Tel Aviv just got hotter

Jewish Mexican director Yohanan Weller discusses his latest film which takes place in the city’s underground salsa scene.

salsa 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
salsa 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘There’s a great love of life amid the sadness and hardships in the lives of the foreign workers here,” says Yohanan (Jorge) Weller, the director of the film, Salsa Tel Aviv, which opened recently throughout Israel.
“But I love comedies, and I decided to tell their story as a comedy. I could have made a tragedy, a film that says their lives are horrible, Israelis are horrible.
But I took my cue from the optimism I found among them as I did my research.”

The film tells the story of Vicky, a young single mother from Mexico who comes to Israel to reconnect with the father of her son, who is working as a salsa instructor here, and to earn money to send home to her family.
To have an easier time getting into the country, Vicky disguises herself as a nun, and meets and befriends a Spanish-speaking Israeli biologist, Yoni, on the plane. Yoni is engaged to be married to a very proper young Israeli woman, but an unlikely attraction begins between Vicky and Yoni, as a series of typical romantic-comedy style coincidences keep bringing them back together.
Vicky is played by the Mexican actress, Angelica Vale.
“We decided to make the character Mexican [rather than from a different Spanish-speaking country] because of Angelica,” says Argentina-born Weller, who has been living in Israeli for half his life. Vale is “a very popular comic actress in Mexico, she starred in Ugly Betty on TV there, and it was shown also on Spanish- speaking stations in the US, so she has quite a following. She has done dramas, too. I had no idea whether she would want to do a low-budget film like this, but she loved the script and she really wanted to play this part.
Her grandfather was Jewish, so she feels she has a mystical connection to the Jewish people.”
SHE ALSO persuaded her mother, Angelica Maria, an actress who in her younger days was known as the Sandra Dee of Mexico, to take the small role of her mother in the film.
The hunky nerd who falls for the salsa-dancing nun is played by Uruguay-born Angel Bonani, an Israeli model and heartthrob who is making the transition to acting.
“Cary Grant was the model for this kind of character,” says Weller.
“I saw a lot of the classic romantic comedies with Cary Grant again in recent years and I had that image of him in mind when we were making this.”
As Weller researched the lives of foreign workers here, along with his screenwriter, Elisa Dor, they found fascinating stories that inspired the story.
“For a lot of these workers, the salsa club is the focus of their community. They go there every week, it gives them energy. . . We met a woman from Colombia, who had three children she left behind at home that she was supporting. And her boyfriend was an Israeli cop. He loved salsa, and they met at the club. They’d fight, and he’d say, ‘I’ll have you deported.’ ” The idea to have Vicky disguise herself as a nun to get into Israel was also based on a true story.
Reflecting on the many dramas in the workers’ lives he discovered, he says, “It’s true that they are here illegally, but they are not criminals. They are doing whatever they can to support their families. . . A state must have mercy. I’m glad that in the film you get to see all different sides of them.”
Weller is optimistic about the potential for this multi-cultural film to cross borders.
“It will come out in Mexico, it’s being shown here, it will also appeal to American Jews and anyone who likes a good romantic comedy. . . It is possible to make a comedy about a serious subject.”