For a guy who decorates his office with German posters from Dean Martin’s Matt Helm movies (featuring the Rat Pack front man as a sleazier James Bond), director Avi Nesher talks a lot about redemption.
That’s just one of the contradictions about Nesher, and why it can be hard to characterize him and the impact he’s had on Israeli movies. Another is that while he dresses like a kibbutznik in casual clothes and flip-flops, his office is in a beachfront complex near Tel Aviv and features a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean.
Meeting to discuss his latest film, Once I Was, which was just released all over the country, he is excited about the movie and eager to talk. But the phone doesn’t stop ringing, and most of the calls concern details of the release. Asking his assistant to handle most of them, he takes a few, apologizing profusely, like a first-time director on the brink of success rather than one of the veterans.
“So many people have seen the film already and I keep getting calls about more screenings,” he says, estimating that before the official opening of the film, about 20,000 people saw it at various showings around the country. This is unusual – generally a movie is shown just a couple of times for the press before its premiere. But Nesher is not worried about cutting into potential ticket sales.
“The more people who see it, the better,” he says. “That helps word of mouth, it starts a buzz.”
It’s not unusual for Israelis to be talking about a movie by Avi Nesher. Nesher first made a name for himself here with the extremely popular musical comedy/drama, The Troupe (Halahaka) in 1979, about an IDF entertainment troupe. It featured an attractive young cast, many of whom, such as Gidi Gov and Gali Atari, went on to become singing and film stars here. Following up The Troupe with several other films, including Dizengoff 99, he decided to head to America.
He spent more than a decade there, studying film at Columbia University and then making genre films in Hollywood. The movies, with titles like Time Bomb, Savage, Raw Nerve and Mercenary, starred actors such as Drew Barrymore when she was getting out of her wild-child phase, Showgirls starlet Elizabeth Berkley, not-yet Desperate Housewives star Nicollette Sheridan and Joe Pantoliano (before he starred as Ralph on The Sopranos). They were low budget films by Hollywood standards, but made money.
He returned to local screens in 2004, and his film Turn Left at the End of the World became the biggest-grossing movie in Israeli history, selling more than 600,000 tickets. A drama about a teenage girl from India who moves to a development town in the Negev with her family in the 1960s and struggles to fit in with her mostly Moroccan neighbors, it gave a new twist to the Israeli immigrant story by infusing it with style and humor. He followed it up three years ago with The Secrets, a story of redemption and identity in a Safed women’s Bible college, which starred, in addition to young Israeli actresses, the French actress Fanny Ardant. These films seduced audiences with casts of well-known television actors and some nudity, but held their attention with quirky, believable characters and surprising situations, and eventually won them over with deeply felt resolutions.
He decided to return to the world of Israeli cinema after he made the very commercial movie Ritual with Jennifer Grey. Just then, his father, a Holocaust survivor who was living in New York, became ill and soon died. “My father didn’t have Alzheimer’s but his languages were all at the end. I found myself full of guilt that I had never asked anything about him.”
Nesher’s method of working out his guilt was to write the screenplay that became Turn Left at the End of the World. “I don’t write about myself,” he says. “I don’t want to offend my family.”
But in a roundabout way that made sense to him, making a film about Indians who play cricket in the Negev was a tribute to his father’s memory. “My father lived in so many places in the world, and a movie about immigrants and their children, a movie with a lot of humor, was something I thought he would have liked. I can never really undo the fact that I didn’t get to know my father. The Secrets was another attempt at atonement, at a tikkun olam.”
ONCE I WAS is an even more personal film for Nesher. It focuses on its vivid characters to tell a very emotional story, but by looking into the proverbial elephant in the Israeli room – the Holocaust – he explores even more deeply into how this became the country it is today, and tries to understand his parents (his mother is also a Holocaust survivor) and their lives.
As he fields the phone calls, he can’t hide his pleasure that the film is getting a warm reception even before its official opening.
“I’ve been working on it for 36 months,” he explains. “I spent a year casting it and months rehearsing it.” Even if the film is a bigger hit than Turn Left, Nesher doesn’t expect to see any profit from it. “It’s like writing poetry.”
“Commercial Israeli cinema is an oxymoron,” according to Nesher. “There is not one villa in Herzliya Pituah that was built with money made in Israeli movies. Israeli movies can be bad or good, but they aren’t commercial... All the good Israeli movies of the last decade were from the heart.”
Once I Was tells an unusual story and Nesher created it through an equally unusual process. The credits say it was “inspired by” the novel When Heroes Fly, by Amir Gutfreund. Nesher had long been thinking about making a film that would involve the impact of the Holocaust on Israeli society. He was impressed by Gutfreund’s novel Our Holocaust, and contacted him. The two worked together to come up with the story that became both When Heroes Fly and Once I Was.
“It was like two jazz musicians improvising together, then each goes home and writes his own score,” explains Nesher. “He invented the character of Yankele Bride, the matchmaker, while the character Clara is my invention.”
Once I Was is a coming-of-age drama about a boy, Arik (Tuval Shafir), growing up in a middle-class household in Haifa in 1968.
“It’s about the encounter of Israel with the summer of love,” says Nesher. “After the victory in ’67, there was a sigh of relief. And there was a shift from a focus on survival to an interest in life.”
Arik becomes interested in his best friend’s beautiful cousin Tamara (Neta Porat), who has grown up in America but is spending the summer here. “She talks about rock’n’roll, free love – even though she doesn’t really understand it – and women’s rights.” In an era when the Beatles were refused entry by the Interior Ministry, which did not want to encourage young people to listen to rock music, “this is fascinating for a boy like Arik.”
Arik’s father is a Holocaust survivor, although he never discusses his experiences. “I know this kid intimately,” says Nesher of his hero, although he insists the film is not autobiographical in any strict sense. Arik goes to work for Yankele (Adir Miller), a Holocaust survivor and matchmaker who describes himself as “someone who specializes in special cases.” Yankele works in what the movie calls “the Lower City,” the downtown area around the port at the bottom of the hill, where Yankele and others dealt in contraband goods, prostitutes solicited openly and gambling went on in otherwise quiet buildings.
There, Arik meets Yankele’s clients and friends, including Sylvia (Bat-El Papura), a dwarf from a group of seven dwarves who were experimented on by Josef Mengele at Auschwitz and who moved to Haifa and started a movie theater that only showed love stories. This strange plot thread is based on a true story that Nesher had long been fascinated by. As Arik spends time in the Lower City, he begins to think more and also to understand more about the Holocaust.
“I knew nothing about my father as a young man, or my mother as a young woman. My mother only spoke about her experiences last year, and not to me, but to my children, on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Back then, as the new generation of Israelis, we were the ones put in charge of making sure this never happens again. The Holocaust was very fresh in people’s minds and it was a very difficult subject for me, and really for almost all Israelis, to deal with. It was something so terrifying and we were filled up with those slogans, ‘Never Again,’ ‘Like Sheep to the Slaughter,’” he recalls.
At the same time, there was a strange and perverse culture, the Stalag novels, that looked to the Holocaust for sexual titillation. Nesher shows me copies of some of the Stalag books, all of which show scantily clad Jewish women being abused by sadistic Nazis, or strapping Jewish men kicked around by female SS officers.
“There were these books, and The Doll’s House” – supposedly a true account of the sexual slavery of Jewish women during the war – “and they all implied, that if you survived, you did something immoral.” As a teenager, Nesher was afraid what he might find out if he spoke to his parents openly about all this. Making the film was a labor of love in which he finally examined their lives, in an indirect way.
“Clara has a lot of my mother’s traits,” he says, of a mysterious and beautiful woman in the film played by Maya Dagan. “She was smart and funny. My mother saw her whole family slaughtered in the most brutal way, and somehow her humor was her way of dealing with it.”
HAVING THE DWARVES as characters in the film was another way for Nesher to explore the era. “The dwarves are a very interesting metaphor,” he says. “We tended to think about the survivors as freaks, but the truth is, everyone has his own strange story.”
While the larger society may see the movie theater owners in the film as freakish, there is nothing marginal about Sylvia, a beautiful and assertive woman who challenges Yankele to find a partner for her.
“Arik says to Yankele, ‘How can you fix this guy up with her?’ Yankele asks, ‘Why not,’ and Arik says, ‘Because she’s so short.’ But when Yankele tells him, ‘But her heart is big,’ Arik accepts that. He can understand it after spending time with Yankele.”
For Yankele, a slow-moving, scarred man, “matchmaking is not a chore or even a profession. It’s a mission. He’s filled with a tremendous love and he wants to share the redemptive power of love. He knows there’s nothing he can do to bring back whoever he lost during the war,” says Nesher, adding that he deliberately chose not to spell out the matchmaker’s back-story. “But he wants to help people who are desperate for love. And by getting to know him, Arik comes to love these people he meets in the Lower City, the underworld people, as well.”
Nesher hopes that audiences will come to love Adir Miller, best known as a successful television comic, in his new incarnation as a dramatic actor. “People I trust told me, ‘Don’t cast Adir, audiences won’t be able to accept him as a dramatic hero.’”
But Nesher, who gave his friend Miller his first dramatic role in The Secrets, has no regrets. “He gives an amazing performance as Yankele. It was great to watch him do this. He has a mother who was a Holocaust survivor. Adir could have just gotten caught up in his TV success, but he really wanted to do this.”
The atmosphere on the set was subdued, says Nesher, since the actors were so caught up in their roles.
“Adir and Maya Dagan, they are funny people, but we had the quietest lunches on set I’ve ever had. They were just too absorbed to laugh or joke.”
Putting the film in the context of his earlier work, Nesher says that
some have suggested that Turn Left
and Once I Was
are a kind of
trilogy. “People have said you should call it ‘The Others Trilogy.’ One
film is about immigrants from India and Morocco in the Negev, the other
is about ultra-Orthodox girls and a Frenchwoman hiding from her past
and this one is about the Holocaust survivors and all the others who
don’t fit in down there by the port. All of these are people who were
somehow not part of mainstream Israeli society.”
Perhaps the sweetest part for Nesher about the film’s reception is that his most valued critic – his mother – liked the film.
“The first time she saw it, she was really shaken, she couldn’t say
anything. The second time she said, ‘Now I’m really going to see it.’ I
hate to sound like Madonna, but it was a real secular
for me. There was a cathartic element.”
He describes a moment early in the film, where the matchmaker is told
about a severely disabled young woman who turns out to be fictitious.
“The boys are playing a trick on Yankele, a cruel joke. But he turns it
upside down and the trick is on the boy. He eases the boy into this
underworld, and as the boy comes to accept these people, he comes to
love them.” Nesher is gambling that audiences here, as well as those
abroad, will do the same with his movie.