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Life in the city’s underbelly - A Film Review

Hand in hand . . . a scene from "Last Stop"

With Last Stop, Shula Spiegel Productions and Dana Eden have produced an Israeli film masterpiece. The documentary film won a place in this year's DocAviv festival in Tel Aviv to take part in the Israeli competition beside 14 other Israeli entries from among 70 local applicants. It is destined to become a classic of the underside of Israeli society.

Last Stop's subject is ostensibly Tel Aviv's central bus station, still commonly referred to as the "new" station, although it has been operating for 21 years. "A massive hulk of urban blight," Eetta Prince-Gibson, has called it in Haaretz; "definitely Israel's most reviled and repulsive edifice." The seven story terminal crammed into an urban island of south Tel Aviv is the originating and end point of bus routes throughout the metropolis and the country.

"I think he may have been on LSD when he built this place," a senior station employee says, referring to architect Ram Karmi.

With its surrealistic corridors leading in circles, its giant walls painted in garish primary colors, its confusing escalators and unhelpful information booth, its overflowing displays of second-rate merchandise, and its eerie neon lighting, the New Central Bus Station could well have been the negative star of a film about how not to design urban architecture.

But Last Stop is something else. In fact, the heroes and anti-heroes of the film are not the building itself, but rather the people who spend their days – and their lives – inside it. All look reluctant to be there.

Youth gangs roam, stealing and attacking. Homeless people wrapped in dirty blankets sleep outdoors on concrete roofs. Security personnel guard entranceways, constantly monitoring the corridors and quays via a nerve center of closed circuit cameras. Employees are taught to use stun guns, mace, and revolvers.

"You are always in stress," one says. "You know this is a place with people who have nothing to lose."

A white security guard whose mother beat her as a child has six children of her own. Five are in boarding schools. That's the best place for them because "they don't have to see what goes on around here. This neighborhood is no place for kids. It's for them I work and get up in the morning, so I can spoil them. I am not the best mother in the world, I make mistakes, I learn." She starts to cry. But on the job she always smiles: "I was taught to put my personal issues aside. You come to work, work is work, focus on work."

Racial difference triggers tension. Poor white Israeli Jews feel dispossessed and marginalized in the neighborhood of their birth. They feel engulfed by a sea of Sudanese and Eritrean laborers, migrants and asylum seekers who crowd into the dilapidated neighborhood. They do not hesitate to hurl epithets or threats, nor to use ugly language.

"Monkey!" Israelis scream at the blacks. "Go back to Africa!"

Painted on the wall of a shabby dilapidated building: "Africans stop spitting on the stairs…"

Feisty outspoken activist May Golan leads her neighbors to fight the foreign influx. She excoriates the people of north Tel Aviv: "You can't make us look bad and pathetic. You threw us in the garbage where Israel's garbage is…I need to erase the stigma of my neighborhood."

The film attempts to take an objective stand to give voice to all the aggrieved, yet it is the Africans who emerge with most dignity.

A Sudanese man fearful of deportation speaks out: "I don't know if it's a matter of color or what…Actually we are not counted…because you are no one…something in you, the personality changes, you start to believe whatever you're doing is nothing. A sense of self confidence." Pointing to his small son who was born in Israel, he says, "Maybe an angel could have changed his color in Ichilov." Finally, the camera pictures the man on the way to deportation, kissing his family goodbye and lugging behind him the 30 kilos he is allowed to take with him out of the country.

A black Israeli who works in a braiding hair salon declares, "The worst feeling in the world is not to have an ID – without it you are nothing. You don't exist." The camera follows her into her crumbling apartment where she tries to bring up her little son in cleanliness and dignity. Her electric service is supplied not directly by the electric company, but by pre-paid increments she purchases from an electric supply store. After she punches a code into the building's electric meter, her 100 shekels worth of power start to flow.

This and other incidents will open the eyes of many Israelis, exposing the raw reality of a harsh world a 10 minute bus ride from where they live.

Last Stop is gritty, seamy, violent, and mesmerizing. It is a documentary in the best tradition of the urban expose. Last Stop won the distinction of opening the DocAviv festival and won the competition's Best Research Award. Judges said the film "dives courageously into a perplexing labyrinth" and called it a "disturbing picture of a city in transition". It deserved the honor.

Last Stop directed by Julie Shles, written by Julie Shles and Sharon Alubik, produced by Shula Spiegel and Dana Eden. 



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