Trials of the cutting room

It's been a long and somewhat painful road for comedian Yisrael Campbell on his journey to Judaism... a process that included three ritual conversions.

Yisrael Campbell 88 224 (photo credit: Melissa Blumenfeld)
Yisrael Campbell 88 224
(photo credit: Melissa Blumenfeld)
It's no joke. While making Circumcise Me, his new documentary about comedian Yisrael Campbell, filmmaker David Blumenfeld found the cutting process to be the most difficult part. The film, by first time directors Blumenfeld, a photographer, and his partner, journalist Matthew Kalman, captures Campbell's unique journey from a Philadelphia-bred, Catholic Christopher Campbell to Yisrael Campbell, an hassidic Jerusalem-based standup comedian. Circumcise Me, named after the three conversion processes Campbell has gone through since deciding to throw in his lot with the Jewish people, is being screened today at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival as part of its Comedy on Wry series. "The way I see the film is the back story of how I came to the jokes I do. The film in many places flushes that out," said Campbell. While the mohels presumably knew exactly what to clip off in the ceremonial circumcisions Campbell has undergone, Blumenfeld and Kalman were far less scientific, but just as meticulous, in their efforts to trim Campbell's often hilarious and poignant monologues into a cohesive film. "We basically followed Yisrael's script. We didn't want to stray too far from his performance, the film is about him and it's his story," said Blumenfeld. We did move things around a bit many times, so the story would flow - cutting things out was the hardest part. There were times when I loved a joke and I really wanted it in, and it sort of depended how strongly we each felt about it. If Matthew just didn't like that joke, and I felt strongly enough about it, then we'd keep it in. It was a real collaborative process. It all depended on who won the last debate." Campbell's story is well known to Jerusalem Post readers. As he explains it in his show and in the film, "I'm the first-born son a manic-depressive Italian woman and a pathologically silent Irishman. This makes me wildly emotional... in a very quiet way." With a style that careens from reflective to bellowing, Campbell has become a staple on the Anglo comedy network in Israel, and on frequent tours to the North America at colleges, Hillels and through Federations, as he describes his journey through teen substance abuse, a frustrating career as an actor in Los Angeles, and a growing interest in Judaism which led him to convert and move to Israel in 2000. It was at a show in Jerusalem three years ago that Blumenfeld and Kalman first saw Campbell and were inspired to approach him about making a film about his life. The two had been collaborating for years on news stories for the international media, and had evolved into creating video feature segments for outlets like Britain's Channel 4 and Reuters. "Israel's a very heavy place to work, and we were already thinking along the lines of finding a story that's both fun and funny to develop into a film," said Blumenfeld, sitting together with Campbell at a Jerusalem café a few days before they were flying to Toronto to be present at the screening. "Matthew went to see Yisrael at the Little House in Baka, immediately the next morning, he calls me up and says I saw this guy, and he might be the story we've been looking for. He's hilarious, he's got a really juicy story and he seems like a real character. So I went to see him, and we sat down afterwards and talked, We said we're new at this but we'd really like to do your story if you're interested." For Campbell, the decision wasn't difficult. "When they approached me, It was a choice of a two-picture film with Spielberg, or Matthew and David's first film. This kind of decision has landed my career where it is today," he said affably, his haredi appearance contrasting with his earthy worldliness and comfort at secular delights like cappuccino. "A couple of times early in my career, I had been nervous about things like this and put the brakes on, and essentially foiled things from happening. So for whatever reason, I was in a place where I said, 'sure, let's go for it. I've never been the subject of a film, let's do it.'" BLUMENFELD AND Kalman began shooting Campbell's shows, and filming interview with him and his father about his conversion, not exactly knowing which direction they wanted to take it in. "We wanted to follow the theme of his shows, but through additional footage and interviews we also wanted to put our voice into it," said Blumenfeld, a native of Toronto who first visited Israel in 1999, and has lived here ever since. Among those touches are recurring scenes of downtown Jerusalem featuring a display of tourist t-shirts behind a street musician playing a haunting guitar line composed by Kalman. The camera focuses in a different t-shirt whose message - "Guns & Moses," "I Got Stoned in Jerusalem" - act as chapter headings for the film. "Aside from being a cameraman or an editor, this was the first film I've been in charge of. I thought the t-shirts could be used to divide the film into chapters, but Matthew didn't like it, he thought it was too obvious. It was one of the disputes I won," said Blumenfeld. "I was actually flying to the US, when I saw the ultimate slogan - boxer shorts which said 'I'm Jewish, wanna check?' That completed the circle there." Because the directors filmed Campbell's shows over a series of two years, some unexpected changes occurred, including a switch of glass frames for Campbell and a noticeable weight loss - elements which the filmmakers took pains to cover up. "We rented some frames that looked like his old ones, and we asked him to gain some weight for our interview segments," said Blumenfeld. "It was very Deniro-esque, I had to gain weight to play myself," laughed Campbell, hinting at a sense of awkwardness he felt at being the focus of a film. "Even today, I was telling somebody we were going to Toronto, and it feels so strange to say 'there's a documentary about me'. Like then I should give a reason why I would need a documentary done about me - like I grew up in Chernobyl or something," he said. While the film contains more than its fair share of belly laughs, as Campbell describes his first visit to the mikve, rants about baby clothes and Israeli drivers, and expands on El Al security for a traveler named Christopher Campbell who's dressed like a haredi ("We found one! Where's the bomb?"), there are also serious moments when he talks about living through the Second Intifada and losing two close friends in the 2002 bombing of the Hebrew University cafeteria on Mount Scopus. Blumenfeld and Kalman interspersed Campbell's observations as he sat in the refurbished eatery with clips and photos of the actual results of the carnage - elements that all the principals felt walks a fine balance between keeping the film focused on Campbell and branching out into the "matzav." "When I do the show and talk about those things (losing friends at the HU cafeteria bombing), I don't have anything but my voice and my words. I think that with the use of archival footage, the danger is there to really go over the top. There's more than enough photos available to make it a movie about a pigua (terror attack). I think we hit a nice balance though," said Campbell. Blumenfeld agrees that the focus of the film remains squarely on Campbell, and it's the subject matter which shifts the mood, rather than the additional shots he and Kalman injected into the film. "We wanted to get at a situation where people were laughing one minute and crying the next, which is really like Israel." And a lot like Yisrael Campbell's shows.