At the opening night of the New York Jewish Film Festival, the New York premiere of the luminous Moon in the 12th House kicked off the festivities at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Marking the 26th opening of the NYJFF, a partnership between the Jewish Museum and Film Society of Lincoln Center, a special screening featuring director Dorit Hakim, actress Yuval Scharf and producer Leelu Shira—all from Israel—gave the film’s intimate exploration of the relationship between sisters and the nature of forgiveness center stage.
In keeping with NYJFF’s commitment to expanding the narrative of global Jewish cinema, Moon in the 12th House challenges conventions of what an “Israeli” film might be. Contrary to what might be expected from a region so infused with politics, the film avoids those issues entirely and focuses instead on the complex relationship between two sisters on different paths and the painful history that binds them.
Mira, the wilder, rebellious older sister living on the edge of Tel Aviv nightlife, finds herself summoned home by her younger sister, the internalized and introverted Lenny, as their father becomes critically ill. After their mother had passed away at an early age, the sisters were raised as young girls by an emotionally abusive stepmother. The complicated history with that relationship drove them apart in their adult lives. Their father’s sickness provides an imperfect premise for a powerful reunion in which they must reconcile.
On a snowy January morning in New York before the NYJFF premier, the film’s director and writer Dorit Hakim—a graduate of the Sam Spiegel School of Film and Televison in Jerusalem—said the film was emotionally similar to her childhood in some respects, but not autobiographical. She too lost her mother at a young age, and had a sister (along with two brothers), but the focus for Hakim in the film is how one makes peace with the past to move towards the future.
The film has a distinctively feminine narrative exploring issues of motherhood, sisterhood and female sexuality against a background of home. The women agreed it was a pleasure to collaborate on set.
“The communication between us was profound, and much of it was unspoken. We instinctively understood each other, and it was wonderful to have that, “ Hakim reflected.
The story also gave her an opportunity as an Israeli filmmaker to go beyond what is seen typically in Israeli films. “Israeli cinema often focuses on the political made personal—stories of the army, stories about the conflict, about religion. I wanted to make a movie that could be set anywhere—a human drama.”
Israel is a rich source of inspiration for the filmmaker. “You’d need to be blind not to see the stories in Israel—they are everywhere,” said Hakim. “But for me this film made me be patient to see it unfold.”
Yuval Scharf, who plays the fiery Mira in the film, was also featured in Joseph Cedar’s Academy Award nominated Footnote (2011). The feminine collective was a special aspect of the production for her as well. “As an actor it’s wonderful to have stories written by women for women, there’s a richness there. The movie is about heartbreak and forgiveness. [Mira] goes from darkness to light. The sisters are getting rid of the guilt that controls their lives.”
The astrology theme in the film came to Hakim because she saw Mira as having no grounding in her childhood. “She looks to the stars to understand chaos.”
One unexpected—and decidedly happy—surprise during filming came in Scharf’s pregnancy with her son, who is now nearly two. Scharf learned she was pregnant during production.
“There was a night where we were filming in Tel Aviv. There were sirens that summer, and Yuval had to run down a street in stilettos,” Hakim remembers. “I don’t know which made me more nervous—her running in heels while pregnant, or filming around the air sirens.”
The enthusiastic reception to the film internationally has been heartening for all three women. In her interactions with Hollywood, producer Leelu Shira said she often hears from American producers that stories originating in Israel resonate because Israel is home to such a diverse population with multiple cultures. She also praised the Israeli government for specifically working to offer grants to women filmmakers, and says now, in her experience, there are many more women behind the camera and making decisions as well.
Hakim, Scharf and Shira all agreed that film festivals such as NYJFF, are an important global platform to help films cross oceans. From a movie named after an alignment of the stars, Moon in the 12th House is working its way to enthusiastic reviews around the world.
The 2017 New York Jewish Film Festival runs through January 24. Schedule and tickets at nyjff.org.