It's a pretty subdued crowd at the awards ceremony at the end of the Jerusalem Film Festival, but this year everyone snapped to attention when the Special Mention for Best Actor was announced. That's because the winners were Sasha Agrounov and Anton (Klin) Ostrovsky, the two first-time actors who starred in Renen Schorr's drama, The Loners (Habodedim). They whooped it up like a couple of, well, like a couple of winners. All winners at the festival are happy, of course, but they don't usually jump for joy. Not like this.
And Agrounov got to repeat that performance when he won the Ophir Award (the Israeli Oscar) for Best Actor in September, where he beat out the popular and experienced actors Dror Keren, Yoav Donat, Itzik Cohen and Ofer Schecter. Agrounov, who wore a hat on both occasions as a mark of religious devotion, said in his acceptance speech at the Ophirs that he wanted to thank God "for bringing me here out of Egypt to the Promised Land" and his director for "having the courage and the balls to cast someone who had never acted before."
While a little strong language is nothing new at the Ophir Awards, the kind of exuberance Agrounov displayed was a bit out of the ordinary. And it's quite unusual - if not unheard of - for an actor to win that award for his first film role. But Agrounov's and Ostrovsky's path to acting is no ordinary story, and The Loners is no ordinary film. It looks at the ordeal of two Russian-immigrant soldiers in an IDF prison, and although both actors emphasize that it is not the story of either of their lives, they both admit that they have had difficult times here.
Neither Agrounov nor Ostrovsky, for all their natural gifts, ever intended to go into acting. There are not many parts for Israeli actors with Russian accents, and when a Russian man is portrayed in the movies, more often than not he's a gangster or a pimp (or both). But Renen Schorr decided to find Russian-born actors and not just have sabras playing them.
"The crucial thing was to give the film authenticity, a documentary kind of feeling," says Schorr. "So it was important to find Russian-speaking actors, both for the accent and for their connection to the immigrant experience. We did auditions and we looked at everyone in Israel who was the right age, who had acted, studied acting or thought of studying acting and spoke Russian. But we didn't find anyone."
Schorr, who made the controversial film Late Summer Blues in 1987, about a group of high-school students the summer before they are drafted, took an unusual 21-year break from directing to found the Sam Spiegel School for Film and Television in Jerusalem. So when he went back to directing, it was important to him to cast his film perfectly.
"We started looking at non-actors," he says and for a time they auditioned some Russian boxers. Still no luck. He and his casting director, Orit Azoulay, actually went to Moscow and auditioned actors from acting schools there, but still did not find their two leads.
PART OF the problem lay in the demands that the story line would place on an actor. The Loners deals with the problems immigrants from the former Soviet Union have had becoming absorbed into Israeli society in general and into the IDF in particular.
The incident on which the film is based took place in August 1997, when a Russian-born Golani Brigade soldier named Teddy Martin staged a rebellion in the military prison where he was being held, along with 19 other Soviet-born soldiers. He maintained that he had not been given a fair chance to defend himself. Led by Martin, the soldiers took hostages, tied them up and put them in a cell. Eventually, they signed an agreement with officers that they would not be punished for their rebellion, a document the IDF then reneged on.
This outraged Schorr, a sixth-generation Israeli from Tel Aviv, who was intrigued at how a group of military prisoners had become so desperate and had managed to pressure the army into signing such an agreement in the first place. The Loners is not a typical immigrant success story with a heartwarming ending, or one in which the protagonists are passive victims of discrimination; instead, their impulsive and violent actions play a large part in complicating and compounding their own problems. But, says Schorr, "I always saw the story as a love story, about the deep friendship between these two soldiers."
Schorr began to despair of the right actors. "But they were right under our nose," he says. "It's like Yad Vashem and the Western Wall. You know they're right there, so you don't think of looking at them."
First, he found Anton Ostrovsky, a 26-year-old aspiring rapper from the northern Caucasus region of the former Soviet Union. Ostrovsky, who had moved here with his family in 1997, was living in Jerusalem and doing odd jobs. He made an audition tape at the urging of a friend, who was a student at Sam Spiegel and thought Ostrovsky could act in student films.
But after a year, the tape found its way to Schorr, who auditioned Ostrovsky several times for the slightly smaller part of Bluchin, an immigrant born to a distinguished Russian military family who is proud to be a Golani soldier and ashamed and upset to have landed in jail. Schorr knew he had found one of his two leads: "Anton was like an angry flower, full of charm and magic, but also lots of anger. He has a heavy accent and is not ashamed of his Russian-ness."
Ostrovsky has not had a particularly easy time here. Living in Ma'aleh Adumim, he started a break-dance group and also wrote songs, especially rap. Although he had a high profile when he when he was first summoned for the draft, before he began his army service he got into a scrape with the police that disqualified him from military service. "When I met him, he didn't know the word 'Golani,"' says Schorr. "It meant nothing to him."
But Ostrovsky was happy to learn, and agreed to the two-month boot camp Schorr arranged for his lead actors, which included rigorous physical training with a group of young men about to join the IDF, watching DVDs of every movie and TV series about the army and even spending a day in a military prison.
"Renen didn't tell us when we would get out," says Ostrovsky, laughing. "It was a good movie and when I was working on it, I felt, for the first time since I came to Israel, that I was working with a good group of people. I learned for the first time how to work, how to work really well."
Since the movie was made though, he says flatly, "nothing in my life has changed." He goes on many auditions and would even consider a return to his former home country to act, but "you need connections and I don't have any."
He does agree with what he sees as the message of the film, that there is discrimination here against the Russian-born. "We need to fight. It's a mess," he says.
Currently he is working on a hip-hop album and a pilot for Channel 2. "I'd like to study filmmaking," he says, and hopes to be accepted to Sam Spiegel.
BUT HIS costar, Sasha Agrounov, could tell him that it's not an easy school to get into. Agrounov was a student there when Schorr asked him to audition for the movie. Agrounov, who was born in Baku, Azerbaijan in 1976, came here on his own in his late teens, as part of a program that encouraged Jewish youth to make aliya. Living in the Nitzana youth village, he learned Hebrew. Once, he saw a television report about the Sam Spiegel Film School. Recalls Agrounov, "That did something to my heart. I thought that Jerusalem is a city of dreams, and cinema plays with dreams. That's what I want to study, that's where I want to study."
Told his Hebrew would have to improve, Agrounov bided his time and applied to the school several times. He even visited and refused to leave until he met with Schorr, who directed him to a special admittance committee that dealt with exceptional cases, and it turned him down. But Agrounov still refused to give up, studying film in Ariel but still hoping that one day he would be admitted to his dream school. And in 2002, the dream finally came true.
Anyone who sees the film or who meets Agrounov will marvel that Schorr, who knew him as a student, didn't immediately think of casting him in The Loners. When Schorr finally began looking at his Russian students, though, it was clear that the choice was between Agrounov and one other student.
"At first, Sasha was conflicted about the idea of doing the part... At school, he was modest, shy, not outspoken, not outgoing, although very much loved and admired, and always willing to lend a hand with everyone else's films. But he was not a star of the class. He had a past where he'd sometimes been very violent and angry, but he'd worked though that," says Schorr. "But when he decided that he wanted to do the part, he came to the third audition very hungry, but with charisma. That part calls for a young Al Pacino, no less. And then I saw that charisma and pure gold in his eyes."
As Glory, the impulsive and sometimes violent but recklessly charming Golani soldier who initiates the prison takeover, Agrounov doesn't seem to be acting at all. But although he was in Golani himself, he wants audiences to know that he is not Glory.
"It was difficult to play someone so different from me," he says. "I wanted to get closer to him and to make him closer to me. To find the weaknesses in him and in me. He was a violent man, with many sides to him. I had to do a lot of work. I was afraid that I would become more violent, that I was losing my identity."
He actually knew Martin, the instigator of the rebellion, when they were boarding together in the army. And while he is sympathetic to the dilemma Martin faced, he doesn't totally agree with Schorr's take on the Russian experience.
"I don't feel I suffered humiliation or discrimination in the army," he says, although he admits that he started out with many other Russian-born soldiers, and all of them, including him, experienced serious difficulties in the army: "None of us finished our service the way we started, and none of us finished the way we should have."
But Agrounov's decision to act for the filmmaking mentor he revered was further complicated by the fact that he had become religiously observant in recent years. "I talked to my rabbi, to get permission to act without a kippa, for example," says Agrounov. "The rabbi said, 'The movie has an important message, so go ahead and do it.'"
Agrounov does not see a future for himself acting, at least not full-time, although he wouldn't rule it out, if he is offered a part he likes. But his dream is to direct his own film and he recently received a grant from the Israel Film Fund that will enable him to do just that. He and his screenwriting partner, Ori Alon, one of the writers of the hit television series Srugim (Crocheted Kippot), are working on a script of a musical set in Jerusalem, about a musician who becomes religious and then falls for a single mother with two kids.
"It's a love triangle," he explains. "There is a policeman who already loves the woman. The musician babysits for the children, it's a little like Mary Poppins." Mary Poppins in Jerusalem? Not what you'd expect from a man who became famous playing a violent military prisoner, but clearly, Agrounov has some surprises in store for us.
Says Agrounov: "I want to show the city of Jerusalem today, to make a movie about people who are all a little lonely inside," a fitting ambition for a man who has become famous playing a lone soldier.