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'The Israelis' rite of passage in India is very tribal. They go there together, they all go to the same places, and most of their experiences are Israeli experiences. They don't interact much with the locals."
So notes filmmaker Yoni Zigler, whose new documentary Hummus Curry examines the effect that the continuous flow of Israeli backpackers has on the natives of a village in northern India.
Noam Pinchas, the movie's co-director, believes that most rural Indians are ready to genuinely open up, but that Israeli backpackers don't give them the benefit of the doubt. "Give them a chance, and try to listen to them," he advises.
Yet Hummus Curry is far from a preachy movie. In fact, part of the point of the documentary is to reveal the complexities of the personalities profiled without going into much deliberation, allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions.
As its title suggests, Hummus Curry explores the juxtaposition of Israeli and Indian cultures through the microcosm of three residents of Bhagsu, a small village a few kilometers north of the better-known Himalayan hill-station town of Dharamsala, home of the Tibetan government-in-exile since 1960. The few hundred residents of Bhagsu, a much older community that's almost exclusively Hindu, have taken upon themselves the role of hosts to Israel's hordes, who stay in the village in droves for months at a time.
Hummus Curry follows three Bhagsu residents for four months in early 2006 as they handle the pressures involved with high backpacker season. Between power outages, endearing marital spats and his growing family, guest house and laundry service proprietor Kala Kumar certainly has his hands full. When waiter Gopal Sherma becomes increasingly friendly with a young Israeli yoga student named Shirley, he reaches for higher levels of emotional self-protection. And restaurant host Shoresh Singh, who banters with his guests in near-perfect Hebrew while Ariel Zilber's classic "Haganat Hateva" anthem blasts in the background, strives for economic and personal ratification by throwing a bigger Rosh Hashana dinner than the local Chabad House.
Zigler, who has released four documentaries and several TV shorts over the nearly five years since his discharge from the IDF, first met Pinchas shortly after the latter returned from three months in Bhagsu. As his musical career with the Noam and Inbal ethnic rock duo was fizzling out, Pinchas served as sound designer on Zigler's first long-format documentary, and the two have been collaborating ever since.
In early 2005, Pinchas came up with the idea of going back to India, this time to get to know the local people. Most of their budget was to come out of their own pockets, as distribution channels had yet to be secured. (Just a few days after they returned to Israel, the two scrambled to submit a rough cut to Channel 8, and the cable TV-owned media pipe signed on, airing the final film earlier this winter.)
Upon arrival in Bhagsu, all Zigler and Pinchas knew was that they would be co-directing, co-writing, co-producing and co-everything-else-ing a documentary on some tricky subject matter. It was Pinchas's first directorial project. Anthropologist Darya Maoz of Ben-Gurion University and Hebrew University had recently made waves by publishing a paper on how Indians were going to burst from the pressure of dealing with post-army Israelis; she even predicted that the outburst would take place in sleepy Bhagsu.
"When we went there, we were thinking, okay, we're going to film this explosion," says Zigler. "But then we realized that there would be no explosion. It's like a love affair between the two countries; there are ups and downs, just as with any relationship."
After spending some time allowing the division-of-labor to gel, Hummus Curry's footage began to develop a language of its own - a process which takes place with all first-rate documentaries. Using a patient, steady frame with almost no camera movement or overdubbed sound, the movie offers a "fly on the wall" experience. It's an old-style documentary, in that the filmmakers are not part of the viewing experience, notes Zigler. "We took the time to let the people around us know and trust us before we took out the camera," he adds. So as to be comfortable with them, the villagers started wearing microphones a few days before shooting started.
Other factors that contributed to the glass-wall effect were the filming technology - zoom lenses that allowed Zigler and Pinchas to shoot from an unobtrusive distance - and the dispositions of the shanti shanti (Hindi for extremely laid-back) Indians. "These people are a lot more loose with their behavior," says Pinchas. "It's different with Westerners, who guard their privacy."
Israelis, for example, were often extremely particular about customizing the standard waiver for appearing in a documentary. "Some insisted, 'It's okay to show me smoking from a chillum or a joint but not a bong,'" laughs Pinchas, whose final cut depicts plenty of backpacker drug use with a variety of paraphernalia.
Zigler is currently talking with some of Israeli entertainment's big names, developing a television comedy series as well as a feature film on a love triangle. Always looking for new ways to justify a return to India, Pinchas is planning to shoot his second directorial project this summer, following the Israeli rock band Giraffot on a cross-country tour of the subcontinent. "We want to do a bus rockumentary adventure movie," he declares.
But for now, the two are keeping busy with what they call "The Hummus Curry National Tour." This week, the movie screens at The Third Ear in Tel Aviv on Saturday night at 9, at the Cinematheque in Rosh Pina on Tuesday night at 8:30 and at The Third Ear in Jerusalem on Wednesday night at 9:30. In April, Hummus Curry will probably continue showing regularly at The Third Ear in Jerusalem as well as Tel Aviv, and a Haifa Cinemateque screening over Pessah is planned.
For more information, visit www.hummuscurry.com, while an updated list of upcoming screenings and several video clips from the movie can be seen at myspace.com/hummuscurry.