It feels churlish to criticize Shlomi Elkabetz’s Black Notebooks project, a deeply personal documentary that’s part travelogue, part diary entry, and part remembrance for his deceased sister, the great Israeli actress and filmmaker Ronit Elkabetz. Presented in discrete halves, Part 1: Viviane and Part 2: Ronit, Shlomi is attempting a lot of different things with this unwieldy magnum opus. They are distinct films that combine into something less than the sum of their parts. Whatever its cathartic value for the filmmaker, Part 1 is barely comprehensible as a piece of cinema: It careens wildly through different discursive modes and home video footage, accumulating into a mountain of half-thought-out ideas and only intermittently interesting behind-the-scenes footage. This might be the very definition of a “for fans only” affair.
Shlomi and Ronit are best known for co-writing and co-directing a trilogy of films featuring the character Viviane Amsalem (played by Ronit) as she navigates two decades of marital and familial strife in Haifa. Of the three films — To Take a Wife (2004), Seven Days (2008), & Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (2015) — the first two are repeatedly referenced in Part 1, as Shlomi weaves an interconnected tapestry that juxtaposes their fictional characters and narrative scenarios with the real life family members that inspired them. It’s a fine idea, particularly with regards to To Take a Wife, which by all accounts is inspired by Shlomi and Ronit’s actual parents and is, therefore, the most beholden to specific biographical facts. But this is only a small piece of what Part 1 is trying to accomplish, and it speeds through ideas as quickly as it introduces them. Interspersed with this vague auto-fiction are reams of interminable diaristic footage from a variety of sources: camcorders, cell phones, and outmoded digital video jumble together into a pixelated mush of street scenes, film premiers, off-the-cuff interviews, and other uninteresting ephemera. Running nearly two hours long, Part 1 is loosely structured around chapter headings like “mother” and “father,” although both parents appear throughout every section, rendering the labels mostly pointless.
Shlomi eventually finds a groove of sorts. It wouldn’t be accurate to call the film “organized,” at least not in any traditional sense, but certain motifs begin to emerge, the most successful of which focus on Ronit. She’s the film’s most valuable asset, commanding the screen whenever she appears. But even here Shlomi includes all manner of inconsequential footage, like a brief scene where Ronit is on the phone discussing taxes with an unseen friend. Still, we get some sense of her inner life beyond her frequently intense and/or stoic screen roles. She’s quite open to being constantly filmed, and talks freely of her conflicting ideas on marriage and motherhood, strife with her own mother, and her many roles. There’s a great moment where she reminisces about dressing up and sneaking out to a club as a teenager, only to run into one of her school teachers. There’s also remarkable footage of her taking film critics to task on a news talk show, suggesting that middle-aged men who have never been married have no business questioning the validity of her Viviane Amsalem role. An unsympathetic anchor tries to rein Ronit in but she’s having none of it, raising her voice and gesticulating wildly in passionate defense of her work. The film could use more of this kind of archival footage, which illuminates both the person and their art. Instead, we get strange interludes of Shlomi traversing urban spaces, traveling via train and car, listening to a critics roundtable that’s discussing the siblings’ films, and lots of scenes of their mom and dad. The parents reminisce about the past, and while there are bits and pieces of interesting family drama, there’s even more bickering. Shlomi seems to find it endearing, or somehow revealing of the family’s dynamic, but much of it feels like it could be excised without altering the film’s impact in any way.
Part 2: Ronit, narrows its focus considerably, and to dramatically improved results. While Part 1 gets lost in a thicket of self-reflexivity, Part 2 focuses entirely on Ronit and the illness that leads to her untimely death at only 51 years old. Here, Shlomi constructs the entire film around the shooting of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem. Ronit is exhausted, both co-directing and starring in the film while caring for two small children at home. She and Shlomi butt heads, arguing about when to wrap up the day so that she can return to her kids. To his credit, Shlomi leaves in footage of himself being less than generous, trying to cajole Ronit into staying later and encouraging her to push herself further for the sake of their art. In voiceover, Shlomi questions his own actions, admitting that he had no idea that Ronit was suffering from the early stages of lung cancer while wondering if she herself was even aware of the impending diagnosis. We don’t see the moment when she finds out about her illness — only the long, slow trajectory of her treatment. It’s heartbreaking stuff, the simplicity of the form heightening the emotional heft of the proceedings. Gone are the pretentious obfuscations of Part 1, replaced by straightforward documentation of a loved one gradually succumbing to cancer. It’s hardly a joyless affair, however; Ronit maintains her dignity and sense of humor throughout, even turning a wig-fitting session into a chance to playact and goof around with her brother. The film’s elliptical ending does not address Ronit’s death directly; indeed, if one was unaware of her passing there’s no real indication of it here. But there’s a melancholic sense of an ending nonetheless, of a chapter coming to a close.
Taken altogether, this Black Notebooks project feels like something Shlomi needed to get out of his system, a therapeutic device to deal with the emotional distress caused by Ronit’s passing. There’s a certain bravery in choosing to share this with an audience, but also a misplaced hubris in assuming an inherent interest in such a massive personal project. One could argue that the significantly less successful Part 1 adds some depth and heft to Part 2, but the project’s cumulative three-and-a-half-hour runtime is an awful lot to demand of an audience. Most people don’t share the scribblings in their journals for a reason. Still, the graceful documentation of Ronit’s final months reminds us that Shomi can be a gifted filmmaker, and Part 2 honors his sister and her work admirably.
Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 5.