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As a child fleeing the Gestapo during World War II, the renowned French-Jewish director Claude Lelouch spent long hours hiding in film theaters.
"My mother would hide me at the movies, and I sometimes watched films there for five consecutive hours," Lelouch said last Thursday at Ben-Gurion University, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate for his life-long achievement as a filmmaker.
"I was so in love with the cinema, that there was a part of me that regretted the sudden ending of the war."
By his own admission, Israel has always been an essential country for Lelouch, who was born in 1937 to an Algerian-Jewish father and to a French-Catholic mother, who converted to Judaism out of love for her husband.
"Constraint solicits the imagination - this has always been my motto, and I believe it also applies to the Jewish people and to the State of Israel," Lelouch told The Jerusalem Post in an interview prior to receiving the award.
Lelouch received the honorary doctorate as part of "The Jewish Eye," a festival celebrating an international selection of Jewish films.
Lelouch, who began his career in 1956 as a news cameraman, won Golden Palm award at Cannes and an Oscar for best foreign film for his 1966 film A Man and a Woman. He directed more than 40 films since and has entertained a tempestuous relationship with film critics, which culminated in 2004 when he offered the French public free tickets to his newly-released film The Parisians, which had been bashed by the press.
"Everything I have learned I learned by failing. It's the films that didn't succeed that have allowed me, from time to time, to enjoy great success," Lelouch said. "It is our enemies who finally do us the greatest service - this is the small common denominator I share with this country." On Thursday, Lelouch also paid an emotional visit to the Sdeh-Boker home of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. In 1968, he arrived there to seek Ben Gurion's authorization to make use of Israeli army forces in a film he planned to shoot in the country.
"I asked Ben-Gurion if he would authorize me to use the Israeli army, because we didn't have the financial means to use extras," Lelouch recalled. "He said he would do so, but that I had to wait another 30 or 40 years until the country was no longer be in danger - he was quite an optimist."
Over the years, Lelouch has returned repeatedly to Israel, where he also filmed scenes for two of his films. While he would like to shoot a full-length feature here, he still does not know what it might be about.
Touring the Negev with Ben Gurion University president Avishay Braverman, Lelouch said he was impressed with the architecture of the Negev. "They're certainly not palaces, but they show a respect of human beings," he said. "If people built with similar care in the suburbs around Paris, perhaps there wouldn't be so many cars burning there right now."
Still, Lelouch admitted there were moments when he was furious at Israel because, he said, "I love it so much." "There are moments in which I feel there is a lack of tolerance in Israel, a certain kind of rigidity," he said. "I myself am a very tolerant person, and at times, I would like a little bit more tolerance here."
"When I was born in 1937, being Jewish was a calamity," said Lelouch, speaking about his experience of growing up Jewish in post-War France. "In 1945 it was great, because people demanded your pardon. We were martyrs. But it lasted exactly six months." Nevertheless, he said, "what I've I learned in life is that the difficult moments are as important as the moments of happiness."
Lelouch also said he believed that "Jews have been lucky to have anti-Semitism, because otherwise we couldn't have been so creative. During the war, my mother had an incredible imagination. She was a heroine who searched for my father and found ways for us to escape. After the war, it was gone. She became a normal woman, who was afraid to go out in the rain." A director that has obsessively pursued the theme of love, Lelouch said that his most recent film, which has still not been released in Israel, examined what he called "A cruel theme - the theme of remaining faithful as long as one doesn't find anyone better to love."
"It's love's greatest problem," he said. "When you are addicted to love, you've lost. But it's a drug that I've been addicted to all my life, together with the cinema. I am too badly situated - or perhaps to well situated - to talk about it."
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