- Warriors, Witches, Whores: Women in Israeli Cinema by Rachel S. Harris
Warriors, Witches, Whores: Women in Israeli Cinema
Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2017. 336 pp.
Rachel Harris’s book Warriors, Witches, Whores: Women in Israeli Cinema can be considered an exciting event in Israeli cinema scholarship and, more particularly, in Israeli women’s cinema studies. It comprises eight chapters, grouped into three parts: “Women on the Front Lines: Reconceptualizing War, Militarism, the Conflict, and the Female Soldier”; “Women in the Home Guard: Religion, Ethnicity, and Sexuality”; and “Feminism, Post Feminism, and New Directions in Israeli Feminist Filmmaking.” Each of these could have been a book on its own, if only there had existed an introductory book about women in Israeli cinema. Since such a book does not exist, Harris has undertaken the complex mission of writing it. And the mission is indeed challenging.
Similarly to previous books written about Israeli cinema, such as Ella Shohat’s Israeli Cinema: History and Ideology (1989) and Nurith Gertz’s The Israeli Novel and Its Adaptation on Screen (1991), Harris’s book, with a few exceptions, deals only with feature films and mostly elaborates upon issues of representation. Israeli documentaries directed by women, which became prominent in the 1990s—the same decade that brought women filmmakers to the foreground of Israeli cinema—have yet to be investigated sufficiently, and one wonders about the authorial choice to leave them in the margins.
Another questionable authorial choice is Harris’s decision not to differentiate between women’s filmmaking and their representation on screen, which makes her mission much more complicated. Women have always existed on the Land of Israel screen, even before the establishment of the State of Israel: In pre-State cinema, one could see Bedouin women crossing the desert, in images intended to contribute to an exotic representation of the old-new landscape. However, the moment Israeli cinema became more aware of its Zionist mission of teaching the various immigrants about their new place and its history, gender depictions became more complex.
Part 1 of the book, “Women on the Front Lines,” deals with the Israeli–Palestinian conflict as framed by representation of women soldiers and of Palestinian women. [End Page 171] The complicated relationship between Israeli women and the Israel Defense Forces (the IDF) is considered a major gender issue in Israeli sociology. In Israeli cinema, it is translated into sometimes provocative representations of women in uniform, women carrying weapons and, no less important, women waiting for their soldier husbands/sons to return from the front. As Israeli women filmmakers began to produce their own films, often in response to the dominant cinematic narrative, they included women soldiers with a higher awareness of their particular situation in the patriarchal military. Indeed, Harris devotes a large sub-chapter to Talya Lavie’s successful film Zero Motivation (2014), concluding that in this film, “each rejection of military orders, each attempt to exert personal wills and desires over the professional environment and each act of disobedience becomes a form of resistance to the pervasive dominance of Israeli military hegemony, and by extension the masculinity of Israeli society” (p. 82).
Part 2 bears the provocative title “Religion, Ethnicity and Sexuality.” Its heroine is undoubtedly the Mizrahi woman, whose film representation has recently become a significant subject of research (partly thanks to the work of Raz Yosef, which is widely quoted). But who is this Mizrahi woman? What myths influence her cinematic existence, and what hegemonic restrictions were imposed upon her representation? When did she become relevant to Israeli cinema’s consideration? Curiously, however, since Harris does not differentiate between films about women and films made by women, she ignores one of the most important Israeli women’s films, “Sh’chur” (Hanna and Shmuel Azoulay Hasfari, 1994), which still remains the ultimate Mizrahi woman’s bildungsroman.
Harris does write extensively about the representation of women prostitutes, providing a thorough analysis of several of the major films that have engaged with this issue, including some that have hardly ever been discussed previously, such as Menahem Golan’s Eldorado (1962). In this context, her discussion of Keren Yedaya’s Or, My...