The eagle has landed

After back-to-back Israeli blockbusters and a recent lifetime achievement award, at 54 Hollywood director Avi Nesher says he is here to stay.

the secrets 88 (photo credit: )
the secrets 88
(photo credit: )
It's hard to imagine Avi Nesher, director of the 2004 Israeli megahit Turn Left at the End of the World and the recently released The Secrets, at a loss for words. But as he stood before an audience of 7,000 at the opening of the Jerusalem Film Festival last week and received an Achievement Award from festival founder Lia van Leer, he barely managed one quick sentence, thanking van Leer for her support and saying how honored he was. A few days before the festival, Nesher, in an interview in his office, located in an apartment complex on the beach just north of Tel Aviv, had a bit more to say about the honor. "I was shocked," he said. "I'm 54. I thought you get an award like that when you're 80. It's a wonderful honor. Lia van Leer is a great woman and it's a great festival." Nesher has won honors abroad for his films, but being a local hero means a lot to him. After filming The Troupe (Halahaka), a much loved film about the behind-the-scenes drama in an IDF entertainment troupe nearly 30 years ago, he made a few more hits here, including Dizengoff 99 and Rage and Glory, a documentary about the Lehi underground. Nesher then went to Hollywood, where he made a string of successful genre movies, such as Doppelganger with Drew Barrymore and Raw Nerve with Nicollette Sheridan. He seemed to have fulfilled the Israeli dream of making it in America, but in 2003, he returned and made Turn Left, a drama about two teenage girls in a Negev development town in the 1960s, one from a Moroccan family, the other a recent Indian immigrant. The film sold nearly half a million tickets here and was shown around the world. It could have been a one-shot deal. But Nesher, who is perfectly comfortable speaking English and spent his high school years in New York, chose to move his family back here for several reasons. "I care deeply about this country," he says. "And I want my children to grow up here, not be immigrants. The curse of the wandering Jew has to end sometime." Nesher's Italian-born wife, an artist whose sculpture of a reclining woman dominates the coffee table in his sun-filled office, has also managed to settle back in. But Nesher, who describes his love for movies and moviemaking as a kind of religion, says, "The feeling of making a movie that's meaningful within a given community, there's no feeling like it. In America you can make the most successful movie, and it's a drop in the ocean. Here, movies have much more weight. The Secrets has been very controversial for the last three or four weeks and it's great. In America, it [moviemaking] was very lucrative financially and very comfortable. But the last time movies were important in America was in the 1970s." GIVEN HOW he feels, it's not surprising that Nesher has chosen to stay in Israel. But the director, who certainly gives the impression of being a classic Tel Aviv secular leftist, surprised many with the subject he chose for his latest film. The Secrets tells the story of two young haredi women studying at a midrasha in Safed, who begin to question their lives when they befriend a dying woman with a secret. They are both passionate about their religious study and are surprised at the depth and nature of the feelings they develop for each other. "It was a serpentine road to The Secrets," says Nesher. While he was making Oriental, a 2004 documentary that used a Jewish belly dancer and her work with Arab musicians as a springboard for examining miscommunication between Israelis and Palestinians and the stalled peace process, "I realized that the oppression of women is central to the conflicts in the Middle East... It's really a conflict between Orthodoxy and modernism, and Israel just stands for the West. If you like the system where men call the shots, you don't want it dismantled... I'm very careful not to pass judgment on anyone. God knows, modernism has its share of shortcomings. But it was really interesting to map out the conflict between Orthodoxy and modernism. I didn't feel qualified to delve into their [Muslim] orthodoxy, so I thought I would deal with my Orthodoxy." His thoughts on these subjects began to come together when he saw Mikve, a play by Hadar Galron, a highly unusual hyphenate: she's Orthodox, British/Moroccan and an actress and comedian as well as a writer. Nesher and Galron worked together for years to write The Secrets, interviewing many Orthodox women who were seriously interested in Jewish learning, a group he sees as quietly revolutionary and for which he developed a strong respect and affection. "These women are passionate. They're not lost, they're not victims. They have a strong sense of their cause, they're searching for meaning," he says. Although his life is very different from theirs, he can relate to their ideals. "Cynicism is the malignancy of the 21st century," he says. "So many people seem to have given up. But not these women." He mentions the elite IDF General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, in which he did part of his army service, "which is known as the best of the best. These women are also the best of the best, they're so brilliant, they're so motivated, which is why they're so interesting." As he spoke to some women who run midrashot, he realized that "one day, women will be [Orthodox] rabbis. That's the truth that dare not speak its name right now." On this subject, his interviewees tended to be "a bit skittish. They don't want to go against Halacha. The heads of these places say all the right things, that the girls are going to study for just a year, that study will make them better wives." But many of them "have an agenda," to make Jewish study more central in women's lives. "I was very affectionate and respectful of their world and their absolute belief in God. They want to stay religious and fight from the inside, quietly. They're walking a fine line." WHAT IS quietly revolutionary about Nesher's film, at least in the context of Israeli society, is that he presents the religious way of life without either endorsing or condemning it. "The Secrets is not black and white," he says. "It's much more ambivalent and much gentler." The main character, Nomi (Ania Bukstein), a brilliant rabbi's daughter, surprises her father and her fiancé when she decides to put off her wedding to study for a year. Her father is taken aback at first, but doesn't forbid her. "He loves and encourages her. He's proud of how much she has learned," says Nesher. But Nomi and her roommate Michelle (Michal Shtamler) change in ways that neither anticipated after they meet Anouk (played by diva Fanny Ardant), a lonely Frenchwoman who committed a crime of passion. They become involved in helping Anouk cleanse herself through a series of rituals related to kabbalistic theories. "The outcome of their encountering Anouk's world is their discovery that passion lies in the darkness... It's like Eve biting into the fruit of knowledge." That passion leads the movie in directions that may not please Orthodox viewers, particularly in a nude scene in the mikve, where the girls take Ardant's character to begin her journey, and a night in which the girls share a bed and their initially chaste hug turns into sexually charged passion. Nesher insists he consulted with Galron and another adviser on religious content before including both these scenes and received their approval. "Nudity exists [in this film] only because of the mikve ritual. If there would be any way of doing this ritual and not be naked, it would have been easier to shoot," he says. "There was no way around it... I can't stand when people shoot all in close up. If the [the characters] are naked, let them be naked." He also mentions that Mikve, Galron's stage play, featured nudity. As for the love scene, "they have no idea that they're having sex. They don't go through what you'd expect in a love scene because they have no idea of what they're doing. At no point is any clothing removed. It's just passion and nature taking over. It's not even a sex scene as far as I'm concerned." It's also important for Nesher to mention that while the movie has been criticized by some Orthodox Jews, others have praised it as a valuable film. The Secrets received mixed reviews but has already drawn more than 100,000 viewers, a huge success by Israeli standards. But Nesher and the movie have come in for some especially withering criticism from a few critics who seem suspicious of any entertainment that draws a mass audience and is accessible and unpretentious. However, the director is content with the film's popularity. "There is no point for me in making a movie no one wants to see," he says. "The least you can do is be clever and funny. Boredom is inexcusable." Nesher is now at work on an adaptation of the Erri De Luca novel, God's Mountain (Har Adonai), about a 13-year-old boy in Naples who befriends a Holocaust survivor. "It's hard to avoid all the clichés" when adapting a Holocaust story, admits Nesher, but tackling the subject is "something you have to do eventually when your mother is a Holocaust survivor." He quickly adds that the movie is not meant to be her story, or his. "I'm always in my movies," he says. "But they're never about my life."