Tuesday, June 21, 2011

An Interview with Helena Yaralova, co-star of Five Hours from Paris

(above:) Helena Yaralova in Five Hours from Paris

The Russian Film Festival
The Toronto Jewish Film Festival

Director Leonid Prudovsky’s Five Hours from Paris (2009) is a poignant love story about a divorced cab driver, Yigal, who meets Lina, a music teacher and married woman on the brink of leaving Israel to join her husband in Canada. Neither is looking for romance, but somehow they find themselves drawn to each other, and their conventional lives are radically transformed. As Lina, Russian-Israeli actor Helena Yaralova gives a nuanced but mesmerizing performance.

Helena Yaralova
was born in 1964 in Kiev, into a doctor’s family.

As a child and adolescent, she enjoyed dancing and figure skating, which blossomed into a career beginning in 1987 at the Moscow Sovremennik Theatre.

She immigrated to Israel in 1993.

As an actress, singer and one of the organizers and founders of the Malenki (Russian for “small”) Theatre, she was nominated for the Abraham Ben Yosef Award for Excellence in the Performing Arts.

In Israel, Helena Yaralova dedicated more than 13 years to the Yiddishspiel Theater, and also appeared in films such as
Kedma (2002) by the well-known Israeli director Amos Gitai. She is also the host of the TV program, Female Territory, on the Russian-Israeli channel Israel Plus.

In October 2009, she was in a serious car accident and was severely injured; however, in 2010 she was back to work, performing on stage and in the cinema.

You were in Leonid Prudovsky's short film,
Next Year in Toronto (2007), in which you play a similar role to the one you play in his feature film, Five Hours from Paris. How much were you involved in the development of the character you were to play in Five Hours from Paris?

With Next Year in Toronto, Leonid Prudovsky was training before the big jump. When making this short movie, he was thinking about the character and where he could go with it. The role of the main heroine in Five Hours from Paris was written specifically for me.

When I decided to act in this movie, I wanted to choose my co-star myself. I only wanted to do the movie with Dror Keren because there is a very strong chemistry between us. I knew that with another actor the movie would have been a simple love story, without the passion Dror and I could bring to the scenario of a married Russian woman meeting and feeling a spark with an Israeli guy. I wanted to bring the expression to a higher level—a meeting of cultures and true love. Leonid and a scriptwriter told me that they knew everything about [the male character]. Well, as it was written by men, we initially didn’t have a clue about her. And so I understood that the responsibility for this character rested solely with me. I needed to show the audience that she’s not a simple woman or a simple pianist, but that she’s something much greater……And it seems to me that I succeeded. I love this movie and this image [of her]. I would also like to say that Dror was amazing.

(above:) Yaralova with Dror Keren in Five Hours from Paris

You have made several films with Leonid Prudovsky [Five Hours from Paris, Next Year in Toronto and Dark Night (2005)]. Can you talk about the working relationship that you have developed with him?

When I first received the script for [the short film] Dark Night, I refused the role. I didn’t want to play a Palestinian: this was not me. But Leonid rewrote the script a few times and came to me again and again. In my own mind, I had already decided that I would do the film, although I kept insisting that I did not want to do it. Then one day, Leonid came to my apartment and was talking, explaining, convincing… I was listening to him and thinking, he is so young, so persistent, meticulous in his work and so obstinate. And finally I agreed, surprising even myself. After he left, I got upset as I asked myself, why did I agree? But it was done and I couldn’t change anything. Today, Dark Night is my favourite movie. When we finished working on this project, Leonid asked me if I would like to work with him again in the future. And I answered: Lenechka, in any project, always.

Could you talk about your experience working with Amos Gitai on Kedma

Amos Gitai is very different. He has a special approach to filming. He likes to make spur-of-the-moment changes on the set, which at first, had actors in disbelief and shock. He has his own order of doing things, which to others, appears to be a big mess. From him, I learned that you must always be true to yourself and defend your beliefs, but that you must also respect others and their opinions. I am a very freedom-loving person, but I understood, that when he demanded something from me, I would have thirty seconds to hear his command, [process it] and act.

And thanks to him, I have already experienced the red carpet, thousands of spectators and a luxury hotel at the Cannes Film Festival – the dream of every movie actor.

(above:) Yaralova in Amos Gitai's Kedma

Can you talk about your training and experience at the Moscow Art Theatre?

I went to school at the Moscow Art Theatre studio, and after my graduation, worked at the Sovremennik Theatre. This theatre is one of the five best among numerous Moscow theatres. That’s where I gained the classical old school experience—that’s where the Stanislavsky system was born and developed. It was conceived as a venue for naturalistic theatre. That’s where everything began. By the way, Habima (one of the best Israeli theatres) started from The Moscow Art Theatre. Study is a process, and without a structured educational process there are no positive results.

What made you move to Israel?

During the time I worked in Moscow at the prestigious theatre, I became a movie actress and had a baby. Everything was fine, except for my marriage. I got divorced, and knew that I needed to find my purpose in life. There was no Zionist motivation. I was an only child and pretty naïve. However, the moment had come for me to make a decision. My grandmother and aunt had already moved to Israel by that time. This was around 1993. People were able to travel to Israel as tourists, but they would come back and say, it’s impossible to live there—it’s a spa à Shangri-la. I decided to visit this country with my child, as a tourist, just for two weeks. From the very first day, it appeared to me that there were disadvantages and advantages to living in Israel. I came back home, filed the application and… The funny fact is that I was right about both the advantages and disadvantages which were waiting for me.

Can you talk about how you were able to adapt to Israeli culture, and Hebrew?

There one thing I realized about Israel – either you accept this country the way it is, or you don’t. [The country] mirrors your attitude and if you accept Israel, it will accept you as well.

The same thing with the language. At first, it seemed that all my efforts disappeared like water in the sand. For example, when a house is being built, one starts with digging a hole and then the foundation is poured before the house is actually built. And so when I thought that everything was disappearing in the sand, I soon realized that I was building a base. When I heard Hebrew and its intonation, I found it to be very logical. There is a lot more to this language than meets the eye, in terms of speaking and understanding. I love languages - Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew, all languages. Every language has its own philosophy. “Ya" (the Russian word for “you”) begins with the last letter of the Russian alphabet. In Hebrew, the word “Ani” (the Hebrew word for “I”) starts with the first letter of the alphabet. Here is the difference between Russian and Hebrew cultures. In Russian culture, there is no respect for the individual, and the letter in the alphabet expresses it. In Hebrew, on the other hand, the person gets respected; it is more positive and it is reflected in this letter as well.

Can you talk about the type of training that you received during your years at the Yiddishspiel Theatre?

I was very lucky to find myself working in this theatre. My Dad and Grandmother spoke Yiddish, but we didn’t use it at home. I was born in Kiev and didn’t want to speak Yiddish, as I didn’t want to seem different among typical Russian girls.

For the past 13 years, I have worked on learning Yiddish. It is an amazing language which has so many words that define happiness and misfortune. It is similar to the words used by [Inuit] people to define snow. They are not just words, there is depth in their meaning.

I acted in many plays in this theatre but one day I woke up and knew that I needed to do something new for my soul. [So in 1997], my ex- husband, Michael Teplizki, and I decided to create a new theatre: the Malenki Theatre. Today this is a well-known theatre, which has received various prizes from the Israeli academy.

Do you find that you still get typecast in Russian-speaking roles?

What roles should I play? This is the reality: I play Russian characters. I cannot play a pure Israeli woman: Why should a director cast me for that, when there are so many remarkable Hebrew-speaking actresses? Once I was asked to audition for the role of a typical Sabra from Jerusalem. But the people who were born in Jerusalem speak differently than people from Tel-Aviv. I wasn’t accepted for this movie. But I was cast for a different film, where the director decided to change the character from the Sabra Yael to the Russian Elena. I can work on my accent every day and get the perfect “r” and “het”—but what for? I prefer to stay with my Russian-speaking roles because again, I have a right to choose what I want to do.

(above:) Yaralova in a production of the Malenki Theatre

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

An Interview with Eytan Fox, director of Mary Lou

Toronto Jewish Film Festival

Eytan Fox's musical miniseries, Mary Lou

Mary Lou is the most recent film by acclaimed Israeli director Eytan Fox (Yossi and Jagger, Walk On Water, The Bubble, and the television series Florentine).

TJFF Programmer Allen Braude spoke with Eytan Fox about experience directing Mary Lou.

Allen Braude: Let me begin by congratulating you on Mary Lou. I find it to be fun and entertaining but also very moving with emotional depth. What inspired you to make this film and why did you choose to tell the story in four parts?

Eytan Fox: Thank you. To tell you the truth, this was one of the only projects that I’ve directed that I didn’t really initiate, it wasn’t my idea. I was approached by a cable television channel in Israel called HOT. They contacted me and said they wanted to do a musical miniseries, which is a format that is not done often. Today there are musical television series such as Glee, but a miniseries that is a musical is currently not very popular. HOT is a channel that produces a lot of miniseries. They obtained the rights to all the music of this Israeli pop icon named Svika Pick, and wanted to take these Israeli pop songs and create a story around them, like Mamma Mia does with Abba’s music or like other contemporary musicals. Their aim was to produce the most entertaining and meaningful project or film, based around Svika Pick’s songs. So they brought me into the project, which was already in development with an amazing woman named Shiri Artzi, who wrote the story. We clearly fell in love (laughs) and we worked on this together and created something we are very proud of. And now Mary Lou is starting to leave Israel and travel the world, and I’m very happy that it is reaching all sorts of places I didn’t expect it to reach.

AB: When I watched Mary Lou, I was not familiar with Svika Pick’s music but I enjoyed the songs very much. How important is Svika Pick to Israelis?

EF: I’m trying to think of who the North American equivalent would be, I’m mean aside from the fact that he looks like Ozzy Osbourne (you can see him in a cameo role in Mary Lou), but that’s not the comparison to Svika Pick I want to make. I’ll tell you that my first slow dance—in what was the seventh grade or something—with a girl, was to a Svika Pick song. For anyone who grew up in Israel in the 1970’s or 1980’s, his music is part of their score, part of their growing up score, part of their life score. And like Abba for that matter, he keeps having a comeback every few years. The last three years he’s been a judge on Israeli idol—that’s a big comeback—and an earlier comeback back was in 2002 when the National Theatre of Israel put on a theatrical stage musical which featured Svika Pick songs, and I went to see it. Everyone was very upset, saying how could the Israeli National Theatre Company—the theatre of Shakespeare and Chekhov—put on a musical based on pop songs, no matter whose music they were using. But it was a very big success, it was the theatre’s biggest commercial success. So the Israeli channel HOT saw the success and wanted to show it on television. However, while they were inspired by its success, they really didn’t like the play itself. It was the silliest play you can imagine. So, instead of filming the play, they obtained the rights to the songs and decided to create a new project. I’m happy that they decided that it would not just be something light and fun; so we had a chance to take these songs and create a story that has intelligence and something to say about serious issues, that has depth and multi-layered characters and discussions about sexuality. Mary Lou looks at attitudes towards transsexuals, sexuality between friends, bisexuality, leaving your hometown as a boy and coming back as a woman, and then coming out to your father—all this very serious stuff. I’m glad we had the opportunity to do this and to turn it into something that is more than just an entertaining commercial musical. You know Svika Pick is an artist who has very commercially successful songs, and it is great that he is so supportive of this project and that he let us use his music to discuss all these issues.

Whenever I make a film and take it abroad, I’m nervous about how it will do, how people will react. Will people appreciate that I am trying to tell a different story? Will people like the characters I’ve created, and will they understand the situations I am trying to talk about and the subtleties in the work? And with Mary Lou you add an extra layer—all these Israeli songs that people abroad aren’t likely to know—so it’s frightening to present it. I recently presented the film in Paris at the Forum des Images as part of a festival of television work, and we had a very good screening of all four episodes. It was in a big cinema, over 500 people, and it was a beautiful day in Paris but people chose to spend three hours in the theatre to see it and it was full. The audience really understood it and appreciated how the songs were used and enjoyed the variety of song styles. Everyone had a wonderful time and the audience enjoyed it tremendously, so I hope it will have the same success in Toronto.

AB: How did you cast your lead actors? Did they do their own singing?

EF: Yes, the lead actors did their own singing. I’m very proud of them because you have examples of good actors who are not able to sing well—for example Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia—and you also have examples of actors not singing themselves such as of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and Natalie Wood in West Side Story; in these cases other women did the vocals as the actresses did not have great singing voices, which worked wonderfully.

In our case, all of the young actors are people who have good voices. When we were casting it was very important that they could sing, not Broadway calibre singing, not super-professional voices, but that they could carry a tune and do it well. I was looking for actors who were able to take on a character and were comfortable and believable when they start singing—because it’s fun, because it is part of what’s happening—and comfortable to join others who are singing and dancing. It is the same with the dancing. We were not looking for super-professional dancing from the actors, but more than what I would call ‘walking dancing’. We wanted the characters to show they could join the people dancing and do it well for that matter. We wanted the audience to be able to relate to and be inspired by the singing and dancing, not just the lesbian and gay community, but a wide audience so that even shy boys would want to move their feet.

Ido Rosenberg as Meir/Mary Lou

Secondly, when casting the lead actors, I was looking for very young people, not teenagers, but actors in their early 20s who look young. We found these wonderful young actors working in Tel Aviv, and talked to them about being involved and committing themselves to the project and putting their hearts, souls and bodies into the work. For example, the actor who plays Gabriel, he’s a very handsome young man and he’s gay. And he made a point out of coming out to me. You know I’m an advocate for people coming out—actors and public figures coming out—but I said to him, are you sure about this? This is your first big role, and maybe you should wait a bit. No, he said, this is who I am and I’m tired of lying and pretending I’m someone who I’m not. I’m proud of whom I am. This is a person who grew up on a kibbutz in a macho environment with a tough father and who served in the army, who did all these tough things and now is singing and dancing and is an out gay youth. I’ve very happy for him and proud of him.

AB: That shows how times have changed, how people are less worried about the impact on their careers and are more interested in living as the person they want to be.

EF: Yes you’re right, and in Israel especially. I’ve been coming for many years to film festivals in North America, Jewish Film Festivals, Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals, International Film Festivals. One of my first tours of these festivals was with my first television series, Florentine. That was the television series that portrayed the first gay love story between two men on Israeli television, it showed the first gay kiss, and a lot of other taboos were dealt with or broken in that series. And back then it was a really ground breaking. Now after many years, maybe I’m pushing the envelope a little further, using Svika Pick songs which are very straight—well not exactly straight, but well-known by everyone in Israel and loved by many—and I’m bring them to a world that is, maybe, a little more difficult for a large audiences. I remember coming to all these Jewish film festivals and Gay and Lesbian film festivals with Florentine, and people were surprised and said, you mean you are able to show this on Israeli television? And I remember that at that time it was a difficult thing to do. But today is different, and I think that I was part of the whole change with my films and my television work. Now it is much easier for me, my generation and young people in Israel to make these kinds of films: they’re appreciated, they’re loved, and the actors who are gay can come out and it doesn’t necessarily harm their career. We have many openly gay artists in Israel—men and women who are out and still very popular.

Eytan Fox (middle) with the cast of The Bubble (2006)

AB: Mary Lou is not as political as your last film (The Bubble) but still addresses important social issues such as homophobic bullying in high schools. How serious is this issue in Israel?

EF: First of all, I think almost everything has a political side. So you do have these political subtexts in Mary Lou, such as the one boy (Meir) who decides not to go into the army, which is very unusual in Israel, and then becomes a drag performer in Tel Aviv. And then you have the other boy (Gabriel) who does the traditional thing and becomes a paratrooper in the Israeli army and then they have this conversation where Gabi, the soldier, refers to the dress that Meir, the drag queen, is wearing, and asks him, do you usually wear this costume? And Meir answers, do you always wear this costume, referring to his army uniform, which is a very radical statement, because no one in Israel thinks of the army uniforms as costumes. Being in the army is something which is very much part of the whole nature of who Israelis are, and the uniform is like our skin, you know this is our traditional role, and the uniform is not a costume. In Mary Lou, I try present to present an equation where both the uniform and the dress are costumes: they are choices made by people about what to wear and who to be. So that’s one political thing that the series does.

Secondly, Israel, like many countries, has a growing acceptance of gay and lesbian people, and gay and lesbian culture and so on. However, like many other places with such strong acceptance, we still have problems which includes being gay and out in high school. While we were shooting Mary Lou, we had this terrible incident of this young man walking into the Gay and Lesbian Youth Centre in Tel Aviv and shooting and killing 3 youths and wounding others. The centre was a relatively popular place and we started getting all these phone calls on set because everyone was trying to figure out who was there and who wasn’t there, who’s safe and who’s not safe. This was an unfortunate reminder that what we were doing was relevant and how important it was to tell this story. You think you are living in a liberal and open-minded place, but when you have this kind of tragedy, you realize that you have to continue making these kind of films and shows, and that you must be vigilant and not let your guard down.

AB: Can you tell us a little bit about your next project?

EF: Well, I’m having a very busy year: I’m shooting two feature-length films, which doesn’t happen often in Israel, which has a very small industry. Right now I’m finishing shooting on a very small independent film, which is somewhat of a sequel to Yossi and Jagger. It’s 10 years later and it features just Yossi, who’s still mourning his lover and the film tries to understand what happened to him, how he changed, how Israel has changed, and how he tries to deal with his post-traumatic personality. So that’s the film I’m shooting as we speak. It’s very intense, it’s a very small film that I have a very strong urge to make. And then later on in August, I’m shooting a completely different film—a feel-good, happy film about a group of women who form a pop group. They are different ages—the oldest is 55 and the youngest is 22—and they have been chosen to represent Israel in the Eurovision song contest. So I’m very happy about that. And I’m really happy that Mary Lou is going around the world and that film festivals, such as the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, are showing it.