Jerusalem Film Festival Review: STRUNG OUT

A truly grim doc about women living - and dying - on the streets of Tel Aviv.

The untranslated title of this film is Daughter of a Whore, which is a much better representation of it than Strung Out. A gritty, black and white documentary about junkie street walkers in Tel Aviv, it’s the personal connection of filmmaker Nirit Aharoni, who is the titular daughter of a whore, that makes the film stand out.

The film begins with Aharoni on her bike, filming herself as she travels to The Door of Hope, a Christian shelter for homeless women in Tel Aviv. Israel has this image as the Holy Land (because it’s the Holy Land, duh) but Tel Aviv, perched on beautiful beaches on the Mediterranean, is a hedonistic and secular city that boasts an all-night party culture that couldn’t be further from Jerusalem’s heavy holiness. It’s into this maelstrom of sun and surf and sex that women from all over Europe and the Middle-East come to have fun, make money and, in many cases, fall into horrors.

Strung Out is slow and unflinching, spending a lot of time just looking at skeletal drug addicts as they struggle to do something as mundane as bring a spoonful of cereal to their mouths. These women are at the very bottom, turning vicious tricks for pennies, just trying to get a fix that will help them make it through their daily suffering. The Door of Hope doesn’t offer them much by way of services - no real counseling, no detox program, only a bed and some food and some prayer. And those beds aren’t even available overnight; underfunded The Door of Hope must close every evening.

But every city in the world has strung out junkies getting into stranger’s cars for degrading assignations to maintain their scraping by survival. What makes Strung Out stand apart from any other doc on the subject is the fact that Aharoni’s mother was a drug addicted prostitute, and that the filmmaker has come to the Door of Hope in order to better understand the world from which her mother was coming (and which she never saw - Aharoni was taken from her mother at a very young age and adopted).

Aharoni’s quest offers the counterpoint needed to keep Strung Out from becoming suicidally grim. A single mother herself, she is trying to come to grips with where women stand in her society, all the while trying to find her birth mother. Along the way we catch glimpses into Aharoni’s life and see her daughter - about to do her stint in the IDF - partying on the same streets where these women are working.

But while this keeps the movie from being suicidally grim, Strung Out is almost unbearably grim. The gritty, low def black and white photography - occasionally enlivened with sudden bursts of post-production color - brings every crevice, every scar, every abscess on these women’s bodies into sharp focus. This is the sort of doc that spends a lot of time with a woman who has a maggot infestation in her leg, to give you a sense of the overall grimness. It’s the kind of doc that has a post-script revealing how many (too many) of its subjects have died in the last few months.

The movie ends on a note of hope and rebirth, but perhaps Aharoni should have broken some doc rules and focused on herself a bit more. The hopeful finale feels like it comes from left field, and is sort of unconnected with the misery we have endured for the previous two hours. I understand the documentarian’s desire to not  make it all about herself, but I think she - in conjunction with these women - makes for an intriguing subject.