Past and present with director Avi Nesher

In a first interview about his film ‘Past Life,’ director Avi Nesher reveals how he initially rejected the story and why he finally took it on.

Avi Nesher (photo credit: IRIS NESHER)
Avi Nesher
(photo credit: IRIS NESHER)
‘I’m so fanatical about the truth in cinema,” said Avi Nesher, talking about Past Life, the 20th movie he has directed, which will have its world premiere next week at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“What the truth gives you on the screenwriting level is the unexpected. It does not follow any rules. It just unfolds the way life does. Or as Hitchcock said, ‘Cinema is life without the boring parts.’” Sitting in his sun-drenched Tel Aviv office, Nesher was excited about the reactions Past Life has gotten at advance screenings.
The complex production was filmed in three countries: Germany, Poland and Israel.
It will have its Israeli premiere as the closing-night feature at the Haifa International Film Festival in October, where it will follow two of Nesher’s earlier films, Turn Left at the End of the World and The Matchmaker, which he said he now considers the first two parts of a trilogy. The movie will be released in Israel in December.
Although Nesher ought to be accustomed to praise and the publicity routine that go along with making movies, he seems as upbeat as a firsttime director as he talks about what may well be his most personal – and his best – film ever.
PAST LIFE is a fact-based drama, with some unexpected humor, about two sisters who search for the facts about a dark episode in their father’s past, an epic film about art, politics, breaking taboos, sexism and the long shadow trauma casts on the present.
Anthony Bregman, one of the premiere independent producers in the US, whose credits include Foxcatcher and the just-released Indignation, commented to The Jerusalem Post Magazine that the film is “a gorgeous and profound movie experience. Avi has used music and picture to weave a stunning tapestry of storytelling, uniting family dynamics with epic historical drama, beauty with horror, love with rage. It’s what you look for every movie to do.”
In addition to being shown at Toronto, the movie is one of only five movies out of the 400 at the festival in the Contemporary World Cinema speaker’s series.
The plot takes place in 1977, the year Nesher wrote and directed one of the enduring classics of Israeli cinema, The Troupe (Ha Lahaka), which tells the story of an army entertainment troupe.
Nesher, to paraphrase the Hitchcock quote, seems to have had a career without the boring parts. He was a key part of the Israeli film industry in the 1970s, and he is an equally essential part of the renaissance in Israeli films that has taken place during the past decade and a half.
Nesher followed up the hugely successful The Troupe with another irreverent look at Israeli young people, Dizengoff 99, then took off for Hollywood just as the country’s movie industry hit its lowest ebb in the 1980s.
He returned to Israel briefly in the mid-1980s to make Rage and Glory, a story about the Stern Group (Lehi) underground, but then spent the next 15 years making genre movies in America.
These movies did well at the box office, and some garnered critical acclaim, among them Taxman, a suspenseful 1998 drama about an IRS investigator played by Joe Pantoliano (best known as Ralph on The Sopranos), which The New York Times called “an offbeat little charmer of a mystery.”
Nesher felt that he had more Israeli stories to tell, and moved back to Israel in 2001 and made an extraordinary series of movies, which included Turn Left at the End of the World (2004), The Secrets (2007), The Matchmaker (2010), and The Wonders (2013).
Nesher can truly be seen as Israel’s François Truffaut, and like that New Wave French filmmaker, he moves among many characters and settings to tell essential truths in a deceptively simple style.
The Hebrew title of Past Life is The Sins, but Nesher said he felt that using the English word “sin” would have a different connotation.
“In the Jewish world, sin is part of the fabric of life, no one is absolved of sin, and at the end of the movie no justice is handed out... The thing is to forgive somehow,” he says.
The movie is closely based on the story of the Milch sisters; Ella Milch- Sheriff, a composer, who wrote a new piece for the film, and her late sister, Shosh Milch Avigal, a free-spirited, politically engaged journalist who founded a tabloid that mixed left-wing politics with pornography.
Both of them struggled with the dark legacy of their parents, Holocaust survivors, but particularly with their father, Dr. Baruch Milch, a Jerusalem gynecologist who was uncompromising, strict and sometimes brutal.
Milch-Sheriff set her father’s memoir, Can Heaven be Void? to music, and sought out Nesher, thinking he would be the perfect filmmaker to bring her father’s story to the big screen.
A lover of all types of music, Nesher had seen her opera, The Rat’s Smile, and was impressed by it. “It was brilliant, atonal and harmonic,” he said.
“She approached [producer] David Silber, she really wanted to meet me.
I get a lot of that, people who want to meet me because they have a great story,” he said.
But he had already done a story about a Holocaust survivor in The Matchmaker, and thought, “You don’t want to repeat your success, it’s unsavory.”
However, Milch-Sheriff persisted, and eventually they met.
“I told her, ‘Ella, I am a huge fan of your music, but my mother has a story as horrible as your father’s. All these stories are horrible. I wouldn’t want to make it.’ She started crying.”
Telling him about her difficult childhood with her father, her fight to be taken seriously in the maledominated world of classical music and her sister’s rebellions, Nesher became intrigued.
“It’s like that quote from Faulkner, ‘The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.’ If you want to understand the present, you have to go back.”
Nesher’s 93-year-old mother only started to speak about her concentrationcamp experiences after he made The Matchmaker in 2010.
“My mother’s whole family was killed... Part of her silence was that my generation didn’t want to hear about it. It was terrifying and it made us uneasy. We didn’t want to deal with it.
“I’m really fascinated with the Holocaust; half of the books in my library are about it. Even though I was born in Israel, it’s part of my life, part of my inheritance. The world has pretty much moved on, but we haven’t. We Israelis have not moved on because it’s a trauma, and this nation rose out of trauma.”
Gradually, the vibrant backdrop of the sisters’ stories and their struggle to cope drew him in.
“Ella was trying to find some kind of resolution. If you are willing to embrace the truth, you must be willing to let it go.”
As he got to know Milch-Sheriff, he realized that her story, in some ways, was his.
“Emotionally, all the films I make are personal. I tell my story through other people’s stories. It’s easier that way, you don’t have to worry about offending your mother.”
Milch-Sheriff understood that the movie might not show her family in the most flattering light, but “she is a seeker of the truth, a great composer and a great artist, devoted to the notion of art as truth.”
When she saw the finished film, which ends with a performance of the new composition she wrote for the movie, “she was crying her eyes out, it was an unbelievable catharsis. I really salute her bravery. It’s not easy looking at your family in that way.”
IT WAS in 1977 that the Milch sisters learned that their father was covering up something, but he, their mother and other relatives did not want to tell them what it was.
Undeterred, they set off for Europe to investigate.
“1977 was such a critical year in Israel, with it was a turnaround. The Likud came to power, Sadat came to Jerusalem.”
It was also the beginning of a consciousness of women’s rights in Israel. The reserved character in Past Life, based on Milch-Sheriff, called Sephi Milch in the film, is discouraged at the Jerusalem music conservatory from composing, and is encouraged instead to focus on her singing.
“In many ways, her male teachers wanted her just to be an object,” Nesher explains. Milch-Sheriff quietly rebelled, but her sister, called Nana in the film, made a bit more noise, screaming with her co-editor husband about the ratio of radical politics to sexy photos that should run in their magazine, and even setting up a nude photo shoot at the Mount of Olives. This scene was actually filmed on location, and, “we had our fingers crossed” that nothing would go wrong, since of course the crew would never have gotten a permit for this.
“The struggles a young woman has to endure in the supposedly liberal world of the arts is a subject very close to my heart,” said Nesher, whose wife, artist Iris Nesher, was the stills photographer on the movie (and who consults with her husband on virtually every aspect of his films, a kind of uncredited executive producer). His daughter, Tom, currently serving in the IDF on Army Radio, is also an aspiring filmmaker.
Moviemaking is very much a family affair for the Neshers. Nesher’s son, Ari, a high-school student, also makes short films, and he acted in the recent Israeli film Yeled Tov Yerushalayim.
The Neshers, who might be compared to the Coppola family (the father, Francis Ford Coppola, made The Godfather, and his children Sofia and Roman are also successful filmmakers), actually worked together to cast the movie.
To play Sephi, Nesher needed a very young, very talented actress who could sing. Actors love to work with Nesher, particularly because he has turned so many unknowns into stars.
Adir Miller, a stand-up comedian, had never had a dramatic role before he appeared in The Secrets, and then won an Ophir Award for Best Actor for his heartfelt performance in the title role in The Matchmaker. Neta Garty, Liraz Charhi, and Ania Bukstein (who has also recently joined the cast of Game of Thrones) have all moved onto successful Israeli and international careers after getting their big break in Nesher’s movies.
Joy Rieger, who plays Sephi, “was in Tom’s two movies,” says Nesher. “Tom was looking for an actress in her teens, and Ari follows all the youth television series, and he mentioned her. Tom called her up and Joy agreed to be in both of Tom’s shorts. Then when I was looking for someone to play Sephi, I thought of her.
However, she had no musical background, and so Nesher continued searching. Eventually, after he could not find anyone who was quite right, Rieger agreed to study singing for an entire year for the part, and does her own singing in the film.
“I wasn’t going to have someone just lip sync. I hate this.”
Nelly Tagar, who starred in Talya Lavie’s 2014 film, Zero Motivation as the soldier obsessed with getting a transfer to army headquarters in Tel Aviv, was an obvious choice to play Nana.
The very opinionated Tagar “could be a great stand-up comedian – or the minister of culture,” said Nesher.
When he put them together, “there was a sisterly magic,” and he had found his stars.
The key roles of the parents are played by Doron Tavory and Evgenia Dodina, while the role of Tomas, a young Polish composer who helps the sisters on their quest, is played by Rafael Stachowiak, a young actor who looks like the star of an early 20thcentury German expressionist film.
BUSY WITH getting ready for Toronto, Nesher is working on a new screenplay, and contemplating working on a television project for the first time ever, but he is still very much immersed in the world of Past Life.
Might the two sisters in the film, the artist and the journalist, represent two sides of his personality? “Yes. This is a crazy, crazy story. You can deal with it as art and you can deal with it as something more than art. But I also believe that a movie has to be entertaining. You want audiences to go home and think, but you want them to enjoy the experience of watching the movie.”