Ten-year-old Adam is lonely. At home, in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Massuah, his parents — still grieving for Adam’s older brother, who died in a car accident a year ago — barely notice him as he gathers his things and leaves.
At school, he’s bullied by a pack of tough kids and he doesn’t fare much better with his teacher, a supercilious grump who fears that Adam’s poor academic performance will compromise his status as a star educator.
After school, Adam sits on the roof of his apartment building with only his smartphone as company, watching a video of himself and his dead brother, Assaf, teasing each other in happier times.
If ever there were a child who needed a friend, it’s Adam. And he gets a friend — one who brings plenty of complications.
In the tradition of Spielberg’s “E.T.,” Miyazaki’s “My Neighbor Totoro” and even Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” the Israeli film “Abulele” tells what happens to Adam’s family and community when Adam, played by Yoav Sadian Rosenberg, is befriended by a gigantic creature who can’t really talk but has a penchant for high-fructose corn syrup.
The hulking, furry creature with cat-like green eyes is only visible to certain children at certain times; adults who want to track them have to rely on a heat signature. And while Adam and the Abulele become friends, play catch, share sweets and build a bond — defeating some bullies in the process — the Israeli police assembles an elite squad of hunters to kill the Abulele and any other creatures of its ilk. While the Abulele evades capture with Adam’s help, Adam has to alternately hide the monster and persuade family and friends that the monster exists.
Directed by Jonathan Geva and released in Israel in 2015, “Abulele,” which won numerous awards on the international festival circuit, now gets an American release through Epic Pictures — first as an exclusive opportunity for Amazon Prime subscribers during the week of Passover, and then in wide release online.
The co-founder of Hollywood-based Epic Pictures, Israeli Shaked Berenson, said the company initially acquired the film thinking they would do an English-language remake.
“But because the movie’s so fantastic, we decided to put it into a lot of festivals,” he said, “and we released it in France, in Poland and in a bunch of other countries. It premiered in North America in the Toronto Film Festival last April.”
“Abulele” showcases the most normal, pedestrian version of everyday life in Jerusalem, divorced from war or conflict.
Adam goes to an average school that looks and functions like any school you’re likely to see in America, whether on film or in real life. Children sit at their desks and wait impatiently for recess; they moan with irritation at the mention of a pop quiz. Adam and his middle-class family live in an apartment that could be in an East Coast city just as easily as Jerusalem. Sweeping aerial shots of southwestern Jerusalem show the tops of apartment buildings, cars on busy streets, Coke signs on the front of a corner store. It’s refreshing to see a vision of Israel that’s not overwrought or laden with symbolism.
As for distribution here, Berenson said they’re not expecting to garner a huge audience with a subtitled movie, which is a notoriously hard sell for Americans.
“We’re basically bringing it for Jewish and Israeli families here,” he said. “It’s very hard to find a family film that you can watch with the parents, the grandparents and also the kids. Because it deals with both issues of the family and the kids hiding the monster, it kind of speaks to everyone. I hope everyone is going to enjoy it this Passover.” JN
This article first appeared in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, a Jewish News-affiliated publication.