February 22, 2007
IFF: One Israeli’s ‘War Within’
Shemi Zarhin, the director and writer of "Aviva, My Love," seems unfazed by missing a shot at the Oscar.
The film, a huge box office and critical success, tied in the Israel academy balloting with "Sweet Mud," a fairly downbeat coming-of-age story set in a kibbutz. In a tie-breaking vote, "Sweet Mud" won by a nose.
"I know it's the dream of many directors to get noticed in America, but I make my films for my people," he said during a phone call from his home in Tel Aviv.
"I usually tell stories about the people I know, people like myself, not about computer animation or exploding cars."
His people are the "provincials" of Tiberias, where Zarhin was born and where his family, of mixed North African and European descent, has lived for 200 years. And his film is naturally set in Tiberias, where the struggling title character hopes to realize her dream of becoming a writer.
"Aviva" will be the Israel Film Festival's opening attraction on March 7 at Mann's Chinese Theater. The film [was a huge commercial success by Israeli standards and] garnered five Ophirs, the Israeli Oscars, for best director, screenplay, actress, supporting actress and editing. Its inclusion in the upcoming festival is a felicitous choice that confirms the growing quality and maturity of the country's movie industry.
American audiences, in particular, will welcome a film that depicts Israelis as three-dimensional human beings, with strengths and weaknesses, rather than the array of no-goodnicks favored by many Israeli directors harshly critical of their own society.
Aviva (Asi Levi) is a 40-something woman who works as a hotel cook in the historic and economically depressed city of Tiberias, but who has the eye and soul of a writer.
Every spare minute -- off and even on the job -- Aviva scribbles down her observations, reactions and fantasies to both interpret and escape her problems at home.
There, everybody leans on Aviva, emotionally and financially. Her husband, Moni (Dror Keren), is out of a job and mopes around the house. Her pretty younger sister, Anita (Rotem Abuhab), is trying to break into television but is mainly obsessed with futile attempts to become pregnant.
Daughter Oshnat (Dana Ivgy) is bored, snappish and about to go into the army. Son Alon (Itay Turgeman) at 16 broods about erectile dysfunction and needs therapy.
When Aviva visits her nearby parents, she finds her father endlessly cutting and pasting food recipes and her bizarre mother in and out of halfway institutions.
Yet, amid all these responsibilities and distractions, Aviva keeps writing. Her hopes are buoyed by Oded (Sasson Gabai), a writing teacher and novelist, who wrote a best-seller 10 years ago and has been wrestling with writer's block ever since.
Finally, Oded makes Aviva an unusual offer. Since no one will publish the work of an unknown, he proposes to buy Aviva's stories for a generous sum, but publish them under his own name.
How Aviva and the various family members deal with this sellout is the psychological and dramatic crux of this intriguing film.
"Aviva may look strong from the outside, but she is the weakest because she doesn't believe in herself and her talent, she doesn't love herself," Zarhin said.
When he was 22, Zarhin left Tiberias to study at the Tel Aviv University film school. "That was the biggest change I ever experienced," he recalled. "They have a different kind of life in Tel Aviv."
After starting out in television and as a film critic, he broke into feature films. His greatest previous success was "Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomo" in 2003, which won some 20 prizes in film festivals around the world.
"The main theme of my movies is the gap between the outside of a person and what goes on inside," he added. "That's not always straightforward -- ambiguity is the hardest thing to represent."
Zarhin attributes the popularity of "Aviva" in Israel to "reflecting the everyday concerns of people."
Those concerns focus less on the headline crises of nuclear threats or suicide bombings, and more on "the war within," as Zarhin put it.
"We live in a grotesque kind of capitalist country in which the gap between the rich and the poor keeps widening; unemployment is high, especially in places like Tiberias, and schools are deteriorating."
Zarhin freely acknowledges that most of Israel's film directors and writers, including himself, are on the left side of the political spectrum.
To the country's credit, the government film fund, which underwrites most movie production costs, imposes no political correctness tests.
Nor are right-wing politicians and voters outraged by the harshly critical views of Israeli society frequently expressed by filmmakers.
In the title role, Tel Aviv-born Asi Levi won the Israel Academy's top honor for her complex and moving performance. Levi describes herself as basically a singer, who has just come out with an album of "listener-friendly" rock and roll.
She recalled growing up in a home where her father was an Egged bus driver by day who played sax and did Louis Armstrong imitations by night.
Levi broke into television in 1995, followed up with a one-woman stage show, and was nominated as Europe's top actress for her role in the 2004 film, "Avanim" ("Stones"), playing a religiously raised woman who moves into the secular world.
The top-grossing movies in Israel are normally American imports, but last year, she pointed out proudly, the two films drawing the largest audiences were "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Aviva."
"The difference was that 'Pirates' had a budget of about $150 million, and ours was $1.5 million," Levi said.