By Marshall Shaffer
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem
The protagonist and heroine of “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” may have her name in the title, but that could very well be the only advantage she possesses in the film. Take the first scene, for example. As Viviane seeks a divorce in court from her husband Elisha, all the other participants mention her several times in the first few minutes – yet she remains off-camera entirely. Elisha even delivers a line directly to her, and he just looks right into the lens.
Brother/sister writing and directing team Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz use “Gett” as an exploration of the ways in which women are degraded and disrespected in Israeli society. Patriarchy is not just institutionalized – it’s codified in law. When Viviane (played by the co-writer and director Ronit) and her lawyer present their petition for separation, the three male judges deciding the future of her union clearly have no intention of really listening to what she has to say. Any intents and declarations professed by a male receive obvious privilege in their eyes.
The entire two-hour film takes place inside the walls of the courtroom, a single location conceit starts off interesting but gradually grows somewhat tiring. Some of the fatigue sets in because, surprisingly, the Elkabetz siblings do all their table-turning on the witnesses brought in to testify. Normally, in a courtroom drama, the audience vacillates in opinion on the plaintiff and the defendant as new evidence brings about a clearer picture of each.
Even in spite of its flaws, “Gett” still makes a compelling watch for its fierce feminism alone. Hearing such sexist remarks as “Know your place, woman” is painful enough, but observing Viviane’s relative silence in the face of such misogyny speaks volumes – especially when compared to all the long-winded men in the room. She usually maintains a stoic facade, occasionally captured in a long take by the camera, and rarely breaks it.
Mostly, though, Viviane is just caught quietly registering the words of all the males around her and feeling a sense of hopelessness. What chance does she have to fight for her own happiness in a world where a man’s flimsy word is stronger than a woman’s firm willpower? Her occasional outbreaks, forcefully and urgently argued by Ronit Elkbaetz, feel rousing and righteous as a result.
The documentary “Ballet 422” follows the process of the only person concurrently serving as dancer and choreographer in the New York City ballet, Justin Peck, as he mounts a new production. But unlike the average non-fiction film, director Jody Lee Lipes features no talking heads – at least not ones commenting on the events from the privileged position of hindsight.
His editing style shows how the minutiae and tiny little components of the rehearsal process amass and eventually cohere into a ballet. Lipes devotes several minutes to showing how a staff member works to get the right shade of blue for the costumes. This is the kind of scene that would normally be left on the cutting room floor, yet in “Ballet 422,” it feels compelling and necessary.
At times, the documentary flirts with the self-indulgence of a “making of” film that would be a DVD extra for a recording of the ballet itself. Yet, for the most part, Lipes resists succumbing to some easy trappings of such nonfictional pieces. By showing rather than telling, he indicates a level of trust in the viewers’ power to adequately process what they observe.
Perhaps most refreshingly, there is no tacked-on biography of Peck as a person. “Ballet 422″ defines him simply by his work in the studio and nothing more. It is definitely heartening to see a documentary so fully committed to a single focal point, although the almost inevitable downside of such an approach is the alienation of those outside such a tiny niche. Still, I found the film mostly fascinating – and with a 70 minute runtime, the film certainly does not overstay its welcome.
Both of these films are opening at a/perture cinema downtown on Friday. Find tickets & showtimes HERE.
Marshall Shaffer is a senior at Wake Forest University specializing in film and media studies. He has been writing film reviews and other cinematic commentary on his blog Marshall and the Movies since 2009, and his work has also been syndicated on The Christian Science-Monitor. He keeps going through it because he needs the eggs. You can read more of his reviews HERE.