The Women’s Balcony/Emil Ben-Shimon

A Jerusalem rabbi loses his mind when the women’s balcony in his synagogue collapses, sending his wife into a coma. His congregation, lacking a spiritual leader, is delighted when a charismatic ultra-Orthodox rabbi miraculously comes to their aid. Fashioning himself as their savior, he fascinates the men with his biblical tales, even as he puts more and more restrictions on the women. Lysistrata fashion, they rebel. Gently, sweetly, this comedy addresses one of the most potent problems of our time:  religious fundamentalism.  Availability: Opens May 26, New York City, Lincoln Plaza Cinema, Quad Cinema, with national rollout to follow. Click here for local listings and trailer.  Thanks to Isil Bagdadi-Sergio, CAVU Pictures, for arranging this e-mail interview. 


DT: The film depicts a very specific problem within a minority community in Israel, yet it’s doing very well all around the world. When you directed the film, did you intentionally focus on its more universal aspects? If so, how did you do that?

EBS: I did not think at all about how I would make the story universal. Generally, I believe that if you go deeper in a local depiction and keep it authentic, you have a better chance of having universal appeal. Sometimes I am more interested in the ways to tell a story than in the story itself. When I watch foreign films there are nuances that do not travel or get to me, but if the characters are full and human and the story is told in a fresh and interesting way, I’m happy with it.


DT: The film is also doing well in Israel, where there is a huge rift between the secular and ultra-Orthodox. Did you hit a nerve with this story?

EBS: Yes. The film was a huge success in Israel and sold more tickets than Titanic in its time. This is definitely a sign that it hit a nerve in Israeli society. The tension between Orthodox and secular or traditional often comes up on the surface, and it was important for me to transmit the message that no one has a monopoly on God. Many viewers asked me if I wasn’t scared to touch such a charged subject, and my answer is simple: making films is not for cowards.


DT: In Israeli film history, the Mizrahim [Jews from the Middle East] were often represented in boureka movies [silly comedies with stereotypical depictions]. Were you afraid of repeating that stereotype? Did you go out of your way to avoid it?

EBS: When you are doing a movie about simple Mizrahi characters, there is always a chance you will be tagged as a bourekas movie, and indeed there were a few reviewers that claimed wrongfully this is a bourekas film. That is why I was so glad to read the reviews from the US and Spain, where reviewers understood the film much better than the Israeli critics. For me the big challenge was to navigate between comedy and drama, to be comedic without turning ridiculous, and to be dramatic without being overly melodramatic, as it was done in bourekas films.


DT: Talk about the casting process. Many of your actors played against type; Orna Banai, whose character becomes very religious, is a famous comedian, while Aviv Alush, who plays the rabbi, is a teen heartthrob in Israel.

EBS: That is very true. Orna Banai is one of the greatest comedians in Israel. She appears every week in a satire show on TV and has a very clear agenda against the Orthodox. That is why I was very interested in taking her to play a part that is opposite her personal views and that is also very dramatic as opposed to her comedic persona. I think this stresses more the huge impact Rabbi David has on the community. I was amazed by the way she gave herself to the character and became her. I think the audience also loved seeing this opposite. Taking Aviv Alush to play a rabbi was also a great challenge, since he is indeed a teenage heartthrob. Also Yigal Naor who always plays hard characters (Sadam Hussein) had to get into the character of the mellow and good-hearted Zion. To cast against type can be dangerous, but when it works it pays off.


DT: Your composer, Ahuva Ozeri, is also very famous in Israel. Talk about her work on the film.

EBS: Ahuva Ozeri was a brilliant musician and a cultural hero to many in Israel. Together with Shaul Besser, her partner, we searched for music that will be minimalist but will lead the emotional core in the film. We worked for a very long time on the music because it was essential for me to find the punctuality and tenderness. It might also be that the work took so much time because I loved Ahuva and her personality. Very sadly Ahuva passed away as the film was released. I am positive that the film’s soundtrack will be played for many years forward and will be part of her tremendously important legacy.


 DT: Much of your cast had an extensive TV background, much like you.  Compared to American TV, Israeli TV is very sophisticated, but there’s still a transition from TV, even a TV film, to a film made for theatrical release.  Can you talk about transitioning from TV to film?

EBS: Starting at a young age I knew I wanted to make films for cinema, but circumstances led me to TV. For me reaching the big screen is a dream come true. In TV my creative freedom is very narrow, in cinema it’s different, you can create your vision in a more lucid way. So it was obvious to me that if this film will not succeed, I will be the first one to perform Harakiri! I think that subconsciously I wanted to cast actors who also would be transitioning for the first time from TV to film. Happily it was a successful passage for all of us.


DT: The role of women in religion is changing around the world. What do those changes mean in a country like Israel, and how are they reflected in your film?

EBS: A rabbi in a community has great powers and everyone is supposed to honor him. The fact that in this film we see women turning against the rabbi is not trivial at all. I think it created a discussion on where does the line between following a rabbi blindly and asking yourself questions go. One of the scenes I love most in the film is when the women gather to protest outside his yeshiva and his shock when he sees them.


DT: Is there anything you want to add?

EBS: The film has a good ending, which is almost euphoric, and I decided to go with it full ahead, out of my belief that it is a well-earned ending for this story, although I was afraid the audience will feel it is too sweet. Happily this didn’t happen, and it gave me an appetite to keep on telling stories for the big screen.


Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Tsili/Amos Gitai

A meditative, non-narrative tale of a young woman hiding in the forest of Czernovitz, Bukovina during the final months of World War II, Amos Gitai’s Tsili is based on the deeply disturbing novel Tzili The Story of a Life by survivor Aharon Appelfeld.  Gitai reinterprets the novel’s disaffected tone by splitting the character of Tsili among three actresses; he captures the novel’s neo-naif mood in Tsili’s animal-like existence as she scrabbles for roots and berries. Appelfeld once said to Gitai, “The reality of the Holocaust surpassed any imagination. If I remained true to the facts, no one would believe me.” Gitai’s film conjures such a primal feeling of horror that it is impossible not to believe. •Availability:  New York Jewish Film Festival.  Click here for a schedule.  Thanks to David Ninh, Film Society of Lincoln Center, and Anne Scher, The Jewish Museum, for arranging this interview.

DT:  In addition to directing Tsili, you also cowrote the screenplay with Marie-Jose Sanselme.  How would you describe the relationship between a film and the novel upon which it’s based?


AG:  It’s a Talmudic exercise of interpretation.  It’s not about illustrating.  You have a text, which is a book, and then you write a script.  Then this text has again to be reinterpreted and put into form.  That’s the beauty of this kind of cinema, not just mine, which is really about interpretation.  It’s not about execution. Most of cinema today is about execution because the producers want to know everything as precisely as possible in advance so they can make financial assessments and already estimate the income and so on.  I think this harms the procedure of interpretation, because while you know some things in advance, some of the deeper understanding comes along while you do the work.  It’s not really about improvisation, but you go layer by layer in a more profound way in order to understand the work while you do it.


DT:  Appelfeld wrote Tzili The Story of a Life in Hebrew, but you insisted on using Yiddish, even though that made it much more difficult for you to find actresses, since so few people speak Yiddish today. Why did you insist on Yiddish?


AG:  Because the original language of the Jews in the area of Czernovitz, Bukovina was Yiddish. So even if Appelfeld wrote the novel in Hebrew, the Jews didn’t speak Hebrew at the time.


DT:  For me, the tragedy of Tsili came at the end, with the footage of the children.  That signified looking forward, to how the Holocaust would affect things to come, as opposed to most other films, which look back at what the Holocaust destroyed.  Was that your intention?


AG:  Yes; that’s a fair assessment of what I was doing.


DT:  How closely did you work with Appelfeld?


AG:  I was very interested in understanding his point of view, but the work of filming is a lonely job.


DT:  You established a museum in Haifa to honor your father’s architectural achievements, and you yourself studied architecture before the Yom Kippur War.  Is there a relationship between your filmmaking and architecture?


AG:  Definitely.  When you study architecture, you learn a lot about form, and the meaning of form, and the way you can use form, both to improve housing but also as a symbolic gesture. Normally, I start by looking at sites before I even start casting actors.  I want to understand where I’ll be filming. I also like to know my sites quite a long time in advance to optimize them and see how I can move figures in these kinds of landscapes, both interior and exterior.


DT:  One of the things I find most potent about your filmography is that it captures the Jewish experience around the world—including the Jewish experience from the Arab point of view, as in Ana Arabia—but I don’t think of you as a Jewish filmmaker the way I think of Godard as a French filmmaker or Fellini as an Italian filmmaker.  Do you think of yourself as a Jewish filmmaker?


AG:  I don’t know what a Jewish filmmaker is, so I don’t know if I can answer you.  Jews have different interpretations of themselves, which is very often a subject of internal conflicts, because everybody interprets the meaning of being Jewish in a different way. You don’t have a Vatican, you don’t have a pope, you don’t have a central authority; it’s a very decentralized, kind of anarchic, structure.  That’s one of the things I like.   You can figure out yourself the meaning of being  a Jew.  Some people take it to very nationalistic directions.  Some people take it to very strict Orthodoxy, some people take it to more religious instruction and restrictions, like keeping kosher and following Shabbat. Some people take it more conceptually, so I think before I can answer your question, we have to discuss the meaning of being a Jew.


DT:  I don’t think we can do that in fifteen minutes. Tsili, like your films Ana Arabia and Kedma, is deeply meditative.  Do you see those films as distinct from some of your other films like Disengagment, or Kippur, or Kadosh?


AG:  They are different, both in form and narrative; they’re more a juxtaposition of situations than continuous narrative.  It’s a very minimalist phase, and I like it a lot. You’re carried by the film’s state of mind rather than by explicit words or narratives.


DT:  Is it a different way of working for you as a director?


AG:  It’s more a different construction.  The way I work with actors is not so different, although it’s not the same either.  It’s not following prescribed indication. When I give Sara Adler some indications in a film like Tsili, I feel completely free to tell her how she should relate to the landscape, to nature. It was the same when I asked Meshi to do this dance in the beginning.


DT:  I’ve been following your films ever since House and Field Diary because I think they’ll make a difference in the political situation in Israel.  Do you think so too, and is that what you’re hoping for with your cinema?


AG:  I think that we artists don’t have as much power as we think we have.  We don’t have any real power—we have only some symbolic power—but we have to start somewhere. At the same time, I don’t think that ideas are so weak.  I think that the planet is moved not only by greed and brutality and weapons but also ideas; religion and Marxism, like many other ideas, have moved the planet quite a lot.  I believe in ideas, and I think that we have to inject ideas into reality and hope that doing so will have some impact.  It doesn’t have, and it shouldn’t have, a kind of immediate “OK, I got out of the movie. Let’s make a revolution”—I think that would be oversimplified—but if you increase the level of understanding, I think that’s pretty good.

In some way it’s also associated with your previous question about architecture.  We are very much bombarded these days by architectural spectacle.  Famous architects make this very vain architecture, which is just a formal gesture. I think we have a similar problem in cinema, so we have to try to reinject meaning into form. Architecture and cinema are similar; when you have only form, it’s empty of meaning.  When you  have only ideological indoctrination without form, it also defies its meaning, so we have to try to have a dialogue between form and narrative and try to reinvent it.

I really like something Jeanne Moreau once told me.  She said that when she decides to do a new project, it’s because she can learn something she doesn’t know already.  I see a lot of actors who basically want to give you the number you’ve already seen.  I’m not interested in that.  When I decide to make a film, it’s because I want the film to teach me something.  That’s a fascinating road. It’s stimulating. When I will learn nothing more, I will stop making films.


Copyright © Director Talk 2015