Friday, April 4, 2008

An Interview with Tehilim Director, Raphael Nadjari

Ilan Dar (left) and Yonathan Alster (right) in Tehilim.

The 17th annual New York Jewish Film Festival was thrilled to welcome Tehilim (2007). An official selection of the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, Tehilim depicts an ordinary Jerusalem family confronted with the father’s mysterious disappearance after a car accident. This perceptive and nuanced film explores how the family members deal with such a sudden and inexplicable loss. The Orthodox paternal grandfather immerses the household in prayer, annoying the more secular-minded mother. And during this time of uncertainty, the children suffer from the absence of a guiding father figure.

Starting April 10th, Tehilim will be screening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. For more information, click here.

To read my interview with Tehilim co-producer, Noah Harlan, click here.

Tehilim was written and directed by French-born writer and director Raphael Nadjari. I recently had the opportunity to interview him by telephone.

In the mid-90s you moved to New York and started making films there. What about New York appealed to you? For me, New York was a very Jewish kind of place where I could explore my identity from another angle and—because I wasn’t born there—with the right distance. But I felt a very close relationship to the city and to the people I met there…In New York, I made three films. The first one was The Shade (1999). It was based on a story by Dostoyevsky that I adapted into a story about a Russian Jewish pawnbroker living in Harlem. Then there was I Am Josh Polonski’s Brother (2001) which was shot in twenty days on super-8. This film is about a Jewish family—three brothers—who work together in a fabric shop on the Lower East Side. [His third New York film was Apartment 5C (2002).]

Richard Edson in I Am Josh Polonski's Brother.

What made you decide to start making films in Israel? Once I had made my films in the States, I discovered that my [recurring] subject concerned Jewish families, Jewish identity, religion—and Israel is a big part of that subject. So I felt I had to [learn about Israel]. I moved to Israel in 2003 and I have since made two films there—the first was Avanim (2004), the second was Tehilim (2007).

Can you talk a bit about your process when starting to make a film? Each time, I use a very simple story and then I start developing it. My films are mostly improvised—there is no written dialogue. In my films, I [blend] reality and fiction. When I use a rabbi, for example, it will be a real rabbi or if I film in a Yeshiva, I will meet the people there, listen to them and take notes. For me, the director is not necessarily the one who [dictates what’s going on] but the one who listens.

Would you talk about your process of improvisation with the actors? Do you rehearse with them? We don’t rehearse at all. We find everything on the spot, on location. But during pre-production, I meet with the actors and we discuss the motives of the characters. I help each actor develop their character's storyline. And then when on set and in character, the actors clash. They are in conflict because each character has a different version of the same story. The combination of all the characters’ differing subjectivities creates some kind of deeper truth.

Would you talk more specifically about what you discuss with each actor? We talk about how they perceive their own characters as well as the other characters… Well, for example, in Tehilim, there’s Ilan Dar who plays the [religious] grandfather. I asked him about his memories of his own grandfather. So, for example, we would take ideas from the way his grandfather sat [as well as his experiences with his grandfather]… Interestingly, [Ilan’s] a very secular man. And for the film, he went back to the synagogues or discussed torah and was surprised that he remembered so many things from his past… We would work on these very sensitive and delicate topics that we encountered. [The film] also becomes a platform for the actor to create some kind of testimony on their own life.

…Many things happened on the set which were very specific to Israeli society: For example, another one of the actors is very secular and, for the film, they met a rabbi for the first time after having not met one for ten years. Also, Michael Moshonov [who plays the eldest son] and Limor Goldstein [who plays the mother] are both from Tel Aviv and I took them to Jerusalem which they don’t go to often…So, when making the film, they were even exploring their own society in a way. That’s fascinating for me because it refreshes the film’s gaze.

At Cannes, you said with reference to one of the themes in Tehilim that "no one has a monopoly on the truth; truth is something people find together". That’s an interesting comment because I find that, with the absence of the father, the authority figure disappears. To me at least, the film suggests that this disappearance creates the opportunity for a greater sense of interdependence among the mother and sons. I never thought of it that way but that’s very interesting. Let’s say by removing the father, it’s like you remove God and suddenly everybody is equal, as you said. Okay so now, once God is away, the world stops to exist, as every religion is based around the return or the comeback of hope: If you behave well, hope will be back; if you don’t behave well, then you will wait longer. But that’s not reality. The reality is that God is not necessarily something you experience as a central figure. It’s maybe something that you share with others, it’s the way you perceive others, it’s the way you can listen [to] others. That’s what we found during the film. (I didn’t think of my films as being some sort of huge metaphor but as we were working on this film, the more we discovered so many elements of this amazing symbolic metaphor.) What I’m saying is that once you remove this [God-like] central figure, one can experience true life. You no longer have anyone to protect you, you don’t have anyone who can say what direction to take or anyone who can balance the situation. The father in the film was probably someone who balanced the dynamics between his father, his wife and his children; he was someone within the family who provided a balance between modernity and tradition. But once he’s not there anymore, the rest of the family can’t help each other because they never really listened to each other—only the father was listening (maybe that’s why he left because it was impossible to listen anymore). When the father disappears, something very interesting and traceable happens. It creates a great vacuum and forces the characters to think.

In the beginning, there’s no real connection between the sons and the mother, but perhaps by the end, they realize the need to rely on each other more.
In the film, the rabbi doesn’t make a mistake when he says that [the father’s absence] is an opportunity for the family to be together, to find something to share…[I don’t think there’s hope in] some kind of illusion where there’s something above us in which we have to believe. Rather something must be done between humans, between people.

(from right to left:) Michael Moshonov, Yonathan Alster and Limor Goldstein in Tehilim.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

An Interview with Israeli Filmmaker David Ofek

This year’s festival was proud to open with David Ofek’s film, A Hebrew Lesson, which he co-produced with Elinor Kowarsky and Ron Rotem. The film follows various newly-arrived immigrants to Israel whose lives converge in the Hebrew language immersion class which they all attend. These students offer an outsider’s view of Israeli society.

Many of Ofek’s previous films explore various facets of Israeli identity as well as “the concept of being a stranger in a country,” as Ofek articulates it, “and the way one builds their identity in a foreign country.” His short film, Home, made for the Sam Spiegel film school, is a part-documentary portrait of his Iraqi-Jewish family during the Gulf War as his father insists he sees their Iraqi home on the television news. His film No. 17 explores “the weary acceptance of violence in [the Israeli] atmosphere of perpetual siege” (Stephen Holden, The New York Times), as it solves the mystery of an unidentified body found after a suicide bombing. And his drama Melanoma My Love, which examines a husband struggling to deal with his wife’s cancer, also explores aspects of Israeli male machismo.

I was thrilled to get the opportunity to interview him as he was visiting his brother who lives in New York, a city Ofek calls a second home.

For a fuller biography and filmography, click here.

To read my interview with Hebrew Lesson producer Elinor Kowarsky, click here. And to read the festival's Q&A session with Kowarsky, click here.

Your film, A Hebrew Lesson, addresses ethnic diversity in Israel. How diverse is the Israeli population overall? How much is this diversity publicly recognized?
There is [a significant amount of cultural diversity] if you look at Arabs, foreign workers and Christian Russians, who come because of the Law of Return. But it’s not debated: Israel is still considered, in many eyes, like a one-structure society, mainly Jewish. And one could also speak of differences among adot—Iraqi Jews, Moroccan Jews—as ethnic diversity.

As an Iraqi Jew, do you feel as a cultural outsider in Israel? I think this is an important aspect of my childhood. My parents spoke Arabic which was not part of the [dominant] Israeli culture I grew up in. Arabic music was also [not accepted]. Arab culture was kept hidden in the house all the time. I have a memory from when I grew up of going out with my parents and deliberately talking in Arabic to them. They would answer in Hebrew but I’d continue to speak in Arabic just to embarrass them. But around that time, things had already started to change and [such cultural diversity] became more accepted. I think that today, because of the Russian waves and also because television and film suddenly provided authentic voices from [various Israeli cultures], it is much easier. My friends call me Taufik, my Iraqi family name which was changed to Ofek.

Would you talk about your experience as a film student at the Sam Spiegel School? I was a student in the first year of the school so our class was the only one in the building. We were like a first child: Some things were tested on us and, I think, during my days, the school was much less strict and tough than it became (now there’s a lot of procedure before you do your film and not everyone gets to make a film). But I think it’s still the best Israeli film school in the way [founding director Renen Schorr] invests in each student, in the way he takes care of the films the students make there. And after you graduate, the school cares that you find a job. I still get calls from people who are told to contact me by the head of the school.

Over the past ten years, there have been a lot of strong Israeli films. Do you think this is partly the result of the emergence of Israeli film schools? I think so. It’s this new generation of filmmakers around my age or younger. Not all of them emerge from film school but film is part of the culture. And also, around 1994, Israeli TV changed itself from one-channel to multi-channel which offered a lot of opportunities for filmmakers to train themselves.

When you were studying film at the Sam Spiegel School, what was the attitude among the students toward Israeli film of the past? I think, in Israel, every generation wants to forget the past and start all over again. Unlike America, there’s no real film legacy in Israel. The teachers taught us to appreciate the history of Israeli cinema. But, I think, as the younger generation, we thought that most Israeli film failed artistically or failed to bring in audiences. Although we did admire David Perlov’s Diary and the Uri Zohar films.
…There were Israeli films in the 1960s and 70s called “
Bourekas films” by the audience. These films were not something we liked but when I see them now, I can tell that the TV series I did, Bat Yam New York, was influenced a lot by this kind of cinema. Many of the plots in Bat Yam New York are melodramatic and based on bourekas stories, but with a twist. But, as film students and want-to-be filmmakers, we wanted to do something completely different. When you are young, you want to change the world.

You mentioned the role of cinema in expanding the accepted diversity of Israel. Do you think the “bourekas” films played at all a role in this process?
They played an important role but “bourekas” films were done by Ashkenazi Jews, who were the directors and scriptwriters. Also, the main actors were Ashkenazi Jews playing Moroccan Jews. They were interesting as a phenomenon.

The short film that you made at Sam Spiegel, Home, suggests a tension between your generation’s wish to start on your own and your parents’ values and history. It’s also about the many concepts of home: What is the home of my parents? Is it their house in Iraq, which they watch on television [during the Gulf War]? Or is it their house in Ramat Gan? It’s also about, as you said, my generation trying to break away from the ties of home and start their own home.

How do you think this universal struggle to break away from one’s parents is specific for Israel? I have seen Israeli families—my own as well as those of people I know—where long traditions have strongly shaped the rules of the house. It then becomes harder to break free. In fact, one of the characters in Bat Yam New York is a son that can’t break free of his family and just stays at home and takes care of his parents. But it happens all over the world where this kind of family structure makes some sons kind of impotent… Also, Israel is a very family-based society—much more than [in America]. Perhaps it’s part of the Jewish mentality.

In Home you begin a trend which runs throughout your career, that of blurring the distinction between narrative and documentary? Some of the characters in Home are real. [I play myself and] the grandmother in the film is my real grandmother: The scenes between her and I are almost documentary and are based on what I assume she will say in such a situation. I think this was the first time I did this sort of part-documentary using real characters. And it has worked really well since then. In almost every fiction film I do, there are a lot of documentary elements. And in almost every documentary I do, there are staged scenes.

In your film The Barbecue People you break out of the fiction mode by doing documentary interviews with some of the characters. What do you think such a shift brings to the film?
Many of the people in Barbecue People aren’t actors: The man who played the father, the Qanun player, is a real Qanun player and had never acted before. And many of the smaller roles are documentary-like: For the role of the butcher, we used a real butcher; the maid in the hotel was played by a real hotel maid. Even the criminal was played by a real criminal—he was in jail (now he’s okay). [By interviewing them in the film,] I wanted to emphasize for the audience that these people have a real story, they are not just characters. (Though I’m not sure this works in the film.)

I would like to talk a bit about your documentary No. 17. I am particularly interested in the casualness with which the violence in Israel is discussed throughout the film. It is not until the end, when the identity of the body is discovered, that the emotions, the grief, is shown. It was part of the style of doing the film. When making No. 17, we really wanted to make ourselves different from the news. The news really deals with the emotions and we wanted to deal more with the mechanics behind the emotions. We call this the bureaucracy of death. This is why you see people eating before bodies arrive or you see the guy who arranges the coffin being taken out. But also, a person who is given a map and asked where they sat on the bus will respond differently to a person who is asked what happened, or if they feel sad: The questions are different, one is emotional and one is more technical.

I want to talk a little about your film Melanoma My Love It’s a project very dear to me.

Sharon Zuckerman and Yigal Adiki in Melanoma My Love.

What has been the response to the film? In Israel it received a lot of good reviews and high ratings because the actor in the film, Yigal Adika, is a very well-known actor. The Israeli public knew he lost his wife to cancer but they didn’t know the way or how it happened. So suddenly, the film provided an almost private look into his life and his drama. The film won the Israeli Academy Award for best TV drama that year. I think it’s a very special film but, sadly, outside of Israel, although it played [at a few festivals], it didn’t find an audience. I don’t know why. For me, it was a very special project to work on.

In the film actor Yigal Adika is reliving the experience of his wife dying of cancer. What was it like making this film because it seems like a very difficult and intensive project to do? It was very intensive which is why it is so dear to me. I think that making it was one of the strongest experiences I had in filmmaking (besides, I think, filming the end of No. 17 when we found the identity of the person). Also, for him, making the film was a way to reconcile with his past, with what happened. In making the film, he was going through a process and I know he almost broke down: He didn’t show up for the film sometimes or got drunk in the night and showed up drunk on the set. He also fell in love with the actress who was playing his wife. It was tough, but on the other hand, it was very interesting as we were trying to make these conflicts part of the film and let him act on them.

In the film, he comes across as a flawed husband. I think this is why he was so brave. And I think this is part of why he wanted to make the film. They were not a couple that was totally in love when the cancer came. I saw that the relationship was a bit strange even before the cancer came. She was dependent on him. In the film, I wanted to [show] this macho, eastern guy who wants his wife to be at home and take care of the kids. This kind of tension was always there. What made it so interesting as a film is that it’s not about two people who are totally in love and deal with the cancer together.

Can you talk upon your upcoming film 1 Legend which deals with the Law of Return? It’s the story of a Romanian guy from a very poor village in Maldavia. He decides to work outside of Romania to provide for his family and he chooses to work in Israel. Although most of his family is Christian, he knows that his grandmother is Jewish. But it is only after 3 years of hard labor and being exploited as a foreign worker that he learns about the Law of Return, which states that, to come to Israel and become a citizen, it’s enough to have only one Jewish grandparent. After the difficult process of proving with the right papers that his grandma is Jewish, he comes back to Israel as a Jew and not as a foreign worker. And today he has his own construction company that hires Romanian foreign workers.
The history of the law is very interesting. At the beginning, the law said that Jews--as defined by religion, which means that one’s mother must Jewish--are entitled to return to Israel. But in the 1970s, it was changed based on the fact that, for the Nazis, if someone had one Jewish grandparent—meaning that 25% of your blood was Jewish—then they were Jewish. This was enough for the Nazis to send people to the gas chambers. So the original law was seen as illogical because under this initial law, people like this who were running away from the Nazis, couldn’t come to Israel. So they changed the law to fit the Nuremberg laws.

The Barbecue People is available for purchase on DVD. Click here if you are interested in buying a copy.

No. 17 is also available for purchase on DVD through the National Center for Jewish Film. Click
here if you are interested in buying a copy.

David Ofek with his wife, journalist and filmmaker Ayelet Bechar, and their son, Amir.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

NYJFF’s Q&A Session with Joseph Cedar, director of the Oscar-Nominated Beaufort

While receiving much critical attention and praise, Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort was acclaimed by The Jerusalem Post as “Israel’s first great war movie” as well as recently nominated for the “Best Foreign Language Film” Oscar. This stunning film is set during the final days of the last outpost that Israel held in southern Lebanon before the army’s withdrawal in 2000. While hiding from Hezbollah missiles, the lieutenant and his troops reflect on their relationship to this outpost and the soldiers that have served there since 1982.

Director Joseph Cedar (left) and Aviva Weintraub, Director of the NYJFF and Associate Curator of the The Jewish Museum.

After the festival’s screening of the film, director Joseph Cedar (Time of Favor, Campfire) answered questions from the audience.

How did you get involved with the project? It started out as a newspaper article by Ron Leshem, which consisted of a monologue from an officer who was on the outpost a year before Israel pulled out. It was a phenomenal article—very dry, very detailed, very unaware of how tragic the story that he was telling actually was. I met with Ron, who was then military correspondent for Yedioth, and we decided to turn the article into a film. As I was working on another film, his research turned into a novel (which is now published in America). So these two separate works are based on the same historical events: The novel is much wider in scope with a slightly different emphasis, while the film is narrower in scope and makes different artistic choices.

Did you film any part of this in Lebanon? We shot the film on a mountain called Kalat Namrud in Northern Israel, right at the triangle of borders between Syria, Lebanon and Israel. I have some nostalgia for Lebanon and—especially after so intensively working on this story—would have wanted to be back on the original mountain, but not enough to take any risks. It’s a film: Everything is artificial, everything was made for the camera. There were certain things that needed to be authentic, but I also like the idea that it’s all bluff in that everything was made for the camera.

Did you serve in Lebanon as you mentioned your nostalgia for there? I think anyone who spent time on this mountain (this is actually a sentence from the book) “has sad memories of fantastic times”. There’s a line in the film where the soldiers are standing on a cliff, looking at the view and feeling like something has changed. I’m intimately familiar with that sense of being in a place that somehow has become part of you, but then starting to see that place differently. There’s a relationship between the soldiers and the mountain that they’re asked to give their lives for—I think that’s actually the main relationship in the film.

A scene from Beaufort.

What was the budget for the film and how did you raise the funds? The answer to that depends on who you ask. The budget was around two and a half million dollars, which is very low for a war film anywhere outside of Israel, but relatively high for an Israeli film. We received about 30% of that from government funds, another 30% from TV stations and the rest through private film investors.

What was the reaction to the film when it opened in Israel? A lot of people went to see it and I think that some of them liked it. It was very high profile in Israel when it was released last March. It came after the previous summer’s war in Lebanon, which, to my mind, interfered with our publicity plans but turned it into something that felt relevant. I always thought that I was telling a story which wasn’t specific in terms of time or even location: I thought it was a story that could take place anywhere, anytime. But the context of the previous summer’s war turned it into something that was grounded in a more particular historical event.

Could you discuss this film in the context of your other films to date? From film to film, I try to correct my mistakes. There are regrets concerning one film that I try to fix in the next film, which takes me through a whole new series of regrets. This film contained a lot of lessons that I wanted to correct from my previous film. Shooting in one location gave us flexibility that turned out to be very creative: For the first time in my short career, I felt creative on set. We were still investigating the story while we were shooting. It wasn’t all there at the screenplay level. That felt very good to me. Beaufort is not as tightly structured as my previous films. I don’t know if that’s the direction in which I’m going to continue but I like that aspect of this one.

What happened to Beaufort
The military part was blown up on May 24, 2000. Since then, although there’s a Hezbollah flag on the ruins of the Crusader fortress, it has turned into a tourist site. If you go online and look for Beaufort, you can see photographs or videos of tourists who have gone up there. Although I’m not sure I can support this with facts, I heard that in the last war, Beaufort was purposely avoided. There was an order from very high up to not go near that mountain again which I think is really amazing: It was the first target, the most important strategic spot, when Israel first went into Lebanon in ‘82 and it really evolved from a being symbol of victory or power into being a symbol of stupidity. And the last thing anyone wanted was an Israeli flag on that mountain again.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

An Interview with Brooklyn Filmmaker Jason Hutt, Director of Orthodox Stance

Orthodox Stance is remarkable documentary which profiles 25-year old Ukrainian immigrant Dmitriy Salita, a prizefighter and observant Orthodox Jew. Only in America could Salita live out such a contradiction as we see him order kosher food in Las Vegas, insist on fighting only after sundown on Saturdays, study Torah and enter the boxing ring with a cheering audience of Orthodox Jews (some proclaiming him the greatest Jewish fighter since Samson). Further celebrating seeming incongruities, Orthodox Stance also documents the American multi-cultural solidarity that surrounds the boxing ring. Even Hassidic Reggae sensation Matisyahu, himself an epitome of cultural fusion, shows up to sing as Salita makes his way to the ring for his triumphant fight at Manhattan’s Hammerstein ballroom.

Click here to go to the film's website.

From top to bottom: Boxer Dmitriy Salita in the gym; Middle: Dmitriy Salita with manager and advisor, Israel Liberow (left) and trainer Jimmy O' Pharrow (right); Jason Hutt with Matisyahu at the NYJFF closing night screening of Orthodox Stance; Musician Regina Spektor with Dmitriy Salita at the NYJFF closing night screening of Orthodox Stance.

Your film provides a very interesting portrait of the ethnic diversity within the boxing world. What is it about the sport that creates this kind of environment? Boxing is the sport of the immigrant class. Whether it was a hundred years ago with Irish, Jews and Italians or today with Hispanics, Africans, and people from the Caribbean, boxing has always been a sport of the underclass and it continues to be. So the people that you find in the boxing gym are always going to be ethnically diverse (at least in New York City). The trainers are also going to be diverse in terms of their ethnicity and background. The boxing gym is kind of a great leveler in that talent and dedication are all that counts. It’s a total meritocracy and there’s no real discrimination. Even if you’re not a talented boxer, if you’re dedicated, you’ll keep coming back to the gym and you’ll be respected for that. Boxing has its own codes and they are really based upon very simple things.
In the film, we see a lot of camaraderie among boxers? While making this film, did you see more camaraderie than competitiveness? Well there’s both. Here’s the thing that people don’t understand about boxing: ninety to ninety-five percent of boxing is solo work. Only rarely is the boxer in the ring with another person. The rounds of sparring and the rounds in the ring are really a fraction compared to the time they put in to physical training, physical conditioning, running, hitting the various bags in the gym and doing padwork with a trainer. So much of boxing is self-discipline and working on yourself. Second of all, when you’re in a gym environment, everyone is working hard and watching the other boxers work hard. Seeing the other boxers as they work motivates one to work harder. I think that the camaraderie grows out of that because every boxer knows how hard it is to be successful. The physical, mental and emotional demands that a boxer has to put up with—as well as the self-discipline they have to go through for years and years—definitely breeds camaraderie. A great sociologist, Loic Wacquant, compares boxing to religion. He feels that the discipline and codes that are involved in religion are perfectly comparable to the codes in boxing. So I think the camaraderie comes out of that shared lifestyle and shared dedication and discipline. In the film, we see Dmitriy beat a guy in Puerto Rico who comes into the locker room after the fight to congratulate him and they just talk. People have this real misconception that the boxers hate each other. Boxers have more respect for one another than any fan has for any of the boxers in the ring. They know what the other one went through. That’s why you’ll see that, after they fight each other, a lot of boxers become very good friends because there is complete respect for one another. I feel that the competition is different within boxing than in any other sport.
It also seems like there’s inter-ethnic respect within the boxing world. I’m thinking of the moment when Dmitriy speaks in Spanish to the Hispanic audience in Puerto Rico. I think that scene is really interesting and pivotal. At the beginning of Dmitriy’s career, all his fights were in Las Vegas or California or, as in this scene, Puerto Rico. He says in the speech, “This is my fifth Latin Fury card” which means this is the fifth time that Dmitriy is fighting in this boxing event of mostly Hispanic fighters, an event that is being marketed to a Hispanic audience. So, for the first time now, Dmitriy decides that he’s going to deliver his speech in Spanish which, to me, is really fascinating because it’s obviously a sign of growth and savviness. He is thinking, if I’m going to fight in front of a Hispanic audience than I’m going to try and reach out to them. And when he delivers his speech, the audience, which is all press, goes crazy and really applauds him. He doesn’t have to deliver his speech in Spanish but he’s winning them over through his charm. At that moment, Dmitriy is adjusting and adapting to his place in the boxing world. In boxing, you fight in front of your home audience. But Dmitriy, during that scene, is an up and coming fighter so he isn’t getting the opportunity to fight in front of his own audience. And that’s the trajectory and path of Dmitriy in the film: In terms of his boxing life, he’s a sort of exiled character who finally has his homecoming in the matches at Brighton Beach and then in Manhattan.
How much access did you have in following Dmitriy? In the beginning, I would come to the gym and just stay out of the way. I noticed that when a news crew comes to a gym, the first thing they do is ask to turn the radio off. But the radio is the heartbeat and pulse of the gym. Whether they are jumping rope or shadow boxing or whatever, every single boxer in that gym is working to the beat and the grooves from the music on the radio. You can see that rhythm when boxers box. But every news channel or documentary crew that comes in to the gym asks to turn the radio off. I never once asked anyone to turn the radio off or turn it down which was kind of the first thing I did in order to gain trust and access. I was coming in there as a guest (not even as a guest, just an observer) to watch Dmitriy, the other boxers and the culture that goes on in the gym. So I did my best to just stay out of their way, and over time, I was able to gain more and more access. Before Dmitriy’s first few fights, I didn’t go into the locker room. But over time, as he, his trainers, his manager and promoter grew to trust me, I was granted access to the locker room. (But to this day, Dmitriy still doesn’t want anyone such as press in his locker room before the fight because of the distraction.) Also, there were certain things in his personal life that he didn’t want to be in the film and I respected that. But in terms of what was important to the film, I felt that I had pretty good access to everything.
Could you talk about your experience shooting the fights? I only shot two of the fights that are in the film: The one at Brighton Beach and the one at the Hammerstein Ballroom. I only shot the actual fights when there wasn’t a television network filming them: When there’s a TV crew, they won’t let you. But my producer Michel Negroponte suggested that, when there’s a television crew shooting, I should film the trainers in the corners and the fans. In shooting the corners and the fans, you get a perspective that you don’t usually see when watching a fight on HBO or ESPN or Showtime where the cameras remain on the boxers in the ring, as the action is so fast. During TV broadcasts of football and baseball, on the other hand, there is time to cut to the fans because the play stops. So actually, watching the trainers during the rounds and the fans is really exciting and I think this creates a greater experience for an audience.
I particularly love seeing the enthusiastic Jewish fans in the ringside audience. This film is not a chronicle of Dmitriy’s fighting career but rather a chronicle of how Dmitriy Salita carved out a place for himself as an observant Jew in professional boxing. The film starts off in Las Vegas with Dmitriy fighting in front of mostly Hispanic audiences—we see a Mariachi band performing in the lobby of the Mandelay Bay hotel. And by the end of the film, you see Matisyahu singing Dmitriy to the ring as well as a ringside audience of Orthodox Jews with big beards and yarmulkes. Over the course of the film, the boxing audience surrounding Dmitriy Salita becomes his own. And the film ends when this has been achieved.
Do you think that for Jews, the appeal of someone like Dmitriy Salita today is similar to the appeal of boxers like Barney Ross and Benny Leonard in the 1920s and 1930s?
There’s always a need for cultural ethnic heroes, that’s just a given. And when you’re an immigrant, there’s an even greater need. And so the reason there were tons of Jewish boxers and dozens of Jewish world champions in the twenties and thirties was because there were so many Jewish immigrants. Since there weren’t economic opportunities for them and since they were getting into turf wars on the streets of New York and Philadelphia and Chicago, these kids had to be tough. And when some rose in the boxing ranks and won world titles, then the other Jews could look at their champions and say, yeah he’s tough and he’s one of us. (The same thing went for the Irish and the Italians at the time.) It’s great for people to see one of their countrymen succeed at a high level in a sport that they love.

I think Dmitriy has a much different audience today than those boxers had sixty or seventy years ago. Boxing was then the biggest sport in the world: There was boxing, there was baseball and there was horseracing. But today, baseball, boxing and horseracing are not the three most popular sports—football and basketball are much more popular, I think. So I feel that Dmitriy’s popularity remains to be seen. But clearly, he’s very popular in the Orthodox Jewish community because, of course, he’s an observant Jew. A lot of the boxers in the olden days came from religious families. Dmitriy, on the other hand, didn’t grow up religious at all but decided that he was going to be observant while being a professional boxer. I think that’s won him the respect of a tremendous amount of observant and Orthodox Jews because they’re looking at this guy and not only seeing a professional boxer but someone who’s just like them in that he’s a believer. Also, of course, there are the Russian fans and these are new immigrants. And then, if you go a step further, you have the Russian Jewish fans. Just because Jews came over 130 or 140 years ago en mass doesn’t mean that this latest wave of Jewish migration from the former Soviet Union wasn’t major. And so that’s why you get someone like Dmitriy Salita. He’s a total throwback to that era: It’s just that it's different populations that are supporting him at this point. Whether he crosses over to mainstream Jewish audiences will be determined by the fact that boxing isn’t nearly as popular today as it was then. Back then, if you had a Jewish boxer, everyone knew and everybody cared, but today, that’s just not the case.

Friday, January 18, 2008

An Interview with Producer Elinor Kowarsky

(Top) Poster of A Hebrew Lesson; (Bottom) A scene from
9 Star Hotel; (Right) Producer Elinor Kowarsky and NYJFF blogger Stuart Hands.

Producer Elinor Kowarsky discusses
A Hebrew Lesson--which played at this year’s festival--as well as her recent film 9 Star Hotel, a very touching portrait of two Palestinian laborers who cross into Israel illegally to seek employment.

Click here to read the Q&A from the opening night screening of A Hebrew Lesson.

What has been the response in Israel to your film, 9 Star Hotel? It is doing very well. It played at the Jerusalem Film Festival where it won the Wolgin Award. It had screenings at the Cinematheques around Israel: In Tel Aviv, it played for over four months. It got great reviews: For a long time, it was rated fourth out of all the feature films and documentaries. But it hasn’t aired on Israeli television yet so we only know the opinions of the cinemagoers, not the larger public. It did cause a lot of debate but not within great masses as so far it has had only small distribution… It will probably air on TV in a few months as the film is still relatively new.
Do you keep in touch with the two protagonists in 9 Star Hotel, Ahmed and Muhammad? What was their response to the film? They are very happy with it. They travelled with the film when we brought it to IDVA [The International Documentary Film Festival in the Netherlands]. They were very eager from the beginning to do the film because they wanted to tell their story. For them, it was a chance to bring home to their village the story of their lives on the hills, as the women, the mothers, the family didn’t really know the conditions and where they stayed. Also, the film helped Muhammad because, initially, the girl he was in love with didn’t want to marry him as he’s a simple worker and she comes from a Jordanian family which is better off. But then he came to Jordan with the film’s poster. They then decided that he could marry her because now he’s a movie star. Ahmed is already married. But overall, the film did not provide any tremendous change for them though it did help them financially because we are giving them all the prize money that the film is winning.
I love the opening shot of 9 Star Hotel where we see these two figures at night running over the hills. It so effectively introduces the film. The idea for the film actually came from that image. When director [Ido Haar] saw the men running across the highway and disappearing into the forest, he was moved to find out this story. This visual was very strong in his mind when he did the film. Visually, I think the intimate camera is the strongest feature of the film because it allows the viewer to be very close with the protagonists—it is as though you are with them on the mountain and around the fire. We used a cinematographer at the beginning but we thought the protagonists felt awkward when there was another person filming. It was better for them when it was only Ido filming.
During the Q&A after the opening night screening of A Hebrew Lesson, you discussed your sense of responsibility toward the people who appear in the film. I found this rather refreshing as many documentary filmmakers place more importance on “what’s good for the film” rather than the lives—in particular, the privacy—of the people in their film.
There are very different types of documentaries. When we do a political investigative documentary where there is something we need to expose—such as in the film we did about the incident at Joseph’s Tomb—we will use every means to expose it. But in a film like The Hebrew Lesson, where we follow people who share their personal lives, there’s no need to exploit them to the point where they would not be happy with the end result. When people are willing to open their lives and their hearts and share their stories, I always promise myself that they must be happy with the result because nothing is more important in this case. In this film, which is about identity and love, there’s no reason why somebody should be overexposed.
There are some very effective moments in the film where you cut away from the action before possible sensationalistic moments of yelling or crying or arguing. I think decisions like this help make A Hebrew Lesson a better film. This film is not about peaking into their lives. This leaves the viewer with a more active role. We are not feeding the audience every emotion. They are supposed to have their own thoughts and feelings through their identification with the characters. I think it is more thought-provoking this way.
At the Q&A for A Hebrew Lesson you also mentioned that there was a casting process where you chose your protagonists and placed them all in one class. What was your reason for doing this? How do audiences respond when you tell them about this casting process?
The casting process allowed us to follow the different stories. It is not as though we changed any of their lives’ realities (except for, of course, the effect that the camera has on reality). Every documentary has casting: Every documentary chooses their protagonists. And like in any documentary, we chose our protagonists after extensive research. What’s different with this film is that we put them all together in the same class. But some of them would probably be together anyway, maybe with a different teacher. I think people are surprised when they see the film: They think, “Wow, there are so many interesting stories in one classroom.” But I believe that every Hebrew class in Tel Aviv is full of such interesting stories because all the students have just recently immigrated for some reason: Something is going on in their lives that made them decide to make a move. This is a time in every immigrant’s life—it doesn’t matter if it’s in Israel or in any other country—which is full of drama and full of change. But we were looking for a variety of stories and people who were willing to share their stories. When we first came up with the idea for the film, we did a small test: We went to an Ulpan [Hebrew immersion class] with a camera. We interrupted each student for two minutes and asked them to tell their story. Every story was amazing. (I remember that one of the students was the wife of the Peruvian ambassador.) After that, we felt confident about this project. Because everybody there is in a very dramatic point in their lives, the Ulpan is a casting heaven.
Could you talk a little about the history of your company, Eden Productions? It was founded in 1989 by my mother who was initially a journalist. She started out making films about art. In the past nine years, we have produced television programs and various types of documentaries. We’re a small company in that we take on very few projects each year, usually ones dealing social or political issues. Doing fewer projects allows us to be much more involved in the making of the films. Apart from the fundraising, distribution and marketing, we’re also involved with a lot of the creative aspects of production. We work very closely with the director, we’re present on most shooting days, we develop ideas with the directors. So it’s a small family company with a very strong creative side.
Could you talk about the project you are working on now with director David Ofek, 1 Legend? We’re actually finishing it now. The film tells the story of a foreign worker from Romania who comes to Israel. Through his story we’re trying to deal with the subject of the Law of Return. We’re also trying to stretch the documentary format as we have the people in the film recreate scenes from their past, playing themselves at different moments of their lives.
You have made some films that are critical of Israel. How have audiences at Jewish film festivals responded to these films?
Usually, they are very disapproving of films that criticize Israel or show anything about Israel which is not pretty. Of course, when we show films like Checkpoint and even 9 Star Hotel, people say that, by showing these films outside of Israel, we are arousing anti-Semitism because they are exposing something that would obviously turn people against Israel. And I think there is this confusion that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism. I think it’s very important to show the reality of life in Israel in all its complexity. So for me it’s very important to screen Checkpoint and 9 Star Hotel outside of Israel.
Do you get much of this attitude in Israel? It’s different in Israel. In Israel, it’s an inner political discussion. Some people have this political opinion, some have that opinion. But nobody would say, “Why are you exposing this?” Though, in Israel, they do ask why we are screening these films outside of the country. They think that because the world likes to hate Israel, our films are successful outside of the country because we are playing into their hands. They say that if you show the soldier at the checkpoint, you will win the film festival at IDVA because the audience wants to see the soldier at the checkpoint. There will always be people that don’t want these stories shown: They want everybody to think that everything is perfect in Israel. But of course, you cannot hide these stories. Hiding is never good in any situation. So I believe the more people are aware of the reality, the more they are able to think about the situations, the solutions, and they are able to have a real opinion…For instance, there’s the debate concerning the separation wall: Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? Will it help? Or will just cover what will eventually erupt, as you are not giving the people behind that wall the means of providing for themselves, you are not developing their economy, you are suffocating them? The more you reveal the complexity of the situation and show the people that are behind this wall, the more you’re able to have a real debate. You cannot seal up the wall and think that we have solved the problem. There are people behind that wall and we always need to look. I think the aim of documentaries is to turn the camera into different corners and to make the audience look.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Film critic J. Hoberman on Carl Dreyer's Love One Another

A Scene from Carl Dreyer's Love One Another (1922)

J. Hoberman and Aviva Weintraub, Director of the NYJFF and Associate Curator of the The Jewish Museum.

J. Hoberman's mother, Dorothy.

Aviva Weintraub with musical accompaniest Ben Model.

This year, the New York Jewish Film Festival showed Carl Dreyer’s Love One Another (1922). This very rare silent film is a protest against anti-Semitism as it depicts Jewish life confronted by a Russian pogrom. During last Sunday’s screening of the film, audiences were treated to a newly restored print from the Danish Film Institute and live piano accompaniment by Ben Model.

Below is the introduction by author J. Hoberman that preceded the screening as well as the Q&A that followed.

Love One Another is by one of the greatest film artists of the twentieth century, Carl Dreyer. His best known film, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), is one of the culminating films of silent cinema. He went on to make the great film Vampyr (1932), one of the strangest movies ever made. Day of Wrath (1943), dealing with witchcraft in Scandinavia, was probably his greatest hit. At that point he started to make movies about once a decade. His last two films, Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964), are both films of fantastic, uncompromising austerity. But Love One Another is not one of those.

The film’s German title translates to “The Stigmatized”. It is from Dreyer’s early period. He began making movies during the teens in Denmark, which had an extremely potent film industry at this point. Love One Another was the first film he made outside of Denmark. It was produced in 1921 for a small German studio located in Berlin, which evidently went bankrupt after this film was made.

The film was shot in the countryside around Berlin but was still a kind of Danish project. It was based on a novel by Aage Madelung
, a Danish novelist who spent a considerable amount of time in Russia and, in fact, was married to a Russian Jew. She wrote some travelogues and then this massive novel, which serves as the basis for this film. She actually reported on the Kishinev pogrom which figures in the movie as well.

The movie has certain similarities to other popular fiction such as The Yellow Passport, which was filmed in many versions, and Sholom Aleichem’s 1907 novel which was known usually as Mabl (The Deluge). Incidentally, both of these novels were filmed around the same time as Love One Another. Madelung'
s book had an international reputation. It was translated into Yiddish at one point under the title In a Groysn Tuml (In a Great Upheaval) that sounds as though was it chosen to echo the Sholom Aleichem title.

The story’s premise is typical of the writing about East European Jews not written by East European Jews. Hannah-Liebe, grows up in a Ukrainian shtetl and is, in some ways, alienated from the life around her. Her brother has gone off to St. Petersburg where he is a lawyer. To live there, he has had to convert. Hannah-Liebe is meanwhile sent to a Russian school in the village where she has problems, although she does make lifelong relationships with two classmates: one grows up to be a revolutionary agitator and the other, an anti-Semitic agitator. She eventually goes to St. Petersburg where she is reunited with her brother but when the revolution of 1905 breaks out, they have to go back to the shtetl.

The cast was largely made up of Russian émigrés who had come to Germany following the Revolution. Some of them were members of Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater, including Richard Boleslawski—the best known of them—who plays the anti-Semitic agitator. He wound up in Hollywood where he directed films such as The Painted Veil (1934) and Les Miserables (1935). So there was a certain authenticity that came from having all these Russians in the cast. As a matter of fact, a number of these Russian émigrés (some of them Jewish) worked on the décor and contributed to the large crowd scenes.

Dreyer was politically conservative so he sympathized with the Russian émigrés. One could look at the film as being more about what the Russian émigrés suffered in the early years of the Revolution rather than about what the Jews suffered under the Czar.

Dreyer complained that he had to simplify a very complicated novel to make this movie which accounts for some things that may seem schematic, particularly in the nature of the characters. There is a lot that happens in the film: It is really a kind of epic. But the performances can be terrific and the handling of the large dramatic scenes, which is not something that one necessarily associates with Dreyer’s later work, is done very skillfully.

Were there any other films that showed Jews as victims or were they mainly shown as perpetrators?
There were a fair amount of movies—though not an enormous amount—made in the late teens and early twenties in Western Europe that had, what one could call, Jewish themes. In other words, they showed Jewish characters whose lives reflect the situation of Jews in the Russian empire. But these films tended to be made from the outside and so, to some degree, they were sympathetic while, to some degree, they were insensitive. I would say that Love One Another is one of the more sympathetic films. There was a whole series of films that were made a bit later in the Soviet Union and in Poland which were done largely by Jewish filmmakers and had a somewhat different attitude toward the material.

Could you comment on the historical events that we see in the film, such as the proclamation from the Czar, the revolution of 1905, etc.?
There was a failed revolution in 1905 and one of the ways in which the Czarist regime defended itself was by stirring up popular discontent against the Jewish population, by scapegoating Jews. I mentioned the Kishinev pogrom in 1903 but there was another one in 1905 in the same town which coincided with this failed revolution. To that extent, I think the movie is, in some ways, reportage.

What kind of reception did the movie get when it came out?
It’s hard to tell as it was made for a very small company which went out of business after this one movie. So it wasn’t widely distributed. As far as I know, it was never shown in the United States or the U.K because the print we saw today was the first one with English intertitles. On the other hand, it was distributed well enough to have been shown in France, as this was the movie that began to establish Dreyer’s international reputation.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

An Interview with Noah Stollman, Screenwriter of Someone to Run With

(Above) Bar Belfer as Tamar in Someone to Run With; (Below) Noah Stollman at the Walter Reade Theater

Based on the popular Israeli novel by David Grossman, Someone to Run With is set on the streets of Jerusalem as Assaf, a shy 17 year-old boy, tracks down the owner of a lost dog. He eventually stumbles into an underworld where lives a Fagin-like hustler that runs a home for street kid musicians.

You can visit the film's website by clicking here.

In this interview, screenwriter Noah Stollman discusses the process of adapting the novel as well as his experience studying film during the early years of The Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem.

Oded Davidoff (the director of Someone to Run With) has described you as “a Jerusalemite who lives in New York”. Where are you from? Can you talk a bit about your relationship to Israel, and more specifically, Jerusalem? I was born in New Jersey. When I was three, I moved to Jerusalem with my family. I grew up and lived there until 1995, when my wife and I came back to New York. We’ve been living here ever since. But because I went to film school in Jerusalem, most of my friends and colleagues are all working in the Israeli film industry. There were several projects in Israel that I started to get rolling before I moved back to the States. So while I was trying to break into the film scene here, I was constantly working on projects for Israeli film and TV and Someone to Run With is one of them.
How did you meet director Oded Davidoff? Oded and I went to film school together. We were friends throughout film school. He is a very talented director and was recruited right out of film school: Practically the day after we graduated, he was directing commercials for Israeli TV.
How did you and Oded get involved with adapting David Grossman’s novel, Someone to Run With? People really loved David Grossman’s book. The novel was very popular in Israel when it came out [in 2000]. It hit a nerve, not only with the young adult demographic, but with pretty much all demographics. People knew the book very intimately. It was a hot property and the rights were bought up immediately. Oded and I were approached to adapt it into a mini-series. It was initially intended as a four-part mini-series for cable TV and we wrote it as such. We didn’t have the film rights because David Grossman, who is a wonderful, warm and generous person, had sold the rights for TV and for film separately. The film rights were owned by producer Andrew Braunsberg, who wanted to make an English-language film version. But once we had our four-part mini-series, Andrew came and saw it and his feeling was this was the definitive version. And so we were very happy when Andrew and producing partner Philippa Kowarsky came on board and enabled us to edit the series into a feature film which could get more international distribution, go to film festivals and be screened in theaters. From a little over three hours, we cut it down to two, but were still able to retain the story, its characters and, I believe, its essence.
The city of Jerusalem plays a significant role in the film. To you, what distinguishes Jerusalem from other Israeli cities and how does it work as a character in the film? First of all, Jerusalem is a very unique city that means a lot to so many people on many different levels. It’s the center of all three major religions. Historically, it goes back thousands of years. It’s the focal point for Israel, for Arabs and Christians. It has that spiritual quality that, I think, anyone in the world can identify with. But, on the other hand, growing up there, as Oded and I did, it is just like any other town. It also has its seedier elements and its darker sides. We wanted to throw all of those elements into the mix and show this very spiritual place on one hand that could also be a very dangerous place. It can be a cold and bewildering place for teenagers to grow up in. Jerusalem also has a kind of provincial, almost small town feel. Growing up there in the seventies, it felt very provincial and sheltered. And we wanted to present these young street musicians as almost trapped with their horizons limited. It’s as if Pesach’s home for the gifted, in which these kids are imprisoned, is their version of Jerusalem which they can’t really get out of except through great struggle and through their music.
In an earlier interview, you identified the film as a coming-of-age story. In connection to this, it is interesting that we never see the actual parents. We only see the surrogate parental figures of Rhino and Leah. That was something which was very strong in the book. The parents are just not present for these kids in the story. In the novel, there are a lot of references to the parents: It’s much more grounded in reality. You understand where the parents are: You know that the parents are busy, they’re away. For the film, we wanted to emphasize this and take it even further so that, for these kids, the parents are just not an option. For Tamar, you realize that her parents may have turned a blind eye to her brother’s drug use as they just didn’t know how to deal with it. Assaf’s parents’ are out of the country as many Israelis often are. We just wanted to drive home the fact that these kids are completely on their own and need to solve their problems by their own devices.
I wonder if you could talk about the songs that the kids perform in the film. Are they well known songs in Israel? Originally, when I wrote the script, I just threw in a bunch of songs I liked that I imagined the kids would be singing on the street: Radiohead and other songs that I could imagine acoustic versions of. But Oded really felt that the music should be Israeli. Some of them are popular Israeli songs but most are old time folk songs that are practically in the Israeli collective unconscious: Most Israelis really know these songs—every word of them—without really knowing that they know them. They are folk songs from the early days of the country and harken back to a more innocent time. The music kind of strikes a chord. It’s interesting seeing the film with Israelis. They start singing the songs along with the characters in the film. It’s almost like a toned-down Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Could you talk a bit about the script you wrote for the upcoming Paul Schrader film, Adam Resurrected? That’s a project based on a classic Israeli novel by Yoram Kaniuk, a brilliant writer and a man of great talent and irony. The story is set in a psychiatric hospital in the Negev desert in Israel during the Sixties. And it’s the story of a former circus and stage performer in Berlin during the 40’s. He survives the Nazi camps by being the dog of the commandant— he literally lives on all fours to the amusement of the Nazi commandant, which is revealed flashback. In the present we see him as a tortured inmate in a very unique psychiatric hospital for camp survivors. The book addresses, with an amazing mix of dark humor and imagination, themes of survivor guilt, the madness of the war and its psychological repercussions.In this institute, the protagonist, Adam, meets a young child who is trapped in the persona of a dog and the two heal each other over the course of the film. Paul Schrader describes the story as being about “a man who was once a dog who meets a dog who was once a boy”. I was hired to adapt it by producer Ehud Bleiberg who had been dreaming about making the film for years. It’s an amazing book and hopefully will be an amazing film. I was very lucky to have it fall into my hands. It’s now being edited and is due for release in 2008.

Could you talk about your experience as a film student at the Sam Spiegel School in Jerusalem? Oded and I were part of the school’s second graduating class. When we started, the building itself was still under construction and the classrooms were basically raw spaces. But there was something very exciting and dynamic about the school which was brand new at the time. Teachers were actual filmmakers. Renen Schorr, the director of the school—and still is, to this day—is a pillar of the Israeli filmmaking industry. He put together this very practical-minded film school where all we did was make films. We were editing, shooting and working on all aspects of film. We also watched so many films. We were at the school day and night—in the editing rooms, in the labs, in the classrooms. We got a lasting foundation and a love of film from that place. For all of us, it was a brand new experience. It’s not like today where you come to film school after having shot your own short films or videos. None of us really knew much about it I had been studying graphic design and fine arts. Others came right out of the army. Students came from Tel Aviv as well as from all over Israel to be in this environment where there was a feeling of something new and exciting happening. To this day, I am still very close with the people I met there.
How was Israeli film of the past regarded in this new film school environment? Renen was a journalist as well as a filmmaker, a film theorist and a very deep thinking guy. He had a sound understanding and knowledge of Israeli film history. However, what he chose to impart on the students was more of the American mode of filmmaking. We also saw film noir, Hitchcock, French films…everything. It’s not that we didn’t see a lot of Israeli films—we saw many films from all different eras of Israeli filmmaking. But I think he believed that Israeli film needed a shift toward a more western style of filmmaking. He believed in the grand motto of make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry. He wasn’t interested in having us go out and make films that were like the old Israeli ones which focused on national history. The films he wanted us to make—and that he geared the whole school toward—were, of course, personal films but also films that could have a wider international appeal. He really pushed us to consider filmmaking from an almost Hollywood perspective. Some of the students rebelled, some had more of a leaning toward European films. But there was something very exciting about the films we were being taught to make at the school. We felt we were part of an experiment in Israeli filmmaking.