Concerned Citizen, written and directed by Idan Haguel, is a well-crafted dark comedy, a film on a modest scale that touches on wider issues of privilege, urban renewal, xenophobia, and liberal guilt, from an intimate perspective.
Ben (Shlomi Bertonov) and Raz (Ariel Wolf) are a 30-something couple who have bought an apartment in Neve Shaanan, a poor neighborhood in South Tel Aviv, that is on the verge of gentrification. This makes the apartment affordable, and the interior is renovated in tasteful minimalism, with an abundance of well-tended plants that make a fitting backdrop to their lives orchestrated to the sound of the floor robot making its tour every morning, mellifluous music, the whir of the blender preparing green smoothies, and lively conversations with friends. Step outside the gated building however, and the neighborhood is much the same as it ever was, with older apartment buildings and drab streets a vision of urban neglect. Most of the neighborhood’s residents live well below the poverty line, some are foreign workers, some are illegal immigrants, some are homeless, living on the streets.
Yet Ben and Raz feel good about planting roots in this environment, they are thinking of having a baby via surrogate, and they want to raise their child in a diverse, multicultural atmosphere. Their desire to become a part of the neighborhood and contribute to it is expressed symbolically in the film’s opening, as Ben digs a hole to plant a tree in front of their building. However, when he sees two African men chatting and leaning on the tree, and they ignore his request to stop, his response is disproportionate, calling the police to report them. The situation quickly escalates, and Ben watches from the window as the police chase and brutally beat one of the men.
The film focuses on Ben’s internal conflict as he experiences extreme feelings and internal contradictions. He becomes obsessed with the event and its consequences, impacting all aspects of his life, including his relationship with Raz and feelings about raising a child. Bertonov expressively conveys Ben’s anguish, rage, and confusion, while Ariel Wolf is endearing as the loving partner bewildered by the sudden change in Ben. In terms of casting, Bertonov and Wolf are a couple in life as well as onscreen, their onscreen chemistry is marked by a sense of warmth and intimacy. Contributing to the sense of authenticity, the actors portraying immigrants and refugees are from Sudan and Eritrea, members of the Holot Theatre.
Although the film is very specifically about Tel Aviv, with its rising cost of living and housing prices so high as to be almost unattainable, urban dwellers worldwide can relate to the hard issues of city living. When a rough neighborhood is on the rise, that doesn’t usually mean that the city is providing better services and support to improve living conditions. It typically means that more affluent residents are moving into renovated buildings (that are still more affordable than “better” neighborhoods), and new businesses are coming into the neighborhood to cater to them – all edging out the locals. At the same time, the prevalence of vandalism and crime in the poorer parts of the city cannot be denied.
In that sense Concerned Citizen exposes a sensitive nerve. Ben, Raz, and their friends cherish an image of themselves as open, compassionate, caring, individuals who value tolerance, justice, and equality. And so, I imagine, do many of the film’s viewers – I know I do. Yet when tested, the cracks in the image are revealed, exposing racism and prejudice. Haguel gives Ben’s spiral of rage and guilt a comic tone, which limits the depth of the film, yet perhaps renders it more relatable. Lena Freifeld brings her special glow to a supporting role, and together with Wolf has a terrific dance scene that doesn’t necessarily further the plot or character arc, but lets Wolf’s gift for choreography shine and is sheer pleasure to watch.
Concerned Citizen held its world premiere in the Panorama section of the 72nd Berlinale, and recently received two awards at the 39th Jerusalem Film Festival: Idan Haguel was awarded the Dalia Sigan Award for Best Script, and Zoe Polanski was awarded Yossi Mulla Award for Best Original Score. The film has been acquired by HBO for its streaming services in several countries.
Director: Idan Haguel; Screenplay: Haguel; Cinematography: Guy Sahaf; Editor: Shauly Melamed; Cast: Shlomi Bertonov, Ariel Wolf, Lena Freifeld, Ilan Hazan, Uria Yablonovsky