Jerusalem Godfather (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 10, September 1, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Film producer and director Micha Shagrir is to Jerusalem what Woody Allen is to New York and Federico Fellini is to Rome. Unlike the other two, Shagrir is primarily a producer rather than a director, but his passion for discovering, nurturing, bringing to life and distributing cinematic works on Israel and Jerusalem elevates him to the top stratum of Jerusalem's cultural champions. "I am an interpreter and an entrepreneur," says the 71-year-old writer/director/producer, relaxing in his spacious, Arab-style home on leafy Aminadav Street, in southern Jerusalem's Abu Tor neighborhood. "I find films that I believe in and then try to see them through to production." Shagrir is a gentle bear of a man, with a full head of more pepper-than-salt hair. His heavy eyelids do not completely mask his melancholy brown eyes. He is deliberate in his movements and speech, with a kindly nature that puts his guests at ease. He meets with The Jerusalem Report in his garden, enclosed by an old Jerusalem-stone fence and illuminated by dappled light that makes its way through the overhanging tree branches. Sculptural remnants and other bric-a-brac are strewn randomly through this benignly neglected backyard. Some of the landmark films that bear his imprimatur are as well known to Israelis as "Gone with the Wind" is to American audiences. One of the productions for which he is most celebrated is "Avanti Popolo," a 1986 film directed by Rafi Bukai that centers on the vicissitudes of two Egyptian soldiers trapped behind Israeli lines, following the cease-fire that ended the 1967 Six-Day War. Shagrir states that his love affair with films comes from his days as a Tel Aviv youngster in a city without television, air-conditioning or even, in some cases, refrigeration. "Our escape was to the sea. Nearby were two open-air cinemas - Gan Rina and Beit Ha'am - where we spent our summer nights. Seeing Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman in 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' was enough to captivate me for life." Although Shagrir, who owns the Shiba Communications Company, loves films - writing, filming and producing them - he has also produced several award-winning television series, including Bat Yam, New York (which aired from 1997-1999) and Take Away (which aired during 2001). He was one of the founding members and subsequently director of the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem, where he continues to lecture regularly. He also served as the chairman of the Directors' Committee for the Khan, Jerusalem's only ensemble theater. And he has made hundreds of movies. In one particularly moving documentary, "Sight of Memory," he traced his own roots in Austria, a quest that took him to the street where his family had lived and owned a candy factory before leaving for Israel in the 1930s, just four doors down from the Eichmanns. In the film, he shows his former neighbors, people now 70 and 80 years old, who still remember the candies and cookies they enjoyed as children. And he had coffee and strudel with Eichmann's nephew (Hannes, although he refused to be filmed for the movie). In media interviews given at the time, Shagrir stressed that going back to Austria was not just a professional experience but the first time that he confronted the roots that he, who tried hard to be "Israeli," had spent much of his childhood hiding. "Growing up as someone who came from German culture on the eve of the establishment of the State of Israel was shameful and embarrassing," he was quoted then as saying. He also spent years of his life studying the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey between 1915 and 1923, producing, in the mid-1970s, a documentary that set off a diplomatic controversy that almost led Turkey to cut off its ties with Israel. Annually, he curates a series of domestic art - short screenings for the Jerusalem Film Festival, and, in 2005, the festival awarded him a Lifetime Achievement Award. This year he lectured on the old-time movie houses of Jerusalem, citing anecdotes from each of the locations with pride of place given to the Zion, followed by references to the Eden, Edison, Orion, Orna, Rex and Smadar (which still functions, relocated in the German Colony neighborhood). The Edison was a hugely successful movie house on Jerusalem's Yehezkel St., the last secular institution in a by now ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. "Most people remember where they saw a great movie," Shagrir asserts. Jerusalem is one of the most rhapsodized, criticized, filmed, photographed, painted, sung about, poeticized places on earth. But what exactly is the focus of this attention? Unlike the charms of metropolises like New York and Rome, Jerusalem's reputation is all about conflict, with three faiths vying for the same territory, Shagrir says. "It all gets stuck, and the result is conflict, which becomes the main characteristic of films on Jerusalem," he observes. There is strife between the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi, the secular and the religious, the Israelis and the Arabs and the ancient and the modern." Long-term residents of Jerusalem would add that even the climate is at odds with itself. On the west side of the city, there is still a hint of the semitropical coastal climate. On the eastern side is the Judaean Desert with the Dead Sea in the distance. Asked what his favorite movie about Jerusalem is, he says that's "like asking a parent which of your children you prefer." He says that his answer would be "either too nuanced or too superficial" and he gently declines to respond. He speaks with the authority of one who has been involved since the beginning of the genre. He notes that the development of Israeli society can be traced in its films. In the early days of the state, film was preoccupied with the War of Independence. "That brought Paul Newman and Kirk Douglas to Jerusalem. How can you believe anyone with eyes as blue as Newman's could be Jewish? (Editor's note: Newman, born to a Jewish father and Cahtolic mother, considers himself Jewish). "Exodus" (1960, directed by Otto Preminger) was like a giant cowboy-and-Indians shootout with the good guys winning in the end," Shagrir remarks. He cites the public excitement that accompanied "Exodus" being filmed in Jerusalem in 1960, around the King David Hotel and the then-abandoned Arab-Jewish Mamilla neighborhood [adjacent to the Old City and currently an upscale shopping mall]. "There are many people who live a boring life in a boring place and then someone comes and makes a movie about the place and suddenly, it's the most exciting city on earth." Shagrir reserves a special place for "Cast a Giant Shadow," (1966, directed by Melville Shavelson), an extravaganza about U.S. army colonel Mickey Marcus, who was an adviser to the Israel Defense Forces in the early days of the War of Independence. "I had a speaking part in that movie," he says, still wide-eyed. "I played a truck driver who helped break the siege of Jerusalem. Kirk Douglas, who plays Marcus, slaps me on the back and says, 'We did it!' I answer (he pauses for effect), 'Yes.'" "If one must sum up the kinds of films that best capture Jerusalem, it is the conflict that is the telling characteristic," he says. That conflict still remains, but judging from the short films found in the Shagrir-produced "Jerusalem Moments, 2005," which was shown at the 2006 Jerusalem Film Festival, with the help of The Jerusalem Foundation and the New Israeli Foundation for Cinema and TV, it adds some new dimensions."Jerusalem Moments 2005" is an anthology of 15 short films that present a gamut of emotions and themes, unprecedented for even the most avid Jerusalem film aficionado, with examples ranging from the polemic to the quirky, from the comedic to the heartbreaking. The battle still goes on, but in Jerusalem Moments 2005, the battleground has shifted. In "Betar Al-Quds," [Al-Quds is the Arabic name for Jerusalem], racial hatred boils over to the sports field. The documentary (directed by Eylat Feller) tells the story of an Arab supporter of soccer club Betar Jerusalem, which is notorious for its Arab haters. The maledictions that are hurled at game time will make even the most salty-tongued chauvinist cringe, but the Arab fan admits that when he goes to a game at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem, he too curses the Arabs on the opponents' teams. In "Berele, Berele," (directed by Yehuda Grovais), the conflict is happily resolved as an ultra-Orthodox family and a mod rapper, who live side by side, work out a modus vivendi on erev Shabbat (Friday night). The title refers to a children's song about a snail named Berele, who is encouraged to come out of his shell. Both the observant Jew and the rapper come out of their respective snail shells to experience the world of coexistence. Extract from an article in Issue 10, September 1, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. In "Somewhere a Crazy Man," (directed by Michal Rothschild and Rafi Abulafia), one police officer speaks fancifully, "If I were in charge, I would hang all the holy places by wire from above. Everyone can look, but no one can touch." "Conflict," Shagrir sums up, "is the main part of Jerusalem. Even a love story in Jerusalem is different from a love story anywhere else. Here, when a guy meets a girl, either he is Orthodox and she is secular or she is Palestinian and he is Israeli." In Jerusalem, Shagrir warns, even the attempt to make a simple documentary is dangerous. "Everything here symbolizes something else. The film has yet to be made about life in Jersusalem without the Jerusalem burden," which Shagrir defines as centuries of relentless strife. "A sense of humor is the only solution if you want to live in Jerusalem. Otherwise you have to pray." An example of the offbeat from "Jerusalem Moments, 2005" is "Lion in Zion," (directed by Esther Osnat), in which the awful truth about the mascot of Jerusalem, the lion who resides in the municipal zoo, is revealed. You see, this king of the beasts has a … well, you know … procreation problem (Shh, says the zookeeper to the audience). "Under the Blue Sky" (directed by Rima Essa) shows an 8-year-old Arab boy selling trinkets and candy at the French Hill junction, on the border between East and West Jerusalem. At each red light, the youngster approaches a car and does his best to sell gum or a toy before the light changes to green. If he's lucky, there'll be a youngster inside the car who will be his ally, tugging at his parents' heartstrings. "I am not a beggar, I am a merchant," he tells an insensitive lout. Before his teenage years he has reached a state of hopelessness. "I wish to die and rest from all this," he says, with an emptiness way beyond his years. Extract from an article in Issue 10, September 1, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.