By Avner Shavit
It’s been a decade and a half since American filmmaker Jonathan Cauoette stunned the film world with his first film, “Tarnation.” It was a breakthrough for its use of home movies to describe growing up in a family suffering from mental Illness. Now Israel filmmaker Ariel Semmel is recreating this achievement in “Parano,” which was screened as part of the Jerusalem Film Festival’s local film competition. It too is made exclusively of intimate footage, which he collected over years of obsessive self-documentation.
For the last three decades, Semmel earned himself a reputation as a highly regarded director of commercials and as a talented cinematographer and stills photographer. Then, five years ago, he released “The Penguin People,” documenting Tel Aviv’s nightlife in the 1980s. Now, it looks like his own life was darker and much more turbulent than the people he filmed, and that’s putting it mildly.
The fact that at some point in his life, Semmel seriously believed that he was abducted by aliens turns out to be just one small detail in his story. He also suffered all sorts of traumas, having grown up in an adoptive family, haunted by the demons of the Holocaust. As an adult, he went on to have a whole slew of disturbing relationships with women. Casual sex, shameless full-0frontal nudity, deep-rooted emotional madness, endless fights, self-destructive tendencies, and inevitably, paranoia are the pieces that make up the mosaic that is “Parano.” At the same time, however, there is also a constant search for healing, compassion and tenderness. As the woman who became the love of his life describes it, “You’re not making a film about aliens, but about love.”
From the very beginning, the archival footage is shot from all sorts of strange and distorted angles, pieced together with the kind of frenetic editing that reflects the filmmaker’s disturbed state of mind. The combination of this style and the already harsh content makes “Parano” one of the strangest documentary film ever produced in Israel, if not the strangest. It could have been nothing more than a curiosity, but the final result has a rare emotional power about it. It may be off-putting at first, but as befits a “film about love,” over time, it becomes harder not to fall in love with it.
Furthermore, the more Semmel delves into his past, the more we see how deep the roots of his trauma reach and how his family’s background continues to impact his present. And so, “Parano” floods us with a topic that contemporary Israeli society prefers to suppress: the way that the Holocaust has left entire families emotionally agitated for generations and the degree to which the horrors of the 1940s continue to reverberate among us today. It will be interesting to see which theaters and which broadcasters will be brave enough to screen this unusual documentary.