In the spotlight, finally

At 68, Michal Bat-Adam received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 10th annual international Women’s Film Festival

bat.adam 521 (photo credit: Noa Magar)
bat.adam 521
(photo credit: Noa Magar)
Netalie Braun, the executive director and art director of the International Women’s Film Festival in Rehovot, did not watch Michal Bat-Adam’s movies when she was a student.
Bat-Adam’s works did not appear on the syllabus, and the lecturers on Israeli cinema decided to steer clear of one of the country’s most prolific artists. Here and there, Braun, now 35, would come across one of the 12 movies Bat-Adam directed, among them her first production, Moments, which was released in 1979.
Moments tells the story of the love between two straight women, the Israeli Yula (played by Bat- Adam) and the French Anne (played by Brigitte Catillion). The two of them meet for the first time on a train, and their friendship deepens over the three days they spend in Jerusalem. The film caused a scandal when it was released, so it was censored; there is a scene in which the two women express their love to each other, as well as a threesome scene that includes Assi Dayan, who portrays Yula’s husband.
Only recently, when Braun watched the movie again, did she notice something that her teachers and cinema critics had missed: “From the first moment of the movie, men are constantly passing by the women,” she says. “Every time Yula and Anne are in a public area, either together or alone, they don’t have a moment of peace before a man bothers them somehow or tries to flirt with them. I wasn’t sure if my analysis was correct, so I took a pen and paper and made a list of the instances: When they meet on the train, the guy working in the restaurant car looks at them a certain way; a soldier passing by hits Anne with the barrel of his gun; a security guard at the hotel flirts with both of them; a man who gives Yula a ride flirts with her; while they’re touring at the Western Wall Tunnel, a young man clings to them but without saying a word throughout the entire tour; while they’re sleeping in their hotel room, the window cleaner peeks at them through the window.”
Braun was shocked. “All of a sudden I understood how revolutionary this movie was. It wasn’t the sex scenes that made it a radical movie, but the way it showed the power struggle between men and women while at the same time showing the type of love story that is threatening for the community to see: the love between two women who are not lesbians. What makes Bat-Adam’s movie so intimate is her politicization. I’d never before seen such an accurate representation of the brave feminine experience in a film. And I haven’t seen one since, either, in all the 35 years that have passed since Moments was created.”
Braun called Bat-Adam on the phone and told her what she had discovered.
“I was hesitant, because I wasn’t sure that she had done this intentionally,” Braun recalls.
Bat-Adam listened patiently while Braun went over her list, and at the end, in a gentle tone, the filmmaker corrected her: “You’re forgetting two other scenes where men bother them.”
Last month, Bat-Adam received a lifetime achievement award at the 10th annual international Women’s Film Festival in Rehovot. From the moment Bat-Adam’s award became public, Braun and other members of the festival board received numerous excited phone calls – especially from women involved in cinema – who all said the same thing: It’s about time.
ANYONE WHO’S ever worked with Bat- Adam can testify that she is an extraordinary woman with a strong awareness of her actors’ and staff’s feelings. This renewed interest in her work caught her by surprise, however; she had become accustomed to cool reviews.
“I feel like people have treated my films like couches they bought, but never took off the plastic all these years,” she says. “And then suddenly, they ripped off the plastic and now they can see the fabric.”
She recalls that when she first received the call announcing she’d been chosen for the prize, “my first instinct was to say, ‘No, thank you.’ But during the conversation, I told myself, ‘Grow up.’ All these years I’d spent all this energy keeping myself strong so that when I was thrown a punch, I’d be ready to block it. Apparently we have these internal walls that we build up around us, but only notice them once we feel that we can knock them down. All these years, critics never really saw what my movies really were.
I guess I’m pretty lucky that I’ve survived all these years without letting this bother me; my happiness and love of life were not harmed.”
On the contrary, she says: “Someone once asked me if I wasn’t sorry that I hadn’t been born later, since today life is easier for women, and people would have watched my movies from a different perspective, but I would never have given up having to suffer these hardships. The difficult path that I’ve traversed has made me stronger and forced me to find my own way.”
Her own complex childhood is woven into all of her movies. She grew up Afula with a mother who was mentally ill and a father who never spoke. He was an amateur photographer, and she would pose for him for hours, waiting patiently for those few precious moments when she had his attention.
When she was six, Bat-Adam joined her sister and went to live at Kibbutz Merhavya, where she learned to play the violin and dreamed of becoming a conductor. After graduating from the Beit Zvi acting school, she was thought to have great promise in the world of theater and cinema in the 1970s, and she portrayed a variety of characters in movies that her husband, Moshe Mizrahi, directed.
Mizrahi – the only Israeli director to win an Academy Award, for his 1977 film Madame Rosa – used strong female characters in his movies and is very comfortable with the idea of feminism in his private life as well.
Bat-Adam wrote the screenplay for Moments when the two of them were in Paris, and she asked him to direct it. Mizrahi told her she should direct it herself. He agreed to produce the movie after she rejected an offer from an American producer who wanted to make changes that in Bat-Adam’s opinion would have turned it into just another a Hollywoodstyle film.
“The first day of filming took place on a train from Haifa to Jerusalem,” she recalls.
“Suddenly I realized that Moshe wasn’t stepping onto the train. A producer is always present on the set during filming, so I asked him, ‘Why aren’t you getting on?’ And he told me, ‘I’ll meet up with you in Jerusalem.’ He just took a back seat and let me do my own thing.”
Asked how she thinks the movie would have turned out if he had agreed to direct it, Bat-Adam bursts out laughing. “I always tease Moshe and tell him that if anyone else had directed the movie Moments, he would never even have gone to see it. Moshe understands me, he speaks my language. He’s a true feminist, and I imagine that he would have produced a fantastic movie, but in his own language.”HER PRIVATE experiences from childhood come through in her second movie, The Thin Line, which she filmed in 1980. It tells the story of a girl who grows up on a kibbutz with a mentally ill mother.
The film’s introverted style contrasts harshly with mainstream Israeli films that were popular at the time – movies that focused on the divisions within Israeli society through the eyes of native-born Israeli men, soldiers or Holocaust survivors. Evi Kofman, the only researcher who has written an academic paper on Bat-Adam’s films, says that “Bat-Adam was ahead of her time. Mainstream Israeli cinema rejected her quintessential feminine writing and her preoccupation with the individual.”Braun also recognized the way Bat-Adam deals with the mother-daughter relationship.
“In the first movie I made while still a student, I wanted to investigate the relationship between a mother and daughter, so I searched for other movies that dealt with this idea. There are countless movies about the relationship between fathers and sons – it could even be said that it’s been a central theme in cinema since its creation – but my film was one of the few that dealt with the complex and deep relationship between a daughter and a mother.”
Asked how this movie might have been different if she had created it when she was older, Bat-Adam replies, “I wouldn’t have told the story of my childhood any differently. I’ve always loved [both parents] very much.
Even though I watched my father as he lost control, I was never angry at him. Nowadays, I sometimes wonder how he didn’t realize that I was there watching everything, but as a child this never occurred to me. I was born into a certain situation and I accepted that fact.”
She recalls that “for years I didn’t know that my mother was sick. Of course, I realized that she wasn’t like other mothers, but it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I was told she wasn’t actually ‘going to Tel Aviv to rest for a while at her aunt’s house,’ but instead going to the hospital. I’ve never been angry about what happened in my childhood. Not even now when I look back. Children accept the situation they’re born into. If they’re not taught that they should be angry or to hate, they find their way in the end.”
Although she says she’s completely come to terms with her childhood, she is aware of the effect it has had on her, from her debilitating anxiety to the difficulty she has letting go of her son, Daniel, who now lives in France with his wife and son.
“In effect, I was my mother’s mother, and because of her condition, I couldn’t take my eyes off her even for a moment, because she could have disappeared. I couldn’t trust her for even a minute. As a result, I had a hard time letting my son be independent,” she explains. “One day, when he was 12 and I finally let him take the bus on his own, I told him, ‘You see? I’m letting you go on your own,’ and he replied, ‘But mom, my friends have been going on their own since they were six.’ “When he was young, I explained to him that I had a problem. I told him that every parent has a hard time with something, and my thing was worrying. At the time, I didn’t explain to him why, but I did tell him that I was doing the best I could. He understood, but it wasn’t always easy for him when he would be walking home with his friends and he would see me waiting for him on the balcony.”
One of these difficult moments found its way into her movie Aya: An Imagined Autobiography, in which the mother tears up her son’s sheet music when he plays with an obvious lack of interest.
“On the kibbutz where I grew up, the children whose families lived there were allowed to play the piano, but only children who came from outside were allowed to play the violin. I began playing when I was eight, and the violin was like a surrogate parent for me,” she explains. “When Daniel turned eight and I bought him a piano, I couldn’t understand why he refused to play.
Nothing helped. I felt like one of my limbs had been chopped off.
“So one day, when he was sitting at the piano banging on the keys, I got so angry that I tore up his sheet music.
But I was so sorry that I had done that and I apologized to him immediately. I still carry the pain from that moment with me, though. Every time I brought up that incident, Daniel would say, ‘Enough, mother.
That happened so long ago.’ So when I was writing the screenplay [for Aya], I knew that I had to add this scene so that parents could see how much we can harm our children.”
She didn’t want her own neuroses to affect her relationship with her son, and she wanted to be less protective of him. So she made a conscious decision to change her ways.
“Today he has his own family – a wife and a child – and I need to keep reminding myself that some things are none of my business and that it’s better not to intervene. I’ve had to learn where the boundaries are.
This has nothing to do with love. I just need to let him be autonomous. I’m always working on myself. My grandson, who is four, feels this. I tell myself that if I want my son to feel comfortable with the relationship I have with my grandson, I’d better keep working on myself. It’s very important to me not to be overbearing.”
This theme comes up repeatedly during my conversation with Bat-Adam: She doesn’t want to be overbearing, confrontational or rigid. I get the impression that she has always been trying to keep herself on an even keel while working with her film crew or with her students. It is as if she was afraid that at any moment she would come across as too pushy.
“I like to be in control of everything when I’m working on a movie, because I don’t follow a specific idea, I just do what my instinct tells me to do,” she says.
“In my day-to-day life, control is not an issue. Ego has no place in my life. That’s why I feel comfortable using the word ‘control.’ Because it’s not about my ego or my power, it’s just that I must tell the story exactly as I feel it. All the nuances – the type of shoe or accessory or the lighting – must be exactly as I envisioned them to be.”
She says she is “happy when it comes out just right, and I try to explain myself as clearly as possible ahead of time to the people I’m working with. And I choose people with whom I can work well, with whom I have a common language, to whom I won’t have to apologize.
So it turns out that most of my teams are made up of women: the producers, the assistant directors, the video editors, the wardrobe stylists, and of course my cinematographer, Nurith Aviv.”
BAT-ADAM produced the last few films on her own in an effort to lower costs. Contrary to rumors that have circulated over the years, she has not had huge budgets at her disposal. But she has found that even if it hasn’t been easy, she’s always found a way to get everything done.
“I stand on the set, concentrating really hard to get a scene just right, when someone comes in and needs me to sign a check or needs to discuss an issue. I have no problem doing all of these things simultaneously. I think that women are much better at multitasking than men are. I see how Moshe reacts when I interrupt him; he says to me, ‘Can’t you see that I’m in the middle of something here?’ I can do four things at the same time and still be able to concentrate on all of them.”
At the same time that she is working on a new movie (she’s not willing to say what it’s about – “It’s like when you’re just starting to fall in love and you haven’t told anyone about it yet”), she also teaches four classes each semester at the Tel Aviv University film school. She makes all her students who want to be film producers first experience what it’s like to act on stage themselves.
“Every year in every class, there’s always at least one student who wants to be a film producer who’s afraid of looking ridiculous on the stage. I force them to act, to overcome this idea that they have to make an impression. In the end they all learn how to act, and thank me for pushing them so hard. People spend incredible amounts of energy pretending to be someone they’re not. I tell my students that this is a shame.
There are so many things you want to do, so why waste so much time making yourself appear to be what you think others want you to be?” IN THE days leading up to the festival, Bat-Adam wondered what she should say to the young women filmmakers listening to her.
“What should I tell them? I never got any positive feedback for my movies, but I kept pushing on,” she says. “They’re going to be traveling down the same path I did. I didn’t make movies for ideological reasons, to say, ‘I’m a woman and I can do this, too.’ I just wanted to make movies. I hope that they won’t be afraid of wanting to do something.”
In light of Bat-Adam’s musical and artistic background, I ask her if there was a medium other than film in which she could have conveyed her feelings.
“I think about that all the time,” she replies. “Still photographs excite me more than just about everything else. A good photograph can absolutely knock me off my feet. Not to mention that I’m absolutely crazy about drawing, and I have a musical background, too.
It’s not by chance that I make movies – it’s a type of photography. It’s important to me that I don’t have to express my feelings in words. In a movie, I can show something that’s happening between two people without having to say anything. If I had to write out the scene in a book, then I would have to describe what the characters were doing and exactly what they were thinking. But words are inaccurate. Only in movies can I truly tell my story.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.