Tel Aviv-based filmmaker Michal Vinik’s debut feature Barash reads like a fairly standard queer coming-of-age and coming out drama - at least on paper - with the writer/director heartily joking that she wasn’t 'all that interested' in plot. Nevertheless, the Jewish International Film Festival (JIFF) highlight thrums with an enticing vitality.
“I had two starting points,” Vinik says over the phone from Tel Aviv. “One of them was the fact that we have a lot of coming of age stories in Israel, but I never saw my friends on screen, and when I say my friends, I mean girls, and not good girls.”
Laughing mischievously, Vinik says the second point was a desire to break all-too-common lesbian cinematic tropes. “I’ve seen a lot of great lesbian stories connected with either killing somebody - even in masterpieces like Heavenly Creatures - or they kill themselves.
“Since I never killed anybody and I didn’t try to commit suicide, I thought it could be very nice to tell a story just about a girl falling in love with another girl with no death involved.”
A huge part of the appeal of Barash is the shimmering chemistry between its two non-professional leads—a product of Vinik’s unconventional casting methods. Sivan Noam Shimon, who plays 17-year-old high school student Naama Barash, was found on Facebook. Her take on the teenager’s first forays into sexual freedom is played with instantly appealing mix of innocence and rebelliousness.
Stifled at home by her an overbearing and bigoted father (Dvir Benedek), Barash' soldier older sister Liora (Bar Ben Vakil) has gone AWOL. Meanwhile, the sisters' sweet but timid mother (Irit Pashtan) and quiet brother (Amit Muchatar) remain unable or unwilling to intervene.
The arrival of new girl Hershko - played by fellow new find Jade Sakori - changes everything. Sakori, with her bleach blonde, undercut hair and frosty blue eye shadow, was spotted on the streets. “It’s some kind of legend,” Vinik says. “I was on my bicycle and you can’t ignore her, so I started circling her and then I was a bit shy, but eventually I approached and she was thinking I was a strange lady.”
The pair become entangled in a summer romance as they take to the brilliantly lit clubs of Tel Aviv, dabble in drugs, and smoke constantly while dreaming in parks. “I also really wanted to find gay girls,” Vinik says. “It was very important because it’s not a film about an aggressive plot, it’s all about the characters, so I had to bring something very sincere to the screen.”
Shot in and around the suburbs where she grew up, Vinik says that while she drew on her own experiences, particularly being overwhelmed by the nightlife of Tel Aviv, Naama walks her own path. “She’s really overwhelmed and, at 17, I don’t know if the term lesbian or straight can apply because she doesn’t have a lot of experience. But I must tell you, I’m 40 and I still don’t know. I think maybe sexuality is something fluid.”
Beautifully shot by cinematographer Shai Peleg, who also worked on another 2016 JIFF highlight Sand Storm (Sufat Chol), Vinik said Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park inspired the look they were aiming for. She also drew on the work of Todd Solondz in shooting the Barash family’s awkward dinners.
Sharing some of the DNA of Céline Sciamma’s effervescent Girlhood, another standout coming-of-age story with non-professional leads, music also plays a major role in Barash. Dafna Keinan, an Israeli musician based in Berlin, composed new music straight from the script and the soundtrack includes a vibrant mix of rock, pop and club tracks, including two tracks from British singer-songwriter Holly Golightly, with Vinik once again initiating contact via Facebook. “Music was very important from an early stage, because I love soundtracks you can just hear and understand the vibe of the film. I’m really proud of that.”
To see when Barash is screening in your city, check out the JIFF website here.