Nude models on the Mount of Olives? If you guessed this was a scene from the new Avi Nesher movie, Past Life, you’re right.
“It was nerve-wracking but it went great,” says Nesher, on the set of a gloomy but elegant apartment on Ahad Ha’sm Street in Jerusalem’s Talbieh neighborhood, which is the main location here.
Any filmmaking in East Jerusalem would be difficult these days, but to shoot a scene with models posing for a risqué photo spread was potentially incendiary.
“We had our fingers crossed,” he says.
Invited to the Ahad Ha’am set to observe a recent day’s filming, I watched several scenes with the actresses Joy Rieger and Jenya Dodina. The movie, which is part of a planned trilogy, is based on the real-life story of the Milch sisters, Ella Milch-Sheriff, a classical music composer who wrote new music for the film, and her sister, the late Michal Milch-Avigal, a Tel Aviv journalist who ran a tabloid – which commissioned the previously mentioned Mount of Olives photo shoot – when she was in her 20s. After the sisters learned some disturbing information about their father, a Holocaust survivor, they set off on a journey to Europe in the late 1970s to discover the truth. Nelly Tagar, who won acclaim in Talya Lavie’s Zero Motivation, plays Nana, the character based on Michal, but she was not on set the day I visited.
The house on Ahad Ha’am is being used as the family’s residence, where Sephi, the character based on Ella Milch, lives with her parents. Joy Rieger, who recently starred in the television series Johnny and the Knights of the Galilee, portrays Sephi, a repressed but extraordinarily gifted musician.
As she gets swept up in her family’s drama, she is also fighting both her parents and the director of the conservatory where she studies to prove that women can compose important classical music.
In Johnny, she played a girl who cheerfully gets involved in running her older brother’s male escort service, but here the mischievousness is gone. Her demeanor is so different I might not have recognized her. On this set, she is pale and intense but self-effacing, dressed in a drab dark skirt and sweater, with knee socks and clunky shoes.
Nesher, who cast her even before Johnny aired, first saw her in a movie that his daughter Tom made as a high-school project.
Nesher has had a history of launching new stars in his movies, among them Neta Garty and Liraz Charhi in his 2004 movie Turn Left at the End of the World, a coming-of-age story of an Indian and a Moroccan teen in a development town in the Negev, and Ania Bukstein in The Secrets, a 2007 drama about an ultra-Orthodox young woman who delves into the mysteries of the Kabbalah.
“Joy is going to be as big a star as any of them,” says Nesher, who first made his mark with the now-classic The Troupe (Ha Lahaka) and Dizengoff 99 in the Seventies.
“She spent six months studying piano and opera singing... Turn Left was a small movie that turned into something very big. I feel it’s the same with this.”
Jenya Dodina, in the key supporting role of the immigrant mother caught between her tyrannical husband and the very different needs of her two daughters, plays a short scene in which she calls her daughter to the telephone and tries to restrain her curiosity about Sephi’s phone conversation. Her distinctive husky voice commands attention, even though she has just a few lines. The Russian-born Dodina, one of Israel’s most acclaimed stage actresses, has performed in everything from Chekhov to Shakespeare with the Gesher Theater Company, and is also a member of Habima.
While Nesher may be best known for launching young stars, he has also given many veteran actresses their best roles.
French diva Fanny Ardant, Francois Truffaut’s last muse, did her finest acting in years in The Secrets, while Maya Dagan, previously known mainly as a sketch comedian, won the Ophir Award for Best Actress for her performance as a seductive Holocaust survivor in The Matchmaker.
Nesher sits between Dodina and Rieger on the piano bench and discusses the scene before and between the takes.
Filming on Past Life began this fall in Berlin and Lodz. On the Polish set, the cast and crew arrived to find swastikas spray painted on the walls, apparently an angry response by some locals to a previous movie production. Undaunted, Nesher and his actors had a successful shoot in Europe. In fact, the production went so well in Poland, Nesher brought back one of the local assistant directors to work on the Israel shoot. Nesher and the cast communicate with him in English, but he has learned quite a few Hebrew words, among them “quiet,” which he uses often and with great authority.
After the European shoot was completed, the cast and crew filmed in Tel Aviv, and then moved to Jerusalem.
Nesher is an attentive host between shots, pointing out period details of the set and introducing the actors and crew members, including French cinematographer Michel Abramowicz, who worked with Nesher on several of his previous films. But his focus is often diverted by virtually everything and everyone, bringing to mind a line Francois Truffaut says in Day for Night: “What is a director? A director is someone everyone asks questions of, about everything. Sometimes he knows the answers, but not always.”
Off the set a day later, Nesher says, “Sets seem chaotic but there is a system to that madness that encourages creativity and collaboration – I am always a little sad when a movie ends – I come to truly like and enjoy the company of my fellow travelers.”
Nesher adds that he sees the movie as a culmination of many themes he has explored in other movies.
“Like The Matchmaker
, it is set in the post-Holocaust world and takes a close look at how Israeli society cannot free itself from that powerful trauma and of course how some people work that post-trauma to their advantage... but most specifically it deals with the struggles a young woman has to endure in the supposedly liberal world of the arts.”
Even the nude models near holy sites are part of the story, representing a young woman’s attempt to take control her own destiny by shocking those around her.
It’s a subject that is “close to my heart,” and was partly inspired by his wife, artist and photographer Iris Nesher, who is the stills photographer on the movie, and his aspiring filmmaker daughter, now serving in the army.
“It’s a portrait of the artist as a young woman in an era and society very much opposed to such empowerment.”Past Life
is set to be released later this year.