The "woman business" is a heck of a lot like the horse business, says rancher-turned-matchmaker Ivan Thompson. You've got to treat them right to ensure obedience.
The politically incorrect but charismatic Thompson is the star of "Cowboy Del Amor," the latest documentary by acclaimed Israeli filmmaker Michele Ohayon, which opens today at the Nuart Theatre. With cinematic tongue planted firmly in check, she profiles this self-professed "cowboy cupid" as he lassos Mexican brides for older gringos who find American women too demanding.
It all began when the rancher sought his third (and now ex) wife from Mexico because he "couldn't get to Afghanistan," he says in the film. But she got "too Americanized" after being allowed her own car and cellphone.
"Pretty soon, she was the boss of the house -- of my business, and that only left me the pissants and the tumbleweeds," he laments.
So the horseman dumped wife No. 3 and in 1989, placed a personal ad in a remote Mexican town where he hoped the women might be tamer. He received 80 responses and realized he could rustle himself up a new career.
Filmmaker Ohayon's career previously highlighted serious (and politically correct) subjects, such as oppressed Palestinians and homeless women. She won a 1997 Oscar nomination for "Colors Straight Up," her profile of urban youth in the aftermath of the L.A. riots.
So why did she choose to profile the less-than-enlightened Thompson?
"I've always regarded this film as an exercise in tolerance, my own and others'," she said in her Hollywood Hills home, which is decorated with modern art and Moroccan Jewish crafts. Sure, she said she wanted to "smack" Thompson for his sexist remarks, but she also found him to be honest, endearing and dedicated to his work peddling marriage.
"I hoped to show that if you disagree with someone, you don't have to hate them," she said. "Human beings are complex, and what I love to do in all my films is to break stereotypes, to show all sides of a story."
Ohayon, now in her early 40s, learned that lesson early. In 1965, 5-year-old Michele watched Arab extremists torch her father's Casablanca bookstore, the front for his illegal operation smuggling Moroccan Jews to Israel. In the family flat across the street, her parents barricaded the door as the mob searched the shop's basement and discovered forbidden documents.
When the thugs came for the Ohayons, their Arab concierge pretended they no longer lived in the building. As the family fled to Israel that night, Michele noted that not all Arabs hate Jews. She made that point on camera in 1984 with her controversial Israeli feature, "Pressure," about a doomed Jewish-Palestinian romance.
While working on a documentary about Palestinian artist Kamal Boulata that same year, she "clicked" with her future husband, Dutch Catholic cinematographer Theo Van de Sande, as Israeli soldiers held them at gunpoint under a military watchtower in Ramallah. When the officers demanded that they hand over their footage, Ohayon and Van de Sande exchanged a meaningful glance. The cinematographer calmly gave the soldiers footage of children playing that he had previously shot, per Ohayon's instructions, to deceive them about the true content of the film.
Although she barely knew Van de Sande, she promptly gave up her budding career to live with him in Amsterdam, where she could not work or speak the language.
"I was this really tough, straightforward Israeli, and the Dutch are all but that, so Theo would get really hurt, and I'd have to learn to tone it down," she said. Her experience led her to strongly identify with the Mexican women in "Cowboy" who impulsively abandon their culture for love.
She and Van de Sande solved their early problems, in part, by moving to the neutral turf of Los Angeles in 1987. Ohayon immediately began searching for a film project and found it upon reading an article on a relatively unknown subgroup of the homeless population: formerly affluent women ravaged by illness or divorce. Her ensuing documentary, "It Was a Wonderful Life," is both intimate and searing. The same personal approach will grace her upcoming documentary, "Steal a Pencil for Me," an unusual Holocaust story.
"Many filmmakers tend to be observational and removed, but Michele draws you into the hearts and minds of her subjects," said Betsy A. McLane, author of 2005's "A New History of Documentary Film." "It makes sense that several of her documentaries have been optioned as feature films. In a way, she's like a novelist, because she takes the time to select and develop her characters."
Ohayon recognized another great character in Thompson when she first heard him speak on National Public Radio several years ago.
"He embodied the classic comic theme of a matchmaker who can't manage his own love life," she said with a laugh.
Eager to tackle lighter fare after her previous documentaries, she contacted Thompson and arranged to meet him in Texas with her digital camera in tow (later Van de Sande came aboard as cinematographer). There, the cowboy introduced her to Rick, 48, a truck driver seeking true love in a demure package.
Ohayon followed the men as they walked across the border; endured a bumpy, 11-hour ride to Torreon; placed an ad in the local newspaper; and screened prospects who called their shabby motel room (anyone heavier than 120 pounds was out).
Although critics praised the film on the festival circuit, Thompson's matchmaking techniques sparked some debate.
"The success of the arrangement seems to depend less on true love and more on the women being skinny, attractive and content to be regularly intimate with an older American male of questionable virtue," efilmcritic.com said.
Ohayon, too, was initially skeptical of Thompson's tactics and said she often lashed out at his sexist remarks. But then she noted how carefully he screened his male clients. And that he found women -- many of them middle class -- who wanted to marry Americans for their perceived loyalty, not to obtain green cards. She saw Rick and Francis fall in love and filmed two weddings on camera.
Eventually, Ohayon developed great affection for Thompson and even grew to appreciate his horse analogy: "When you understand how much he loves horses, you see that's the biggest compliment in the world."
The film opens Feb. 10 at the Nuart in Los Angeles. Ohayon and Van de Sande will conduct Q-and-As Feb. 10-12 after the 5:10 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. screenings.