Tuesday, January 13, 2009

An Interview with Galilee Eskimos director, Jonathan Paz

Assistant Programming Coordinator
Toronto Jewish Film Festival

The cast of The Galilee Eskimos

In The Galilee Eskimos, the Israeli film shown at January's Chai Tai screening and being repeated during our festival in April, twelve senior citizens wake one morning to find their kibbutz deserted. The bank has foreclosed on the property and the residents have left with all their belongings. As the seniors band together to keep their kibbutz and oppose the construction of a luxury spa and casino which will destroy their community, they rediscover the same pioneering spirit that they had when the kibbutz was first founded.

The film’s director, Jonathan Paz, grew up on kibbutz Mizra, where he was a member until 1971. Galilee Eskimos speaks of Paz’s love for this generation of kibbutzniks and the egalitarian values which they nurtured into practice.

In preparation for our telephone interview, Jonathan Paz generously composed a four-page document where he described what motivated him to make this film:

The idea for the film came to me some seven years ago, in the final year of my dear mother's life. On one of my visits to the kibbutz (which, incidentally, treated her and her contemporaries in a wonderful way, as do, to the best of my knowledge, all of the other kibbutzim), we spoke of Globalization, insensitive Capitalism and the poor state of the kibbutzim. Many of the kibbutzim had begun the process of Privatization (no more Communal Living or "Each contributes according to his abilities and receives according to his needs"… no more equality and cooperation, only "Differential Wages" etc). I spoke to my mother about loneliness and the fact that life passes so quickly (even though my mother lived to the ripe old-age of 97, alert and lucid to the end). I asked her, "Mother, which period of your life do you miss the most?" She answered without any hesitation, "I would like to go back to the time when we founded the kibbutz". I knew right then that I had a story! There was a film to be made!

Galilee Eskimos is offering these old folks the opportunity to go back for a short period to their proud past, to return and build the kibbutz once again: A return to the Commune, to mutual help and friendship, to the old work clothes and the communal shower, the work roster and the general meeting (democracy), to a life of culture and romances of old, even to the re-arming of the kibbutz in order to guard it from external enemies.

STUART HANDS: How do you feel about the recent films, Children of the Sun and Sweet Mud, where the children’s generation provide more bitter portraits of kibbutz life?

JONATHAN PAZ: First of all, I cannot compare my film to Children of the Sun, as [the latter] is a documentary based on [archival] footage and interviews with people, etc. But I can easily, and without much hesitation, compare my film to Sweet Mud, which is a great film. Dror Shaul is a very talented director. He had some bitterness and wanted to face whatever was troubling him from his childhood: He wanted to settle the account with the kibbutz for what happened to him and his mother. My approach was different: I made my film with a great deal of love, nostalgia, longing and homage to those people who founded the kibbutz. I really admire and love those people. I loved my childhood. For me and my friends, the kibbutz was a great time. We had a really happy childhood. The children’s home was great. I fondly recall the communal sleeping arrangement as an exciting and special experience, which I look back on with great affection.

SH: Since Galilee Eskimos pays tribute to the founders of the kibbutz movement, why did you choose to open the film with the flashback of the father leaving his son at night in the children's house?

JP: This initial abandonment later connects to the film’s present situation, where the tables are turned and the parents are being deserted by their now-grown children. This is probably the central issue presented in the film. Now, some 50 years later, the same (now aged) father appears at the window of the kibbutz old-peoples’ home watching the now-grown children leaving the debt-ridden kibbutz. The Deserter has been deserted!

Those who know a little bit about the kibbutz are aware that it is suffering a great crisis: Much of the younger generation have left, while the elders are left behind. A lot of the younger generation—say my generation—were killed in the army. And many of us also left the kibbutz and even left Israel. There are many Israelis in Toronto, New York, Los Angeles, etc, who were Kibbutz children.

Jonathan Paz on the set of The Galilee Eskimos

SH: Shortly into the film, one of the women comments, “We left our parents and our children left us”.

JP: Exactly, it’s funny what the lady in the dining room says.

SH: Do you think she understands how they could be left by their children?

JP: This is a different story than the children’s house. The tradition in Western culture is that when the child gets out of high school, he leaves home, period. They go as far as they can. Starting when they are eighteen or nineteen years old and for the rest of their lives, they see their parents once or twice a year— at Rosh Hashanah, or if they are Christian, at Thanksgiving or Christmas time. In Israel it’s completely different. First of all, we are a very small country: For example my son and my daughter live twenty-five/thirty minutes away from me. They come over every Friday night. We see them at least once or twice a week. Everybody is still living together. When I talk about this subject of children leaving their parents with people in Western countries like Canada or the United States, they don’t understand what the big deal is. That’s why the lady in the film says, we left our parents when we get older and our children have left us— that’s the way of life. I wanted to emphasize with this that Israeli tradition is different: children don’t leave their parents for long. That’s why the founder of the kibbutz is in shock [when the children have left].

SH: I wonder if the older generation of the kibbutz has been abandoned partly because that mentality of social collectivity has been replaced by individualism.

JP: Exactly, you are absolutely right. Privatization killed the kibbutz. 80 or 90% of the kibbutzim already went for privatization. The kibbutz as defined in the old days is gone. The very few Kibbutzim that still exist are not like the old collective kibbutz. That’s one of the tragedies of my parents’ generation.

SH: Is Yulek (Shimon Yisraeli), the filmmaker in Galilee Eskimos, based on anyone in particular? Was it common to have a filmmaker as part of the kibbutz?

JP: At any kibbutz, there was always one guy who managed to have a movie camera and used to document the events in the kibbutz. In my kibbutz we had a person like Yulek, but he was a mechanic. In fact, each of the twelve characters in Galilee Eskimos existed in every kibbutz. Do you remember Nyeshka (Leah Shlanger) from the film, the nice lady who had a love affair with practically everybody? In every kibbutz there was one girl who was quite beautiful and sexy and drew most of the guys’ attention. In my kibbutz, this lady—rather a few ladies—would make this entrance every Friday night where everybody would see her and realize that she had a new shirt or something.

SH: Galilee Eskimos shows a great deal of candor among the characters toward sex. How sexually liberated was this generation of kibbutzniks?

JP: People are always thinking about sex until their last breath of life. What I tried to show is that the old folks in my film are not half human beings; they are not invalids. As long as they are kicking, breathing, fixing the electrical work, gathering water and defending themselves, etc, they are still talking about sex. My philosophy is that as long as you are still talking about sex, you are thinking about sex--which means you are still a human being. The myth that old-age represents a second class humanity needs to be shattered! Sexuality among our old-folk is not to be seen as a taboo. In my film, I wanted to emphasize very strongly the characters’ thinking, talking and remembering about sex to show that they are full human beings.

SH: You gathered a really wonderful cast for the film. Are they all professional actors?

JP: They are the most famous, well-known actors and actresses in Israel. All of them are professionals, but most of them are not working any more. Shimon Yisraeli, who plays Yulek, was the most famous actor in Israel. But he disappeared ten/sixteen years ago. When the audience [for Galilee Eskimos] first saw him on the screen, most of them asked, he is still alive?

SH: You dedicated your first feature film, Valley Train (1989), to the memory of your father, Chanoch Paz (“theatre director, teacher, educator, and a man of culture,” describes the film’s dedication). I wonder if you can talk about your father and the type of work he did. Was he a teacher on the kibbutz?

JP: Yes, he was a kibbutz member as well. He came from Eastern Europe. First of all, he was the founder of the kibbutz high school: He was the head of the school and a teacher. He was also the first theatre director in the whole north of Israel. He was a cultured man, which was quite unique because, in those days, everyone wore working clothes and went to work.

SH: What kind of influence did he have on you and your work?

JP: I didn’t realize it back then, but [he influenced my decision to become a filmmaker]. I still remember today when he bought me a super 8mm camera. He also bought me two three-minute cassettes (which was very expensive in those days) and told me to go ahead and [film] something about the family. And I was crazy enough that, instead of shooting the family gatherings, the family events, I filmed the cows’ house….

SH: So you filmed around the kibbutz.

JP: Yes. (In fact, a very short bit of footage used in Children of the Sun is mine.)

SH: Why did you leave the Kibbutz?

JP: First of all, I wanted so badly to study filmmaking. In the early seventies, there were no film schools in Israel, but now there are so many. I did a lot of research and, in those days, NYU was considered the best film school in the world. It wasn’t easy studying there because, in the beginning, I didn’t know enough English, and, the tuition was so expensive. I worked twenty hours a day in so many jobs just to cover the tuition.

SH: When you began studying film, were you interested in Israeli films of the past?

JP: Not at all. Israeli films were lousy in those days. The big wave—the new period—started around twelve/fifteen years ago, around the time of my first feature, The Valley Train: Suddenly, with the [spreading] of film schools in Israel, the help of government funding, [the films got better]. But in my day, even though they were lousy, the films made a fortune: Israeli commercial TV—the one channel—was lousy, so everybody went to see films. So almost every film was pulling in hundreds and thousands of tickets, and the audience was flooding to the film theatres to see very bad quality films. In those days, [these bad films were nicknamed] Bourekas. Bourekas are a very special food which can be made in two minutes: just warmed and eaten straight. All those films in those days were called Boureka films, which means they were without any quality, good taste, effort, and were easy to swallow. But those days of low quality—lousy scripts, bad sound—are gone. These days all films go under a very thick machine—a selection process—and the scripts produced are very high quality.

SH: After NYU. did you go right back to Israel?

JP: Yes. I found a nice lady, an Israeli who was also studying in New York. We got married in New York, had a baby and went back home to Israel.

SH: What was it like making your first feature film, the semi-autobiographical Valley Train?

JP: It was very difficult because I produced it on my own. I didn’t get any funds. I went to my Kibbutz, which I had already left, and told them that I wanted to shoot my own story in the kibbutz where I grew up.

SH: Was the Kibbutz still operating at this time?

JP: Absolutely, but the whole kibbutz was mobilized for this film. I used non-professional actors that were kibbutz
members. (The only professional actor in the film was Dan Turgeman..) The kibbutz didn’t help me financially but they helped by giving me the locations. I remember I didn’t have money but somehow I managed to do it.

Jonathan Paz Filmography

1977-1975 (USA)
YOU ARE SO YOUNG, Drama, 30 min., (Won the Bronze medal in the Festival of the Americas, 1975)
NEXT TIME, YOU KNOW, 27 min., Drama,
TO ISRAEL WITH LOVE, 35min., documentary.
1977-1995 (ISRAEL)
Wrote, directed and produced dramatic and documentary films:
LET THEM HAVE A THEATRE, 30 min., A dramatic documentary - the Youth and Children’s Theater of Israel.
THE GEVATRON - A KIBBUTZ CHOIR, a dramatic documentary.
ISRAEL IN A STATE OF WAR. 30 min., documentary.
I LOVE ISRAEL, 30 min., documentary.
COME TO CURE IN ISRAEL, 27 min, documentary. The Psoriasis disease and its treatment in the Dead Sea.
ELCO, High Tech, promotion.
THEY WERE ALL WE HAD, 45 min, documentary. The Birth of the Israeli Air Force.in 1948.
THE MACHAL 82 min, English. WW2 pilots fighting for Israel in 1948.
WINGS OVER CALIFORNIA , 53 min., Documentary. The first flying course for the Israeli Air Force in Bakersfield, Ca, 1948.
1989 (ISRAEL)
THE VALLEY TRAIN , 90 min. feature film. (director, co-writer, producer)
1999 (ISRAEL)
ZAYA” 100 min. feature film.. (director, co-writer, co-producer)
2007 (ISRAEL)
THE GALILEE ESKIMOS, 100 min. feature film. (director, producer, co-writer)

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