Dafna and Yair on the Mt Carmel underground funicular railway
Dafna and Yair on the Mt Carmel underground funicular railway

As a contrast to the overtly political films (in the sense that they directly address the Israeli-Arab conflict in some way) Waltz With Bashir and Lemon Tree in recent posts, I thought it might be a good idea to look at a different kind of Israeli film.

Broken Dreams looks at first like a familiar social realist family drama. Its distinctiveness is at first apparent only because of its setting. After a short while, however, it is clear that the film looks and feels different. Its soundtrack and cluttered mise en scène draw on the youth picture and the family melodrama as we meet the members of a dysfunctional family in the port city of Haifa. The narrative plunges straight into a series of crises involving each of the family members without filling in any background so that we must struggle to understand the situation. 17 year-old Maya is enjoying the last night before the start of a new school year. She is scheduled to sing her own composition in a competition for young bands, but finds herself called home to look after her younger brother, Ido (10) and sister 6 year-old Bahri because her mother Dafna is on the night shift as a midwife in the local hospital. The morning is chaos as Maya tries to get the children to school. Her other brother Yair is no help at all – summoned to see the school ed psych because of his refusal to attend classes and truanting to give out leaflets for a night club dressed as a giant mouse. Dafna lurches from one missed appointment to another in her battered car that won’t start. Things can only get worse.

Eventually the audience wakes up to the fact that not only is the father missing, but that we don’t know what happened to him. Besides the two brothers there are three other males in the narrative. Maya has a classmate who thinks he is in love with her and an older boy whose band she deserted the night of her big break. Meanwhile Dafna runs into Valentin, a doctor at the hospital who has just returned from California. Valentin could be a surrogate father figure, but he is introduced as a clumsy man and doesn’t immediately impress as being able to sort out the mess.

I’ve no wish to give away plot details for what is a well-acted and affecting little melodrama (only 80 mins). For a first time writer-director, Nir Bergman does an impressive job in getting performances out of his young cast and creating an air of tension and fragile hope for a better tomorrow. Several commentators have reported that the film made them ‘blub’ and I understand this. Like most audiences, I took the film to be non-political, but I did spend time trying to think what made the film ‘Israeli’. I was struck by the physical appearance of the actors. Maya Maron is incredibly pale with raven hair and in the open scene is still wearing the angel’s gossamer wings from her abortive singing debut (a reference to Olivia Hussey in Baz Luhrman’s Romeo+ Juliet?). (Presumably the film’s title refers to the difficulty the children have growing up – their wings appear to be broken.) Yair seems to be a typical young Israeli man – even down to his skill with a basketball. With his cropped hair and wire-framed glasses I can see him on Army service. Dafna and Valentin look like they might be descended from Russian immigrants (according to Wikipedia, a significant element in the population of Haifa). But apart from this there is only the tension and fragility created to a large extent by the editing that suggests the story is set in a country which might have experienced recent direct conflict. We do find out what happened to father – but his disappearance is not the result of any kind of conflict.

I might have been satisfied just to enjoy the melodrama, but I did a bit of digging and discovered the missing ‘link’. According to Jan Lisa Huttner, an American blogger who interviewed the director, the missing father is symbolic:

JLH: When Broken Wings begins, a mother and her four children are in mourning. The father is dead, but we don’t see any pictures of him, or any flashbacks that tell us who he is. I think “the father” is Yitzhak Rabin [the Israeli Prime Minister who was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish zealot in 1995]. Am I wrong about this?

Nir Bergman: No, no, you are not wrong at all. In a lot of ways this film is personal to me. It came from personal materials (about my parents divorce). But in the process of making the film, it became clear that this family can give you a picture of our world today. Since this murder, Israel is an orphaned country. Rabin’s death influenced me very strongly. (View the whole interview here.)

I remember the Rabin assassination but I had to look up the details. Is Bergman making a political point? I think so, even if not directly. Thinking through the film and replaying it with the family as a metaphor for a secure Israel at peace is revealing. I watched the film on a UK DVD, admittedly from the bargain bin, but there must be copies around. It dates from the time when BBC4 TV in the UK was attempting to support international cinema. It should do this more often.