“Miracles and catastrophes,” is how director Ofir Raul Graizer responds when asked about shooting his latest movie, America, during the pandemic. The movie opened in theaters throughout Israel on January 5.
The movie is the follow-up to Graizer’s acclaimed debut feature, The Cakemaker, which won the Ophir Award and which has been sold for an American remake. America, which despite its title, is set mostly in Israel, is a mesmerizing, hard-to-classify story about three people whose lives come together with great intensity for a brief period: Eli (Michael Moshonov), is an Israeli working as a swimming teacher in Chicago, who comes back to Israel after his father’s death, and reconnects with his childhood friend, Yotam (Ofri Biterman) and also gets to know Yotam’s fiancée, Iris (Oshrat Ingadashet), who runs a florist shop.
An unexpected event changes the dynamics between them, and through coping with that, Eli comes to terms with his childhood trauma – his father, a high-ranking police officer, abused him. Iris also deals with her feelings of alienation from her religious Ethiopian family, who don’t understand that she has chosen to live a secular life. The story unfolds amid breathtakingly beautiful cinematography by Omri Aloni of flowers, which echoes the sensuous images of pastry in The Cakemaker.
The story behind the movie has its own drama, according to Graizer, an Israeli who teaches cooking when he’s not making movies. He divides his time between Tel Aviv, Los Angeles and Berlin, where he lives with his husband, a florist and garden designer.
The real miracle is that the movie came together at all
The miracle is that the movie came together, in spite of the fact that they were set to begin filming during the pandemic. Although Graizer was able to film with certain permits, like all filmmakers under these circumstances, he feared that a COVID outbreak would shut down production. Although that didn’t happen, the bureaucracy made it difficult to work in other ways, like coordinating quarantine requirements for crew members arriving from abroad.
“It was a challenging film because we shot it during the lockdown which was in the summer of 2020, so it was before vaccinations, before it was even known if there will ever be cinemas again, you know everything was closed and dead.”Ofir Raul Graizer
“It was a challenging film because we shot it during the lockdown which was in the summer of 2020, so it was before vaccinations, before it was even known if there will ever be cinemas again, you know everything was closed and dead.” He did much of the location scouting online while he was in quarantine after arriving from Berlin. “The shoot was planned for August, suddenly there were more restrictions, more rules, more guidelines, which didn’t make any sense, by the way... But we managed to get everything we needed, everything I wanted and I’m very happy about the result.”
The movie, which had its world premiere at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic in 2022, tells a story that is very personal to Graizer, even though it is not autobiographical. “I feel the experience of an immigrant with my soul... there is this kind of a connection it’s impossible to break away from the place we were born in, and so that was something I wanted to talk about when I created Eli’s character, this person who was forced to go back to the place where he grew up and he doesn’t want to go back .. . but actually then he has to stay and we see how he spent ten years reinventing himself in a different country. So this is one thing that led me to write his character.
“I also wanted to make a movie about flowers and about the power of nature, how nature has some kind of mystical power on humanity, and how we as people, we have to look for nature and the healing power that nature can give us.”
THE LOW-KEY tone of the film, in which turbulent stories and emotions are expressed softly, was inspired by the ‘70s movies that Graizer loves and tried to emulate. “I had this desire to make a film like I’m a director working in the golden age of cinema in the ‘70s. There are some Fassbinder films that inspired me, and some Antonioni films, like Red Desert, and the late Fellini and the films of John Cassavetes. They have a kind of rhythm which is different from how they make movies today and there is some kind of richness in the frame, in the colors. I like the enigma in them, they’re not trying to explain everything, but they also have engaging stories, engaging characters, and the editing and cinematography and the production design are on such a high level.”
The film has three great parts for actors and Graizer enjoyed working with his cast. Michael Moshonov, his leading man, has starred in many popular movies and television shows such as Lost Islands, The Flood and The Little Drummer Girl.
“Most of the roles he had before, he was a little childish, kind of an immature guy, so when we started working on the casting, I said I want Michael to be Eli, because Eli’s character is a child who actually had to grow up in an unnatural way so it’s interesting, you see the child in Eli. Michael really did an amazing job connecting to the character so deeply in his heart.”
Although the character of Iris was originally conceived as an Ashkenazi girl who left the ultra-Orthodox world and fell into the punk scene in Jerusalem, once Graizer met Oshrat Ingadashet, he realized she was the actress for the role. “I just immediately fell in love with her energy and with her dedication and with her depth.” He changed her character’s background to Ethiopian, “But she’s not there to show the problems of the Ethiopian community or something like that, she’s just herself.” As for Biterman, the third actor in his trio, “He worked very hard to get all the details right, he’s an amazing actor.”
Asked about the theme of recovery from trauma which links the characters, he said, “I think that Israelis are basically post traumatic people in general. Many of us are carrying something in our families, in our histories, that relates to either persecution or hatred or discrimination. There are so many people I know who are constantly either trying to define their own identity, as religious or secular, or gay people who come from religious homes or people who were soldiers and were traumatized from that. You are defined by your own past in a way that affects who you are today. And that’s what I wanted to show in the movie.”