Meet the woman who documented Israel's most prominent contemporary author

Adi Arbel is the screenwriter and director of Grossman, the film examining the life and times of Israel's most prominent contemporary author, David Grossman.

DAVID GROSSMAN faces the concept of death in every one of his books.  (photo credit: OFER YANUV)
DAVID GROSSMAN faces the concept of death in every one of his books.
(photo credit: OFER YANUV)

There’s one scene no one will ever see.

At one point during the editing stage of the documentary Grossman, screenwriter-director Adi Arbel, along with producers Arik Bernstein and David Silber of Alma Films, arrived at author David Grossman’s home in Mevaseret Zion and handed him and his wife a disk-on-key with footage of the film saved on it.

“Can you imagine what that’s like, after building up trust with him for two years?” Arbel asks. “David told us, ‘We want to watch it on our own. If you come back and your bags are outside, just take them and leave.’”

So Arbel, Bernstein and Silber turned around and went to the nearby mall to wait. When they returned to the house and didn’t see any bags on the path, they breathed a heavy sigh of relief, and slowly their pulses returned to normal.

Next came the hugs, gentle embraces consistent with the vibe of the documentary – even-keeled, sensitive and exposed, but only in the way Grossman chose to be. 

 SCREENWRITER-DIRECTOR Adi Arbel.  (credit: NICOLE DE CASTRO) SCREENWRITER-DIRECTOR Adi Arbel. (credit: NICOLE DE CASTRO)

DAVID GROSSMAN is one of Israel’s most prominent contemporary authors. He’s the winner of the Israel Prize in Literature, the Man Booker Prize and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, in addition to a long list of other awards.

He’s been known to stubbornly refuse to be interviewed, and yet in this documentary he looks straight into the camera and opens his heart. Every word he says is measured, as his brain cells merge with his soul. 

Almost every single thing he says sounds like poetry: He describes sitting on the “sill of the bathtub” and describes the “rim of his bed.” Within all of this fluency, he gazes off to the side and, for a moment, his expression is that of a small child, similar to how he must have looked in the 1950s while at a party in his parents’ home, as he gazed around at all the guests and realized that, one day, they would all be dead. 

The opening scene of the film takes place in a large hall in Croatia, as Grossman reads out a segment of his book More Than I Love My Life. Ever since A Horse Walks into a Bar was published in 2017, for which he received the Man Booker International Prize, he has been meeting with the translators of his books before they begin. Just Grossman, the translators and the divine spirit. Only this time, he’s finally agreed to let the cameras in to capture this process. 

“For years, he’s rejected every offer to make a film about him,” Arbel explains.

“We decided that the opening scene should be of one of his sessions with his translators, in which he reads a selection from one of his books. He gathers with his translators for a week in a secluded location, and then all of the translators read the entire book.

“I heard that [Nobel Prize-winning German novelist] Gunter Grass also might have done this, but as far as I know, Grossman is the only writer who does this.”

Bernstein and Silber had requested permission from Grossman many times in the past to film these sessions, and he finally responded, saying, “I will allow you access to film them.”

When a person learns that his books are translated into 45 languages, you can’t understand this in the same visceral way as when you watch him as he interacts with all of his translators. 

“Arik called me, and began to describe for me Grossman’s session with the translators,” Arbel recalls. “Arik said that David might agree to let us film one of these sessions. I immediately replied, ‘Fantastic. I’m on my way.’

“Every day, I’ve been grateful for having been given this opportunity.

“We flew together to Croatia, and by the end of that week, he’d agreed to even more filming sessions.

“At first, he told me that he only wanted to talk about his writing. I told him that was fine. Grossman’s writing is equivalent to life itself, and life is writing. We spent hours talking. Upon returning from Croatia, he turned to me and said, ‘Adi, I’m okay with you mentioning Uri’s name.’

“We developed a special relationship in Croatia. We spoke of our mutual love of books, and found that we speak the same language. A natural connection between us was created through words.

“The next task was to sit down and formulate a detailed screenplay. I sat down with David and his wife, Michal, and we read it together. These types of documentaries are created from the dynamic connection between the director and the people filming the scenes. 

“I wanted to tell the story of David’s life through his books, but it was also important to me that Michal be included. They have been a couple since they were 18. She was his first reader, the first person to comment, and they talk together about everything.

“There was so much happening behind the scenes. I kept reminding David that this would be our film. It took a while to gain his trust, but he’s so sharp and he understood where I was coming from right away. It didn’t take much time for him to realize that I was a big fan of his books.”

 ‘THERE was so much happening behind the scenes.’ (credit: AMIT HACHMOV) ‘THERE was so much happening behind the scenes.’ (credit: AMIT HACHMOV)

“The writing process involves the disintegration of the writer’s psyche,” Grossman says in the documentary, which delves into the writing of a number of his books, including The Book of Intimate Grammar, The Smile of the Lamb, See Under: Love, The Yellow Wind and To the End of the Land.

The documentary also weaves in entries from Grossman’s personal diary, which he writes in parallel with his novels, as well as personal videos that document conversations he had with his parents around the kitchen table, as well as with his young children.

In one clip, Grossman is seen answering questions in the recording studio with his sons, Yonatan and his late son Uri, who was four-years-old at the time. The boys were asking him philosophical questions, such as “Do you think a person’s spirit can change?” and “Do you know what will happen in the future?”

“Ever since Uri died, whenever I sit down to write I search for that moment, in which I touched life and death at the same time,” Grossman says in the documentary. Uri was killed in the Second Lebanon War in 2006 when he was just 21. “One thing I’ve learned from writing is that the only way we can contemplate the emptiness of death, and at the same time feel the fullness of life, is by writing. That’s what I look for when I write, to reach that place for a few moments where I’m touching both of them.”

At the Docaviv International Documentary Film Festival screening of the documentary, Grossman said: “I would like to thank Adi, who instinctively understood how to lead us wisely and gently, and was sensitive to all the nuances of such a situation.

“This documentary is more than a collection of facts about a specific person. It is a story that slowly gains momentum. I often think about how lucky artists are. Although we live in an unsensitive world, we insist on expressing even the littlest nuances, which bring such special pleasure.”

IN THE past, Arbel directed Life as a Rumor, a documentary autobiography by Assi Dayan, which won an Israeli Film Academy Award, as well as Personal Questions – Gila Almagor and Yaakov Agmon, produced by Liran Atzmor. More recently, together with Tamar Mor Sela and Liran Atzmor, Arbel created an ingenious monologue about sexuality called Awake.

“When people tell me that the film Grossman was a compassionate film, I feel validated,” notes Arbel.

“On our last day of filming, I asked David, ‘I know this has been hard for you. Why did you agree to make this film?’ He replied, ‘I want people to read the books.’ That was his motivation.”

Arbel chose to make Grossman the focus of the film, which is uncommon nowadays. Usually, documentarians put themselves in the center of their films, while the storyline and the main characters remain on the fringes.

“I told the filmographers, ‘I want to film his face in such a way that everyone watching the film feels like Grossman is sitting in the room and speaking directly with them,” Arbel continues. “If I move into the frame and the viewer sees me, that ruins the fantasy I’m trying to create, which is a direct connection between Grossman and the viewer.

“I felt so lucky that I was granted this unique opportunity to sit down one-on-one with him. How many people get to work with people like David Grossman?

“After watching the film, some people come out thinking to themselves, I must go read all of his books. Others become inspired to write. How incredible is that? Because of the way we filmed the documentary, no one is talking about the way I looked or why I asked specific questions.”

A hundred hours of filming were condensed into a one-hour film.

“We had to cut so many great scenes,” Arbel explains. “For example, there’s a scene in which David tells all of the translators who are sitting with him, ‘Every person creates a story from his life experiences, then polishes it and presents it to others. Sometimes, you are offered an opportunity to get outside of your story.’

“Eventually, after we’d edited our footage again and again, I finally understood something I knew from the start, but that I had to go through this entire experience to truly comprehend: David has been engaged in a battle with death since the age of four or five. He says, ‘I live as if I will die tomorrow.’ He faces the concept of death in every one of his books, and it is what motivates him to work.”

What did Arbel learn about Grossman while working on the film?

“We know that he completely commits himself to his characters, and that they are very much alive in his mind. On the one hand, when he enters his office, he flies off to faraway places. This part is beautiful. But on the other hand, this process is also destructive. Grossman himself says, ‘I reach places that ravage me, scare me.’

 ‘HE COMPLETELY commits himself to his characters.’  (credit: CHRISTIANA PAPA) ‘HE COMPLETELY commits himself to his characters.’ (credit: CHRISTIANA PAPA)

“David told me that writing his book See Under: Love almost killed him,” Arbel reveals. “People imagine that authors are having a positive experience when they’re writing, but when David closes his office door and sits down to work, he enters a different world and becomes part of the story. And for this, he pays a steep price.

“He is humble, benevolent, genuinely interested in others, and incredibly sensitive.

“I am so thankful for this opportunity and for the deep friendship that has formed as a result of working together on this remarkable endeavor.” 

Translated by Hannah Hochner.