Since the last 15 years or so, cinema from Israel, has been getting a lot more recognition globally – in terms of prestigious awards and academic courses revolving around it. When I mentioned to a friend in Georgia (Eastern Europe) that I was about to write an article on an Israeli film, she told me that courses revolving around Cinema from Israel had suddenly become popular since 2008-09 in cinema schools there.
‘Or’ (My Treasure) is a 2004 intense drama film starring Dana Ivgy in the title role of ‘Or’. ‘Or’ is this teenager who tries to take on the responsibility of her mother in most ways that a mother would, for a child that age. In the case of this drama, it is especially about ‘Or’ trying to keep her prostitute mother ‘Ruthie’ (Played by Ronit Elkabetz) away from the dark abyss of prostitution. Ronit Elkabetz is also among one of the country’s renowned directors and screenwriters.
The French-Israeli production premiered on May 14, 2004, at the Cannes film festival. It impressively won the debutant director ‘Keren Yedaya’ the “Caméra d'Or” at Cannes. (The “Camera d’Or” translates as the ‘Golden Camera’ award, and it is a prize category that was created in 1978 and specifically for the best first feature film).
The film is replete with still long shots that underscore the harrowing daily life of the teenage ‘Or’ and her prostitute mother, Ruthie. The film starts with the 16-year-old picking up her mother from the hospital in a completely no nonsense and no fuss manner and before the audience can process this, she locks her mother inside their apartment. Routine is harsh and ‘Or’ almost immediately leaves for work at a restaurant managed by her young boyfriend’s family. So while Or’s legitimate job is juggling between nights in a neighborhood restaurant and managing her high school student life – what really is her 24*7 unspoken job is her mother, Ruthie.
The camera hardly moves from the characters and their immediate jobs at hand. The camera follows ‘Or’ whether she is washing dishes or doing the sweeping and mopping at home or at the workplace. The camera loves both the daughter and the mother. It follows the daughter getting home from a hard day’s work. A daughter obsessed with the mother and her medication. One slip and she knows her mother might go downhill – not just health wise but also get seduced back to the life of a street walker. These shots establish the tenderness in the relationship between mother and daughter – both on the lookout for each other silently. The protectiveness is never verbalized. ‘Or’ keeps trying to keep her mother away from the streets. She has already had an agonizing 20 years of street walk prostitution. On her return from hospital, Ruthie is at the bottom – messed up, vulnerable and devoid of survival skills. ‘Or’ is the one witnessing her mother does not have a date turn up and the disappointment that ensues. It is almost like a role reversal for one rarely sees single mothers confiding about romantic issues and sexual desires to their daughters in this manner.
Ruthie’s prostitution is compulsive as much as it is about surviving. And this compulsiveness makes her go on a self-destructive spree. There is a mind-numbing scene which remains ‘The scene’ for me. The scene that haunts. It is when Ruthie comes home with blood between her legs – ‘Or’ takes her and cleans her up. Never spoken about but the implication of course is the disrespect and unwanted sexual excess from a client.
‘Or’ (My treasure) uses the body parts to show hurt – literal and much beyond. The blood trickling down Ruthie’s legs is stark representation of male aggression and violation. In contrast is the scene of young ‘Or’ in the bathtub. Nubile and fresh – the body is preparing her for all that she will be subjected to. The film starts with one body and soul hurt and ends with the other protagonist hurt in a similar space.
There is a great deal of cleansing in the film. ‘Or’ vigorously washes dishes with a great deal of attention. In a particular scene after a fight with her mother, she is scrubbing the apartment. Then of course there is the scene of gently bathing her mother after a particularly rough night outside. Ruthie, at the other end, lives in their apartment in a mess. She can barely make it to work and does so with tremendous lack of enthusiasm. She has scant interest in cleaning the home of her new employer. ‘Or’ keeps doing the cleaning, Ruthie keeps messing up. The attempts to sanitize can’t change things around for Ruthie, no matter how much ‘Or’ tries.
Look closely at the shower scenes to see the poverty these women are accustomed to. During a shower, they plug the drain with their soiled laundry and then go on to wash their clothes with the suds from the shampoo they freshly rinse out of their hair.
‘Or’ is herself exploring first love and shedding her innocence. Her story of self-discovery runs parallel with her seemingly inexhaustible energy in getting her mother to straighten up. She gets involved with the cook Ido (Meshar Cohen) of the restaurant where she works and ends up sleeping with him. His mother, Rachel (Katia Zinbris), knows that her son harbors feelings for ‘Or’ and guesses they have been intimate. Ruthie feels they are good together but his mother seems to think otherwise. The boy’s mother says it in almost so many words to ‘Or’. “You are always welcome to our place etc…” The subtext is rather obvious. The realization for ‘Or’ is that she is perceived to be sexually of her mother’s lineage. It hits her hard and she seems to withdraw. Her school councilor senses something amiss and wants to help but ‘Or’ is by now transforming into something else.
The inherent softness despite all of Or’s hardships and trying to get her mother on the straight path is now almost all gone. She had tried a lot. Ruthie couldn’t take to the daily routine of a cleaning lady. It is as if after two decades of a night job, the body can’t take this sanitizing job in broad daylight. Her body revolts almost as a reflex action. The fact that she couldn’t get her mother to do a regular job shows that things like this can’t be forced. It is not without a good deal of observation of such people that authors and film makers have woven novels and films around the general perception that you can’t turn back from a life of crime or prostitution. Or’s repeated attempts however, to get her mother’s act together strains their relationship. In softer moments before the relationship goes spiraling down, the two women shared the intimacy of showering together. There is a tender moment of sleeping under one blanket two. This was as near equals till Ruthie went on a self-destructive mode… till Or’s shoulders bore the role reversal for as much as she could – till she too crumbled under pressure.
When Ruthie defaults in the rent payments for their shabby apartment, she offers the landlord sexual favors in return. This is the way her world has worked. She was perhaps numbed years back and the exploitation so routine that she put no thought to it anymore. She is also struggling with withdrawal symptoms. This life that the audience finds so painfully exploitative is the only one she has ever known for more than half her life.
The cycle of such a job is brief and youth and young bodies are eternally in demand in the market. It is disturbing when the landlord refuses to have sex with Ruthie and is eyeing the daughter. At some point the wicket will fall is his crude assessment from the way he eyes ‘Or’.
‘Or’ rings the landlord’s doorbell and he asks for rent. She brazenly walks into his place and coldly strips. He can’t control his excitement and climaxes just holding her in his arms. There is a close
Close-up of ‘Or’. She has this look – vulnerability gone, seemingly detached as she mechanically lets him finish ‘his job’.
This cuts to a scene when the New ‘Or’ is there, loud, and clear for us to see. Cigarette bonding with girlfriends as she laughs and tells them how easy it was. “...And I take off my T-Shirt. I don’t have to lift a finger; he just jerks off…’’ They all laugh. The old ‘Or’ of innocence and first love is now too far gone.
Across not just Israel or West Asia but across most of Asia, there has been a growing ‘draining out’ of the rural environment and the urban is fast becoming the normative mode of existence. In cinema too, the city is dominant in representation of prostitutes. Most of the film ‘Or’ is set indoors. The film has an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. The scenes move within an apartment that is so cluttered, it barely gives space for mother and daughter to breathe. There is grim Kitchen sink realism and the only way the characters are progressing is towards a road of no U-turn, moving straight into endless gloom and irreparable soul damage. The politics and the psychology of the mother and daughter relationships play up and down.
An interesting observation of the neighborhood is how remarkably accepting the friends and neighbors are of Ruthie’s profession. It is a profession like any other and has been normalized as no one bats an eyelid at the mother-daughter duo. There are no objections if the professional doesn’t get mixed with the personal. When the rule was broken as Ido and ‘Or’ got serious about their relationship, the corresponding disapproval happened – immediately!
The climax opens only one door for ‘Or’ as she joins an escort service – a door of no return. There is a scene when mother and daughter are both readying for their respective nights out. ‘Or’ has tears streaming down her cheeks seeing her mother dress up for getting picked up in the street. Ruthie says “pretty dress” when she sees ‘Or’ get dressed and notices new shoes. Then ‘Or’ runs after her mother to stop her from going out in the streets. It is as if to say, ‘I am doing it now and can take care of you’.
The city is Tel Aviv and though a lot has been written about the fact that the director was interested in the women and their conflicts and struggles in Tel Aviv – but somehow nothing that seems Tel Aviv comes through. What comes through is the bonding between these two women and the exploitative men – nothing specifically to do with the character of the city. It is generally their marginalized lives. So, the politics of the film is universal in that sense.
The director Keren Yedaya’s debut made a mark internationally and she has said this was an extremely important first for her as a feminist and activist, and as a member of several women’s rights movements. At the end of the day, it remains more a poignant and gut-wrenching story of the mother daughter relationship. Those looking for a larger context – political economy of prostitution, sources of oppression or simply a broader social framework in which the director places the two troubled protagonists and their sexual histories, might find something amiss.
My treasure is a film mentioned constantly whenever shifts in representation of women in the cinema of Israel is discussed. The earliest cinema from their country, as was the case for most of world cinema, had women play a secondary role. They had little to say and do in terms of showing us their stories. Narratives were seldom autobiographical or even remotely the voices of women. The women in their cinema were typically objects of male gaze in a patriarchal construct. Wherever the Zionist ideology of equality of men and women was represented, it was certainly not so, in their cinema.
The shift in representation of women in cinema of Israel was spearheaded by a lot of women film makers. They brought in complex human relationships to the core of the narrative and moved beyond gender stereotypes and in doing so they liberated the women characters and stories.
Rotem Yosef in ‘Recycled Wounds: Trauma, Gender, and Ethnicity in Keren Yedaya's Or, My Treasure’ talks of the trauma that is brought out in the few days shown in the film. Yosef dwells on the relationship between trauma, gender, and ethnicity in this Israeli film. The ethnic, class, and gender oppression of the ‘Mizrahi’ (Jew from a central or West Asian country) female subject stirs a disturbing experience that is shown through the film's narrative and its cinematic tools. In fact, the nature of the trauma is so routine and every day that it is internalized, and it never transforms into a post-traumatic memory. So, the trauma gets repeated and again. Finally, the trauma is transferred from the mother to the daughter.
‘Or’ might not have a broader context in which it is placed, but it still remains a very strong indictment of present-day street prostitution. It is not your film with an overt message. It doesn’t need to be. The intense drama manages to bring out the dehumanizing slavery in the form that it exists today in the neoliberal state. The film has a non-preachy take on the subject and the narrative is deeply empathetic. The realism doesn’t offer you any escape and you go back home, carrying with you the dread and sense of doom that permeates the air for both the protagonists. It is one of the films where nobody comes out unscathed-especially the audience.
Vandana Kumar is Delhi based teacher of French, translator and interpreter, an internationally published poet whose works have been published in several anthologies and an avid cinema lover.