A clever idea proves to be more than a mere gimmick in the often powerful omnibus “Water,” a follow-up to Tel Aviv U.’s previous collection, “Coffee.” Seven shorts made by nine mostly young helmers use fiction and docu forms to look at Israeli-Palestinian tensions through the universal need for H2O. Four real standouts show up weaknesses in the others, but even the lesser entries tackle the issue with creativity and passion. Fests can confidently dive in, and even international arthouse play could go swimmingly with robust marketing.
Omnibus films rarely display the consistency of quality seen here, no doubt guided by the project’s creator, Yael Perlov. The theme of water is inspired: Its essential qualities are borderless, yet its control and consumption have become another element in the tug-of-war between occupier and occupied. Including fiction and docu in no way compromises the sense of a cohesive initiative, but rather opens it up to greater nuance as well as an increased feeling of surprise.
Two of the strongest entries are nonfiction: Mohammad Fuad’s “The Water Seller” and Ahmad Bargouthi’s “Kareem’s Pool.” Israel allocates water to the Palestinian Territories, which then divvies it out locally — as Abu Firas, the Bethlehem water vendor in “The Water Seller” says, it’s a green light for oppression on the one hand and corruption on the other. He trucks water to Palestinian communities with limited access, often in sight of Israeli settlements whose verdant lawns serve as visual taunts. Shooting with a grainier, more mobile camera than the others, Fuad succinctly captures the iniquities inherent whenever people are treated as unequals.
“Kareem’s Pool” delivers a similar kick in the gut when adults in the Palestinian town of Aboud say they’ve never seen the Mediterranean, less than 20 miles away. Kareem and his Mexican wife returned from Chicago to his hometown, where he runs a pool fed by springs his family’s owned for generations. A haven of refreshing blue water in a sylvan setting, it’s a popular spot with locals but occasional visits by abusive settlers (seen on hidden camera) reinforce the precarious nature of ownership in the West Bank.
Yona Rozenkier’s “Raz and Radja” displays a terrific balance of tension and absurdity as stressed-out soldier Raz (the helmer) is forced to stand guard over Palestinian farmer Radja (Suhel Haddad). Raz is late for an appointment with his shrink and Radja needs to turn off the irrigation waters before his watermelons are flooded, yet the nerve-destroying position of soldier and the exasperation of simply trying to till one’s fields in an occupied zone collide in a fraught, humane manner that avoids cliches.
“Drops” is a perfectly crafted short that also concerns a soldier suffering from stress. Yotam (the superb Yedidia Vital) escapes a skirmish by ducking into a partly ruined building, where droplets from a row of faucets send his mind back to the comforting security of childhood and bathtime. Lensing with hallucinatory intensity, helmer Pini Tavger (better known as a thesp) and d.p. Shai Peleg conjure the haven of a hermetic world constructed through memory.
“Still Waters,” co-directed by Nir Sa’ar and Maya Sarfaty, is a good entry, though it’s clear from the start where it’s going. Tel Aviv twentysomethings Neta (Shimrit Lustig) and Nadav (Tomer Shoov), relax by a secluded spring for a bit of hanky-panky before being interrupted by Palestinian workers heading to jobs in Israel. An edgy silence of mutual distrust is finally broken when Neta gets Nadav to offer the men some bottled water, but simmering resentments can’t be washed away.
The two weakest entries are the most obvious. Noted thesp Mohammad Bakri’s “Eye Drops,” starring sons Saleh and Ziad along with legendary stage actress Miriam Zohar, is based on his own story of renting a home in Tel Aviv next door to a lonely Holocaust survivor. Heavy-handed scripting and sappy incidental music bring down an interesting concept, and the project’s water theme is used in an unsatisfyingly symbolic way. Tal Haring’s “Now and Forever” suffers from a similar degree of overtheatricality in its story of ultra-orthodox Sarah (Bar Sade) freaking out about being alone in the house with male plumber Mohanad (Shady Srour).
Visuals throughout play exceptionally well on the bigscreen, and it’s a pleasure to see so many shorts with a firm understanding of the form. When “Water” preemed in Jerusalem, it had two additional entries, but the slimmer Venice version has a better chance for wider exposure.