How Yaelle Kayam climbed a ‘Mountain’

The Israeli director is reaching great heights of success with her debut film set on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives.

June 6, 2016 21:18
4 minute read.
‘FOR MANY years I wanted to make a movie on the Mount of Olives... Visually, the place is so strong,

‘FOR MANY years I wanted to make a movie on the Mount of Olives... Visually, the place is so strong, it just spoke to me. The place contains so many stories, hopes, dreams and narratives,’ says Israeli filmaker Yaelle Kayam in regards to her debut feature ‘Mountain.’. (photo credit: AMIT BERLOWITZ)


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"For many years I wanted to make a movie on the Mount of Olives,” said Yaelle Kayam, who has realized her dream with her movie, Mountain, which is playing throughout Israel and at festivals around the world.

“Visually, the place is so strong, it just spoke to me. The place contains so many stories, hopes, dreams and narratives. It’s the oldest Jewish cemetery in the world that is still active.”

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The movie has won several international prizes, including the Special Jury Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

It tells the story of an young Orthodox woman, played by Shani Klein, who gave such a memorable performance as the commander in Talya Lavie’s Zero Motivation. The woman lives in a small house in the cemetery on the Mount of Olives with her family.

Feeling isolated, she begins wandering through the graves at night, shocked and fascinated to find prostitutes and pimps conducting their nocturnal business there, in encounters that change her irrevocably.

“At the beginning, I knew I wanted to tell a story about this place, but I didn’t know exactly which story I wanted to tell. I knew that [the poet] Zelda was buried there, and I tried to find her grave. I talked to one of the Arab workers and he helped me find it.

When I was at her grave, I read her poems on my smartphone and I thought of a woman in a small kitchen with a mountain of dishes in the sink. Out of her window, she sees the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives. I started imagining about her life... I knew something big would happen to her but I did not know when it would happen, and through this I started to work.”

Kayam, who studied filmmaking at the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School, Jerusalem, had finished her student graduate project, a short film called Diploma. The film is about a Palestinian brother and sister in Hebron trying to get her college graduation during Purim celebrations and it won third place in the Cinefondation program at the Cannes Film Festival.

“I know why this idea of the woman in the Mount of Olives spoke to me. It was after my graduation project, and I talked about doing a feature, but it was not clear it was going to happen. Starting work on Mountain was like an uphill climb.”

Kayam realized that she needed to become as familiar with the Mount of Olives as her heroine would have been.

“I went to the Mount of Olives a lot. I talked to people who worked there, visitors, tour guides, anyone who felt a connection to the place. I heard many stories, from people with many beliefs, Jews, Christians and Muslims.”

Among the stories that moved her was one, told in several versions, of a woman who was a whore in Greece and who received help from a priest or imam to come to Jerusalem and lived there, disguised as a holy man.

“There are the images of the Madonna and the whore, the holy woman or the sexual woman, that are connected to this place. It interested me to connect these stories to my character, who is a ‘Woman of Valor.’ She tries to be a good woman, a good mom and a good wife, but she still has to feel the pain of sexual rejection,” when her husband, a yeshiva teacher who is correct but cold with her, ignores her.

Kayam, who is from a secular background, nevertheless felt very close to this religious character.

“I live in Israel, with this dichotomy of religion and secularism... I lived in Jerusalem while I was at film school and I love it very much, but it’s complicated. My first year in Jerusalem, it was difficult to get used to the city... I have secular friends who grew up ultra-Orthodox, and religious friends who grew up secular.”

Although Mountain tells the story of one religious woman, “All of us women can identify with her” and her struggle between sensuality and duty.

At many screenings around the world, “women have spoken to me and have said, ‘You told my story,’” says Kayam, happy that women from different cultures – the film has been shown at many film festivals, including ones in Italy (at the Venice International Film Festival), Switzerland, Sweden, Turkey, Belgium, and the US – were able to relate to this story that is so unique to Jerusalem.

Although Kayam, who counts among her influences the films of French director Chantal Akerman and Talmudic lessons, is starting to work on a new film, she is still involved with Mountain, and is bringing it to festivals around the world.

“Many things are still keeping me connected to this Mountain,” she said.

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