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Night Two of the Washington Jewish Film Festival: Third Person & Shtisel Season Two

The second night of the Washington Jewish Film Festival offered several choices in several locations including the Landmark West End Cinema. First up was the moving documentary, Third Person about people who are intersex and living in Israel. The film, directed by Sharon Luzon, focuses on two people, Suzan and Ofer, both of whom represent the diversity of the country even though both are outsiders and living on the margins. Suzan is a Muslim woman who at age 35 finds out she was born with male and female parts and her parents decided then that she'd be female. Ofer, on the hand is a Spanish speaking Orthodox Jew whose parents decided not to remove any organs at birth. Ofer then undergoes surgery to make his body match his identity (although this proves to be complex). At the start of the film, the two don't know each other but become friends in part because Suzan starts a support group and seeks to educate the Israeli public about this misunderstood group of people. 

The film has several poignant and powerful moments. One such moment comes when Suzan covers herself up, pulls out her prayer rug, gets down on her knees, prays, and cries as she asks God for help. Up until that moment, Suzan's religion isn't apparent even though she speaks Arabic. Like Baba Joon, this film showcases many of the languages spoken in Israel. When Suzan is meeting with doctors and other Israelis in an official capacity, she speaks Hebrew, but with her parents and with a faceless friend who is also intersex, Suzan speaks Arabic. Likewise, Ofer speaks Spanish and his Hebrew is close to nil, despite being a religious Jew. The film shows him praying in Hebrew and getting by, but most of his scenes, particularly with his female best friend/sister surrogate, are in Spanish. Another powerful moment comes when Suzan and Ofer meet and walk through the Old City in Jerusalem. They make their way to the Western Wall and watch as the men pray on one side while the women pray on the other. Both Suzan and Ofer have mixed feelings about this (and about their own identities) and agree that they are first and foremost human beings and then after that maybe some of the other labels that divide people (Jew, Muslim, Israeli, Palestinian) can be applied, but are ultimately not helpful. Each person faces different challenges, ranging from family acceptance to self-acceptance and beyond. 

While it isn't clear exactly where Suzan and Ofer live, they are close to the Mediterranean Sea and there are hints to them being in Haifa, a city known for its diversity. Director Luzon shows the sea and uses it as a calming device, particularly for Suzan and her Arabic speaking friend who remains faceless. Suzan leads the charge to educate Israeli doctors and policy makers. It is incredible how much ignorance there is, especially for a country as liberal as Israel. The fact of the matter is, most people (in the world) do not understand the complexities of being intersex, and even within the LGBTQ community, there's a lot of confusion and intolerance. There aren't even many films about the topic (2007's XXY comes to mind but that's it) and so a film like Third Person is that much more crucial. It is interesting to note that the film's Hebrew title, Guf Shlishi translates to "third body", which seems more appropriate and relevant to the topic. Other than that misnomer, the film itself is sweet, personal, and important. 

Next was the first three episodes of season 2 of the hit Israeli TV series, Shtisel. There is much to be said about Shtisel, which follows the titular family of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim/Geula neighborhoods as they navigate the complexities of life and relationships. It is easy to see why the show is so popular in Israel and abroad, and why it makes for compelling viewing. The series juggles many characters and humanizes this subset of a subset of a population that is often misunderstood and misrepresented. WhatShtisel brings to the table is excellent production values and strong writing and acting. This community has minimal representation and when it does, it often comes from the outside and is slanted negatively. That is not to say that Shtisel shies away from portraying some characters negatively. Part of why it is so successful and interesting is because it offers up complex character portraits similar to American and British shows with sprawling casts like The Good Wife and Downton Abbey, where characters are allowed to act like real people who do good and bad things. The creative team behind the show is also diverse and includes Uri Alon and Yehonatan Indursky along with talent such as famous Israeli Arab writer Sayed Kashua. 

Aside from offering up a complex and intimate look at Haredi Jews, Shtisel's characters are so fascinating. There's stubborn patriarch Shulem, youngest son and perpetually lost Akiva, tragic sister Giti who is stuck in a difficult marriage with careless and selfish Lippe, their obstinate and fearless eldest daughter Ruchami (who is probably the most interesting character of the entire series), and grandmother Malka who is stuck in a nursing home and takes up watching American soap operas on her clandestine television (oh the scandal!). There are several other interesting side characters and Shtisel manages to roll out new people quite organically. From a banished sister who lives up north (because she shockingly switched religious sect), to the mysterious divorcee Elisheva that Akiva is obsessed with, to cousin and possible love interest Libby, to Shulem's awful brother Nuchem, to Akiva and Giti's devout brother Tzvi Aryeh, and more, the show has a talent for branching out and expanding this insular world in a believable and interesting way. It is unclear how or when Shtisel will resolve itself but the journey is quite addictive. If you aren't watching this show, you should be.