smacks more of laziness and lack of sustained thought rather than innovation. When in the Q&A the artist-filmmaker predictably misuses Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome, it is time to call bullshit on their endeavour.
And yet I pause in running to call bullshit on Geffen’s film. I once attended a seminar by a departing philosophy academic who fancied himself a radical, despite working in a fairly conventional field of philosophy of mind. His presentation was on the political theory one could derive from Paul Feyerabend, an unconventional thinker who is more renowned within the philosophy of science. A colleague read a counter-paper refuting his points in a low tone throughout the presentation; there was a non-sequitur pause for a performance of John Cage’s 4’33” (transcribed for the drums); and he argued from an experience of the value of a disorganised museum he was once left to explore unguided. The point being that the accidental, the surreal, the independent connection of meaning, and the absence of a unified narrative created a powerful political place of free thought. I was utterly unconvinced; and in question time raised one prospect – that the organised, ideologically narrow, concertedly shaped and manipulative political narrative would always win out over the alternative due to its power, its economy, and its focus – leaving others (like his) stranded, on the fringe, and dismissed. The narrative unable to muster an answer will always be defeated by those who have it nicely and forcefully packaged; making the surreal, free, alternative response regrettably anaemic and inadequate. In response to my point, he and his students sang In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle – knowing and prepared for the fact I was just the sort of prick who couldn’t help asking a question in question time. A colleague made a follow-up point – didn’t they just prove my point?
I was tempted to make that point against Geffen here; but the reality is that this conflict has been a clash of strong, ideological narratives for a long time and that fatigue means viewers are inoculated against, almost oversensitive to such points. From that perspective, Geffen’s surrealism makes perfect sense within this context; moving the audience in the direction of reflecting on these issues, without attempting to over-determine its outcome (rubber bullets aside). I was wrong and misunderstood my colleagues’ point; in fact I illustrated his point, not my own. Similarly, Geffen attempts to accomplish something interesting within Self Made; I’m not sure it entirely works, but it is certainly worth discovering for oneself and reflecting on.
Rating: Three and a half stars.