In November of 2017, an exhibition featuring the clothing collection of the late Israeli actress Ronit Elkabetz opened at the Design Museum in Holon, just south of Tel Aviv. The stunning thespian and celebrated filmmaker, whose work was often a collaboration with her brother Shlomi Elkabetz, passed away in 2016 at the young age of 51. She left behind a husband, the architect Avner Yashar, two children and a wardrobe of outfits as iconoclastic and extraordinary as the woman herself.
In her stunning film Je t'aime Ronit Elkabetz, Israeli documentary filmmaker Moran Ifergan traces the late actress' career by taking the audience on a journey through the preparation of the museum exhibition, also titled 'Je t'aime Ronit Elkabetz', along with providing us with archival interviews featuring the actress -- all mixed in with commentary from her friends and family. The film is produced by Shlomi Elkabetz and Galit Cahlon, with Ifergan serving as DoP, screenwriter and editor on the project. It takes one phenomenal woman to make a perfect film about another phenomenal woman, it seems.
"Whether it is worn on the foot, whether on the chest or on the head, at times it is the shoe marking a privilege, other times it is the cap, the turban or the hat indicating a revolution." Treatise on Elegant Living by Honoré de Balzac
After featuring this quote by Honoré de Balzac, the documentary opens with an iconic image of Elkabetz in her last film, Gett: the Trial of Viviane Amsalem, which premiered in Cannes in 2014 and went on to be nominated for a Golden Globe in 2015. Gett was the last installment of a trilogy focusing on the unhappy marriage of Viviane Amsalem, with the other two titles being To Take a Wife and Shiva. It also turned out to be the most successful and widely watched film made by the Elkabetz siblings, and we will forever be left to wonder how much more beauty and power the duo could have given audiences. While Shlomi continues in his creative efforts, it is clear from Ifergan's film that he's suffered a loss too huge to be reckoned with. As we all have in the cinematic and human community, even those of us who never met Ronit.
Coming up from the Cannes premiere screening of Gett back in 2014, I remember feeling like I couldn't breathe the air outside fast or deeply enough. Emerging from the staircase of the cinema under the Marriott hotel, I felt completely claustrophobic. The film took place in just under two hours and featured Ronit as Viviane and a group of men -- the Rabbis and her husband, whom she was desperately trying to divorce. It is a film that will never leave my heart, both for its message and for the haunting face of its actress, a force to be reckoned with. I would like to think that Ronit's presence in Cannes that year inspired much in terms of women's liberation around the world. It certainly made hit series like Unorthodox and Shtisel, both of which can be watched on Netlifx, possible.
The Elkabetz are children of Moroccan immigrants and a poignant moment in Ifergan's documentary points to a journey, from Mogador (now called Essaouira, the city in Morocco from where the family hails) to Beersheba, where Ronit was born, to Tel Aviv and finally over to Paris, where the actress spent most of her adult life. Clothing for her was a way to travel, maybe to a time that felt more carefree in her life, or in the history of the world. Populations migrate through culture and fashion, creating a new reality often through clothes. We all know the power of fashion, those perfect days spent cocooned by the perfect outfit and the most horrible time wrapped in an ill fitting one.
Ronit made her own clothes as a teenager, and she talks about it in the film. "I was 15 but I looked 45," she confesses about her club outings, wearing full make up and her own, eccentric creations. She identified with Iranian culture, that of her ancestral Morocco and the Gypsies. As I watched the film I wondered throughout how wonderful it would have been to interview her. Or just talk about our common passions somewhere, both dressed in black, drinking something cool. Black, the "colour" she loved. As she says in the film:
"Black is home." Ronit Elkabetz
It's not often that one hears someone talk about fashion in personal terms, as a way to shield from the bad and encourage the good. Ronit did, does in the film and it's very liberating to realize that clothes give power to women, they don't take it away. Her explanation of her love of fashion, along with Ifergan's wonderful visuals of the museum exhibition being put together, create a strange feeling within the viewer, I imagine a sort of envy from male ones and a realization of our common bond through clothes in women. What she was able to convey as an actress is because she was a woman, a fashionable, iconoclastic, beautiful and powerful woman and that power, even though she may be physically gone, lives on in her work. As an inspiration to us, so we may never feel inappropriate or not good enough ever again.
The one thing I may object to in watching Je t'aime Ronit Elkabetz is that the documentary made me cry -- much, and often. It reminded me that the good die young, that the actress and filmmaker is gone, that the world is a bit worse off because of it. And yet, she lives on in her film and her fashions.
Israel 2022 | 70 minutes
Dir/Writer: Moran Ifergan
Prod: Shlomi Elkabetz, Galit Cahlon
Cinematography: Moran Ifergan
Editor: Moran Ifergan
Sound Design: Itzik Cohen
Deux Beaux Garçons Films
Images courtesy of the Jerusalem Film Festival, used with permission.