SSIFF review: Africa (Oren Gerner)

We’ve all heard one or two of these stories, or perhaps it even happened to a family member, a friend, or an old co-worker: somebody retires and suddenly falls into the abyss of depression. While things do not end up this dramatically for Meir Gerner, the central character of Israeli director Oren Gerner’s first feature-length film Africa, this lovingly observed study of lost relevance and masculine pride is universal enough to be able to touch anybody who is approaching a certain age or knows somebody who is. The twist is that the people in this film, including the director, are playing themselves, albeit a semi-fictional version. This deepens Gerner’s detailed and authentic portrait of a father, a generation, and a nation.

Meir (Meir Gerner) may be retired, but slipping into the life of a retiree has not come easy to this former engineer. While his wife Maya (Maya Gerner) still holds her psychiatry practice and is actively involved in her community choir, Meir spends his days in the tool shed crafting a bed for his grandson. When the organization of his hometown festival, a responsibility that fell on Meir for 30 years, is given to a younger generation, Meir is quietly devastated. Pride prevents him from communicating his simmering disappointment and the loss of purpose that gnaws at him. He begins a quiet rebellion against the black hole he threatens to fall into: his body that starts to fail him, his family that is becoming more distant and disinterested in him, and above all the sense of relevance that is slipping through his fingers. Meir is a man who has always been defined by purpose, so when that falls away and everyone around him seems to shove him aside to take matters into their own hands, he is determined not to be pushed into a corner that easily, and he fights his last desperate fight for meaning.

Africa is not the first time Gerner has used his relatives as inspiration. His 2014 short Greenland, which won a prize here in San Sebastian and is available on Vimeo, also focused on the Gerner family. But whereas that film focused more on the director himself, what makes Africa more emotionally touching is the gentleness with which he portrays his father in all his vulnerability, but also the way he shows his own relationship to Meir. In a superbly crafted meta scene Gerner has his alter ego, a young film director, direct his father Meir as he creates a birthday tape for a friend. Right in the middle of the perfect take he is distracted by his (real) mother and leaves his father stranded. The naked honesty of the scene is crushing, and Gerner’s assured direction hits exactly the right tone where lesser hands would have overplayed the emotions. There are several such perceptive scenes sprinkled throughout the film, and while Gerner may be helped by the fact that he films people and situations he is intimately familiar with, they display a talent that deserves to be watched.

But Africa is not just a low-key and tender portrait of his own family, blurring the lines between fiction and reality. In an interview for a school project by one of his grandchildren, Meir reveals that he shares his birthdate with the state of Israel. He also talks about the wars he fought in Lebanon and the Golan Heights, like so many in his generation. The parallels between Meir and his home country are blatant: both Meir and his version of Israel are losing relevance and a new generation, presumably that of Oren Gerner himself, is ready to take over and do things differently. The beauty of Africa is that Gerner can make such a statement without laying any blame at the feet of his father. Its poignancy runs deep despite its apparent unpretentiousness, and its warmth will linger long after the final, ambiguous shot. A very promising debut about generational divides and redefining yourself in a changing world.