"Mountain" by Yaelle Kayam (ISR)

​ Venice Film Festival 2015 - Orizzonti Section

Writer Profile



Name: Sabine Kues

Nationality: Germany

Contact: [email protected]


Previous work: 
Under construction

Space – how it can unite and how it separates – is central to the state of Israel and at the core of Yaelle Kayam's feature debut premiering at the 72nd Venice Film Festival.

Whereas its title Mountain is general and vague, the actual setting of the film is more than burdened with history: the Mount of Olives outside the Old City of Jerusalem. Here, where Islam, Christianity and Judaism come together in one place, Kayam has set her tale of Tzvia, an orthodox Jewish woman who lives with her husband Reuven and their children on the grounds of the oldest active Jewish cemetery. The mountain introduces her into another world – but one day she is forced to choose sides.

Mountain is the debut film by Israeli director and screenwriter Yaelle Kayam. With her short film Diploma (2009) she has previously taken up the theme of space and borders in Israel and West Bank. It was screened at Cannes where it won the third prize of Cinéfondation and MoMA: Museum of Modern Art in New York. With Mountain the director returns to a culturally charged site with a contemplative art-house film.

Against the backdrop of the homogeneous landscape of bright grey tombstones aligned in rows and more rows, we meet Tzvia seemingly wandering the grounds while she has her first encounter with other visitors of the graveyard. The film rarely leaves the space of the cemetery and the family's house, thereby focusing on the space itself and its borders – the true protagonists in this film. A wire divides Tzvia's house from the cemetery, making it legitimate for an orthodox family to live on these grounds in the first place, as she once explains to a group of orthodox mourners. By frequently crossing this border and leaving the house and her daily routines behind, she also begins to breach further limits.

The routine of the everyday is highlighted by the images and the editing with identical shots of Tzvia waking up in bed. She stretches out her arm looking for her husband, just to find him completely immersed in his praying. And so the daily rhythm continues – until one night, when she witnesses a sexual scene between the tombstones. Starting out as a voyeur she gets drawn into this realm of prostitutes and spends her nights amidst them, testing the boundaries of her orthodox lifestyle. She partakes in both worlds as long as they do not meet but when one night one of the men from the nightly orgies follows her to her house she has to choose and is driven to extreme measures.

The theme of spatial separation is dominant in Kayam's Mountain. It is first put forward in a scene at the family dinner table: Referring to a passage in the book of Zachariah in which the Mount of Olives will split in two and one of the daughters asks on which side their house will be. The parents answer, that they will only now then – a crucial question in the development of the film which remains unanswered. On which side the film stands remains just as much a mystery. While the images succeed to poetically capture the signification of space, the abstractness of the tale at some points just lets one wonder – or wander.

Kayam says about her work, that she is “interested in exploring characters through the use of landscape, and placing them in extreme settings that both limit them and enable their transformation.” And so she does, by using the cultural site of the Mount of Olives to bring together a Palestinian gravedigger or a young South Korean admirer of the poet Zelda Schneersohn Mishkovsky visiting her grave. Everyone is trying to find something else in this place, with a different perception. The transformation hereby happens within the orthodox woman and as she descends the Mountain, like a Messiah, it is not clear – to the better or the worse. The Mountain has been split in two, but who is on which side?