Hollywood in the Holy Land

Each of the four Israeli films Nesher has made over the last decade has themes and subjects that have never been addressed so deeply, and some of which have never been addressed at all, on screen.

Adir Miller, in his role as a hard-boiled detective in 2013’s ‘The Wonder'. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Adir Miller, in his role as a hard-boiled detective in 2013’s ‘The Wonder'.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘This movie will be a game changer,” says Avi Nesher, one of Israel’s most acclaimed directors, about his latest film, Past Tense, currently in preproduction.
He’s talking in terms of his own career, but it’s hard not to think that Past Tense will be a game changer for the Israeli movie industry, widening its scope.
“It’s in English, and will star two American actors” – whom he can’t name just yet – “and it’s set in Jerusalem. It will be an Israeli-American movie, not a Hollywood movie shot in Israel, like a lot of the international productions that have been made here in the past, that just use Jerusalem as a backdrop. It’s a movie about conflicting narratives, and it will serve the conflicting sides of me, the American and Israeli sides.”
Nesher, sitting in his Tel Aviv office overlooking the Mediterranean, wearing sandals, might seem to be quintessentially Israeli, an insider who served in the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal) branch of the IDF under former prime minister Ehud Barak. But he has an American identity as well. It’s hard to think of another Israeli director who would start an interview by mentioning that he stayed up half the night watching the Jets and Giants football games. But the truth is that Nesher moved to New York with his family when he was 11. He went to Ramaz High School and then studied at Columbia University before returning to Israel for his army service.
“My American and Israeli sides coexist, and I thought it would be nice if they met in a movie,” he said.
After the army, while he was still in his mid-20s, he made The Troupe (Halahaka), which was a game-changing movie if there ever was one. Up until then, Israeli movies had been mainly silly comedies (sirtei bourekas) or earnest and unwatchable political allegories. But The Troupe was a fun movie about the lives and loves of young soldiers in an army entertainment troupe. A huge success, it mixed music, romance, comedy and drama, and it let people see soldiers not as noble warriors but as kids who wanted to have fun.
“People enjoyed it so much, they didn’t realize it was about kids rebelling in the army, that it had a subversive message,” he says.
He followed it up with Dizengoff 99, a look at a then-shocking situation, two guys and a girl who work at an ad agency and share an apartment.
Then Hollywood came calling for the young director and he spent years there, making mostly genre movies, among them the gem Taxman, starring Joe Pantoliano (who later played the vile Ralph on The Sopranos) as an IRS agent who brings down the Russian mob in Brighton Beach.
But after nearly two decades in America (he returned to Israel briefly in 1985 to make the controversial drama Rage and Glory, about a Jewish underground organization, starring the late Juliano Mer-Khamis) he was ready to come back home. He arrived just in time to lead the new golden age of Israeli cinema, and released a quartet of movies that were as influential as they were original: Turn Left at the End of the World (2004), The Secrets (2007), The Matchmaker (2010) and The Wonders (2013).
For a long time, Nesher considered making an Israeli movie in English, but knew he would have to find the perfect subject. A chance meeting with an American man living in Jerusalem gave him the idea for the film.
“He told me about his life, and it was a shocking story. I said to him: ‘My first instinct is, I feel bad for you. My second instinct is – it would be a great movie.’” The man gave Nesher his blessing and the dark story of the man’s life became the core of the plot of Past Tense. Nesher wrote the screenplay with two collaborators, Noam Shpancer, a psychologist, novelist and professor, and Kate Walbert, an author whose latest novel is A Short History of Women.
“It’s a thriller about an American psychologist, a professor, who visits Israel to give lectures and is drawn into the custody battle from hell. She meets a man she knew years ago, an American living in Israel. His wife joined a cult in Jerusalem, a pagan cult, and has taken their child with her. At first the psychologist is isolationist, she doesn’t want to get involved. But she can’t stay out of it – a child’s life is at stake – and this odyssey will test everything she knows about psychology and religion,” he says.
“It will work as a really effective thriller and, if you see a political allegory, you see it,” he says. “Like Cool Hand Luke, it’s about a failure to communicate. It’s got nothing to do with the current political conflict and everything to do with it. It will be a story well told with subtext galore.”
The film is being produced by Anthony Bregman, whom Nesher calls “the premier art-house producer in American movies.”
Bregman’s most recent movie, Foxcatcher, won the Best Director prize at Cannes for Bennett Miller.
“Bregman develops relationships with directors and keeps working with them,” says Nesher, who has known him for years and is happy to be collaborating with him.
Among those Bregman has worked with several times are two extremely gifted writer/directors, Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York) and Nicole Holofcener (Lovely and Amazing, Friends with Money, Please Give and Enough Said).
“I love jazz music and the exciting thing about it is when great musicians play together,” he says. “Anthony is a great producer of great art movies. And he’s interested in Israel forever and always.”
Nesher’s films, although they are mainstream Israeli movies, have the distinctive, offbeat quality of the kinds of films Bregman usually produces. Each of the four Israeli films Nesher has made over the last decade has themes and subjects that have never been addressed so deeply – and some of which have never been addressed at all – on screen.
Turn Left at the End of the World is a coming-of-age movie about two teenage girls, one from a Moroccan family and the other a recent immigrant from India, in a development town in the Negev.
It broke Israeli box-office records, and, like all his subsequent films, traveled the world and drew international audiences.
His next film, The Secrets, is about two young women who delve into Kabbala at a seminary for ultra-Orthodox girls in Safed, and costars the French actress Fanny Ardant (known for her work with François Truffaut) as a dying murderer released from prison whose soul they hope to save. Its portrait of haredi women with a passion for learning Torah and a yearning to devote their lives to its study generated controversy in some religious circles, but the issues it raised have become part of mainstream Orthodox discourse.
The Matchmaker is another coming- of-age story, and the most autobiographical film Nesher has made to date. It tells the story of a teenage boy in Haifa in 1968, who meets a mysterious matchmaker who survived the Holocaust with the boy’s father. The boy is drawn to a girl just back from America who brings rock ’n’ roll and free love to the neighborhood, and he takes a job spying on clients for the matchmaker.
This strange job teaches him a great deal about the secrets of the human heart and the shadow hanging over his father.
Much of the action takes place in an office at the back of a movie theater that shows mostly Indian romances and is run by two dwarfs, siblings who survived Auschwitz and Mengele’s experiments.
There really was such a theater in Haifa in the ’60s, and Nesher learned of it while he was doing research on the period.
His most recent film, The Wonders, is about a Jerusalem artist/slacker/barman – played by stand-up comedian Ori Hizkiah in his first major acting role – who finds a rabbi/cult leader being held hostage in an apartment across the way from his, and gets involved with a femme fatale and a hard-boiled detective, all of whom are playing different games. It was set in the Musrara neighborhood, right near Mea She’arim and the Old City, where hipsters and haredim mix, and was cowritten by Shaanan Streett, the front man for the ubercool band Hadag Nahash.
While Nesher, even when pressed, won’t reveal which American actors are poised to make their Israeli debuts in Past Tense, which he hopes to begin shooting this winter, these stars will be lucky to work with him, because he is an actor’s director.
So many Israeli actors have had their best roles in Nesher’s films, most notably Adir Miller. Miller, who was known as a sitcom actor, writer and stand-up comedian – Traffic Light (Ramzor), a sitcom he created here was adapted for American television – had a small role in The Secrets. Nesher then cast Miller, who he says has an “old soul, and is a great actor,” in starring roles in his next two films, The Matchmaker (in which he played the title role, and won the Ophir Award, the Israeli Oscar, for Best Actor) and The Wonders (as the detective).
“Adir will have a key part in Past Tense, as the head of the psychology department at a university. And I can put him into this perfectly confident that he can hold his own with any American actor,” says Nesher.
Miller isn’t the only actor to whom Nesher has given a game-changing role. Maya Dagan, Miller’s costar in The Matchmaker, was also known primarily as a sketch comedian until Nesher cast her as Clara, a glamorous Holocaust survivor who runs illegal card games in her home, a role for which she won the Ophir Award for Best Actress. Liraz Charhi, who had her first movie role as the Indian girl in Turn Left at the End of the World, went on to act with Naomi Watts and Sean Penn in Doug Liman’s Fair Game, and with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener in Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet.
“The reason I get such great performances out my actors is that I treat them as fellow artists – not hired hands – and collaborators; meaning I get them very involved in the development and the creation of the characters they portray,” says Nesher.
Both Miller and Dagan thanked Nesher effusively in their Ophir Award acceptance speeches for allowing them to be part of the creative process on The Matchmaker. But not all the key roles will be played by actors. Jerusalem itself will function as a character in the film, much as it did in The Wonders. “Jerusalem is the ultimate femme fatale,” he says. “It’s the home of the three great religions, and everyone thinks it belongs only to them, but it belongs to everyone. It’s both the place where Jesus said to turn the other cheek, and where the streets ran knee-deep with blood during the time of the Crusaders. More people have died for Jerusalem than for any other city. It’s the epicenter of where the human drama is played out.
It’s got everything that is good about religion and everything that is bad about religion. And since psychology is the secular religion today, it’s fitting that the main character is a psychologist who comes to question her own faith in psychology.”
As he talks about religious extremism, the subject of the recent Gaza war comes up, and Nesher refers to the one documentary he made, Oriental, which won the In the Spirit of Freedom Award for Best Documentary in the Jerusalem Film Festival in 2004.
It’s not a conventional documentary, but mixes a story about a Russian-born belly dancer preparing for a performance with Arab musicians backing her, with interviews with the key players in the Israeli- Palestinian peace process.
“My American self doesn’t get why the Middle East conflict can’t be negotiated,” he says. “In 2001, I was talking to Ehud Barak about why the peace process fell apart, and I said, ‘You should get a Hollywood agent to negotiate this. They know how to make people do deals.’” But the Israeli side of him understands the problem with this solution.
“It comes back to the idea of conflicting narratives,” he says. “The belly dancer and her musicians in Oriental illustrate that – their narratives are not compatible.”
Nesher will be heading to Philadelphia soon to teach a master class at the University of Pennsylvania based on Oriental, and to attend several screenings of The Wonders at film festivals throughout the US.
He isn’t the only Israeli director working on a film in English these days.
American-born Joseph Cedar, whose last two feature films, Beaufort and Footnote, were nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscars, is also working on a movie in English. It’s called Oppenheimer, about an American-Jewish businessman, and it will be set partly in Jerusalem. A third Israeli-American director, Eytan Fox, known for Yossi & Jagger, Walk on Water and Cupcakes, is getting set to start filming Mike, a biopic of the Israeli-born French crooner Mike Brant, in which about a third of the dialogue will be in English.
So a lot of English will be heard on movie sets in Israel during the coming year, and it seems natural that this will open a new stage in the development of the Israeli movie industry. And it’s even more natural that Nesher is at the forefront of this trend.
Sitting in his office, which is decorated with sculptures by his wife, the artist and photographer Iris Nesher, and a large poster of Fellini’s Amarcord, Nesher peppers his conversation with references to the many filmmakers who have influenced him, from Carol Reed to Billy Wilder to François Truffaut – any chat with him is like a course in film industry.
Talking about another movie he admires, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the Charlie Kaufman scripted film starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet that Anthony Bregman produced, Nesher says, “It has elements of almost every genre, but it occupies its own cinematic space. That’s what I want Past Tense to do.”