May 30, 2004, Updated September 13, 2012

Israeli director Keren Yedaya holds her Camera d’Or Award for her film ‘Or’ (Mon Tresor) presented at the 57th Cannes Film Festival. (Photo: Reuters)Israeli filmmaker Keren Yedaya’s reaction to winning won the Golden Camera award for best film by a first-time director at the 57th Cannes Festival last week was one of sheer disbelief.

She had not imagined that a film about a Tel Aviv prostitute in failing health and her teenage daughter had a chance to triumph in the prestigious international competition. The surprise was so complete that she hadn’t even brought eveningwear with her for the formal awards ceremony, and so accepted the honor in the clothes she had worn that day.

As she was awarded the prize by jury head Tim Roth for the film, called Or, Yedaya said: “I would like to say a big thank-you because it’s not easy to choose a film like mine. This proves to me that people want things to change. I want to dedicate this film, from the bottom of my heart, to all the people who are not free, to all those living in slavery.”

The film tells the story of a mother and daughter: Ruthie, an aging prostitute whose mental and physical condition is deteriorating. Although she promises her 17-year-old daughter Or that she will leave her profession, but she is incapable of doing so. The film stars actresses Ronit Elkabetz and Dana Ivgy.

For Yedaya, making the film was not merely an artistic endeavor, it was part of a cause that is close to her heart. Yedaya has worked with former prostitutes and those working to get out of the profession, and has lectures about the problems of prostitution to government officials and mental-health professionals. She said that she hopes to use the prize money to help build a halfway house for women trying to get out of prostitution.

“For many years I’ve been working with disadvantaged youth and with women who are trying to escape from the world of prostitution,” she told the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot in Cannes. “A portion of the profits from this film will go towards this goal.”

She has always viewed her profession as a means to a political end.

“From a young age I decided that I couldn’t imagine a life without a political and social commitment and responsibility. When I began making films, I decided that my films were going to be about people that we generally don’t like to see – people who are invisible in our society. One of the problems with the feminist revolution has been the marginalization of women who are living in extreme poverty. I am trying to give these women a voice. They are my friends, I care about them, and they need a home.”

Yedaya absorbed her deep artistic commitment from her parents. Born in 1972 in New York, to Israeli art students – her father is a photographic artist and her mother a painter and a writer – the family returned to Israel when she was three years old, and then lived all over the country in a style that she describes as “nomadic.”

“From my parents I had an example of what it is to be an artist, including the material sacrifices involved. I learned from them the meaning of the work ethic – I saw them going to the studio every morning to create art and not for a paycheck at the end of the month. That is why I am able to wake up in the morning, and sit down and write for eight hours.”

She is far more interested in politics and social change than in the glitz and glamour of the commercial movie world.

“Hollywood doesn’t interest me. I want to create socially relevant films,” she said. In an interview with Israel Radio, Yedaya said that she hopes her next stop is the Jerusalem Film Festival.

A graduate of Israel’s Camera Obscura school, where she began studying film at age 16, Yedaya has previously directed several short films, including Lulu and Les Dessous, dividing her time and her work between France and Israel.
She won a grant to develop the script for Or from the Mediterranean Film Festival, which takes place annually in Montepellier, France. The film was jointly produced by a French and Israeli company, and was financed by the Film Project of the Rabinowitz Tel Aviv Fund and the cable companies’ “Films From Here” project.

Of her award-winning first feature, film critic Uri Klein wrote in Ha’aretz that “the mother-daughter role reversal is the most heartwarming and complex element of the film, which indicates it is a work well-anchored in the practical and theoretical feminist consciousness.”

What makes the film unique, Klein wrote, is the way in which Yedaya chose to film it. “The film is entirely comprised of long and static shots. The camera does not move even once, and the film refrained from the traditional editing that runs from long shots to close-ups and so on. The film also does not have an accompanying soundtrack,” Klein noted.

According to Klein, Or is “a unique and heartwarming movie that indicates the arrival of a new talent on the Israeli film scene.”
In her acceptance remarks in Cannes, Yedaya was deeply critical of Israel’s political and security policy, but noted that “I love Israel and I love living there.” Yedaya also thanked actresses Dana Ivgy and Ronit Elkabetz, who starred in the film, and her family.

Despite her serious demeanor, Yedaya let herself enjoy a full celebration of her win, at a beach party together with Hollywood starts and European idols, complete with a large fireworks display and rock concert that closed the Cannes festival.

“This past week has been a dream,” she said. But for this promising Israeli director, the dream is just beginning.

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