Lost identities become switched when the lives of an Israeli artist and a Palestinian factory worker intersect at a tiny metal screw in this dazzling film.
Self Made (TJFF Review)
I recently noted that the first five Toronto Jewish Film Festival entries I’ve had the privilege to screen have strong historical themes. (I list the first four in my intro to the fifth, The Dove Flyer.) What I didn’t notice until now is that four of them are dramas (of varying weights) and the fifth is a documentary; it’s all been serious stuff. The only reason why I noticed it now is because Self Made, the Shira Geffen written/directed film making its Toronto premier at the Festival, had me laughing early and often—until it didn’t (in a very good way).
The film opens with a woman sleeping in bed. There is only faint ambient noise in the distance. Suddenly—BOOM! The bed collapses and the woman falls to the floor, hitting her head in the process. Her name is Michal (Sarah Adler) and she is an Israeli feminist artist of considerable celebrity. The bed incident creates two problems that are more intertwined than she realizes at the time. The first is that the blow to the head has affected her memory considerably. The second is that she needs a new bed.
Meanwhile, in Palestine, Nadine (Samira Saraya) lives a life mostly opposite of Michal. Neither feminist nor artist, the single woman walks to and from her factory job every day as hip-hop blares through her ear buds (even when she’s being inspected by soldiers at a border checkpoint). She keeps to herself in her travels, with one truly peculiar trait: she leaves a trail of metal screws in her wake between the checkpoint and work.
The paths of these two women cross when Michal is assembling the replacement bed she ordered from an Ikea-like all-assembly-required store. There is a screw missing; she was supposed to get five but she only received four. When she calls to complain she is eventually told the person who counts the screws and puts them in little bags will be fired for the error. That person is Nadine.
This is the first of three times the paths of these women will cross.
Self Made is a wonderful film thanks to Shira Geffen’s clever and remarkably layered screenplay. The patience she shows as a storyteller is grand. There isn’t a reveal in the film that feels like it’s rushed onscreen to generate that feeling of a payoff. Questions pop up early and are answered gradually and organically. Those two words can also summarize Michal’s path.
The artist, stricken with amnesia, remembers just enough that she isn’t thrown into a panic and sent scrambling for answers. Instead, she tries to hide her condition (thankfully her husband is away on business, although there’s a story there too) and learn about herself through conversations with the endless parade of people who appear at her home: from the media to the furniture delivery people to a chef whose approach to preparing crabs needs to be seen to be believed. This approach allows the viewer be both witness to, and participant in, Michal’s self-rediscovery. It’s a great way the film connects with the audience.
Nadine’s life, on the other hand, has no clutter, but it is no less tumultuous. Not only has she lost her job, she has no husband, something that gnaws at her mother to the point the matriarch wants to send Nadine away to live with family in Kuwait. The man she might have the best shot with, her neighbor, has a reputation as something of a player (a great example of a tiny detail that is important later, by the way). And then there’s that trail of screws. (That’s addressed too.)
For all of the laughs—and there are plenty of laughs—in the first two acts, the film takes a turn for the surreal in the third. Oddly plausible circumstances bring these two women together at the checkpoint. While there, the identities of Michal, the famous Israeli feminist artist, and Nadine, the anonymous Palestinian unmarried (former) factory worker, are inadvertently swapped. What happens after that is completely unpredictable and worthy of an immediate second watch.
Geffen’s direction is incredibly confident, and her choice to tell the two characters’ stories by essentially weaving them and alternating between them until the two are together (then doing the same once they part company), is the director’s masterstroke.
The screenplay for Self Made (a terrific title) reminds me of screenplays like Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects in that it is intricately designed, wildly unique, never boring, and requires considerable attention be paid to it. In this era of “elevator pitch” ideas—films that can be summarized and sold in seconds—it is refreshing to know films are still being made (globally, and by women) that require a complete commitment to the entire film, not just the idea of it. Self Made is worth committing to.