Gei Oni, a film by Israeli producer-director Dan Wolman, was shown this weekend at Drexel University as part of the Philadelphia Israeli Film Festival. Wolman introduced the film, and took questions afterward. A film of light or darkness, of wide expanses or of tightly enclosed spaces, the cinematography is gorgeous, and focuses the audience on its major characters, Fania and Yechiel, with its deceptively simple visual palette. Fania arrives in Jaffa from late 19th century Russia with her baby daughter in tow, accompanied by Shuvale Mandelstam, who may be her husband, but later claims to be her uncle. They are fleeing the Russian pogrom, which killed Fania's parents, and which has driven her brother Lolik mad and silenced. They are surprised when their relative in Jerusalem has not come to meet them at the port, and Shuvale travels to Jerusalem — only to find his relative, a newspaper editor, has fallen on hard times — so the new immigrants must rely on the charity of strangers. While Fania waits for Shuvale to return, she meets Yechiel, a recently widowed local farmer with two children from his previous marriage. Yechiel is clearly stricken by Fania's beauty, although he must know she possesses few household skills, when she causes a small explosion while lighting a lantern near the hotel where she waits for Shuvale to return. A marriage is quickly arranged and celebrated, but there is a dark secret which prevents Fania from consummating the relationship. She tells Yechiel that she still mourns the death of her daughter's father. Yechiel decides to accept her reluctance for the time being, and accepts responsibility to support her brother Lolik. Shuvale retires from the scene, and the new family returns to Yechiel's village of Jauni.
Wolman admitted during questioning to a number of interests in making this movie, from the novel Gei Oni by Shulamit Lapid. He wanted to portray a time when Jews actually purchased land from their Arab neighbors. He was interested in the positive romantic aspects of the novel, and did not include Yechiel's death from malaria or Fania's remarriage, as dramatic over-complications. He wanted to portray the different Jewish, Syrian Christian, and Arab Muslim cultures coexisting uncomfortably, with different levels of communication layered by the different practical experiences of male and female experience. As I watched the story unfold, I could not help but see parallels between the story of Fania and Yechiel with the stories of Sarah and Avraham. For so long as they pretended that Sarah was Avraham's sister, the patriarchal couple brought plague to the land of Egypt, where they were sojourning. For so long as Fania kept her secret shame from Yechiel, one misfortune after another befalls the little settlement of Jauni. The Zionist and Biblical patriarchal couples seem equally distant to the modern eye, and both situations are resolved by a return to the Land, the Divine provision of additional people and resources, and the discovery of their mutual love for one another. By the final scene, Yechiel and Fania have brought new life into the world, and the village has begun to produce wheat from their rocky and difficult terrain.
Gei Oni is celebrated as an early feminist Israeli novel. The Jewish Women's Archive describes Lapid's Fania and her place in Israeli literature:
After several collections of short stories, Lapid first gained readers' attention with her popular novel, ... , which was the first Israeli book to be labelled "feminist." Its feminism is, however, displaced, the action taking place in Palestine of the 1890s, thereby establishing a precedent in Israeli fiction for masking feminist protest by historical distancing. Framed in a narrative about first-settlers struggling with a harsh motherland, in a culture that kept gender roles distinct and separate, Lapid's heroine, Fania, stands out in her attempt to cross boundaries. She is both mother and merchant, venturing out on the road alone, even defending herself against armed Arab horsemen when attacked.
The author had a life of her own, and made a family with Tommy Lapid, of blessed memory. Tommy Lapid was a member of the Knesset, and a champion of secular Shinui Party, which fought the influence of haredi restrictions into everyday Israeli life. Later in life, Tommy Lapid directed Yad VaShem: Preserving the Past to Ensure the Future.
Gei Oni had a difficult time finding distribution in Israel, despite Wolman's extensive oeuvre, and his track record at attracting audiences. After being rejected multiple times, Wolman at last found a distributor willing to show his film. When Wolman saw the terms of his contract however, he saw that he might never be paid a cent, after the costs of the distributor (never enumerated) were subtracted off the top. When Wolman asked for a more specific enumeration of costs, or for an estimate of audience head count which might be required to achieve some payback, none was forthcoming. It was then that Wolman decided to arrange for his own private distribution of the film, at theaters who had shown his films in the past. He wrote and emailed everyone he could, and urged his friends to see the film in the first two weeks, explaining his predicament. The guerrilla distribution plan worked, and the film's success in Israel has brought the film here to Philadelphia.
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