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A graduate of Jerusalem's Sam Spiegel School of Film and Television, A Hebrew Lesson director David Ofek has helmed a number of other projects, among them the 2003 documentary No. 17.
The winner of Israel's top documentary prize, the film focused on attempts to identify the body of the 17th victim of a 2002 suicide bombing. Ofek discussed his new documentary, and its focus on a very different side of Israel, in an interview earlier this year.
How did you come up with the idea to follow an ulpan class?
Curiously, this pretty local concept came from Denmark. The film's cinematographer, Ron Rotem, studied Danish in an "ulpan," [where] he sat next to a Ukrainian prostitute and a Palestinian refugee.
The Danish television [company he was working for] didn't retain rights to the project, but the formula appealed to Israeli broadcasters. I've always been sensitive to the new immigrant's first reactions to our country: they reveal Israeli society through the foreigner's eyes.
Your film's critical approach is quite popular on the Israeli movie landscape.
As a matter of fact, James' Journey to Jerusalem (2003) by Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, the tragicomedy of a Zulu-speaking African who is sent on a pilgrimage to Israel and [is falsely accused of being] an illegal worker, has refreshed the genre. During the 2006 Jerusalem Film Festival, two other documentaries showcased a similar approach: Paper Dolls by Tomer Heyman, whose subject is the double life of a Filipino group whose members take care of elderly people during the week and produce drag shows in a Tel Aviv night club over the weekend, [and] 9 Star Hotel by my friend Ido Haar, dedicated to secret Palestinian workers building in the city of Modi'in.
The class you chose to accompany was not selected by chance â€¦
When Ulpan Meir shut down in Tel Aviv two years ago, Ulpan Gordon had to open three new classes for Hebrew beginners. As a result, we were offered the opportunity to target a group that suited exactly the film's needs. This class is not a typical one, but it is quite representative.
Why did you include the teacher of the ulpan class, Yoela?
Yoela was herself once a "new immigrant." She decided to become a teacher while studying in an ulpan and fits the role of the very friendly teacher who wishes to receive from her students as much as she gives.
As a divorced mother who decided to fight for alimony during the shooting of the film, Yoela also relates to a central issue: the relationship [with parents] that is particularly crucial to the film's newcomers.