“What are your plans for the future?”
That absurd question, posed by an apathetic adolescent interviewing his grandfather for a homework assignment, would be played for laughs in most movies. Arriving late in Oren Gerner’s oddly personal, beautifully crafted and deeply rewarding “Africa,” it razes Grandpa Meir’s castle of evasions, denials and lies.
Played by Meir Gerner, the filmmaker’s father, Meir is a compact, stocky man who exudes self-satisfied self-assurance — even when he isn’t accompanied by his loyal dog Tsila. Born in 1948 and in his late 60s at the time the film is set, he expects to be the vital center of his world for a long time to come.
“Africa,” an Israeli drama that played on the fall 2019 festival circuit, is part of the virtual portion of the upcoming San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
The film opens with a bit of home-movie footage, shot on vacation in Namibia, of Meir’s wife, Maya. In the background, barely visible behind a tree, is an elephant. “The king of the jungle,” Meir murmurs in awe.
Meir identifies with the massive, taciturn animal, but he can’t imagine the future. What happens when the king can no longer hold on to his throne?
With older people, that moment can come at any time, and without warning. In Meir’s case, it is heralded by the news — which he receives third-hand, insultingly — that, after many years, his gratifying task of designing and building the stage for the annual community festivities has been given to a bunch of teenagers.
Meir does not accept this development with enlightened equanimity, and it triggers a slowly cascading sequence of events that includes a self-inflicted injury in his woodshop, a visit to his cardiologist and a rash punishment of Tsila (his dog).
Meir’s unwelcome revelation that he is not irreplaceable, and his reluctant realization that he is not immortal, are universal experiences.
But “Africa” neatly portrays him as quintessentially Israeli: He was born in 1948 (the year of independence), he fought in a couple wars and he’s a builder (his hobby is carpentry) who walks and drives around his community as if he poured every drop of concrete himself.
“Africa” is in no way a cruel film, but it is as resolutely unsentimental as its main character. And the truth it proffers is stark: Meir’s generation is no longer as vital and relevant as it persists in believing.
True to life, Meir’s children and grandchildren are oblivious to his changing circumstances, health and perspective. But we see all of it, and feel it, and are touched by it.
Maya, however, catches on. Played by Maya Gerner, the filmmaker’s mother, Maya is a therapist who doesn’t miss obvious clues such as Meir interrupting a session in her home office to ask if she’s seen some lumber that’s gone missing. When he stonewalls her about both the cardiologist and a misstep involving the teenagers, it’s heart-wrenching.
Meir and Maya’s performances, as versions of themselves, are splendidly naturalistic. They have an unforced rhythm that informs and propels their scenes, and makes us feel as if we are living in their house with them.
Gerner’s direction of his parents — who are not professional actors — is impeccable, though it’s impossible to watch “Africa” and not be curious about Meir and Maya’s initial responses to the screenplay, and what their off-set conversations were like.
Gerner’s no-frills script gives every line, and every incident, an echo and a payoff. That level of control only reveals itself gradually, and miraculously coexists with the lived-in casualness of the acting.
“Africa” gently and succinctly depicts a rich yet circumscribed world. The irony of the film is that Meir and Maya’s visit to another continent doesn’t foreshadow an expansion of their life experience but a contraction.