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Jewish Journal

‘Watts Side Story’

[ Film ]


by Tom Tugend

March 5, 1998 | 7:00 pm

Michele Ohayon was nursing her 2-month-old babywhen the phone rang at 5:45 a.m. and the caller answered a silentprayer: Ohayon's film, "Colors Straight Up," had been nominated asone of five documentary features in contention for an AcademyAward.

The newly nominated director/producer immediatelyrelayed the good news to her parents, Elie and Perla Ohayon, inJerusalem.

At this point, if Michele Ohayon were shooting amovie of her own life, she would probably flash back to Casablanca,where she was born 38 years ago, and then to 1965, when her familyemigrated from Morocco to Israel.

Other flashbacks would show a 17-year-old in herfirst job as assistant editor with Israel Television; army service;and her first professional recognition, as a Tel Aviv Universitystudent, for her short film "Pressure," the love story of an Arab boyand a Jewish girl.

Cutting to the present, Ohayon sat down in a noisyHollywood coffee shop a few days ago to talk about the genesis of"Colors Straight Up."

It was 1992, and she had just spent four longyears directing and producing her first feature-length documentary,"It Was a Wonderful Life." The film explored the lives of homelesswomen who, through divorce, misfortune or personal failings, losttheir once seemingly secure middle-class status and were reduced toliving on the street.

When the Rodney King riots exploded that year,Ohayon was shaken by the general condemnation of the black teen-agerioters, and she decided to look for herself.

Driving from her home in the Hollywood Hills toSouth Central was like traveling from a First World country to aThird World enclave, Ohayon discovered. She also encountered anafter-school performing and visual arts program, called LivingLiterature/Colors United, at Jordan High School. Through the program,African-American and Latino teen-agers were finding an alternative toand refuge from the mean streets of drugs and gang shootings in dailyand weekend rehearsals under the tough-love discipline of a white anda black director.

Ohayon wasn't sure how "a white Jewish girl" fromHollywood would be received by the youngsters, and she charted outher campaign in her characteristically meticulous and time-demandingstyle.

For the first year, Ohayon, often accompanied byher preschool-age daughter, just attended rehearsals, talked to thestudents, shared their meals, and visited their homes andfamilies.

In the second year, she started mapping out thefilm, using only a video camera. Not until the third year did shebegin filming in earnest, focusing on the lives, sorrows and triumphsof six teen-agers.

Centerpiece of the film is the group's gradualevolution of the musical "Watts Side Story," based on "Romeo andJuliet," by way of "West Side Story" -- with the Crips and Bloodsreplacing the Montagues and Capulets and the Sharks and Jets.

Ohayon's camera films the bloody rivalries onstage and, with the same fidelity, records the real-life outside. Thelead actor, a talented Latino boy, is briefly arrested and jailed; agirl's mother tells of her street life as a crack addict; a familygrieves over a son killed in a gang shooting.

The end result is a 93-minute documentary ofunblinking and, at times, almost unbearable honesty, in which thecamera is somehow in the face and unobtrusive at the sametime.

"Colors Straight Up" has already garnered eightnational awards at various film festivals, but the creation didn'tcome easily.

Financing and fund raising were a constant worry,and, for six months, Ohayon recalls, "we couldn't view the dailyrushes, because we didn't have the money to develop the film."

Salvation came mainly through two grants from theCorporation for Public Broadcasting, totaling $175,000, and PBS willair the film nationwide on May 19. The total project cost came to$300,000 in cash and another $150,000 in donated equipment andservices.

The documentary's sensitive photography is thework of the respected Dutch cinematographer Theo Van de Sande("Assault," "Crossing Delancey," "Wayne's World"), who also happensto be Ohayon's husband.

Ohayon believes that she is the first Israeli tobe nominated for an "American" Academy Award, outside theforeign-film category, but there's no guarantee that she'll beclutching an Oscar at the March 23 ceremonies. Among her toughcompetitors are Spike Lee's "4 Little Girls," about the bloody daysof the civil rights struggle, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center's "TheLong Way Home," which chronicles the desperate attempts of Europe'sHolocaust survivors to reach the Jewish homeland.

But even the nomination by itself has alreadyraised her stock in Hollywood. "When I first came here in 1987, Ididn't realize how hard it would be to break into the industry," shesays. "As both a woman and a foreigner, it was even harder to beaccepted as a director.

"Now, however, with the nomination as a stamp ofapproval, it's getting easier. You have easier access. Where I mighthave been 10th on a list of possible directors for a project, now I'mclose to the top."

Ohayon says that she will no longer spend three tofour years, and go through the incessant rounds of fund raising, tomake a documentary, and she wouldn't mind a slightly more relaxedhome life either.

"Now, I have to fit my schedule around nursing mybaby every two to three hours, and, while I'm nursing, I use aheadset for making phone calls and read a script at the sametime."

Currently, Ohayon has lined up two possiblefeature-film deals with Paramount and MGM. Closer to her heart,though, is a project and script she has carried around for more than10 years; it's titled "Homeland."

"It's the story of the illegal Jewish immigrationfrom North Africa to Palestine, before Israel became a state, andwhich paralleled the Aliyah Bet effort from Europe," she says.

"It was just as dramatic as 'Exodus,' but nobodyknows about it. I've pitched the story to Jewish executives here, andthey had no idea that so many people from North Africa are living inIsrael."

Ohayon recalls that her own father was deeplyinvolved in bringing Jews from Morocco to Palestine, so, "in a sense,'Homeland' will be a fictionalized family story, a tribute to myparents."

In South Central, Ohayon (inset) encounteredLiving Literature/ Colors United, an after-school visual andperforming arts program.


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