or my treasure

Throughout cinema history, the oldest profession in the world has proven to be a fecund subject matter. Or (My Treasure), the debut feature by the Israeli female filmmaker Keren Yedaya and the 2004 winner of the Caméra d’Or, also deals with this familiar subject matter. However, Yedaya’s work stands above most other films dealing with this theme, as it is subject to neither the romanticized projections nor the privileged moralizing of male filmmakers.

Or, a pretty and well-liked teenager of around 16, has been forced to assume the guardian’s role for her mother, a recovering streetwalker. While Or struggles to make ends meet by recycling bottles and doing odd jobs, she is also desperately trying to keep both her mother and herself from having to resort to lives of prostitution. The audience never sees or hears about her father—in fact, Yedaya takes pains to steer clear of any tropes that may veer into the territory of bathos.

The film starts with a stationary outdoor shot of a busy Tel Aviv intersection. For a filmmaker directing a debut feature about such an emotional topic, Yedaya displays remarkable restraint and control, both with the camera and the characters. She depicts the grittiness and the immediacy evident in other recent quality films depicting the disenfranchised–like Brillante Mendoza’s Serbis–while avoiding the misguided poverty porn stylizations of films like Slumdog Millionaire and Precious. Cluttered and cramped mise-en-scenes in which the characters usually occupy the edges of the frames quietly emphasize their marginalized status. Cameras usually stay still, reinforcing the lack of social mobility in the lives of Or and her mother.

Without resorting to didacticism or pandering to easy sympathies, the film emphasizes the point that the main hurdle for the disenfranchised and the impoverished is not that they never encounter opportunities to improve their lives. The real challenge for them is that they have only a miniscule margin of error. The conventional wisdom that all human beings are entitled to make mistakes simply does not apply to those on the margins. The Paris Hiltons and the Kim Kardashians can make their initiation with the general public through porn movies and emerge even more privileged and empowered than they already were. Such career choices are unavailable to the Ors of the world. For the have-nots, one seemingly harmless instance of capitulating to old bad habits can mean falling off the proverbial wagon of opportunity for good. The privileged can get back into their posh sedans after taking a detour, but the poor must wait in the rainstorm for the next bus which may never come.

Or’s ultimate tragedy is not that she has to play the role of an adult, but that she never gets the chance to be a child. Once she falls from her precarious balancing act, her descent into a personal hell is as precipitous as can be. Some may see this as a first-time director’s overzealous desire to guilt the audience, but it serves well as a reminder that for those on the margins the line between legitimacy and depravity is indeed paper-thin.

After Or comes home from her first day as an escort, her mom also nonchalantly gets ready for another night on the streets. She either simply ignores or fails to notice that Or is now following in her path. The vicious cycle to which the two are condemned is a circle of living hell more immediate and affecting than any that even Dante himself could have imagined.

Or will live on, but in a life of measured time, abuse, and pain. The 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes described the life of man as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” And at the dawn of this new millennium, Keren Yedaya’s Or (My Treasure) effectively reminds us that for those exploited women on the fringes of society, those words continue to have more resonance than ever.w