Screenwriter Dana Idisis discusses father-son autism drama, ‘Here We Are’

Dana Idisis's youngest brother, Guy, is on the autism spectrum.

 DANA IDIDIS: I wanted people to see the love and the laughter, how amazing my brother is.  (photo credit: YANAI YECHIEL)
DANA IDIDIS: I wanted people to see the love and the laughter, how amazing my brother is.
(photo credit: YANAI YECHIEL)

For Dana Ididis, who won an Ophir Award for her screenplay for Nir Bergman’s Here We Are, which opened in Israel on February 17, writing is an expression of who she is. That is why autism is an important part of what she has created. 

Idisis’s younger brother, Guy, is on the autism spectrum and when she spoke about him in a recent interview, her voice was full of emotion. Here We Are is a screenplay she wrote nearly a decade ago. It tells the story of Aharon (Shai Avivi), a divorced father who has devoted himself completely to the care of his sweet, funny and charming 20something son, Uri (Noam Imber), who has autism and needs constant supervision.

As idyllic as their life together may be (Uri lives with Aharon), the father cannot care for Uri forever, and the two take a bittersweet trip as the father tries to run away from the fact that the time has come for Uri to start a new life.

Here We Are was accepted to the Cannes Film Festival in 2020, but the festival was canceled due to the outbreak of the COVID pandemic. It went on to win four Ophir Awards; in addition to Idisis’s award for the screenplay, Bergman won for directing and both actors, Avivi as the father and Imber as the son, won Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor respectively.

The film has played at film festivals around the world in the past two years and won a handful of awards, tellingly, most of them are Audience Awards, which always show that a movie is fun to watch.

 I ESPECIALLY tried not to use the word ‘autism’ around  Oren. However...  (credit: Annie Spratt/Unsplash) I ESPECIALLY tried not to use the word ‘autism’ around Oren. However... (credit: Annie Spratt/Unsplash)

But the pandemic has kept it out of theaters until now. At a recent preview screening, Bergman joked that since the release date was February 17, he expected a new strain of the virus would be discovered then, since that was what had happened every time a release date was chosen so far. But now that it has made it to theaters, it has received glowing reviews and as the virus ebbs, audiences will surely head to see it. 

Interestingly, Idisis wrote the screenplay long before her brother, who is now the age of Uri’s character in the film, faced this dilemma. 

“It was like a prediction of the future,” she said in a recent interview from her apartment where she lives with her spouse, actor/composer Itamar Rotschild (The Echo of Your Voice), and their two young children

“We hadn’t yet faced the issues of his growing up yet. I wrote it from a place where on the one hand, it was comfortable for me, it was in the future, and I was curious about it and on the other hand, it worried me... It’s strange that it’s coming out now, that it took all this time, because now my brother is Uri’s age and it’s like life and the film came together.” 

Idisis explained that while Uri is based on her brother, it is not quite the story of her family. Her parents are still together and in addition to Guy, she has two other siblings, while in the movie, Uri is an only child and the film is very much a two-hander.

As the mother of a son with autism who is around Uri’s age, I found the film compelling and true, and had to ask her about one of the most eccentric details about Uri, that he is afraid to step on snails. “Yes, my brother had that fear when he was little,” she acknowledged. “There were things from his life that were real, like his love for Charlie Chaplin.” 

The character in the film goes everywhere with a tablet loaded with Chaplin films, which create a lens through which he sees the world. “But there is a lot that we added that is not him. There were some elements from him and many from others.”

SHE WORKED for years with Bergman to perfect the script for Here We Are. “There were many versions before it was right.” And she is certain that Bergman was the perfect director to bring her screenplay to life. 

“Nir’s way of presenting family dynamics and people who are different is special. I think he knows how to talk about these subjects with great sensitivity... Of course, there is drama and dramatic moments, but he understands that this is life, these are our experiences, there is a routine and a rhythm.

“We didn’t want [Uri] to have any special talent or he suddenly succeeds at something or meets a girl,” she said, citing the tropes that characterize most presentations of people with autism on screen. “These things happen and they exist, but the moments of grace come not from any dramatic, cinematic moments of success but from laughing together about something, or from eating ice cream at a bus stop. For us, this was the grace of real life.”

The sadness and intimacy of the journey and inevitable return in the film is tremendously moving and filled with notes of grace. “Even though the father wants to flee from everything, as they deal with things on their journey, he ends up giving his son some tools that can help him deal with their separation and build a new life for himself.”

Idisis made a short documentary about her brother, in 2013, when he was preparing for his bar mitzvah, called Turning Thirteen. She was also one of the creators, with Yuval Shafferman, of the groundbreaking Israeli television series, On the Spectrum, from Yes Studios, about three autistic young adults sharing an apartment in the city, and about their families, neighbors, coworkers and those who help supervise them. 

On the Spectrum won the Grand Jury Prize in the prestigious French competition, Series Mania, in 2018 and was recently adapted by Jason Katims, one of the creators of Parenthood and Friday Night Lights, into the Amazon series, As We See It

Idisis has been more influential than anyone else in Israel, possibly the world, in putting adults on the autism spectrum on the radar of popular culture and entertainment, not as Rain Man geniuses or sad victims, but as the real, quirky people they are.

“It’s not that I chose this, it’s that I am so close to my brother and to my parents. It’s such a big part of my life, it defines me in a certain way. I grew up with a brother on the spectrum and as a writer, this is what interested me, this is what I wanted to talk about,” she said. 

“I wanted people to see the love and the laughter, how amazing my brother is... I always felt that if people could know him, they would understand what is wonderful about him.”

Here We Are, she reflected, became a story from a parent’s point of view; when she wrote On the Spectrum, she wanted to show the world through the eyes of those who are autistic. 

“I wanted to show how they perceive the world, what it’s like for them dealing with their parents, meeting all kinds of people. I wanted to show that they have a sense of humor, that some of them are cynical, that they’re not all one thing, the way that outsiders sometimes think it is, you know, ‘If he’s on the spectrum, he’s like this,’ without any connection to what his personality is, or his behavior, or his family, or his hobbies. That was very important to me and the series came out of that.”

It surprised and pleased her that the series succeeded so widely. “At first, before it came out, we were afraid people wouldn’t identify with the characters, but when it came out, they became people’s heroes, they really did identify with them. When they looked at them more in-depth, it changed the way people thought about them.”

While many would have liked to see a second series of On the Spectrum, Idisis felt that she had said what she wanted about the characters. She has worked as a writer on series that she did not create, including The Beauty and the Baker and The Conductor, and is currently at work on a new original series. It will not be about autism this time, but about an Israeli couple moving to Berlin with a child, as she and her family did. 

“I’ve got a lot to say about that,” she said, as her toddler daughter started to make herself heard in another part of the apartment.