Cinema: Relatively speaking

Shira Geffen says putting her famous family's life into her movies is a freeing experience.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Have you ever passed a Tel Aviv café during the day and wondered about the young, attractive couples who sit there? Are they rich, do they work the night shift or are they simply taking a day off? With one young couple sipping their lattes at a café on Rehov Basel, the answer is that they are one of the country's most famous creative duos, Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret. Keret is the author of a number of critically praised short story collections, and Geffen, the daughter of poet and author Yonatan Geffen and sister of singer/songwriter Aviv Geffen, is an actress and writer. But the two, who are married and have a baby, are also the country's hottest new filmmakers. Meduzot ("Jellyfish"), their first film, which they co-directed and for which Geffen wrote the screenplay, was awarded the Camera d'Or prize for the best film by first-time directors at the Cannes Film Festival. It's playing now throughout the country. As I arrive, the soft-spoken Keret rises to go: He and Geffen prefer to be interviewed separately. Although Geffen, 35, has had an international triumph with her first filmmaking effort, she has a disconcertingly self-effacing manner. It's as if her success were simply an odd stroke of good luck. She explains that she and Keret weren't even planning to stay for the awards ceremony at Cannes and were already starting to pack when they were told their film had won an award. "I started to cry," she says. "My son didn't understand why I was crying. Children don't really have that category, crying out of joy." Their child, a toddler, was born the day after principal photography on the film was completed. Perhaps the news of the award shouldn't have been such a shock, since Geffen knew the audience there had responded very positively to the film. "People at Cannes are hungry for films. And they're very honest. If they don't like a film, they walk out." But the viewers sat through theirs to the end, and there was "a group of people who said that it really grabbed them." In addition to the Camera d'Or, the film also won the Young Critics' Award. For Geffen, the awards were the culmination of years of work. She initially began to write Meduzot ,/i>as a short story about the main character, Batya, a depressed waitress who goes to the beach and finds a silent five-year-old girl emerging from the ocean. Seeing the little girl "brings back the memory of a time when her parents are fighting at the beach. Batya goes back to being that little girl, alone, with no roots, no foundation." She turned it into a screenplay when she realized, "it was very visual. It was something you could see on screen." Keret, reading her story and screenplay, suggested they direct it together. "Alone, I would never have done it," she says. It took years both to complete the script and get the financing (the film is a French-Israeli co-production), during which time she had become pregnant and couldn't act in one of the key roles, as she had planned. As she worked on the screenplay, she added characters and storylines, including one about an unlucky couple who experience a series of mishaps at their wedding and grow apart on their honeymoon. "I wanted to play the bride," says Geffen, but the very pregnant director settled for a cameo as an unhelpful hotel receptionist. Although technically she was on maternity leave while Keret edited the film, she was very involved in paring down the script and the film into the tightly constructed 78-minute movie that manages to tell several moving stories at once. "Originally, it was much more surrealistic, and we cleaned it up," she says. The movie has a haunting visual quality, which is matched by its emotional resonance. Geffen seems slightly bored with the question of how much of the story is autobiographical. "A lot of it was," she says. "My parents are divorced. It was very easy to use parts of my life in the movie. It was a way to free myself from those memories... Everyone knows everything about my family, anyway." Certainly, people know that her father has married several times and been involved with many much younger woman, just like Batya's father in the movie, who is played by her real-life uncle, Assi Dayan. But was Geffen ever a waitress, like Batya in the movie? "I was fired after a day," she says. But what is more important, she stresses, that like Batya, she has often felt "cut off from what happens." Was part of this because she has spent her life surrounded by famous men, first her legendary poet father, then her megastar pop singer brother, and now her widely read, widely praised husband? "No," she says firmly. "I was never in anyone's shadow. I was always at the center of my own life. I don't look at myself from outside. I acted and I wrote and I directed plays." In spite of some of the difficulties she experienced with her family when she was growing up, she seems puzzled when I ask whether they supported her artistic aspirations. "Of course, they always encouraged me," she says. Asked at a recent screening what jellyfish represent in her film (a character finds one on the beach but they don't play a significant part in the action), she replied, "They're a metaphor for life. People want to be in one place, but the stream of life brings them somewhere else. They're what's under the water." Although professionally Geffen is on top of the world, it's clear from the look in her eyes that she has experienced a fair amount of darkness in her own life. Discussing the character of Keren, the unhappy bride, and an older, more self-assured woman she meets who hides a dark secret, Geffen says, "They're the same person. Just like Batya and the girl on the beach." Just as the different characters represent different parts of a single persona, and of herself, Geffen says the film often has a similarly contradictory effect on audiences. "Something strange happens," she says. "People don't understand how it influences them. At first, a lot of people think it's a comedy and they laugh. They get up afterward and smile. And then they cry. It's like a slow-motion reaction." She finishes her coffee. The baby is with his babysitter and it's time to work. "I want to write now and act, not direct," she says as she heads off, a dark-haired figure in the Tel Aviv sunshine.