Wednesday, November 25, 2009

An Interview with Israeli star Hanna Azoulay-Hasfari

Hanna Azoulay-Hasfari (centre) with Ronit Elkabetz (left) and Yael Abecassis (right) in Shiva.

Assistant Programming Coordinator
Toronto Jewish Film Festival

Greeted with much enthusiasm at last year’s Festival was the Israeli feature film,
Shiva, directed by actor Ronit Elkabetz (The Band’s Visit). Set during the first Gulf War, when Israel was under daily missile attacks, the film chronicles the Ohayon family as it is hit by its own tragedy when one of nine siblings dies suddenly. Shiva won the Wolgin Award for best Israeli feature film at the 2008 Jerusalem International Film Festival.

Winner of several awards for her performance as one of the sisters in
Shiva, Hanna Azoulay- Hasfari is an Israeli playwright, documentary filmmaker, and well-respected actor who has appeared in some of the country’s most notable films (such as Savi Gabizon’s Lovesick on Nana Street, Roni Ninio’s The Quarry, and Avi Nesher’s Rage and Glory). She also wrote and starred in the influential and groundbreaking Israeli film, Sh’chur (1994). Based loosely on her relationship with her Moroccan family, the film embodies Azoulay-Hasfari’s personal straddling between East and West cultures.

I had the chance to speak with Hanna Azoulay-Hasfari as she reflected on some of her films, growing up as a Moroccan Jew in Israel during the 1970s, as well as her theatrical training through the IDF theatre troupe, the Tel Aviv University theatre programme, and her years with the fringe group, The Simple Theatre, initiated by her husband, playwright and filmmaker Shmuel Hasfari.

Left: Savi Gabizon's Lovesick on Nana Street (Azoulay-Hasfari second from right).

Do you think that the women in Shiva have any real power in their marriages?

No. They rely on the ancient way of being strong: by being manipulative. But they don’t have any other choice. I wish they were not so manipulative. The men, on the other hand, don’t have to be manipulative because they have the right not to be, as they are the ones that rule the house. In Shiva, when it comes to the decisions of selling of the house and helping the big brother, the women are not consulted at all. Perhaps the women in Shiva are more liberated than they are in Sh’chur; but if they are more liberated, they pay a high price for it. Maybe they are ultimately getting what they want, but it’s from being very difficult.

Azoulay-Hasfari as Rachel/Cheli in Sh'chur, which she also wrote. Her husband, Shmuel Hasfari directed the film.

The mother in Sh’chur uses magical powers. Do you think that’s a way for her to obtain a sense of power and control within the family?

Of course. Let’s talk about the characters of the mother [played by Gila Almagor] and Pnina [the sister played by Ronit Elkabetz] in Sh’chur. The mother and Pnina are ruling the house, and every problem in this family is treated by their magical powers. They don’t think twice, they just use these powers because this is the only way they know. When Pnina is sent to the institute, all the power of this culture is taken from her and she is just seen as crazy. Before that, she is not crazy—you don’t know what she is: perhaps she is a very great power, perhaps a kind of medium.
The mother is simply a Moroccan woman who controls this house by this magic power. But the influence of this power changes as Western culture increasingly influences her children. So the youngest child, Cheli (which is the character that represents me) is not influenced at all by her mother’s powers; Cheli sees it as very primitive and disgusting. And she is afraid of it—thank god she’s afraid of it—as these fears prompt her to come back twenty years later and reflect on it, and maybe accept it.

How close is your film, Sh'chur, to your own family background?

Pretty close. When I wrote it, my family was always on my mind. Like Cheli in the film, I grew up in the 70s. I was born and raised in a very similar kind of neighborhood and culture. With the exception of the mother and father in the film, most of the characters are represented quite accurately. Although some of the characters are not based on my family. The character of Pnina, the sister that Ronit Elkabetz plays, is based on someone from my neighborhood; I decided to include her in my script to deal with all my ambivalent feelings about this character, and what I feel, as a grown woman, about this culture. The little girl in this film, Cheli, is me when I was a child. And Cheli as an adult represents me at the time I wrote Sh’chur.

In Sh’chur, there is an environment of superstition? Was it similar when you were growing up?

Yes, but I wouldn’t call it superstition. With this film, I was trying to change the way we see those primitive acts or primitive behavior or ceremonies. I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s not superstition—it’s a culture. I don’t think there is such a thing as high culture or low culture, or good culture or bad culture. Any culture has both bad things and good things about it. Of course, as an adult, one has to decide which aspects of the culture are good for you and which are not, and then behave according to your choices.

Growing up, were you eager to assimilate into Israeli mainstream society like Cheli is in Sh’chur?

Of course. Since Israel was dominated by the Ashkenazi Western culture, belonging to a minority, I wanted to assimilate into the dominating culture. I can understand why I felt like that: All the culture around me—all the television, all the newspapers—was saying that my culture was bad… I wanted to turn my back to this culture and this past. Thank god I couldn’t. Thank god I had my husband to tell me that it wasn’t a smart thing to do. He told me that I had to confront and rebuild my past and rebuild my attitude to this culture, otherwise I’ll have nothing. And since then, I don’t feel cut to pieces; I feel more whole.

Did you watch much Israeli film when you were growing up?

No. I didn’t. First of all, in the neighborhood where I grew up, we were so poor that we couldn’t see very good films. (We saw only Indian and Arabic films.) And when the Boureka films were released to the theatres, I was studying at a boarding school for gifted children. And in this school, we weren’t allowed see these Boureka films because we were expected to see only “good” films, like Hitchcock films for example. After I finished school, I saw those Boureka films later and I didn’t see myself—or the group I came from—represented properly in them. When I made Sh’chur, it was considered a great breakthrough in terms of the Israeli cinema’s representation of the Mizrahim.

Right: Azoulay-Hasfari (2nd from left) in her second film, Banot (1985)

I read that your earliest acting experiences were with the IDF entertainment troupe. Would you talk about your experiences there?

When I went to the audition for the troupe, I knew nothing about theatre. But I was lucky because the director of it was Nola Chilton, an American director who had a very nice theatre group here in Israel; she was really a revolutionary. She started a theatre of social protest here. When she heard about me and where I came from, she immediately included me in her group. And so here I was in a play by Thornton Wilder and I played a small part. For a year, we brought theatre to the soldiers in all kinds of military posts. We went to the Sinai before they gave it back to Egypt, and there were a lot of military posts. So one week we were in Sinai, and one week we were in the north, and two weeks we were in the middle of the country. We know about theatre. We just brought theatre to those poor, poor soldiers. It was a really interesting experience. And then I went to the university afterwards.

Would you talk about your experience studying theatre at Tel Aviv University?

When I came to the university, I was too young; I was twenty. And I fell in love with a very nice guy studying there [Shmuel Hasfari], who later became my husband, and that was the only thing I was interested in. So one year later, after we were engaged, we left the university: we felt it didn’t give us much because we wanted to be onstage. [Shmuel] was a really charismatic person, and he was really into a different kind of theatre process. He was reading a lot of books about Grotovsky and his methods. So we decided to leave the university and start [our own] theatre group; and since I was in love with him, I agreed. I learned some things at the university, but the important things I learned through my husband and through this Grotovsky method. Our group was called The Simple Theatre. We were really enthusiastic for this kind of theatre. And then, like what happens to most of these fringe groups, everyone [went in their own directions].

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Conversation with Hadar Galron, star and co-writer of Bruriah

Hadar Galron as Bruriah

Assistant Programming Coordinator
Toronto Jewish Film Festival

The Toronto Jewish Film Festival kicks off its eighteenth year with the Canadian Premiere of the provocative Israeli film, Bruriah.

When, in the second century, the Rabbis declared that "women are light-minded," a learned and intelligent woman named Bruriah mocked their statement. Her husband, Rabbi Meir, tried to prove the rabbis correct by sending one of his students to seduce her. She was seduced, but when she discovered that her husband had planned it, she committed suicide.

Drawing upon this little-known story from the talmud, the film tells of a modern-day Bruriah, who sets out on a personal crusade in which she confronts her desires and the nature of her relationship with her husband, Yakov.

Hadar Galron, co-writer and star of Bruriah is a playwright, actress and comedian. She was born in London and immigrated to Israel with her Jewish orthodox family at the age of 13. After studying in a religious high school, Galron, against her parent’s wishes, joined the army and then pursued a degree in Theatre at Tel Aviv University, where she began writing and performing professionally.

Hadar Galron created Pulsa, a one-woman comedy show that took aim at the status of women in Jewish law. In 2005 Hadar wrote Mikve, a full-length drama for the stage that peeked at orthodox women’s lives through the ritual of the Mikve. In 2007, she co-wrote the screenplay to Avi Nesher’s The Secrets (TJFF 2008).

I recently had the opportunity to interview her by email.

STUART HANDS: Why do you think the biblical story of Bruriah is very little-known today?

HADAR GALRON: In the film, Bruriah asks her husband Yakov, "Why was the story hidden? If they really managed to prove that 'women are light-headed' the story should have been publicized…" In the fine-cut of the film, the question is left almost unanswered; a hint to our answer is provided by an earlier question asked by Bruriah to Yakov: Why didn't he (Rabbi Meir) try to prove her [wrong] via 'mind'–with his brains—rather than sending his pupil to seduce her?

My bold answer would be: Maybe it is because, even though his pupil managed to seduce Bruriah, he did not prove women to be light-headed, but rather, on the contrary, he proved both women and men equal! How? Throughout Jewish history, it is women that used seduction; it was their strong "weapon" against men. If, in order to prove Bruriah wrong, his brains were not enough (she is said to have been a brilliant scholar herself ) and Meir had to use the “women's weapon,” has he not proven their equality?

SH: Why did you choose to make a film about this story?

HG: It was not I, but the director-producer, Avraham Kushnir, who chose the story. He says that for years he thought about it, and [feels that it] is the most provocative story of love in all Jewish history. He often quotes Oscar Wilde, "I can resist anything but temptation… "

SH: When were you first exposed to the story of Bruriah?

HG: A few years before we started the film. I knew of Bruriah beforehand—heard many stories—but not this one. This story was 'unspoken' where I came from (my religious background). Even today I have heard many apologetic explanations about this story being a moral rather than a real story, as all the others about Bruriah…

Galron and Baruch Brener in Bruriah

SH: Would you talk about how sexual intimacy and the passing of knowledge are linked in Bruriah? Do you feel that this also occurs in The Secrets?

HG: I believe that sexuality and a certain sense of knowledge are linked already in the bible: "…and Adam knew his wife Eve" (Genesis). This obviously doesn't mean he googled her to find out where she studied… The meaning is sexual intimacy—he and she were joined as one, as a couple. What are the things we know…really know? [I’m not referring to] the sense of information we store in our minds, but rather to the sense of 'knowing by experience'? Sexual intimacy in Judaism is considered the height of spiritual experiences—that also beholds (if wrongly used) the danger of leading one to the lowest pit of impurity and sin. As Yakov says in the film "the tree of life and the tree of knowledge are the same tree".

Right: The Secrets (2007)

SH: In The Secrets, one of the teachers at the Midrasha says to the young student, Naomi, that religious women within the Orthodox community are in the midst of a "silent revolution" in terms of liberation. Do you see such change taking place?

HG: I think that—with a slight delay (about 10-20 years!)—feminism has finally reached the orthodox community. They are no longer 'housewives' and are slowly but surely becoming aware of themselves and their own needs and passions… However, there is a price to pay; in The Secrets, Naomi loses her whole world; in the original story of Bruriah and Rabbi Meir, Bruriah loses her life. In the film, the modern-day Bruriah doesn't commit suicide—because society is ready for a new breed if women—although she cannot yet confront either her husband or father: She has to be manipulative to get what she wants. Her daughter, Michal [who is studying to become a rabbi] is 'the woman of the future'. In reality, there's still a long way to go…

SH: Four people are credited as writers for Bruriah. Would you mind talking about the evolution of the project, the story and the screenplay?

HG: As I already mentioned Bruriah is Avraham Kushnirs' baby. He told me years ago (after seeing my satirical stand-up show on women's status in Jewish law!) that I was Bruriah. He also picked out Baruch Brener as Yakov. There were no auditions for the 2 leading roles…

The first draft was written by Kushnir and Yuval Cohen (also DOP and editor of the film). The basic story was good but the screenplay was, well… almost 300 pages–mostly irrelevant. There was already a first shooting day set. I didn't know what to do… In the end, I met Kushnir and lightly suggested he should work further on the screenplay because the characters and relationships didn’t really exist yet. He said he's not moving the shooting date- I took a deep breath, silently parted from my first cinematic role, and told him that it would be a waste of time and, on his part, a huge waste of money, but wished him luck. He then postponed the shooting for six months and invited Baruch and myself to join the 'workshop'. We began the whole screenplay anew. Writing in a foursome is a very trying experience… especially as all the other three were men and we were writing the role of a woman.

SH: Would you talk a bit about the career of your Bruriah co-star, Baruch Brener, who plays your husband, Yakov? [He played the religious lawyer in Brothers, TJFF 2009]

HG: Baruch Brener (Yakov) is an actor, teacher and… a rabbi ! (an orthodox rabbi, not conservative or reform…) He teaches Midrash and Talmud as well as acting in Nissan Nativ (one of Israel's leading drama-colleges), and performs on stage in a few musical shows.

Left: Baruch Brener in Brothers

Thursday, May 7, 2009

An Interview with Yariv Mozer, the Winner of TJFF's 2009 Tzimmie* Award

Assistant Programming Coordinator
Toronto Jewish Film Festival

(left to right:) Yariv Mozer and TJFF Assistant Programme Coordinator, Stuart Hands

When filmmaker Yariv Mozer was called up by his unit in the Israeli army during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, one of the first things he hid was bring a video camera. In My First War, Mozer gives us a personal view of the war, with all of its confusion, chaos and disorganization. This first-hand look at the conflict focuses on the soldiers — their fears, their problems and their reactions to the contradictory orders and facts surrounding the war. At one point the government ordered a large land operation into Lebanon at the same time it accepted a ceasefire. The result was the unnecessary death of many young men and the open revolt of some soldiers who refused to obey their orders.

During the festival, I had the opportunity to interview Mozer where we discussed his film, his family as well as why, after what he has seen and documented in
My First War, he still agrees to serve in the reserves.

STUART HANDS: When you decided to bring your camera, what did you initially expect to find?

YARIV MOZER: It’s not that I expected to find something. It was more about what I was feeling when I received this phone call to go to the front. First of all, understanding that I’m going to war—which raises a lot of fears— there’s immediately the thought that you are going to be in a life and death situation. The second thing—which is unique to me—is that I went to a unit that I didn’t know about, with people I never met. I was going to replace an officer who ran away from the battlefield with an anxiety attack. I think this made me more fearful because if I knew that I was going to war with people that I knew already, it would have felt different. So I can understand why I had this urge to take my camera (really at the last second) as I left the house. In my house, I had one battery and five cassettes, which in the digital age, is not the amount that you take for a documentary; I never had the feeling that it was going to become a film. I think that I used the camera to cope with my fears, to have something to—as I say in the film—mediate between me and the reality I was in, and to look at the reality as if it were a film and not reality. And I remember at the beginning of war, I was looking only for the surrealistic things. So I only filmed things that looked unusual to me or raised questions. And latter on I started dealing more with the meaning of this war.

Three stills from My First War

SH: Is it common for soldiers to bring their video cameras into the army with them?

YM: Yes, because the army in Israel is a regular phenomenon so everyone comes, bringing their things from their homes.

SH: In your film, you demonstrate this natural instinct to use the camera as a mediator between you and reality. Did you develop this instinct when you were young?

YM: It comes from a very early age. I always had a camera, starting from twelve years old, from the minute there was an available video camera. I had the first VHS-C camera (do you remember this one?), which I used. And then when I was in my obligatory service, I was always filming my officer’s school and trainings and things that I had during my army service. I was always walking with a camera so it was very clear to me that was going to be a filmmaker. This is why I had a camera and used it [when I was called to the front for the Second Lebanon War].

SH: My First War offers a very poignant depiction of male sensitivity. Was this open display of vulnerability readily apparent among the soldiers or did you have to seek it out?

YM: I know that I had this intuitive interest in this world of men. For example, you can see a very clear shot of a women reading a book, but I was not interested in those women soldiers. I was interested in men. I was interested in the joint experience of men together in a situation like war, like the army. [I think that you see the male] vulnerability in the film because I was talking to the people eye to eye, not as a director or a journalist asking questions from a distance. I was talking to people as a friend, as a fellow officer or fellow a soldier. I really talked to their emotional situation, so it was something that interested me and it brought out the vulnerability of the men, which I think you can see in this film in a very clear way.

SH: In general, do you think Israel is a macho society in terms of how it nurtures male identity?

YM: For sure, as every born male child is raised knowing that he needs to go into the army at the age of eighteen, and then needs to serve in an elite unit, and be brave and follow after all the heroes of Israel. So it becomes a very macho society.

Being gay myself helps me look at this from a different point of view, from a different angle, with sensitivity, with a desire to understand men and to be with men—that’s the undersurface of the film. It’s not on the film’s surface; I didn’t want it to be. I think gay people notice it, as do people with a good sense of filmmaking that can read cinematic language. People who know me also can see it in a clear way. When I’m saying in the film that I’m attracted to Ilan’s blue eyes, it’s a way for me to say that I’m in love with him. When I see such an officer, who is—in a way—also macho, but has a heart, I fall in love with him.

SH: You mentioned the other day that My First War is playing at a Gay and Lesbian film festival in Israel.

YM: Yes, just before I came to Toronto, the head of the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in Tel Aviv asked me if they could present the film in a special program of documentaries that have a gay subtext. Of course I agreed. It’s not something that I am hiding.

Standing army Lt. Col. Ilan Levi in Mozer's My First War

SH: Are you in the reserves of the Israeli army?

YM: Yes.

SH: After what you have seen and documented with your film, how come you still agree to serve?

YM: It’s a thing that I need to deal with on a daily basis. But, the most important thing for me to say is that I don’t want to leave or give up. I don’t want to leave the army in the hands of people with a different point of view than mine. I still think that left wing people who are part of Israel, who care about Israel, should also be part of the army. Because if you want to change something, if you want to be in the inside and not look from the outside… this is why I still need to be there. At this point in my life, I don’t want to give up and say that I’m not part of the Israeli society. I want to be inside and criticize and I want to still serve. And if I will find myself in a situation where it contradicts my beliefs, I will not do it. Until now, I have not found myself in such a situation.

Like the majority of Israel, most of the officers and soldiers in the reserves are right wing and they talk very nastily about Palestinians Their way of thinking about Arabic people is very racist. And when I’m serving in the army, the people there know that I’m a journalist, that I’m a director and that I have a left wing point of view, and so they try to avoid talking like this. They try to hide their personal point of views. And I like this, I like being there, not like a policemen, but as a guard of human rights.

SH: Would talk about your parents? Were they born in Israel?

YM: The roots of my family—both grandfathers and one grandmother—are from Poland. My grandmother on my father’s side was born in Tel Aviv. My grandfather on my father’s side came to Israel before the Second World War when he was three years old. My Grandparents on my mother’s side were survivors.

SH: What did your parents do for a living?

YM: They served the security forces of Israel. They are now retired. My father still deals with recruiting and hiring young Israeli guys for guarding Jewish communities all around the world. My grandfather was also from the security agency of Israel.

SH: What do they think of your film?

YM: They support everything I do as a filmmaker; they also support the point of view of the film. I must say that it is not a controversial film in Israel. It’s really a film that shows, in a very sincere and honest way, what happened in this war and what happened to the soldiers. And if someone doesn’t want to deal with the reality of Israel, then he has a problem; most of the people know the reality and can cope with this.

I always thought it was important to
not have my film be too left wing, so it could shown to the majority of Israel. The very left wing people in Israel hate my film and they criticize it. They think it’s a propaganda film and the Palestinians also think it’s a propaganda film. They don’t see the criticism in the film.

SH: In what ways do they see it as a propaganda film?

YM: Because it raises an emotional attachment to soldiers in the Israeli army…We knew that if we wanted to address the majority of the Israeli audience, we needed this film to be sincere and honest, and not against the soldiers. I would never be against the soldiers, I’m part of them, and I respect them. I respect the people that were with me. I respect every human being as he is; I do not say ‘oh he is a soldier in Israel, so he is a monster’. This film comes from a lot of respect towards the people who served with me, and towards my country… I care about this country and I want to address the people in it. In Israel, nobody sees the majority of the very left wing documentary films that are being supported by the European audience. When my film was released and when it played on the documentary channel, a lot of people saw it. Now the Israeli channel 1—which is the main public channel—is re-running this film on prime time for the three-year anniversary of the war. So then it will be shown to more people in Israel, who would not watch a film that is too left-wing.

SH: Would you talk about the film you are directing now?

YM: My next film as a director is called Noa and Mira. It’s the story of internationally acclaimed Israeli singer Noa, who is asked to represent Israel at the upcoming Eurovision song contest in Moscow. She said that she would perform there only on the condition that she goes with Arab-Palestinian singer Mira Awad, and that they do a duet with a song that combines Hebrew, English and Arabic. So this is the first time that Israel is sending an Arabic singer to represent Israel at the Eurovision contest. This is a big thing in Israel and it brings out criticism from both the left and the right.

A shot from Mozer's music video of Noa (left) and Mira Awad (right) performing the duet, "There Must be Another Way"

You can visit the website of Yariv's production company, Mozer Films, by clicking

*The Tzimmie Award (also called the David A. Stein Memorial Award) is presented in memory of David A. Stein, a gifted Toronto filmmaker who passed away in 2004 at age 34. Named after his production company, Tzimmes Entertainment, it is an annual $5,000 award to the director of the best documentary making its Canadian premiere at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, and supports documentary filmmakers in creating works that would have interested David and that carry on his passion for storytelling. Yariv Mozer's film was selected as this year's winner by a jury consisting of filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, casting director Marsha Chesley, and author/journalist Evan Solomon.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Yael Perlov's introduction to TJFF's screening of her father's landmark film, In Jerusalem

Right: David Perlov (photo © Mira Perlov); Below: Daughter Yael in Perlov's Diary (1973-1983),

As part of a special programme exploring the city of Jerusalem before and after its reunification during the Six Day War, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival offered David Perlov’s 1963 landmark documentary,
In Jerusalem. On behalf of the Perlov family, daughter Yael offered the following introduction to her father’s film:

David Perlov, my father, had never made serious efforts to be shown abroad: he was not a man of festivals.

When he died five years ago, the Israeli cinema critics were unanimous to speak of him as "The most important Israeli Filmmaker". Nevertheless it was only two years later that his work began to be shown abroad when the Centre Pompidou organized a retrospective of his films. Since then Diary and In Jerusalem have been invited and shown all over at international film festivals and cinematheques in France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Brazil Argentina, and more.

I would like, of course, to thank the public here, for coming and showing curiosity for a film director yet unknown in Canada.

Allow me to give briefly some milestones of Perlov's biography:

He was born in Brazil and began his artistic career as a painter. At the age of twenty he leaves for Paris, where after a short time of studies, he fell in love with cinema, worked as assistant of Henri Langlois at the Cinematheque Francaise and then collaborated with the documentarist Joris Ivens in the editing of a film on Marc Chagall.

In 1957, while still in Paris, he makes his first short film: Old Aunt China, which was supported by the British Film Institute.

He arrived in Israel in 1958. He began directing documentary films for the local authorities, yet throughout the 1960s he constantly clashed with the ideological demands of the Israeli establishment. As he himself said in an interview years later, "I wanted to make films about people, they wanted films on ideas".

In 1963 Perlov made In Jerusalem, which has become a turning point and a milestone in Israeli cinema. The film set a new, free style for documentary work in Israel.

A still from David Perlov's In Jerusalem

The structure of the film, in its 10 different episodes connected by a repeated image of a stonemason, presents the city in a poetic and fragmented way, which avoids the strong symbolic conception so often attached to Jerusalem.

As he himself said: "I filmed at street level. I have a tendency to shoot the below". He wanted to show the people living in Jerusalem as they are: on the one hand, the extreme severity of the orthodox who avoid the camera, and on the other, the warmth of those who want to participate willingly and openly in the scenes that are shot.

In the year 1963, in the official cultural atmosphere of the country, (it was the year that the Beatles were not allowed to perform in Israel because it was feared they might have a negative influence on the local youth), the film In Jerusalem created a shock: It was different, it had a strict formal conception and a lyrical rather then ideological approach.

The authorities that financed the project were determined, for example, to censor one of the sequences that bothered them most of all. It was the sequence showing beggars in the holy city, which was based on a legend stating that, before the coming of the herald Messiah, another Messiah would announce the great event and he himself would appear as a beggar. David then shows several of the beggars in the city. The Prime ministry, the Jewish agency and the national Film Service found this scene scandalous. “After all ", as David says in the interview, " the country was socialist and the producers protested: There are no beggars in Jerusalem. There are no barefoot [people] in the country.

To the establishment’s mind, people were brought to Israel and given clothes and shoes. So how could I go a around the city shooting the exceptions? “In short, they wanted me to forget the film and proposed that I make another one. "

Eventually the whole matter reached Levi Eshkol, then the Prime minister of Israel, for his judgment. He was a man [with a] sense of humor and he approved the film.

To read Uri Klein's interview with David Perlov about In Jerusalem, click here.
To visit the David Perlov website, click here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

An Interview with Cathy Randall, writer/director of Hey Hey It's Esther Blueberger


FilmMatters and Programmer
Toronto Jewish Film Festival

Hey Hey It's Esther Blueberger
is a fun and cheeky Australian comedy about a 13-year old girl, Esther (Danielle Catanzariti), who feels like an alien. The girls at her posh private school think that she is a nerd and even her mother pressures her to act “normal”. Esther chooses to break free at her bat mitzvah where she escapes her own party and befriends Sunni (played by Whale Rider’s Keisha Castle-Hughes), the effortlessly cool girl from the local public school. Pretending to be a Swedish exchange student, Esther starts going to Sunni’s school and spending time with Sunni’s hip and spontaneous mother, Mary (Toni Collette).

Randall directing Castle-Hughes and Catanzariti

The following is a director's statement from Esther Blueberger writer/director, Cathy Randall:

From Huck Finn to Holden Caulfield, from Ferris Bueller to Napoleon Dynamite, a long line of adolescent outcasts in literature and movies have traversed the grey zone between childhood and adulthood with a perceptiveness and verve that illuminates something true about life at any age. Yet, almost none of them have been girls. With this in mind I wrote Hey Hey It's Esther Blueberger, drawing from my own experience as an Australian Jew to create an outsider character that struggles to fit the social norm but through the course of her journey - a series of daring acts and foolish mistakes - learns its okay to be different.

I recently had the opportunity to interview director
Randall by email .

SUSAN STARKMAN: What made you decide to become a filmmaker?

CATHY RANDALL: I’ve always wanted to be a writer so I decided to try screenwriting, thinking that it might be a way to make money. Once I started screenwriting, I became fascinated in directing because I viewed it as an extension of the storytelling process, and another way to challenge and express myself creatively.

SS: Based on your screenplay for Hey, Hey It’s Esther Blueburger, you were awarded a scholarship to the Los Angeles Film School’s Feature Development Program. Who did you work with there and how did the screenplay evolve over that time?

CR: The course was fantastic because, although it didn’t teach filmmaking in a practical sense, I was given the opportunity to develop the screenplay and learnt a great deal about so many different aspects of filmmaking—from financing to marketing, directing and editing. The faculty was excellent and, because the school was located in Hollywood, quite often we would have guests – all kinds of industry professionals – come and give us a class. Among the most memorable were producers, Saul Zaentz and Barbara Boyle.

The fulltime faculty included Linda Cowgill (scriptwriting), Harry Clein (marketing), Gabrielle Kelly (producing), Daniele Suissa (directing), Amadeo D’adamo (directing), Donn Cambern (editing)

The screenplay evolved by becoming lighter and funnier and also the story and structure got tighter.

SS: Does the story in any way reflect your own adolescent experiences?

CR:The story is loosely drawn from my own adolescence, but warped and twisted and filtered through my imagination so, in fact, it doesn’t feel like Esther resembles me at all. But I did go to two different schools (private and public), and have a bat-mitzvah. And I do have a twin brother but I have a sister as well.

SS: How much do you think the experience of adolescence has changed from when you were in high school to when you went back to that environment as an adult director?

CR: I don’t think it’s changed very much at all. I think 13, the age I was writing about, is a fascinating age because I believe you experience things more intensely than you ever have before or ever will again. It’s that wonderful grey zone between childhood and adulthood where you start to experience puberty and break away from your parents and form surrogate families with your friends. It can be a time of intense introspection and self-exploration as you start to reform your identity as an adult and gain some autonomy separate to your parents.

SS: The film has a unique aesthetic style that you have referred to as “Esther vision.” Did you have a clear idea of how you were going to approach the visual style of the film when you were writing the screenplay?

CR: The whole time I was writing the screenplay, I was collecting images from books and magazines that I found inspiring or thought would feed into the look of the film in some way, so, quite often, my writing was influenced by the images [and vice versa]. For instance the idea of Sunni having a xylophone doorbell came from an image I cut out of a magazine.

SS: Who do you consider to be your main artistic influences?

CR: I don’t have any specific artistic influences but I’ve always known I wanted the film to have vivid colours and to have a strong sense of choreography. I think I was very much influenced by my love of musicals and dance, both modern and classical. Films like The Red Shoes and Cabaret probably had a powerful effect on me.

SS: The soundtrack is an integral part of the film. How many of the songs were written specifically for the film?

CR: The only song that was written specifically for the film was the title track which runs over the opening credits, “The Only One” by Paul Mac. There was an original score written as well.

SS: As a first-time director, how difficult was it for you to enlist such well-known actors as Toni Collette, Keisha Castle-Hughes and Essie Davis?

CR: It was actually very easy and straightforward. They all loved the script and wanted to be a part of it when they read it.

SS: The relationship between Esther and Sunni feels authentic. How much time did Danielle and Keisha have to get to know each other before filming? Was there much rehearsal time?

CR: We had four weeks of rehearsal, which was a wonderful luxury, and they were pretty intense so Danielle and Keisha got to do a lot of bonding before shooting started.

SS: Was there any room for improvisation once production on the film started or did everyone adhere to the screenplay? I am thinking particularly of the poem that Esther makes up about her name. Was any of that Danielle’s creation or was it scripted exactly like that?

CR: There was practically no improvisation at all once the shoot started—in fact, none that I can think of. Everyone adhered to the screenplay. The poem was entirely scripted although Danielle fed into the performance – for instance the hand movements she does, where she moves the imaginary letters around, were Danielle’s creation.

SS: I understand that Keisha was pregnant while filming. Was the rest of the cast aware of this at the time? How did the other teenage actors react to her pregnancy at such a young age?

CR: The rest of the cast were fully aware of Keisha’s pregnancy and were completely supportive.

SS: Hey, Hey It’s Esther Blueburger takes a refreshingly frank look at teenage sexuality. I understand that the initial cut of the film included a scene in which Esther engages in oral sex. Why was this taken out of the final cut?

CR: It was only taken out of the American cut of the film because of some feedback we got from American distributors that the film would not sell with it. The Australian cut still has the original oral sex scene, which was there to demonstrate just how far Esther will go in order to fit in.

SS: How much of Esther’s sense of alienation is due to her being Jewish in a WASPy environment? Do you see it as being the main cause or just a contributing factor?

CR: I see it as a contributing factor. Esther is an individual in so many ways – she’s got a kooky imagination and way of seeing the world, and when we first meet her, she’s trapped in an environment where individuality isn’t encouraged, where it’s all about being the same in order to fit in. I think Esther would really love to fit in but simply doesn’t know how to.

SS: Recently, two of Sydney’s most elite private boys’ schools were involved in creating an anti-Semitic page on Facebook that received a great deal of media attention. Do you think that Jewish students in Australia experience more racist discrimination than other minority groups in the country?

CR: I can only speak from my own experience and that of my friends and I would have to say no, not at all. I have never experienced anti-Semitism and nor have my friends (that I know of). The Facebook incident was shocking and very surprising.

SS: While there are other Australian films set in state schools or private schools, Hey, Hey It’s Esther Blueburger effectively highlights both systems and the vast socio-economic gulf that separates them. Was this the source of much media discussion surrounding the film? How did the educational community receive the film?

CR: As far as I can remember it wasn’t the source of much media discussion at all, although it did generate a lot of supportive feedback from the general public. And I still get into the private versus public school debate conversations with people who see the film.
The educational community received the film well and there were many teachers keen to teach it at schools.

SS: Australia has produced a number of coming age films, such as the Year My Voice Broke, Australian Rules and Looking For Alibrandi. Why do you think that so many filmmakers in Australia are drawn to the adolescent experience? Is it possible that Australian filmmakers themselves are coming of age in terms of creating a uniquely Australian brand of cinema that does not borrow from American and English traditions?

CR: I think there are a lot of coming of age films produced in every country as filmmakers and storytellers generally are drawn to the adolescent experience because it is such a fascinating time of self-discovery that produces inherently interesting stories.
Perhaps as you say, Australians filmmakers are coming of age, but we also have a strong culture of writer-directors who draw on their own experiences when writing scripts.

SS: What is next in the pipeline for you?

CR: I’m developing a couple of different ideas – primarily concentrating on writing a script (too early to talk about it in detail yet) about a young female protagonist and lots of song and dance!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

An Interview with Cindy Kleine, director of Phyllis and Harold

Assistant Programming Coordinator
Toronto Jewish Film Festival

Film and video artist Cindy Kleine brings her most recent documentary,
Phyllis and Harold, to the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. In this film, Kleine whimsically blends animation, family photographs, home movies and cinema verité to tell the story of her parents’ troubled 59-year marriage. Set in the vividly-recreated upper-middle class suburbs of Long Island, this tour-de-force documentary captures the values, ambitions and stifled longings of her parents’ generation of North American Jews.

You can visit Cindy Kleine’s website, by clicking here.

Filmmaker Cindy Kleine

Stuart Hands: Would you mind talking about the evolution of your film, Phyllis and Harold? How was it initially conceived?

Cindy Kleine: It started with the interviews that you see in the first quarter of the film, the ones where [my parents] are wearing their sunglasses. I interviewed them separately and asked them the same questions, and they answered with completely different perspectives. I was shooting those interviews with the intention of using them as dialogue for a fiction film. So I started editing them to make transcripts for the actors to read. And as I was in the process of cutting, I became completely enamored of how incredible these interviews were when cut together. I then ended up not doing the fiction film, because I thought you could never get actors to do this convincingly, and the material was so strong. So then I just used what I cut together for the transcript, which became a short film called Till Death Do us Part. That film was shown in 1998 and 1999. It was not shown widely because I didn’t want it to be distributed, as my parents were still alive at that point and I knew I wanted to keep working on the film. I knew I couldn’t tell the whole story while my dad was alive so I kept working on it in sections. I had this idea of making a feature-length film out of three or four short films. I then made the second section, which showed them reading the letters—that was at one time a kind of separate film—but it didn’t really stand on its own. It kind of went from there, and little by little, over twelve years, it kept growing and evolving into what it is now.

The two interviews from Till Death Do Us Part, which reappear in Phyllis and Harold

Married for 55 years, Phyllis and Harold read their love letters from their courtship

SH How much of Phyllis and Harold did your mother see before she passed away?

CK: Sadly, she didn’t see the whole finished film. She died before it was finished. What she did see was Till Death Do Us Part, the twenty-minute short of those interviews, which she loved. My father saw Till Death Do Us Part before it was completely finished, when it was a ten-minute film, but it didn’t have my mother blatantly talk about the affair she had: She sort of eluded to it in a way that, if you didn’t want to get it, you didn’t get it, and he didn’t get it. He looked at the ten-minute cut of the interviews and thought it was hysterically funny, which amazed me. He was just sitting there laughing and he grabbed my mother’s hand. I realized later that he thought it was so funny because she was saying things like, “oh those so-called love letters he sent me”, where she was being really negative. But, on the other hand, she married him and here they were sitting there fifty-five years later, still together, and somehow it struck him as hilarious. I was nervous because I didn’t know if he would be hurt by it. I had no idea how he would react, but he loved it.

SH: Have any friends or family of your parents seen the film?

CK: A lot of their friends aren’t around anymore, but there have been several of their friends who have seen it. It’s very difficult for their friends. A couple of my mother’s friends have seen it. They knew the story, knew her basic story, so it didn’t really come as a complete surprise, but I think it was very difficult for them. I realized when I showed it to them that each of us is a different person to whoever knows us in our life— your mother sees you in a totally different way than your friend sees you, and your sibling sees you differently than someone else does—so I realized that, for them, it was difficult for them to see me portraying my mother as a kind of narcissist. Nobody had any objection to my portrayal of my dad. In fact my dad’s brother just saw it recently. He watched it without me—in fact I didn’t even know he watched it—but he loved it. I was really worried about him seeing it, but he absolutely loved it and wanted to see it again. But, one friend of my mother’s—her best friend—was quite upset by it: She felt that I portrayed my mother wrongly; it wasn’t the way that she saw her. I think what happens is that people project their own issues on to it and so she saw it in her own way and we had to have some discussions about it. She is fine now, but she wasn’t thrilled about it.

SH: Over the course of your filmmaking career, did it take time for your parents to become comfortable in front of your camera?

CK: No, not at all. One of the big lucky things that allowed me to make this film is that they were completely comfortable with the camera from the first second I turned it on. I didn’t have to coax them. A lot of people asked me, how did you get them to do this? That was a non-issue. I would just turn the camera on and they would talk really freely, my mother more freely as you can see. My father is not a big talker, but they were both very happy to answer questions. The only times that they were slightly [ill at ease were when] I was filming them in their house and they are walking around in their underwear and doing their own thing: They would suddenly get self-conscious and look at me and say, “Why are you filming this? Don’t you want us to do something? Why is this interesting?” They felt funny just being filmed doing nothing. Other than that, they were fine. My mother would just light up in front of the camera—she absolutely loved it.

SH: What has been the response so far to your film, Phyllis and Harold, among American Jews of your parents’ generation?

CK: Not surprisingly most American Jews of my parents’ generation find at least a little something they can relate to. It’s only been shown at one Jewish film festival [The Boston Jewish Film Festival] and that was my best screening, because it was a huge audience which just seemed to relate to it on an even deeper level and more broadly than most others. It seemed that a lot of people were laughing at most things that I think are funny, which most people don’t get, because it’s got that dark Jewish sense of humor. Every time I’ve shown it, people come up to me and say, we lived in Long Island right near there and my marriage was exactly like that. People really relate to it, not only Jews, but many people of that generation.

SH: Were there Jewish women in the audience that could relate to the sense of being stifled like your mom was?

CK: Absolutely, I think that’s one of the things that most women could relate to. I think that whole generation of women was really stifled. They were trapped in their lives and their marriages by the cultural expectations and what it meant at that time to be a wife. It’s not just the Jews of that generation, except that I think, at least for my parents, there was a [Jewish emphasis] on family that it made it very difficult to get out of marriages— people didn’t get divorced if they were unhappy. There was a sense of having to stick with it, not wanting to destroy the family. You married someone that you didn’t necessarily love, but they were your high school sweet heart and you didn’t want to disappoint your family if you didn’t [marry them]. There was a lot of that stuff going around for my parents and their friends.

An early home movie seen in Kleine's Phyllis and Harold

SH: Despite the bitterness you must have developed toward your parents while growing up, you display sensitivity and understanding toward them in your film. How were you able to achieve such perspective?

CK: Achieving a certain perspective, I would say, is just who I am, who I grew to be. Maybe it’s from coming out of that family. From a very young age, I remember my parents screaming at each other, and I would go into my room, close the door and draw. It was as if making art was my own way of making my own world, blocking them out, deciding how I can make my own reality. Making art can be a very redemptive activity, almost like an alchemical process, where you take reality and transform it into something else, something more like you want it to be. I think there is [a kid] in every family who is just always on the outside, just observing, and that is who I was. The act of making my family members into characters in my films also allowed me to [see] them at a distance, to objectify them, to see them with more perspective and, I think, therefore, with more compassion too. I wasn’t embroiled in my own emotions toward them as much. Maybe that’s also partly why I became a filmmaker. You remove yourself and put yourself behind the camera. Maybe, in a sense, I learned that from my father, because he was always doing that—he was kind of always there but behind the camera.

SH: Was he more comfortable like that?

CK: I think he was. He even said in the film at one point, “you know me, I’m not a communicator.” He wasn’t a big talker, he didn’t talk about feelings or emotion. As kids, he adored us, but I think he felt more comfortable taking our picture than grabbing us and putting us on his lap and telling us a story. He was sort of shy and uncomfortable with children, which I think was a generational thing. I think a lot of men [of that era] were uncomfortable with children because they were off working all day while the women took care of the kids.

SH: What gifts do you think your parents gave you? What positive lessons did they teach you?

CK: [Concerning my mother], in one way, I feel her character was a study of narcissism, but on the other hand, she was trapped in her life and her marriage—but she talked about it so freely. In a way, she became my teacher, the person I learned from [in terms of] how I didn’t want to live, the kind of marriage I didn’t want to have. So her talking about all that was a gift to me. And, in a way, my father was also my teacher: He taught me how to use a camera; he was always making these gorgeous photographs, even when his subject was this family that was completely dysfunctional. He made photos that were gorgeous as well as really honest: As you see in the film, he didn’t only make my family look fabulous. He also took those bizarre pictures of my sister looking like she wanted to flush me down the toilet. He saw with an honest eye, I think.

SH: You said in a previous interview that your father as a photographer had a great sense of composition.

CK: Oh yeah, I think he was really talented. He took thousands of pictures. I had to choose from approximately 2500 slides that he shot; the amount used in the film is nothing. Actually I still have this idea of one day publishing a book of his photographs because they are really classic forties and fifties family shots. He had an amazing sense of composition. He was a really great, talented, creative guy. I once said to him, “you’re so good at [photography], you’re really talented.” And he said, “Ah, you’re ridiculous, it’s just a hobby” Anything that you didn’t make money out of didn’t seem to him as being valid. To him, work equaled money, otherwise it was just a hobby, so he sort of poo-pooed it. But he was very talented.

SH: Your short film Nana focuses on your mother’s mother. What do you feel are the differences between the marriage of your grandmother and that of your mother?

Shots from Kleine's Nana (1987)

CK: It’s an interesting question. I would say that I come from a long line of matriarchal Jewish women. They all were very powerful. My grandmother was the ruler of the roost—[her home] was her domain and she hardly ever left it. She moved around her house like my mother did around hers, but with total control. In some ways, they both married similar kinds of men: They both married men who would allow them to be the boss and let them walk all over them, be mean to them and yell at them. My nana would scream at her husband all the time. They were married for 68 years and they fought the whole time. [My mother and grandmother] had similar marriages, but the difference was generational, as my nana was a first generation Jew.

My great grandmother Rose—my Nana’s mother—came over in steerage on a boat from Europe at age 18: She was pregnant and had a miscarriage on the boat. She came over by herself because, while on the train before they got to the boat, her husband was hauled off the train by the police because he didn’t have his papers when he went to go use the washroom. So Great Grandmother Rose was pregnant, sitting on this train and her husband never came back from the bathroom. She got to the place where the boat docked and waited for him for three days, but he never showed up. So she got on the boat by herself and ended up on Ellis Island by herself, after having a miscarriage on the boat. She then found some relative on the Lower East Side, moved in with them and opened a saloon. She became a saloon-keeper—she was this tough, fierce, big lady. She single-handedly ran this saloon and would throw out drunks by herself, apparently. She had ten children and her husband, I was told, was a Talmud Scholar, so he was always upstairs studying, because he was too religious to work (that was the phrase I always heard). So my nana, from age 12, grew up working in this saloon and pouring beer for the big, drunk guys. She was very tough, had a very hard life and she never complained. I’m sure my grandmother had her issues and fought all the time with her husband, but she would never have whined and complained about it: [She felt that one had their] lot in life and you did what you had to do, and you worked very hard.

My mother, on the other hand, had a very easy life. My grandmother had enough money for my mother to go to Brooklyn College for day classes, which was a big step up in the world. My mother then married someone who had money. So she had a relatively easy life and didn’t have to work nearly as hard—if at all—like my grandmother did, but she was always complaining about her marriage. So I think there was this big difference in generation.

SH: Do you think there was a certain strength that was passed from your grandmother to your mother, but your mother had no place to use it?

CK: I think there is something to that. I think my grandmother passed a lot of things to my mother and I don’t really know a lot about them. Nana never really talked about anything personal. I never saw my grandmother cry. She was a very tightly-wound person. I can’t really imagine what kind of mother she was. The only thing I know about her was that, as a mother, she—and I think this is very generational thing—brought my mother up to be this beautiful darling that would attract the right man. It was very important that she always looked perfect—you can see that in the old home movies. She had these gorgeous outfits that Nana made her—coats with beautiful fur collars—and she always had beautiful makeup. I think she primped her like a doll. When you had a daughter at that time, you had to make them very attractive, charming and lady-like so they would get a good man who could support them. There wasn’t a sense that she would make a living or become a professional woman, because it was too early for that.

SH: I wonder if your mom hadn’t had everything done for her, had she been given a greater sense of independence, would she have been as preoccupied with this affair and the life she could have had with this other man?

CK: I don’t know if the life she had with the other man was just a fantasy that she would have needed within any marriage. I get the feeling that if she had married this lover, she still would have been unfulfilled, but I obviously could never know that.

SH: While growing up, did you feel much connection to your Jewishness?

CK: Growing up, my Jewishness was something I just took for granted because I didn’t really know anyone who wasn’t Jewish. In Long Island, my whole neighborhood was Jewish. Like other kids, I was dragged to the temple for high holidays and forced to wear new outfits. It never really meant anything to me and, in fact, it really bored me. [At synagogue] my friends and I would go into the bathroom and smoke cigarettes and stuff. I knew we were Jewish and I knew what we were suppose to do, but nobody really ever taught me what it meant to be Jewish. Then when I went to prep school, where I was one of five Jews in the whole school, I started to have a consciousness that there is something different or weird about being Jewish. But, it wasn’t until I was 40 that I started to become interested and embraced [my Jewish roots]. Two things happened simultaneously. First of all, I met the man who is now my husband Andre [theatre director, actor, playwright and painter Andre Gregory] who is the first Jewish man I ever had as a boyfriend. All my boyfriends [that lasted beyond a couple of weeks] were not Jewish. Also, when I turned forty, I started to take Kabbalah classes from this amazing Rabbi here in New York named Joseph Gelberman. He is about to have his 97th birthday and he is still teaching. He changed my life. He really became an important teacher for me, as he really taught me what Jewishness was and what it meant to me, mostly through the mysticism side of it. He officiated at both my parents’ funerals as well as married my husband and I here in New York. He’s become a very important person to me. It’s only been in the past 10 years that I’ve been into that.

SH: Did your parents attend your wedding?

CK: We had two weddings: the first was in Hawaii in the garden among the ruins of an old Sugar Mill. My parents did not come to the wedding because it was too far away, which we kind of knew and that is why we did it there. The minute I told my parents that I was getting married—they both were on the phone—it was one of the most hilarious conversations I ever had with them. The two of them were on the phone in different parts of the house and I’m in New York telling them. The reaction I expected was, “oh congratulations that is so great”. They—especially my father—[responded with], oh my god we’ve got to tell everyone, we’ve got to invite so and so…people I had never even heard of. I realized that in five minutes, they were going to insist on having this wedding with 300 people I didn’t know, and I started to panic. So we ended up going to Hawaii, where there were only 12 guests at the wedding. And a couple weeks later, we had a New York wedding for our family, where the Rabbi married us again. My parents were at that wedding, in fact they walked me down the aisle.