On the brink of stardom

In his directorial debut ‘Not in Tel Aviv,’ Noni Gefen proves he’s anything but short on talent.

Noni Geffen 370 (photo credit: Lilah Films)
Noni Geffen 370
(photo credit: Lilah Films)
The history of cinema is replete with anti-heroes. The characters of Benjamin Braddock – the role played by Dustin Hoffman on his stunning debut in The Graduate – and Jeff Bridges’ The Dude in the The Big Lebowski spring to mind. We can now add to that roll call, albeit from a low budget Israeli project, the name of Noni Gefen.
If Gefen’s name does not instantly ring a bell you are probably not alone. 30-yearold Gefen recently released his debut offering as film director, scriptwriter and big screen actor, Not in Tel Aviv. The movie was not a plush affair, and Gefen made do with a miniscule outlay of around $100,000 – peanuts by any standards in the movie industry. But it has already started making waves abroad.
On August 11 Not in Tel Aviv grabbed the Silver Tiger award, given by the jurors at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland.
The award includes a prize of 30,000 Swiss francs and provides a significant push in the right direction up the industry ladder.
Gefen is in illustrious company. Founded in 1946, the festival is one of the oldest in world and previous award winners at Locarno include some of the biggest names in the global cinema arena, such as Mike Leigh, Stanley Kubrick, Milos Forman and Spike Lee.
Not in Tel Aviv is a curious affair. It was shot in black and white, on location in Kiryat Tivon, and features Gefen in the lead role, alongside young actresses Romy Aboulafia and Yaara Feltzig. The film tells the tale of a young history teacher, Micha, who is fired from his job at a local high school, takes umbrage and duly kidnaps a female student from the school, called Anna.
The girl turns out to a willing “hostage”, and is largely quite happy to hang out at the teacher’s somewhat rundown apartment, although boredom becomes a problem.
With Anna’s help Micha finally musters the courage to speak to a girl at the nearby pizza shop – intriguingly called Noni – whom Micha has been adulating from afar for some time. The threesome then hole up at Micha’s pad and embark on various escapades, interspersed by periods of stagnation.
It is hard to place Not in Tel Aviv in any particular genre, although the film noir category appears to partly fit the bill. The film is a somewhat amorphous affair.
There are spots of rich dark humor, moments of high tension but also passages which seem to drift aimlessly along, as if Gefen wasn’t quite sure where he wanted to take the job in hand.
That may be the result of the director’s background in the field, and his go-getter ethos.
“I never studied film in any official framework,” states the 30 year old. “I decided I wanted to get into the movie industry so I took all sorts of jobs with film companies. I was a driver, worked with lighting, you name it, I did it.”
But it wasn’t just a matter of gaining allround hands-on experience.
“I’d go to the lighting guy and I’d ask him why he used a particularly kind of lighting,” Gefen continues. “And I’d ask the cameraman why he shot some scene from a particular angle. I lapped it all up.”
If you want to get Gefen going it seems that all you need to do is tell him it can’t be done.
“I remember when I took driving lessons.
The instructor told my father I wouldn’t pass the test for quite a while. I was a poor driver, but I just knew I’d pass first time. The car stalled in the middle of the test but I stayed calm, got the car going again and everything was fine.”
Gefen draws some of his inspiration from the most iconic figures of the 1960s peace movement.
“[Argentinean Marxist revolutionary] Che Guevara, who is one of the people I most admire, said something like: ‘stay realistic, but strive for the impossible.’ I have that revolutionary kind of approach.”
Gefen also does a good job with sidestepping the accepted rules of the game.
“You know, when you adopt the alternative way of doing things, the money element goes out of the equation,” he observes. Rather than comprising a serious obstacle to pushing his idea forward, Gefen felt his horizons broadened as the financial factor receded into the sunset.
“Money is an amorphous concept. Anyone who gets into a project like Not in Tel Aviv is definitely not in it to make millions, and that is very liberating.”
Once he had hatched his idea Gefen pushed ahead relentlessly. He raised NIS 100,000 from the Israel Film Fund and, together with producer Itai Tamir, he kept the ball rolling in the desired direction.
He cobbled together a budget and threw himself into turning the script into a film.
Despite the fact that most of the film crew worked on a voluntary basis, Gefen demanded – and got – total commitment from everyone involved in the project.
“We filmed in Tivon for three weeks, but I told everyone that they had to stay there the whole time, and that they weren’t going to be popping back to Tel Aviv in the middle. It was tough, and there were some problems, but I believe that if you have your heart set on something you will achieve your goal.”
The jurors at Locarno evidently agree with that sentiment.
Not in Tel Aviv is scheduled to go on general release in October.