By Erika Engstrom
This article demonstrates how Israeli director Eytan Fox’s 2004 film Walk on Water (Lalechet Al Ha-Mayim) can be utilized to teach concepts of multiculturalism, interculturalism, and intercultural communication competence. A textual analysis of the film’s visual and dialogic content demonstrates how narrative and aesthetic elements, such as those in Walk on Water, provide viewers cognitively and emotionally provocative stories that promote the pro-social goals of intercultural communication.
Keywords: Walk on Water, Eytan Fox, Israeli film, interculturalism, multiculturalism
Beyond their entertainment value, popular films provide educators with what Champoux described as an “excellent medium for giving meaning to theories and concepts” (211) through visual and auditory effects that keep students’ interest. By reifying such abstractions via storytelling that evokes emotive responses from viewers, movies thus offer both cognitive and affective experiences (Champoux), which can often stay with the viewers beyond traditional lecture content. In higher education, the use of movie clips or entire filmic works have been found to serve as effective tools to teach students across a range of levels and disciplines, including history (Weinstein), international relations (Engert and Spencer), medicine (Alexander, Hall, Pettice; Lumlertgul, Kijpaisalratana, Pityaratstian, and Wangsaturaka), nursing (Wilson, Blake, Taylor and Hannings), and social work (Lee and Priester).
Briam, citing others, noted that although fictional films aren’t “real life,” they do lead us back to it (see also Tidwell). When actual observation and immersion in cultures other than one’s own may be limited or unfeasible, movies oftentimes serve as stand-ins; they “simulate the natural observation process” (Cardon 151) that happens when one encounters other cultures. Thus, literature and film hold the potential for understanding intercultural relations, themes, and how characters resolve conflicts stemming from cultural differences. Condon further explaines that literature “allows for more varied points of view, more emotional involvement, and the taking of a stand on issues” (Cardon 153). Indeed, when one considers the goals of intercultural education, the advantages of using entertainment that engenders similar goals, such as mutual understanding and intercultural competence, “we need to utilize more full the power of the image and word in our understanding of intercultural communication” (Condon 153).
In this vein, this paper addresses the ways in which Israeli director Eytan Fox’s 2004 film Walk on Water (Lalechet Al Ha-Mayim), about an Israeli Mossad agent who goes undercover to find the Nazi grandfather of two German siblings, offers a venue in which to explore concepts associated with intercultural education. Specifically, the purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how this film illustrates multiculturalism and interculturalism, concepts related to the study of intercultural communication. Multiculturalism refers to “the recognition and celebration of cultural differences” (Morrison and Chung 165). Interculturalism moves beyond recognition of difference in that changes created by increased interconnectness of people across the globe. As Cantile explains on the website “About Interculturalism,” interculturalism “demands interaction between and within cultures to build trust and understanding” with an additional caveat that “a high level of cultural navigational skills will be necessary for people to accept and endorse the change process.”
Interculturalism requires both tolerance of diversity and interaction with other cultures (Casoni and Gindro). The need to interact with others outside our own cultures in turn requires competence in intercultural communication. Weinstein pointed to film as a “comfortable, nonthreatening” (30) medium that appeals to students, whom he observed have become more visually oriented. In the context of using popular movies to spur conversations and reflections about intercultural issues such as racism, stereotyping, and prejudice, films provide a site removed from discussants and allows for talking about films and their characters rather than themselves. Indeed, a plethora of research utilizing popular films in intercultural communication education efforts attests to the power of entertainment to educate in this vein, with the foci of the films examined in these academic works largely aimed at the U.S. market (Briam; Cardon; Lee and Priester; Pandey and Ardichvili; Tidwell; Villalba and Redmond).
When approaching the topic of intercultural communication, however, even as “other” cultures are portrayed, they in the main are comparisons to some form of “American” culture. In that, as Weinstein observed, the use of films in teaching serves as an chance to “expand the cultural palette of students” (31), the Israeli film Walk on Water offers a pathway into the appreciation of “foreign” films, while simultaneously illustrating terms and theories relevant to the instruction of intercultural communication. This article thus examines how Walk on Water illustrates a celebration of diversity and the beneficial outcomes of interculturalism as it forwards pro-social values, such as acceptance and empathy—those values that mark what Condon described as the goal of intercultural communication studies itself: “change through understanding, most especially of self-understanding” (154).
Walk on Water (Lalechet Al Ha-Mayim)
Set mainly in Israel and Germany, Walk on Water (2004) stars popular Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi as Eyal, a Mossad assassin who befriends a German brother and sister, Axel (Knut Berger) and Pia Himmelman (Carolina Peters), in order to find their grandfather, a Nazi war criminal. As he befriends Axel, a “peacenik,” Eyal embarks on a personal journey that leads him to a new life and worldview. The film opens with Eyal calmly and coolly carrying out an assassination in front of the target’s family during a boat excursion in Istanbul, Turkey. When Eyal returns home to Israel, he discovers the body of his wife, who has committed suicide. As a means of giving Eyal a reprieve from another assassination assignment, Eyal is tasked with what his boss considers an “easy” job: go undercover, befriend the German siblings, and find their grandfather. Eyal poses as a tour guide hired by Pia, who has moved to Israel and lives on a kibbutz, to take the visiting Axel sightseeing around Israel.
The interactions between Eyal and Axel explore their seemingly vast differences— national, cultural, and personal. Eyal’s prejudices against Germans, homosexuals, and Palestinians are challenged by Axel, who is German, gay, and expresses empathy for Palestinians. Axel and Pia take an overnight visit to Tel Aviv escorted by Eyal. At the restaurant where they have a fancy dinner, Axel asks their waiter, an Arab named Rafiq, where to go to enjoy the nightlife. At a gay dance club recommended by Rafiq, it dawns on Eyal that Axel is gay. Axel and Rafiq “hook up,” and the next day Rafiq takes Axel to his uncle’s shop in a Palestinian town south of Jerusalem. Eyal becomes angry when he thinks that Axel is overcharged by the uncle for a coat, and makes the man lower his price. As the group leaves, Rafiq tells Eyal that Israelis never seem to forgive what has happened to them in the past. Eyal cuts him off, but Rafiq still politely thanks Eyal for the ride.
When Axel’s visit is over, he invites Eyal to visit Berlin, despite what happened at the shop. Eyal rebuffs the offer. However, Eyal is directed to visit Axel in Berlin as part of his mission to find Axel’s grandfather. His task changes from bringing the old man back to Israel to assassinating him. While in Berlin, Eyal and Axel enjoy some street food, a drink at a bar, and run into a group of Axel’s friends, dressed in drag, in the subway. As Eyal and Axel leave the subway, Axel’s friends are attacked by some neo-Nazi thugs; the two return to defend the group and Eyal pulls a gun on the attackers, which reveals his perfect use of German to tell them to stop and the very fact that he has a gun (jeopardizing his cover). Axel, while surprised at this, nevertheless invites Eyal to his family estate for his father’s birthday party—which unbeknownst to him turns out to also be a homecoming for his Nazi grandfather.
When Eyal eventually finds the room where the elderly grandfather, in obviously failing health, is sleeping, he prepares to complete the assassination via poison. He abruptly stops and leaves the room, unable to kill yet again. Rather, it is Axel who completes the job—a metaphor for Germany to reject its Nazi past. Axel then finds Eyal, who says he can’t kill anymore. Eyal breaks down, weeping as Axel holds him. In the next scene, “TWO YEARS LATER” appears on the screen. The viewer listens to Eyal’s voiceover as he writes an e-mail to Axel describing a dream he had about them both walking on water. The viewer learns that Eyal has left the Mossad and has an infant son; he has found another life, one that centers on peace and starting a family of his own—with Pia. The film concludes with a new family configuration in which Eyal and Axel literally become brothers, one that serves as a metaphor for peace and reconciliation.
The film was shot with a reported budget of $1.4 million (Feinstein), and took in $4.4 million worldwide (Box Office Mojo). While not a record breaker in Israel, its international sales made it the highest grossing Israeli film at that time (Hagin). Media coverage addressed director Eytan Fox’s own background as U.S.-born but Israeli raised (Fox), and his gay identity and relationship with the film’s screenwriter, Gal Uchovsky (Feinstein). Many Israeli critics, noted Hagin, found that the film had too many faults, especially the implausible happy ending and the non-credible portrayal of Eyal as a Mossad agent. Reviews in U.S. media outlets ranged from rather unenthusiastic (Gonzalez; Felperin; Kemp), to more positive (Austerlitz; Becker; Garret; Korevsky; Stevens; Turan). Garret concluded that the film “offers pleasure and insight, including the pleasure of insight as it explores family, politics–the relationship between Germans and Israeli Jews, and the possibilities for friendship, love, and sex.” The New York Times’ Stevens noted that, despite its “cloying” conclusion, the film’s “quiet intelligence sneaks up on you” (E13).
As an entrant in several film festivals, such as the Toronto Film Festival and Outfest in Los Angeles (Vlessing), and the Berlinale international film festival (Hagin), it won or was nominated for several awards in Israel and abroad. These included Israeli Film Academy nominations for best director, actor, and screenplay and awards for best music and sound. It was nominated for best foreign film by the French César Awards, the St. Louis Film Critics Association’s best foreign language film, and outstanding film in limited release for the GLAAD Media Awards, and won the audience award at the Washington Jewish Film Festival and the National Board of Review’s award for top foreign film (“Awards—Walk on Water”).
Academic treatments have addressed the film’s content and implications from several angles and disciplines. Hagin critiqued the film’s portrayal of the “weeping male” trope in Israeli films, which ties suffering to Israeli identity. Approaching the film through the lens of German victimhood discourse, Seidel-Arpaci examined the effects of historical trauma as experienced by the characters of Eyal, Axel, and Pia, noting that “the German siblings’ suffering and their emotional rescue of Eyal—and thus Israel—is equally at the heart of the narrative” (213). Yosef similarly examined how overcoming the trauma of the Holocaust served as a means by which to re-imagine Israeli masculinity through the Eyal character (“Phatasmatic Losses”). Regarding the interconnectedness between Israel and Germany, Baer unpacked the symbolism of the physical setting of certain scenes, such as Eyal and Axel’s confrontation with the neo-Nazi thugs in the Berlin subway. Richelson included the film in an analysis of movie portrayals of Mossad. Notably, several works cite and explain the film within the context of its director’s oeuvre (Yosef, “Homonational Desires”) as well as Israeli cinema in general (Ofengenden).
Beyond the socio-political and national identity aspects imbued in the film, other treatments of the film offer yet additional alternative readings. Kokin analyzed the theological aspects of the film. The scene at the end of the film depicting Eyal’s dream that he and Axel were walking on water together served as “an astounding moment in Israeli cinema: the joint reenactment of one of Jesus’ greatest miracles by German and Israeli protagonists” representing “the personification of Yahweh walking on water alongside Christ” (Kokin 375). Viewing the film through the eyes of a psychotherapist, Tyminski’s optimistic approach considered the interpersonal communication between the two main characters, with the Axel character serving a therapeutic role to the emotionally closed-off Eyal: “This film, along with its seductive musical score, stands alone as an intriguing and gripping story to be recommended for viewing, Yet, it may also give analysts and psychotherapists an unusual view into the complex intersections of history, trauma, repression, and, in particular, masculinity,” he concluded (101).
As an indication of Walk on Water’s “teachable” moments, the American Zionist Movement’s (AZM) movie guide, available online, offers a viewing “roadmap” with which to critically analyze the film. The guide includes explanations of the historical events and context related to the film, such as the Holocaust, and the film’s setting during the Second Intifada. The Second Intifada refers to the period of heightened violence between 2000 and 2005 that followed failed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian territory (Hasan) and in which “over 1,000 Israelis died from terrorism and in military operations, while over 3,000 Palestinians civilians and militants were killed, mostly at the hands of Israeli forces” (Byman). AZM’s movie guide also explains aspects of Israeli culture and national identity, such as gender roles in Israeli society and Israeli attitudes toward Germans. The movie guide concludes with a “critical analysis” section that explains how the narrative leads to a denouement in which Eyal “develops the ability to see people as individuals and not merely as representations of the larger movements and forces at work in the world” (47).
Approaching the current inquiry via a textual analysis of the film available on DVD with English subtitles, the author was familiar with the film and had screened it several times during the teaching of an intercultural communication course prior to another viewing for the purposes of this study. Using multiculturalism and interculturalism as organizing concepts, the author noted references to and geographic settings filmed, music soundtrack and music actually listened to by the characters, depiction of food eaten, portrayal of characters and their cultural representation, and languages used in interactional dialogue. These visual and audio elements served as categories for evidence of multiculturalism through depictions of diversity and cultural differences based on geography, music, cultural identity of characters, languages spoken, and food.
Interactions between characters served as material for identifying interculturalism and related concepts in intercultural education, particularly prejudice and stereotyping and qualities of intercultural communication competence. Eyal and Axel’s interactions and relational development related to interculturalism, with the film’s conclusion serving as evidence for its goals. Examples of prejudice and stereotyping were based on Eyal’s dialogue with his fellow Mossad agents and supervisor, in addition to scenes in which he manifests his prejudices, such as the argument at Rafiq’s uncle’s shop. Following descriptions of the film’s multicultural and interculturalist elements, the effects of interculturalism in regards to the film’s denouement are discussed.
MULTICULTURISM: GEOGRAPHY, LANUGAGES, MUSIC, AND FOOD
The various film locations depicted in Walk on Water include not only the two countries where most of the action occurs, Israel and Germany, but also the setting for the opening scene, Turkey. When the viewer meets Eyal, he is taking a boat ride as he poses as a tourist in Istanbul.
Although the scene could be limited to just following him as he follows the target of his assassination mission, the viewer hears a female voice over the public announcement system on the boat as she describes various landmarks during the boat tour. She not only describes the Bosphorus Bridge as connecting Europe and Asia and having been built in 1973, but puts the site in historical context by telling the passengers, “In the last 2,000 years, many nations wanted to control this special place” that links the two continents. Another bridge is described as the Sultan Mehmet Bridge, which opened in 1988. While seemingly inconsequential, the inclusion of descriptions of bridges also becomes a foreshadowing of sorts, with the physical structures in a key nexus in world geography symbolizing the future relationship between the German Axel and Israeli Eyal.
During Axel’s visit to Pia in Israel, the viewer visits and learns about several locales as Eyal takes Axel sightseeing. Prior to their sojourn, Axel displays knowledge of the places he wants to see, illustrating he has done his research. Axel tells Eyal he wants to see the city of Haifa and “the Sea of Galilee, Kinneret.” “You seem to know the country pretty well,” responds Eyal, impressed by Axel’s knowledge that in Israel the Sea of Galilee is known as Lake Kinneret.1 It is on the shore of Kinneret that Axel tries to “walk on water,” to the amusement of Eyal. They also visit the Dead Sea, where they cover themselves in the sea’s mud, a practice based on the mud’s reputation as a restorative skin treatment.
Axel, Pia, and Eyal also take a trip to Tel Aviv, known for its nightlife. There they have dinner at a fancy restaurant and visit a nightclub. In the nighttime scenes of the city, indications of globalization can be seen, as the camera scans the street, showing a McDonald’s restaurant sign in English and in Hebrew on the side of building. The group also goes to Jerusalem, involving a side trip in which Axel goes with Rafiq to buy a coat at Rafiq’s uncle’s shop in Bayt Jala, a Palestinian town south of Jerusalem on the West Bank. Eyal takes Pia to the Wailing Wall. There he asks Pia if she wants to place a note in the wall, a customary practice. “This is the Wall. Maybe you’d like to put a note there. The religious believe God reads them,” Eyal informs her.
Later, Eyal visits Axel in Berlin as part of his continuing mission to find the siblings’ grandfather. During their drive to Axel’s parents’ house, they stop at a roadside hotel for coffee. Looking out the restaurant window Axel explains to Eyal, “That was the first highway in Germany. In the ‘20s they had car races here.” He then explains that the grandstand next to the highway was where politicians and aristocrats would sit. “And then, Hitler,” Eyal asks. “Yes, he was sitting there, too,” replies Axel. This historical tidbit reminds the viewer of the reason for Eyal’s relationship with Axel up to this point in the film—even as Eyal starts to show signs of actually liking Axel as a person rather than simply a means to completing his mission. These various locales and brief descriptions of their historical significance become points at which students can learn about world history. Especially cogent are the cultural practices that mark their uniqueness, such as the Dead Sea mud treatment and the Wailing Wall’s prominence as a religious site.
Multilingualism serves as one of the more prominent markers of multiculturalism in the film, with Hebrew, German, Arabic, and English spoken at various points. Eyal speaks all four languages, and Axel and Pia, are native German speakers, proficient in English, and learning Hebrew. Code switching, which refers to “the selection of language to be used in particular interactions by individuals who can speak multiple languages” (Lustig and Koester 175), is prominent in several scenes throughout the film. Indeed, in the first few moments of the opening scene in Istanbul, the wife of Eyal’s target speaks Arabic after her husband collapses, then starts shouting “Help! Help! Help! Please help!” in English. When Axel reunites with Pia on the kibbutz, the two speak German; Pia switches to Hebrew when talking to Eyal. When Eyal replies in fast-paced Hebrew, Pia says in Hebrew, “You speak too fast,” whereupon she switches to English, saying, “I don’t speak very good Hebrew.” Within this conversation one hears the three different languages, with English serving as a sort of third-party verbal code.2
Pia’s learning of Hebrew offers a short lesson for viewers in addition to a marker of her intercultural competence. During one scene in her kibbutz apartment, Axel notices that there is a piece of paper taped to the refrigerator with the Hebrew word “MEKARĒR.” Pia then points to the notes she has taped to other items: “AROHN” on a cupboard (for “chest”) and “DELET” on the door. On her front door is a small sign as well, with her name “Pia” written in Roman letters and in Hebrew. Throughout the film, visual indicators of a global perspective appear in footage in Israel, with signage in English and Hebrew. The learning of certain terms and their utterance by characters adds to this aspect of multiculturalism; Axel even calls his parents’ villa their “kibbutz” later in the film.
The multilingualism in dialogue is enhanced by the variety of musical styles and artists that make up the film’s soundtrack. Music serves as a peripheral cultural difference; it is a matter of taste, not core values, and can reflect one’s own personal tastes as well. Eyal prefers American rock music, while Axel prefers songs performed by women singers only.3 Included in the soundtrack are songs by Israeli artists, such as Ivri Lider and Sivan Shavit, and Italian singer Gigliola Cinquetti. Several songs feature the Israeli singer Esther Ofarim, whom Axel notes was popular in Germany in the 1980s, and whose 1968 song “Cinderella Rockafella” with her husband Abi is a favorite of Axel and Pia (“Soundtracks”). They performed a lip synch act to it as children and during the kibbutz’s entertainment night. Familiar to U.S. audiences in particular is Bruce Springsteen, whose “Tunnel of Love” makes an audio presence; Eyal is a fan of “The Boss” and listens to the song while driving Axel during their tour in Israel and later while relaxing at home. The range of song styles and artists highlights cultural differences while also adding to the theme of making connections between peoples. Indeed, in his review of the film, Koresky noted Walk on Water’s soundtrack as one of the highlights of the film.
Opening the film is a funk-sounding version of Stephen Stills’ protest song “For What It’s Worth,” remixed by German DJ and arranger Shantel (using a Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66 version). The song serves as a motif throughout the film. The Buffalo Springfield version of the same song also plays in the taxi Eyal rides in when he arrives in Berlin later in the film. The song’s allusions to the uncertainty of turbulent times can be applied to the Second Intifada, the historical setting of the film. At the Himmelman estate in Berlin, the use of music also becomes a means for irony when Axel teaches the German partygoers at his father’s birthday celebration the Israeli folk dance to the same music that was played when he learned the dance at Pia’s kibbutz. Just a few feet away from the party, unbeknownst to Axel, is his Nazi grandfather, flown in by his mother as a surprise. The performance of an Israeli folk dance juxtaposed with the source of Israel’s founding further alludes to the downfall of Nazi Germany.
One obvious marker of cultural difference is food. Although food does not appear prominently in this film, aside from mentions of fish by the tour guide announcement during the Istanbul sequence and in the kibbutz dining hall, new and different foods can offer a way to foreshadow change and acceptance of different “others.” One scene in particular features food as a means of alluding to Eyal’s slow but steady change during his visit to Berlin, when Axel treats him to some German fast food on the street: currywurst (curry ketchup sauce covering sausage). Fleeting though this scene may be, it comes at a point in the narrative where Axel gives Eyal a tour of his own country, a role reversal that allows Eyal to change not only his worldview, but eventually his life as well.
INTERCULTURISM AND INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE
“He was trained to hate, until he met the enemy,” reads the promotional tagline for the film that appears on the DVD packaging. In that stereotyping and prejudice are key concepts in intercultural education, this aspect of Walk on Water becomes especially central in Eyal’s narrative. Throughout the film, he is confronted by those whom he has a pre-established dislike, bordering on hatred. Axel represents two groups of people that Eyal has a problem with: Axel is German and he is gay. Eyal’s prejudices are revealed in his conversations with his supervisor Menachem and a fellow Mossad agent. Eyal already resents having to spy on the Germans Axel and Pia, and when he finally realizes that Axel is gay during the group’s outing in Tel Aviv, he becomes even more resentful. In addition to Axel’s sexual orientation and national heritage, his compassion and empathy for the Palestinian suicide bombers early in the film irks Eyal. During their tour of the Israeli countryside, a suicide bombing had just occurred in Haifa. Talking about the incident, Axel asks Eyal, “Did you ever think about why these people are doing this? I mean how desperate they are to go out and kill themselves?” “What’s to think?” replies an unmoved Eyal. “They’re animals.” Axel goes on to say that the Palestinians have mothers and children, to which Eyal asks why they’re killing Israeli mothers and children. “There’s nothing to think about,” Eyal says, ending the conversation.
Eyal’s hatred for Palestinians turns to mistreatment when Axel purchases a coat from Rafiq’s uncle, an Arab. Eyal thinks Axel is overcharged, and makes the uncle give back Axel more change. However, hints of civility do become apparent in Eyal’s interaction with Rafiq after the argument at Rafiq’s uncle’s shop. The scene ends on a somewhat polite note, as Rafiq thanks him giving him a ride, to which Eyal says you’re welcome. Though appearing minor, this particular interaction between Eyal and Rafiq does not escalate into further anger. Rather, Rafiq’s calm demeanor counters Eyal’s brusqueness, demonstrating how civility on a personal level often highlights that a hated “other” is an individual person who deserves to be treated decently.
Popular thought in the area of intercultural communication holds that creating opportunities for contact between members of differing cultures creates positive attitudes, but evidence shows this is not always the case, as noted by Lustig and Koester. They cite the work of Gordon Allport, whose “contact hypothesis” (289) requires that, in order to reduce prejudice, interactions need to have support from high status individuals, be invested with a personal stake by participants, and be viewed as constructive and enjoyable. Cantile, in “About Interculturalism,” points to the contribution of Allport and others, concluding that “these findings reinforce the view that contact has a significant role to play in prejudice reduction, and has great policy potential as a means to improve intergroup relations, because it can simultaneously impact large numbers of people.”
In that interculturalism stresses the urgency of interacting with cultural others as a path to peace and harmony, Eyal’s interactions with Axel illustrate how personal communication can achieve this end. Although initially put off by Axel, whom he saw as a “pseudo liberal” who held too much sympathy for “the other side” (Palestinians), Eyal’s experiences with Axel during their time in Israel and in Berlin are portrayed onscreen as mostly positive and even fun. In Berlin, Eyal takes off his Mossad agent mask and becomes himself, even asking Axel questions about the etiquette of gay sex; this somewhat humorous conversation simultaneously becomes a way for the two to become psychologically intimate. Over the course of the film, scenes between Eyal and Axel build upon previous ones; they get to know each other as persons, illustrating the importance of positive interactions in overcoming prejudice and hate.
The portrayals of Axel and Pia point to another aspect of the film that relates to interculturalism and intercultural education in general: the display of personality traits and skills that make for competent intercultural communicators. Arasaratnam and Doerfel interviewed a sample of Americans and internationals at a large university, asking them what qualities describe competent intercultural communicators. Respondents described competent intercultural individuals as person-centered, sensitive, kind, having experience with and wanting to learn about different cultures, and open to others.
Both Axel and Pia display these traits throughout the film. The viewer sees both Axel and Pia seeking new cultural experiences and proficiency: Pia has moved to Israel, lives on a kibbutz, and actively learns Hebrew and Axel does his research about Israel and learns the Israeli folk dance while at the kibbutz. Further, Axel tells Eyal he will teach the dance to “his” children—the immigrant children for whom he is a teacher in Berlin—and teaches the dance as a birthday gift to his father, sharing his new knowledge with others. That interest in others’ verbal codes also characterizes intercultural competence (Lustig and Koester); in addition to Pia’s learning of Hebrew, several times in the film Eyal corrects Axel’s pronunciation of Israeli names, with Axel repeating the name correctly (such as “Kinneret” and “Ofarim”).
Chen and Starosa cite in particular four attributes of competent intercultural communicators: open-mindedness, nonjudgmental attitudes, social relaxation, and a self-concept that includes optimism and confidence-inspiring outlook, extroversion, and self-reliance. Both Pia and Axel enjoy meeting new people and learning new things and display an open, nonjudgmental attitude toward others. Axel’s empathy for Palestinian suicide bombers illustrates empathy, another trait associated with intercultural competence (Arasaratnam and Doerfel). The siblings’ desire to learn and explore the Israeli land and culture, combined with the way they greet others with emotional openness thus present models for competent intercultural communication. Their only discernible aversion, it appears, is toward their Nazi family heritage; this becomes further emphasized when Axel tells Eyal that the neo-Nazis who attacked Axel’s friends in the Berlin subway “turn the world to sh**” and that Eyal should have killed them. In this regard, the viewer sees that Axel shares with Eyal a worldview that stands against a common foe.
As with other fictional media, Walk on Water conveys a reality of sorts in terms of depicting locales and historical facts central and peripheral to its main narrative. Simultaneously, intercultural communication concepts are reified through the interaction of characters who present to each other in some way an actual cultural “Other.” This article examined how a fictional story can illustrate the benefits that arise from multiculturalism and interculturalism. Multiculturalism becomes evident in the places, languages, and music used in this film, while interculturalism colors the interactions between the main characters of Eyal and Axel. Both are modes designed to reduce prejudice and create a world in which all people can live in harmony (Cantile; Morrison and Chung). Axel and Pia serve as models of intercultural competence, and positive characters that exemplify what it means to be a good human being in general. Storytelling via this particular filmic example of educational entertainment becomes a way to make concepts and theories vivid, while providing models of competent intercultural communicators that invite critical viewing.
This critical viewing is a way to incorporate into intercultural education another concept that relates to intercultural competence: the consideration of viewpoints unfamiliar to one’s own culture. For example, the movie guide for Walk on Water from AZM includes a discussion question aimed at exploring how the film presents the theme of relationships: “How do set characteristics such as nationality, sexual orientation and family background inform a person’s relationship with the outside world? To what extent can beliefs based on this information change over time?” (45). The influences and accumulation of experiences that shape the mechanisms and perspectives through which we relate to this outside world invokes standpoint theory, which “advocates the inclusion of all people and perspectives rather than reifying the status quo or inverting the current hegemonic order. Further, it focuses on how the circumstances and culture of one’s life influence her or his perspective, values, beliefs” (Patton 32). In that empathy serves as one of the pillars of intercultural competence and acknowledgement of one’s own biases and assumptions plays a vital role in attaining intercultural competence, standpoint theory becomes yet another concept to tie to the film’s underlying message of tolerance and understanding. Indeed, although not the focus of the current study, a meta-analysis of the scholarship which has examined Walk on Water serves as a path for further research, one which examines how the authors of these works (as well as film critics’ assessments) approach the same text through different prisms.
The constant and underlying theme of Walk on Water reminds the viewer of the destructive and ongoing aftermath of the Holocaust, and how intolerance, prejudice, and need for revenge only lead to more of the same. At story’s end, the optimism relayed by the new home life of Eyal and Pia—even as critics of the film may have seen it as implausible—offers the viewer a metaphor for the possibility of reconciliation and peace. Eyal becomes family to those whom he considered the enemy. He and Axel have become not only friends, but also brothers, as a result of their intercultural contact and interaction. Their story of what can happen when people see each other as people is underscored by director Eytan Fox’s dedication at the film’s close: “IN MEMORY OF MY MOTHER SARAH KAMINKER A FIGHTER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS AND PEACE.”4 Fox’s final words for the viewer reaffirms the potential for movies to tell cognitively and emotionally provocative stories that promote the pro-social goals of intercultural communication.
1 Reference for all dialogue: Gal Uchovsky (Screenwriter), and Eytan Fox (Director). Walk on Water (Lalechet Al Ha-Mayim). Tel Aviv: Lama Films and United King Films, 2004.
2 Hagin explained that that reason for the film’s multilingualism was to reach an international market. The presence of multiple languages nonetheless adds to the film’s intercultural value.
3 Hagin describes the music preferences of Eyal and Axel as masculine and feminine, respectively, further underscoring their differences even though both are men.
4 In an interview with writer Michael Fox in Jewish Weekly, Eytan Fox described his mother as an “old lefty”; she worked as “a city planner in charge of developing Arab neighborhoods and villages in East Jerusalem” (12b). See the article for more on how Eytan Fox’s mother influenced his outlook and Walk on Water.
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