There may be no less poetic place in Israel than the food court at Cinema City in Ramat Hasharon on a weekday morning, but that is where Nir Bergman, the director of the movie, Yona, a biopic of Israeli poet Yona Wallach, suggested we meet for an interview.
The movie complex features editing rooms, and Bergman was at work on a “making of” short film about Yona. Sitting in the cavernous space, Bergman, an intense, soft-spoken man, explained what had drawn him to make a movie about this iconic, tormented literary figure, who died at the age of 41 in 1985.
“Today one picture is worth a thousand words. Then, one word was worth a thousand pictures,” he said. “I tried to recapture the period in a way that was authentic, not romantic... Yona wrote post-modern work 30 years before there was post-modernism. She was a feminist before there was feminism... She lived for writing. I wanted to do a portrait of Yona. Her character was ground breaking, independent, sexy, an artist, daring.”
Bergman, one of Israel’s most acclaimed directors, considered the idea of a film about Yona for years.
His previous two films, Broken Wings
(2002), about a family coping with the sudden death of their father, and Intimate Grammar
(2010), an adaptation of a David Grossman novel about a boy who stops growing, won prizes all over the world, including the Tokyo Grand Prix at the Tokyo International Film Festival, which was awarded to both films. Clearly, he can make serious movies. In between these movies, he has had a very successful career as a television writer as well, writing for BeTipul
, the Israeli series about a psychiatrist, and several of its international versions, among them HBO’s In Treatment
. Recently, he worked on the Hostages series.
But Yona had been on his mind since he discovered her poetry as an adolescent.
“Poetry was sort of blocked for me until my encounter with Yona. My sister is a rock singer. She had a book by Yona Wallach. It scared me but fascinated me. Yona said, ‘The unconscious spreads out like a fan.’ Something in that threatened me.”
A few years ago, he discovered there was a screenplay circulating about Yona.
“There was a script by Dita Guery.... The character was amazing. It was written as if Dita had heard the voice of Yona.”
He contacted Guery and told her he wanted to make the movie. Although Bergman, a married father, has had a more stable life than Yona, he felt he could identify with her.
“I wanted to make a movie about the journey that an artist takes... You write screenplays alone. You have to not be afraid from the loneliness of writing. The film begins with her saying, ‘I am Yona, I write poems.’” He was fascinated by the many contradictions in her life and work.
“Yona knew she had a special voice but she had a very great fear of letting someone read her poems. One word of criticism would destroy her for a year. If someone didn’t love them she would burn them. She had a feeling of being chosen and of being alone with the explosions of her soul. It was as if she had an engine that pushed her to write in her notebook, to find meaning in words, to understand the world, to find love, to conquer the world in her poems.”
He knew that the film would deal with her chaotic personal life and her bouts of mental illness.
“When she was first hospitalized it wasn’t clear how serious it was; maybe it was a panic attack. She said, ‘I want to understand the craziness.’ Life for her was like an amusement park – she wanted to try everything. They gave her LSD in Talbieh [a mental hospital] in Jerusalem. The first doctor she had there felt she should investigate her problems artistically. Psychiatry vacillates on how to deal with artists.”
For Yona, Bergman said, poetry was a means of coping with life, and he captured that in his film.
“The storm in her soul got her into a synergy. She wrote all the time. She said, ‘No one can take my life from me. My poems protect me.’ Recognition was so important to her. Her first book was a success, her second book was a failure.”
Bergman worked hard to use poetry in the screenplay without making the movie pretentious.
“I tried to put poetry seamlessly into the movie,” he said.
Many people who knew Yona Wallach are still alive, and there are many more readers who love her work.
Bergman understood that his movie would be unlikely to please all her admirers.
“There is a great pressure when you create a work about an icon. Many people feel like they knew her.”
Once the screenplay was ready, the next challenge was finding an actress who could portray this complex heroine. He found what he was looking for in Naomi Levov, a young, virtually unknown actress.
“Naomi is like an Italian actress. She did not do an imitation... She did learn to do an imitation, but threw it away. As the character becomes more mature, I let her incorporate some of Yona’s gestures into her performance. At the end of the movie, you hear Yona reading on the radio. It was actually Naomi but it sounded just like Yona.”
Levov threw herself into her preparations for the role.
“Naomi was fearless. She wanted to stay over in a mental hospital and take LSD but I wouldn’t let her. She was a newcomer, now she is a star.”
Getting Yona’s story to the big screen has been a long journey, and Bergman has wasted no time getting started on his next project.
“I’m already shooting my next movie, Saving Netta, based on five short stories about different women. The image of a man in all of them is played by Ohad Knoller.”
Although Yona’s life may strike many as tragic, Bergman found inspiration in her story.
“Eventually, she got the freedom she needed to find a place in the world and to create, to write in an authentic voice...At the end, the authentic creativity returns to her.”