Revisiting Israeli History Through Film

Written by Shlomit Ovadia of JCC Denver.

Several works featured in the 28th Denver Jewish Film Festival – arriving at the Mizel Arts and Culture Center (MACC) at JCC Denver March 7 – 19—offer insight into the turmoil, controversy, and tension felt within Israeli society. Among these films shines Zohar Wagner’s docudrama Savoy, a recreation of the infamous 1975 hotel terror attack in Tel Aviv that intelligently weaves real footage with actor simulations while incorporating diary archives into dialogue. 

Savoy follows the true story of Kohava, a petite Tel Avivian who is caught in the line of crossfire while having an affair and is held hostage with other hotel guests under the watch of Palestinian terrorists. As the IDF struggles to negotiate a solution, Kohava leverages her fluency in Arabic to serve as a translator. Not only is the film a fascinating glimpse into the uncomfortable history of Israeli politics, but it addresses other nuanced conflicts, including shame, feminism, loneliness, and identity.   

I connected with Zohar in Israel to learn more about her film and understand what she hopes viewers will take away from it. 

“I started making films a few years ago after studying at Tel Aviv University. I was teaching cinema to Arab youth in Jaffa at the time and started taking private Arabic classes to deepen my knowledge, with 3-4 years of hard studies.”  

We talked about current events in Israel and the connection between the star of her film, Kohava, with recent Israeli-citizen-turned hero Rachel Edery, who was praised for using Arabic during an attack to distract her captives and save her family. 

“My friend who was conducting research with me said, ‘It’s like Kohava in 1975 who spoke Arabic with her kidnappers and saved herself.’ I thought, ‘wow what a great way to spread this message and emphasize the importance of knowing Arabic.’”  

We also discussed other pervading Savoy themes, including Kohava’s darker complexion as a Yemenite-Kurdish Jew, being a woman, reclaiming her identity after being wrongly mistaken for a prostitute, and navigating the cultural landscape of Israel in the 70s.  

“Everyone who remembers the story just brushes it off as there being some female prostitute that saved some people. By that time [in my research], I knew it was not true.” Not only did the entire incident publicize her marriage infidelity but it conflated her identity with that of an actual prostitute living in Tel Aviv. 

“When people didn’t like what Kohava had to say in court, they dismissed her as being immoral. That’s why she wrote the diary and why it was important [for me] to put this movie out. Her diary is a way of having closure, and for people to really know who she was and what she thought,” beyond public opinion. 

Savoy reveals that speaking up—while important— is not without consequence, and how Kohava is perpetually silenced in her journey to understand herself and own her story, a sad yet pervasively human experience. 

“I believe that for peace to happen, people must really know the languages of others. What was even more important was a woman being written off for everything she tried to say and stand for because of prejudices.”  

“I made the film before October 7, so it’s very hard for me to talk about the film, but I hope for peace in the Middle East,” Zohar shares.  

The Denver Jewish Film Festival offers immersion into the world of several sensitive and nuanced topics. Stay tuned for more information on other films! 

You can register for the Denver Jewish Film Festival here.