The light side of nuclear destruction

Filmmaker Dror Shaul talks about his recipe for ‘Atomic Falafel.’

MALI LEVI-GERSHON (left) and Shai Avivi star in  Dror Shaul’s ‘Atomic Falafel’  (photo credit: MERAV MERUDI)
MALI LEVI-GERSHON (left) and Shai Avivi star in Dror Shaul’s ‘Atomic Falafel’
(photo credit: MERAV MERUDI)
Dror Shaul’s latest movie, the comedy Atomic Falafel, asks the question: Can two 15-year-old girls, one in Israel and one in Iran, save the world from nuclear destruction? And, equally important to Shaul right now: Can Israelis laugh about this scenario? Speaking at a Tel Aviv restaurant days after the premiere of the film, Shaul said he is betting that the answer is yes.
An audacious publicity stunt – hanging a banner from a building overlooking Rabin Square saying that this would be the site of Iranian embassy in Tel Aviv – had been a big success, he said.
“The BBC in Iran had a report on it, they said, ‘why is there no initiative to build an Israeli embassy in Tehran?’” he said, laughing. He credits the idea for the banner to “my secret weapon,” advertising professional Sefi Shaked.
“I tried to find producers in Iran who would co-produce [Atomic Falafel]. We had producers in Tehran, we were going to shoot in Iran and bring Iranian money. This was my goal – to make the first Israeli-Iranian co-production in history,” he said. Everything seemed to be going well, “but in the end they backed off two months before the shoot.”
He said he was cheered by the early response to the film, which, in addition to the two girls, is about a buffoonish group of Israeli generals and politicians planning a preemptive nuclear strike on Iran; an Israeli hacker who knows how to disable nuclear code in a way that the senior military brass can’t understand; a love affair between a widow who sells falafel to soldiers in the Negev and a German nuclear inspector; and a dog named Vanunu.
Shaul started his career in comedy, making the 1999 film Operation Grandma, about three brothers trying to bury their grandmother on her kibbutz, which has become an Israeli cult classic. His next film, the 2003 Sima Vaknin Witch, was another comedy.
But it was his 2006 film, the autobiographical Sweet Mud, which brought him wide acclaim as a director. The movie, which won the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema at the Sundance Film Festival, is a coming-of-age story of a young boy growing up on a kibbutz whose mother commits suicide. Shaul’s father also took his own life when Shaul was an infant. But Shaul was able to turn this very sad story into a moving film.
Now, however, he seems relieved to get back to comedy.
“After Sweet Mud, I started playing around with the idea of a story set in a nuclear town in the desert. I thought with the technical revolution, these days, young people around the world are more alike than they are different. And I thought about how they can meet through technology and how they can do things together in a way that older people can’t... I thought about a story about the opposition between the rebellious young tech generation and the older leaders.
“I was fascinated with the idea that adults are producing weapons of mass destruction and at the same time, there are kids doing the exact opposite, creating relationships with people from the other side. And I thought there can be a 15-year-old here, and another 15-year-old rap artist with a computer in a nuclear town in Iran, and they can talk. And I started researching that.
“When Shmuelik Maoz won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2009 with Lebanon, the second prize was won by a friend, Shirin Neshat [who made Women Without Men], who was with me at the Sundance Labs [where he developed Sweet Mud]. I called Shirin to congratulate her and she said, ‘Look at Israel and Iran winning the top two prizes, maybe one day we’ll make films together.’” He started researching Iran, and was interested to see that Iran has a very young population. After talking to an Iranian professor raising his daughters in New York, “It blew my mind how similar these girls were to Israeli teenagers,” he said.
Based on his research, he concluded, “They [teens] all want to be popular, they all have slang, their attitude is the same.
They even wear the same brands. It’s the same for 15-year-olds all over the world, whether they are in Tel Aviv, Teheran, Paris, London, Berlin, New York or Dubai. Even a girl from Tehran wearing a veil, you can still see one wisp of pink hair slipping out of her veil, you can still feel how she fights for her own private voice and individuality.”
But can the Israelis of today relate to a movie in which their leaders are portrayed as a bunch of clueless clowns? “My intention was not to provoke but also to look at the serious side, to look at army issues, and the pathos and the heroism we were brought up with and say, does it still work? ...It’s also psychological.
Maybe on another level, a deeper level, I grew up without my father, absorbing whatever male authority figures were around. And some of these people, they put on their uniforms and they become very official and strong, so unconsciously I might have looked at people and thought: Can he protect me? Can he replace the father that I did not have? Is it possible to trust him? So I’m always questioning these figures.”
Now Shaul is a father himself, of a 14-month-old. He recalled how when the baby was two days old he had to be taken to a bomb shelter in Ichilov Hospital.
“That is insane. But it’s possible to solve this conflict. There is no conflict between adults you can’t solve.”
Shaul is not eager to discuss the specifics of Israeli nuclear policy.
“It’s a complicated issue. I don’t pretend to know enough about this nuclear issue in order to recommend what leaders should do.”
As he was making the film, he thought of two possible scenarios that might make it irrelevant by the time he finished.
“One is that Israel would have attacked Iran – by the way, [former prime minister Ehud] Barak just said they were planning to attack – and there would have been casualties and no one would have wanted to see the film and laugh anymore. The other scenario was that the regime in Iran falls and the new one drops the nuclear plans and turns toward peace. Unfortunately it didn’t happen.”
He hopes that the film will be shown in Iran one day.
“If the IDF gave us a tank and cooperated with this production, then anything is possible. It’s a comedy. Iranians are people.
They have a sense of humor. Why not?”