Celebrating a ‘Portrait of Victory’ for Israeli cinema

“It’s the 21st century, it’s no longer about good and bad guys. We’ve gone past that point. It’s about two conflicting narratives, each of which is searching for its own portrait of victory.”

Yadin Gellman and Joy Rieger shooting a scene from Avi Nesher’s ‘Portrait of Victory.’ (photo credit: IRIS NESHER)
Yadin Gellman and Joy Rieger shooting a scene from Avi Nesher’s ‘Portrait of Victory.’
(photo credit: IRIS NESHER)
On a sunny afternoon in November, I am in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv looking for the set where Avi Nesher is shooting his new movie, Portrait of Victory, an epic story about Israelis and Egyptians during the War of Independence, when I notice two men at a sidewalk cafe, one dressed in a flashy 1940s-style suit and the other in the military garb of an Egyptian general.
In a very 2020 touch, both are wearing masks.
Since the scene I have been invited to watch takes place in Cairo on New Year’s Eve in 1947, I figure they will know exactly where the shoot is, and they direct me to the nearby Cinema Hotel.
Inside the hotel, I see the cables and equipment in the lobby that can be found on any film set, but the interior has been dressed up for this particular movie. The Cinema Hotel always features movie memorabilia as its decor, but today, there are posters of Frank Sinatra and John Wayne movies, all in Arabic, as well as a banner welcoming in 1948 waiting to be hung. Another two masked Egyptian generals pass by and I know I’ve arrived at the Portrait of Victory set.
Upstairs, while the actors take a break, Nesher is working with the camera and lighting crews to set up a shot that will involve Amir Khoury, who plays a young Egyptian journalist sent to the front lines to shoot a newsreel that will detail the Egyptians’ victory over the Israelis, hence the title. In this scene, Khoury goes for an interview in the Cairo press building to get the job, and walks up a staircase, through the elaborate party.
Khoury, who played Samir on the second season of Fauda and who starred in the British series The Little Drummer Girl, is getting his hair trimmed as he waits for the scene to be set up. He and Nesher share a joke and Khoury goes to rest until they are ready for him.
A lunch break is called but Nesher and the camera crew keep working, setting up the shot with a crew member dressed in a sequined Marilyn Monroe T-shirt that fits in well with the atmosphere of the hotel standing in for Khoury in this run-through.
Finally ready to take a break, Nesher talks about shooting a big-budget war epic – a complicated production by any standard – in the middle of a pandemic.
“It’s the most expensive production in Israel in years, maybe ever,” says Nesher, singing the praises of his producer, Ehud Bleiberg, who has made more than 50 movies – including The Band’s Visit – and Culture Minister Chili Tropper. Tropper made the movie possible by giving a multi-million shekel grant to the film industry, allowing several films, not only Portrait, to begin shooting in spite of the virus.
Nesher says that shooting the film in accordance with Health Ministry regulations raised the budget by at least 20%, and describes the working conditions in the Negev, where most of the movie was made. The set had to shut down for weeks during the second lockdown but was able to continue as regulations eased.
“It was mission impossible, but we did it,” he says. “You’re taking a huge risk, what will happen if one of the actors or the crew gets sick, production would be shut down.” The cast and crew lived at a hotel in Beersheba for weeks, near the Negev location, taking every possible precaution. “You have to think of so many things. We had three different dining areas, three different makeup artists.” Getting from Beersheba to the Negev set was also complicated. “Normally, you have four in a cab. Now we could only have two.”
The movie, which is based in part on the story of Bleiberg’s father, who lived on a kibbutz during the War of Independence, is “really a coming-of-age story about young people who find themselves in the middle of a moment in history that changes them,” says Nesher.
There have been very few movies made about the War of Independence and it’s notable that in this one it isn’t only about Israelis. The story also features Egyptian characters, including the one played by Khoury.
“We have here two different stories, based on the same set of facts,” he says. While researching the movie, he was fascinated to learn that a newsreel crew was embedded with Egyptian soldiers in order to film what the leaders were sure would be a “portrait of victory.” He says it is important for him to focus on both sides. “It’s the 21st century, it’s no longer about good and bad guys. We’ve gone past that point. It’s about two conflicting narratives, each of which is searching for its own portrait of victory.”
That's his cue to head to the roof of the hotel to shoot a scene that recreates a moment in the Egyptian newsreel, where King Farouk looks out with binoculars, supposedly surveying the battlefield, which Nesher says was actually shot filmed in Cairo, since Farouk didn’t get near the fighting.
“This is the first bit of fake news ever put on film,” he says. The actor playing Farouk, wearing a full military uniform and flanked by two of his generals, takes the binoculars and pretends to be looking over the battlefield.
After a few minutes, the shot is complete – Israeli film crews work like lightning compared to their foreign counterparts – and we go back downstairs, where Nesher’s wife, Iris, who is a stills photographer on the film, and his daughter Tom, a filmmaker and model, who is making a behind-the-scenes feature about the film, are waiting.
Famous names in the Israeli film industry drop by to see this moment in Israeli film history being made in spite of all the obstacles. Nesher greets them with the relaxed demeanor of the host at a party, not a director making a complicated film in the middle of a global pandemic. People who have known each other for decades joke about not recognizing each other with masks on.
It’s a strange time in the Israeli film industry. As the pandemic drags on, leaders in the industry put on a positive face in public, but in private express worry and even despair about all the completed films that have not been released, the fate of movie theaters and the whole future of Israeli cinema. Some well-known people can barely make ends meet. But today, in the Cinema Hotel, they are upbeat. “This movie gives me hope,” one told me.
Nesher, one of the leading lights of the film industry, started his career as a 24-year-old with the now-classic The Troupe (Ha Lahaka) in 1978 and is still in the forefront of Israeli filmmaking. He spent much of the 1980s and 1990s making movies in Hollywood, but decided to return to Israel and, since his return, made six movies that have won critical acclaim and been big hits with audiences, including Turn Left at the End of the World, The Matchmaker and The Other Story.
Portrait of Victory, Nesher’s 21st film as director, tells the stories of a number of young people caught up in the war, including Mira Ben Ari, a young wireless operator, and Lt. Avraham Schwarzstein, who fought in June 1948 to defend Kibbutz Nitzanim against Egyptian forces.
In addition to Khoury, the film stars Joy Rieger – who appeared in Nesher’s previous two films, The Other Story and Past Life – as Mira, newcomer Yadin Gellman, Eliana Tidhar, Meshi Kleinstein, Tom Avni, Elisha Banai, Ala Dakka, Kamal Zaid and Noa Roth.
Nesher refused to take any shortcuts on the production, even if that meant bringing 100 truckloads of sand to make the Negev look Nitzanim Beach and restoring real tanks from 1948. The battle scenes involved a fair amount of blowing things up.
“It wasn’t that I really wanted to do all these explosions, but it’s about the war, so what can you do?” he says.
As lunch ends and the extras dressed for a party more than 70 years ago return to the set, the crew begins to film the scene where Khoury walks in that they have been setting up for.
About half the extras are professional dancers and the others have learned to do dances from this period. The hairstyles, makeup, costumes and jewelry are all in perfect period detail. Khoury comes in and radiates star quality in just a few minutes of screen time.
Tom Oren, a distinguished jazz musician and composer in his twenties, who wrote the swing music playing in the scene, watches on a monitor, his face lighting up. Usually, toward the end of a movie shoot, energy and morale are at a low point for the crew, but here, crew members who are not needed on the set jostle to get a spot near the monitor where they can see the action. While most requests from a director to shoot more takes are met with quiet resentment from the crew, who just want to get home already, at this shoot the energy level remains high as the shooting goes into the early evening. “Look at that attention to detail,” says one grip who hopes to direct his own movies someday.
Speaking from his home in Tel Aviv a few days after shooting wrapped on the film, Nesher said he had gone for a walk around the city and been greeted enthusiastically by many who had heard about the film. “People see that we’ve done this and they see it as a sign that things will go back to normal,” he said.
“Looking back, it’s hard to believe we pulled it off in such a hopeless era and against all odds... Making this movie during the pandemic was the ultimate act of faith. The hand of God played a part here... Because the danger [of a virus outbreak on the set] was so imminent, the attitude of the cast and crew was, let’s make every shot count. They were celebrating cinema while living in the fear that every day was the last day. It’s the same spirit of the story, trying to do something normal in an abnormal time.”
Ending the interview so he can start his first day of editing he promised, “this movie will be shown on the big screen.”