In Israeli helmer Eytan Harris’ astounding docu “As Lilith,” a teenager’s suicide sets off a witch-hunt of medieval proportions as an ultra-orthodox religious organization battles a self-proclaimed descendant of the lost city of Atlantis for possession of the corpse. In a case of truth proving stranger than fiction, outlandish events unfold directly in front of Harris’ camera as both sides seek to recruit the filmmaker to promote their respective causes. Harris masterfully constructs his film for maximum suspense and mind-boggling surrealism while maintaining a matter-of-fact, on-the-fly reporting style. Theatrical distribution will require careful handling, but tube play seems assured.
After her 14-year-old daughter, Meytar, hangs herself, Lilith Saraf moves to have her cremated, since her fringe religion demands that no trace of the departed remain on earth. Her legal, albeit non-traditional, choice is contested by Zaka, the religious organization that controls Israel’s death industry, which insists on proper Jewish burials.
Zaka wages a court battle, roping in Saraf’s estranged ex-husband to legitimize its claim, but when legal means fail, the org resorts to more extreme measures. Harris gains access to Zaka’s strategy meetings, where members first hypothesize that Saraf drove her daughter to suicide, then speculate that she might have murdered her outright. With the help of a fanatical reporter, Yoav Etiel, they spread sensationalistic rumors, including allegations that Meytar’s older brother, who has returned home to support his mother, physically and sexually abused his sister.
Soon the confrontational Saraf, who has already spooked neighbors with her pagan dances and rituals, and her barefoot, bra-less, witchy look, is treated like a murderer by passersby who shout imprecations, invade her property and throw stones.
But Saraf’s peculiarities pale beside the furor Zaka unleashes as things come to a head.
Harris only gradually and indirectly doles out the real facts behind Meytar and her death. He follows the reporter on his self-serving crusade to reveal the truth, but the more the tabloid journalist probes, the more the evidence flatly contradicts his lurid theories. Finally, we hear posthumously from Meytar herself as Lilith convenes her daughter’s classmates to deliver the surprisingly upbeat suicide notes Meytar left to each of her friends.
In its dissection of a passion-inflaming case that is vaguely reminiscent of the Terri Schiavo imbroglio in the U.S., “As Lilith” dramatically demonstrates the grotesque lengths taken by religious fundamentalists to intrude into private matters of mortality.