Or (My Treasure): Karen Yedaya’s Impressive Debut, Mother-Daughter Melodrama, Well-Acted by Ronit Elkabetz

 The intense Israeli movie about a prostitute mother and her sensitive teenage daughter, Or (My Treasure), is relentlessly grim, and for a good reason: The characters are almost fatally doomed. I just wished the director provided a broader socio-political context for her two persona.

The film, which is extremely well acted, impressed the jury at the 2004 Cannes Film Fest, where it won the Camera d’Or, which honors first films.

Despite the fact that filmmaker Karen Yedaya defines herself as a feminist and political activist, strangely, “Or” is devoid of any politics–sexual politics or even economic politics of prostitution as profession.

Instead, the film is an extremely well-acted two-handler melodrama that, as tough as it is, describes in detail but does not really illuminate the oppressive nature of prostitution and its sources.

Yedaya’s first feature, Or (My Treasure) continues to explore in a bare realistic mode themes set forth in her earlier shorts. The story’s lead character is Ruthie (Ronit Elkabetz), a working-class woman in her 40s, who lives with her daughter Or (Dana Ivgy) in a tiny Tel Aviv flat.

Or (which in Hebrew means light) begs her down-and-out mother to change her life. After spending twenty years earning a living as a prostitute, Ruthie finally listens to Or’s pleas and takes a job as a cleaning lady in an upper-class house.

Overcome with joy at her mother’s decision, Or herself alternates between mindless jobs—washing dishes in a restaurant, cleaning staircases, collecting deposit bottle. However, she spends most of her time taking care of her mother’s need. For a while, their lives seem to improve.

Most of “Or” is set indoor, within the small and cluttered apartment, creating a claustrophobic feeling. It’s hard to recall a film that delved so deeply into the psychological dynamics of mother-daughter relationships, and portrayed in such graphic detail the lifestyle of a prostitute. The day-to-day work, the physical exhaustion, the brutal treatment by men, the cleaning up, and so on. For these scenes, Yedaya employs a kitchen sink realism that’s grim and often moving.

The duo is engaged in a role reversal: It’s Or who takes on the protective role in her mother’s universe.

In the film’s good moments, the two women share moments of strong intimacy, treating each other as equals. Whether showering together or sleeping under one blanket, Ruthie and Or grow inseparable. When they are together, their emotions stay solid, grounded, and intertwined.

But as poverty and depression slowly reenter their lives, Ruthie goes back to the streets of Tel Aviv’s poorest neighborhoods. Her decision influences Or, who, meanwhile, has fallen in love with the son of a neighbor but is forced by the boy’s mother to keep a distance from him.

However, it is Ruthie who bears the biggest risk, since she has turned prostitution into a self-destructive path. The end is extremely touching and depressing. Disillusioned with her own life and unable to change her mother’s path, Or is now willing to do anything in order to improve their situation.

I have not seen Yedaya’s shorts, “Elinor” (1994), “Lulu” (1999), and “Les Dessous” (2001), to be able to say whether she has evolved as a director. In theory, but not in execution, Yedaya’s intent is clear. She aims at drawing parallels between the devastating impact of prostitution on the women who follow that path, and female oppression in a male-dominated, militaristic society. But the latter, as indicated, remains abstract and more of an agenda than reality in the film.

About Yedaya

Born in 1972 in the U.S., Karen Yedaya grew up in Israel, where she graduated from the film school Camera Obscura. Politically active, she has been touring the country with her short film, Lulu (1999), also about prostitution, as part of an ongoing outreach and educational program.