Avi Nesher’s ‘The Troupe’ turns 40

Nesher, who was just 23 when he made The Troupe, has gone on to a career as one of Israel’s preeminent directors, whose films receive both popular support and critical acclaim.

AVI NESHER (in the Columbia T-shirt) was just 23 when he started directing the ‘The Troupe’ (photo credit: YONI HAMENACHEM)
AVI NESHER (in the Columbia T-shirt) was just 23 when he started directing the ‘The Troupe’
(photo credit: YONI HAMENACHEM)
The quintessential Israeli movie classic, Avi Nesher’s The Troupe (Halahaka), turns 40 this year.
This anniversary will be celebrated at a festive screening on Israel’s 70th Independence Day, April 19, at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.
This comedy/drama/musical about an army entertainment troupe that stages a rebellion against its commander has the catchiest songs ever – there are few Israelis who don’t know songs such as “Shir Lashalom,” “Carnival b’Nahal” or “Shir Halahaka” by heart – and it features a cast of appealing unknowns, such as Gidi Gov and Gali Atari, who went on to dominate the Israeli entertainment scene.
Watching it on television is an Independence Day ritual for many households.
Nesher, who was just 23 when he made The Troupe, has gone on to a career as one of Israel’s preeminent directors, whose films receive both popular support and critical acclaim. Out of all the filmmakers who were his colleagues back in 1978, he is one of the few still making movies and the only one whose films are still at the center of the Israeli cinema scene.
Nesher is the son of a mother who is a Holocaust survivor and a Romanian father who was a diplomat.
When he was 11, his family moved from Israel to New York. At 18, he returned to Israel and served in the IDF General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal).
Not long after he finished his military service, he turned to directing. Following the success of Halahaka, he went on to make several more movies in quick succession, including Dizengoff 99 (1979) and Rage and Glory (1984), which was re-released in a digitally restored version in 2017. After the success of these films, he spent about 15 years in Hollywood, making genre films. Few thought he would return, but in 2004 he released a new Israeli movie, Turn Left at the End of the World, about Indian and Moroccan teenage girls coming of age in the Negev.
In the years since, he has made four more Israeli feature films: The Secrets (2007), about ultra-Orthodox young women delving into Kabbala; The Matchmaker (2010), the story of a boy who befriends a mysterious Holocaust survivor; The Wonders (2013), a look at an artist and a kidnapped rabbi in Jerusalem; and Past Life (2016), a fact-based drama about two young women looking into secrets in their father’s past.
Later this year, his new film, The Other Story, will be released. It’s about a father (Yuval Segal) who returns to Israel after years abroad to try to convince his newly ultra-Orthodox daughter (Joy Rieger) not to marry.
But no matter how many movies he makes, Halahaka will always have a special place in his heart – and the hearts of so many Israelis.
He sat down with the Magazine to talk about it recently at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem, where he was teaching participants in the Sam Spiegel International Film Lab.
When was the last time you saw ‘Halahaka’?
I kind of make it my business not to see my old movies, but every now and then I become a captive audience.
The last time was on Independence Day a few years ago. I went to some friends, and they insisted on watching it on television; and I thought, just to be polite, I’ll be there for 10 minutes and then I’ll find an excuse to leave. But then, as I hadn’t seen it for a long time, it was really interesting because they had like 20 people there, and half of them had not been born when the movie was made, and they totally were into it.
Movies that have longevity relate to the very DNA of the culture in which they were made. I guess It’s A Wonderful Life is such a movie in America.
Watching Halahaka was interesting to see because...
the outstanding character in the movie is a woman, and this is Israel in the ’70s – this was just not done.
Most of my movies have to do with rebellious people, and the most rebellious one there is that woman [the character Miki, played by Liron Nirgad, who leads the other soldiers in the troupe in a walkout to protest their cruel treatment at the hands of their commander].
She’s so unpredictable. She is the moral compass.
She is the one who does the right thing. And I just thought it was so interesting to tell that story through a woman in Israel in the late ’70s, which was so macho and there were no women in Israeli cinema at the time who did anything that did not have to do with family or romance, and she is like the Che Guevara of the movie.... You sort of see your own movie through the eyes of perhaps your daughter or perhaps what is happening in society today, and it was something to see how everyone found it so relevant still.
When you first start making films, you do it one at a time, and you are unaware of time and perspective and what will they look like years later. I found out that the greatest fear that one has is not failure but irrelevance.
Most art becomes irrelevant pretty quickly, and it’s really interesting when art stays relevant throughout the years.
You go to Halahaka or Dizengoff 99 or Rage and GloryRage and Glory is a movie that was made 30 years ago that a whole new generation is suddenly embracing...
it’s an interesting phenomenon. You try to explain it to yourself: What is it about these movies that make them triumph over time? And I’m not sure I know the answer.
Did you realize, while you were making ‘Halahaka,’ that it was a groundbreaking film?
The film was considered – how shall I say it? – it was such a departure from conventional Israeli cinema of the day. It did not have a love story, it didn’t have any tribal conflict, it didn’t have any big story per se. It was about 12 people living life while having ambitions and fears and loves, [a film] that tried to decipher this Israeli tendency that while we hate each other, we stay together.
The producer tried to put an end to filming twice because, he said, this movie doesn’t play by conventional cinema rules, and there will be no audience, and no one will come, and it’s a waste of time. And he actually told the investors that it was stupid to throw good money after bad, and principal photography was halted after three weeks, and we almost didn’t come back.
He kept saying that he really wanted the Meir Suissa character [who is Sephardi] to go back to the Hatikva neighborhood and light candles on a Friday night. And I remember he told me that I am too clever for my own good but I have no soul. He just said, “But where is the Jewish stuff? Where is the lighting of the candles? Where are the tears? When is the audience going to cry?” And I said, “It’s not a movie like this, it’s not a melodrama; it’s a slice of life that I think people will find interesting, and I think they will want to spend time with these characters.” And he said, “Movies don’t work that way,” and I said, “Maybe they will now.”
What was the first screening like in 1978? When did you know it would be a hit?
For the first test screening we had – the producer thought it would be a waste of time even to test it – he brought in 100 people from a factory in Herzliya. I think on purpose he brought in people who were not, you know, hip. He thought the movie was too hip for its own good. So he brought regular people. And they loved the movie. After two minutes they were totally into it. And they were laughing and they were clapping and they loved the movie.
It was just instant.
Now again, when you are 23, you cannot appreciate the sheer miraculousness of the moment, because you have never done anything else, so you don’t know it can be any different, and it was magical how they totally got into the movie, and it’s really interesting to see the wisdom of the crowd, the wisdom of the audience.
The movie opened big, even though I was a complete unknown and the cast were all unknowns. It was the first movie for everybody.
Gidi Gov was the lead man in a band, Kaveret, but he was not known individually; Meir Suissa and Gali Atari – most of them were complete unknowns. And maybe it was the vibe, maybe it was from the trailer, but people were into it right away. And it’s an interesting phenomenon. A lot of people don’t trust the audience, but I do.
The “Oh my God” moment was the opening night at the Hod Cinema in Tel Aviv, and I went with my then-girlfriend to see the first show. It was a big theater with 1,000 seats, and people were sitting in the first row, at the very end of the row. And you just want to go and hug everyone, you just want to say “Thank you for coming,” and it’s incredibly moving. You don’t think of success in financial terms. Making movies is such a chore. It’s so difficult physically and emotionally that you just really want to show people what you did.
The country embraced the movie, and still does to this very day.
What was it like being such a young director?
When you are as young as I was, 23, the greatest thing you have going for yourself at that age is ignorance. You are too ignorant to fear failure.... I was the youngest one on the set. Maybe there was one actress who was younger than me. There’s no one who works on my sets now who is as young as I was when I was directing Halahaka.
But we all were very young... there were four or five of us who were very close. My editor, who is also the line producer, Isaac Sehayek – I still work with him. It’s incredible.
My girlfriend at the time, Sharon Harel – she was involved in the writing of Halahaka, she was heavily involved in producing. In many ways, I always felt she should have gotten a producer credit.
She didn’t get it, much to my embarrassment, because at that time, I thought that the producers were the bad guys, so I thought people like us should not be in that category. She was totally deserving of a producer credit. She is still producing, she has a company in London, she is a very smart and very talented woman.
Her company produced Gosford Park, a movie by Robert Altman that won an Academy Award. She was a force to be reckoned with during the shooting of Halahaka and she had my back.
The most prominent Israeli director of the 1970s, the irreverent comedian Uri Zohar, who left moviemaking at the end of the decade to become an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, has a cameo in the movie as himself, wearing a kippa. How did that come about?
I interviewed Uri Zohar when I was a young film critic. He saw two shorts I made and he really liked them, and he said that when I made my first feature, he would act in it. Neither of us expected that, one, it would happen so quickly and, two, that he would become ba’al tshuva [newly religious] by then. I released him from his commitment once I heard he found religion, but he insisted on keeping his promise, if only for a day’s shoot. Years later, he told me he felt he was handing over the baton, so to speak, and when he saw Halahaka, he felt good about his decision.
Why did you choose to make a movie about an army entertainment troupe for your first film?
When I was 18, I was at Columbia [University in New York], and I went back to Israel to join the army. And I wanted to join the army because there was a very specific unit in the Israeli army I wanted to serve in. In many ways, it was like [Ernest] Hemingway going off to the Spanish Civil War.
For me, it was as much of an artistic decision as a patriotic one. I wanted to experience.... My greatest fear was to wind up as one of those people Woody Allen likes to make fun of, New York intellectuals who are very good with the turning of a phrase and yet know nothing about real life. And when I was 16 and 17, I was already publishing essays in film quarterlies about cinema and this and that, and I was heavily involved with the theoretical element of cinema.... I went to a Jewish high school and I grew up in a very protected environment, and I knew nothing about life, and I was afraid if I wanted to make movies and write movies, my knowledge of life was very, very limited.
So when I went to get my Israeli passport at age 18, the guard at the Israeli consulate told me about this unit, Sayeret Matkal, and it sounded great, it sounded really interesting and exciting, and so I just thought I wanted to experience it.
It was exactly like Hemingway going off to the Spanish Civil War.
So I went back to Israel, much to my parents’ chagrin – my parents, who live in New York – and I tried to join this unit, and the guard at the consulate forgot to tell me that they take in like 25 kids out of about 10,000 who try to get in. And somehow I made it to the final 50 – God knows how, because there were kids who were much better than me in just about everything.
[Former prime minister] Ehud Barak, who was called Brog then and who was the commander of the unit, asked me, “Where would you go if we didn’t take you in?” And me, being a nice kid from New York, you know, I can take a hint, I thought he was telling me I wasn’t being accepted, and I said, “Oh, I’m going to go to an army entertainment unit,” and he started laughing and he said, “Not the air force? Not the naval commandos?” and I said, “No, no, no, I have no interest in the army. I have an interest in your unit specifically, but if you don’t want me, I’m not a bad guitarist, I would go and play guitar.” And I just think they accepted me because it was such a quirky answer.
I served there, but only for one year. I was no great military hero or anything like that, then got injured after a year, and I went to Military Intelligence, which is much more what you would have predicted for a guy who went to Columbia.
But it was always in my mind that I could have been a guitarist in one of those troupes, and I always found those places fascinating because it’s the essence of Israeli society, you know, it’s a bunch of brilliant, ambitious people who have to work together on stage.
So after the army I went back to Columbia and I wrote a screenplay that was optioned by Fox, and actually a kind of messianic screenplay, sort of a sci-fi kind of thing; it never got made, obviously.
While I was waiting for it to go into production, I wrote Halahaka. Because, again, I was a musician, I always had a great interest in anything that has a music element. And to this day, I am still fascinated by music. I just came back from Paris [where a composer was writing the score for The Other Story], and there are very few directors who sit down to work with a composer on the music; but for me, the music is like a screenplay.
The whole spirit behind the screenplay came from music because there was one song that I liked, “Shalva,” [that was originally planned to be] sung by a lead singer with backup, and it was sung in harmony. And I thought it should be sung in counterpoint, and the very essence of counterpoint is two voices clashing and, at some point, meeting in harmony. And I thought that, musically, that would define the mechanism of the narrative, where there is a constant clash and then a sense of harmony, only to go to a renewed counterpoint.... When you are very young, you have many theories, and some of them actually work.
The film features a very early sympathetic depiction of a gay character.
This is the first homosexual in Israeli cinema, and he is seen in a positive light, and he is totally embraced by the group. The whole notion of the film is that the Israeli experience can embrace people who are totally different than you. In the history of queer cinema in Israel, this is a first; and not only is it a first, it’s presented as something completely normal.
In Israel in 1977, that was a very bold thing to do. It was one of the things that really made the producer unhappy, but Israeli society embraced it.
Why has this become the most beloved Israeli movie?
It was the first Israeli movie that spoke Israeli, where the cinematic means and style were Israeli. Basically, if you look at Zero Motivation, you can see the direct association between these two movies. And it’s almost the essence of Israeli cinema, which is based on a group, not the individual.
For me, in a way, it was a movie about the essence of the way Israel is put together, this impossible combination of people who don’t fit in together but have to make it work; about constant friction and constant collision and constant crisis – and yet, when the chips are down, somehow it works, but only for a while.
This is the exact opposite [of the noble, self-sacrificing soldier image in Israeli cinema]. In the movie, there is a rebellion against the army, and in Israel in the ’70s, it was a big deal. There was an Israeli general, Rehavam Ze’evi, “Gandhi,” who did everything he could to make this movie not happen. It’s really ironic. The quintessential Israeli movie, and he really thought it was an amazingly subversive movie. Many years ago I met him, and he said, “I finally saw Halahaka – not too bad.” That’s Israel for you. It was reasonably subversive.
People mistake Israel for being a militaristic state. God knows, there could never be a dictatorship here, because Israelis don’t take orders from anyone.
And the quintessential comeback here is, “Who are you to tell me what to do?” I guess every single movie I’ve ever done has to do with rebellion. If you look at every movie – whether The Secrets or Turn Left at the End of the World or Past Life – they are stories about two women rebelling.... All the people who built this country were rebels, and there’s a strong rebel tradition here.
It’s the way Americans like that Western mentality: Self-reliance, “Go west, young man.” So Westerns have the essence of what Americans like about being American. Halahaka captures the essence of what Israelis like about Israelis.
Do younger audiences need to know anything special about that era before they see ‘Halahaka’?
No, they don’t. The amazing thing is they don’t. They just see it and are into it. There’s something about these characters that does not belong to a time. It’s this Israeli energy that has not really changed with the advent of hi-tech or what have you. It’s something that my daughter has in common with someone who was her age 40 years ago.