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.

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