Israeli editor Asaf Korman’s feature-film debut “Next to Her” (aka ‘At Li Layla’, 2014) seems like a touching portrait of a woman’s self-sacrifice. The Twenty seven year old Chelli (Liron Ben-Shlush), a security guard at a school, lives with her 24 year old sister Gabby (Dana Igvy), who suffers from intellectual disability. Chelli feeds, baths, and keeps Gabby out of harm’s way. Since the sisters’ mother has largely abandoned them, Chelli becomes an overly protective mother for Gabby. They live in a gloomy one bed-room apartment. Chelli sleeps next to Gabby on a couch, in the living room. They both share toothbrushes and an aversion for outside influences. Local social worker often plants herself at the door, questioning Chelli about her decision to lock her sister inside the apartment while going to work. Just as we see Chelli fiercely shielding Gabby, on a physical level, it works like a shining exploration of motherhood (with all the self-sacrifice themes). But, “Next to Her” is much more complex tale since it contemplates on the emotional level of the caregiver, Chelli. Films dealing with intellectually disabled characters often weave it as a heart-breaking tale of one-sided dependency. However, Asaf Korman’s film studies the asphyxiating co-dependency as Chelli requires her younger sister’s disability to lead a functioning life. In the end, “Next to Her” is more a humanist drama on unhealthy co-dependency than a film about taking care of the mentally challenged person.
The film opens with teenagers rattling at locked metal gate. Chelli, the school security guard, lets them out and the shot of her standing beside the bars conveys the trap she has placed upon herself. When afflicted with tension or fear Gabby head-butts the hard tile-floor of the apartment. Whenever Chelli locks her sister inside, she does these head-butts. Despite Gabby’s unpredictable nature, Chelli decides to not place her outside their house, fearing that others would meddle in their affairs. Owing to pressure from social worker, Chelli does send Gabby to a day-care and pick her up after work. The little independence and the friendships Gabby enjoys in the day-care actually makes Chelli little uneasy, despite the weight being taken off her shoulder. As the narrative progresses, writer Liron Ben-Shlush (yes the actress who plays Chelli) examines the nature of damaging symbiotic relationships on the whole; not just confined to the relationship between the sisters. A possibility for effective change happens when Chelli meets the 34 year substitute PE teacher Zohar (Yaakov Daniel Zada).
Zohar stays in a ramshackle flat of his mother. When he has a whirlwind romance with Chelli he immediately decides to move in with her, despite knowing about the situations in there. Chelli loves Zohar so as to desire a carefree life. And, Zohar not only puts up with Gabby’s presence, he earnestly tries to develop a friendship with her. He wants to give Gabby her independence. If Gabby wants to pleasure herself, let’s give the girl some privacy says Zohar. Discomfort sets in when it’s perceived that Chelli leads a life by exerting a control over Gabby’s life. Zohar is breaking at this austere reality she has set off. He doesn’t want Chelli to make love with him in the room and then go off to sleep entwined with Gabby on the couch. He wants Gabby to have her own space and just observe how she takes in that space. The dangerous suspicion Chelli develops on Zohar is based upon this well-intentioned advice of Zohar.
|Liron Ben-Shlush as Chelli & Dana Ivgy as Gabby|
“Next to Her” is a tale of suspicion, insecurity, and jealousy. But thanks to the subtlety we don’t deride at any of the characters. They all have good intentions, which of course don’t lead to good results. When Zohar takes Chelli to his mother’s house and conveys the news about moving in with Chelli, we could get a hint of the overprotective nature. The lines between love and fierce co-dependence increasingly blurs in the narrative trajectory. In the popular opinion, caregivers are only portrayed as endlessly compassionate people. But, here the caregiver's own anger and emotional wants are brilliantly addressed. Writer Liron Ben-Shlush has added vivid details and difficulties involved in taking care of intellectually disabled persons, based on her own experience with her sister. In an interview she explains, “It’s a very personal film, but it’s not my life – I didn’t want to write about the woman I am, but the woman I could have turned into.” The script has originated from the conflicting emotions of love and anger while living alongside a mentally challenged family member. A scene featuring a playful bathing activity lingers uneasily when Chelli’s thinks for a moment to commit an unspeakable act. She is also courageous enough in tackling a taboo subject in cinema – ‘sexuality of the intellectually disabled’. The final revelation does feel a little heavy-handed, although it delivers the necessary emotional punch.
|Chelli meets Zohar in his ramshackle apartment|
From a visual standpoint, director Asaf Korman (married to Liron Ben-Shlush) and cinematographer Amit Yasur propagates few interesting shots. Korman often keeps Gabby, out-of-focus in the background to comment on absence of an every-day life experience for the mentally challenged. The sickly yellow palette is employed to express the increasingly murky relationships between the three characters. There’s distance, detached shots mainly in the outdoor sequences to showcase much they (the sisters) are marginalized from others. Most importantly the visuals don’t stick out in an unnaturalistic or fussy manner. Finally, if everything looks impeccable and convincing on the screen, it is due to the robust central performance from Dana Ivgy and Ben-Shlush. Dana, friend of Korman and daughter of Israeli actor Moshe Ivgy, researched the part by working long hours at the hostel where Ben-Shlush real life sister lives. Viewers unfamiliar with Ivgy’s previous brilliant performance in the movies “Or”, “Jaffa”, “Zero Motivation”, etc would question if she is an actress playing a part. Ben-Shlush is effective in conveying the caring and exasperating emotions of Chelli. The most important part of the performances, apart from the talented portrayal of their respective characters, was the depiction of intimacy between the sisters. Ben-Shlush and Dana creates firm intimacy that’s necessary for the precise emotions the film invokes on us.
“Next To Her” (90 minutes) is an unsettling but gripping human drama about the harmful, self-perpetuated dependencies we create for ourselves. The unflinching eye for details and the strong performances renders an unforgettable movie experience.
About Author -
Arun Kumar is an ardent cinephile, who finds solace by exploring and learning from the unique works of the cinematic art. He believes in the shared-dream experience of cinema and tries to share those thoughts in the best possible way. He blogs at Passion for Movies and 'Creofire'.
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Next to Her (2014) Trailer (YouTube)
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