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Review: The Stars of Stern


- French-Israeli journalist and film critic Gad Abittan makes his film debut with this very personal documentary about an issue of broad social significance

Review: The Stars of Stern

French-Israeli journalist and film critic Gad Abittan debuts as a director with The Stars of Stern [+see also:
film profile
, which has just world-premiered in the Krakow Film Festival's documentary competition. Having started making the film in 2008, he chronicles the changes in the titular neighbourhood in the Kiryat HaYovel district in south-western Jerusalem. 

Born in Morocco, Abittan moved to Israel as a child and was at first puzzled by the almost ferocious devotion to practising religion in the Promised Land, so different to what he had experienced in North Africa. In the 1960s, he moved to Stern, which was built during the previous decade to house thousands of refugees from Arab countries. 

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It was not a pretty place, says one of his neighbours, a Brit who also bought an apartment there because it was cheap. There were a lot of drugs and crime, but gradually, the decent, civilised inhabitants made it liveable and relatively prosperous over time, through solidarity and dedicated teamwork.

As we meet Abittan's various neighbours, from the unnamed Cat Lady to a loving mother with a son suffering from Down syndrome, via the fellow Moroccan-born Moshe, who walks around in pyjamas and speaks way too loudly, and an old Russian couple who would still rather speak Russian than Hebrew, new changes are taking hold of the neighbourhood: an influx of ultra-Orthodox Jews. 

The newcomers are buying apartments in Stern, and the natives are not happy: this means that the small flats will be adapted with ugly, makeshift extensions to accommodate the ultra-Orthodox's numerous children, that the street will be closed on the Sabbath, and that their secular way of life is in grave danger.

The natives stage protests, but the state, and therefore the municipality, is on the side of the ultra-Orthodox. There are constant verbal clashes between the old and the new inhabitants in the building that Abittan films, and only one couple among the newcomers allow him to interview them in their new flat.

The whole film was shot by Abittan with his basic, always hand-held camera, and he is also the narrator. While this definitely gives the movie an unpolished, lo-fi feel, it also puts the viewer in the shoes of the filmmaker as a person directly affected by what amounts to getting kicked out of his own house for good. 

Abittan's off-screen observations and the background information he provides, in his very particular, deep voice that does not always fully manage to hide his emotions (and is all the more poignant for it), make the film also feel very intimate and private. But the issue he tackles has a much wider significance, and not only for Israel – it is part of a global trend that is impossible to ignore, and even such a small contribution to the resistance to the growing threat is valuable.

The Stars of Stern is virtually a one-man show: Abittan produced it himself and is also in charge of distributing the film, although he was also able to count on the skills of editor Gilad Inbar, and cinematographers Itay Ben EzraBenjamin Huguet and Rotem Azulay.

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