April 22, 2004
Filmmakers Bring Maturity to Cinema
Israeli filmmaker Shemi Zarhin is a gourmet cook and baker, whose diet-defying cakes, especially, soothe the vilest temper.
"I cook Sephardic style, Ashkenazi and Japanese," Zarhin said in a phone call from Tel Aviv. "Next time you're in Israel, come by and I'll show you."
Not by chance, the 16-year-old title character of his film, "Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi," cooks up a storm. Besides the family meals, he also does the laundry, cleans up, tries to make peace among the shouting family members and bathes his French-speaking grandfather, who greets him every morning with the film's title.
Shlomi of the film, played with absolute veracity by Oshri Cohen, is not exactly Shemi, its director and writer, but they are at least closely related. Both of their families originally came from Morocco and Tangiers and grew up with the mindset that they were part of Israel's underclass.
"I was born in Tiberias, which could be a very beautiful town, but the reality was hard, there were lots of unemployed," Zarhin recalled. "My family arrived in Palestine 200 to 300 years ago. The Ashkenazim were here only 100 years, but they were the upper class."
Shlomi keeps the family going, but is considered none too bright. He is flunking out in school and with the girls. When he suggests to a classmate that they "upgrade" their relationship -- a wonderful Hebrew slang term introduced by Zarhin and equivalent to having sex -- the girl "freezes" him out.
Zarhin, now 42, did not detail his own childhood, but, he said with emotion, "I was miserable. Childhood is a waste of time."
Perhaps as an escape, "making films was my dream from the beginning," he said. "But it was not easy to get the money and to leave for a big city like Tel Aviv."
However, he graduated from the film school at Tel Aviv University, taught there and is now on the faculty of the Sam Spiegel Film and Television College in Jerusalem.
He started out making TV commercials, and nine years ago he wrote and directed his first film feature, "Passover Fever," which did very well in Israel and foreign film festivals. Zarhin followed up with the thriller "Dangerous Acts," and "Bonjour" is his third feature.
The main problem with "Bonjour's" Shlomi, who turns out to be a remarkably gifted youngster, is not just that people consider him stupid, but that he has internalized that evaluation himself.
"The contrast between a person's outer image and his inner truth has always interested me," Zarhin said. "It takes two outsiders to open Shlomi's eyes to who he really is."
"Bonjour" is considerably more cheerful and wide-ranging than just a dissection of adolescent angst. For one, it represents a slice of Israeli life unfamiliar to most Ashkenazim, here or in Israel.
For another, the film has considerable humor and some nongraphic sex, though the language, even in subtitles, is quite vigorous.
"Someone told me that I had made a comedy with tears," Zarhin said.
The producer of "Bonjour" is Eitan Evan, who will be honored on opening night with the Israeli Film Festival's Cinematic Award.
Described as "a major force in the Israeli film industry for the last 25 years," Evan produced two of Israel's best-loved movies, "The Summer of Avia" and "Under the Domin Tree," both with Gila Almagor.
Evan, an old friend of director Zarhin, recalled in a phone call from his home in Herzliyah that "Bonjour" came together so smoothly and quickly, "It seemed to have a life of its own."
"Shemi, who had written 'Bonjour' in five days, showed it to me, though he wasn't sure whether it would be film or a novel," Evan said. Funding was guaranteed almost immediately, itself a minor miracle, and the film wrapped in four months, about one-third the normal timeline in Israel.
One reason for the quick turnaround was that the project generated an early buzz, so actors vied for auditions. Another reason, said Evan, was that "Shemi and I work so well together, we can read each other's thoughts."
Evan, the son of Hungarian immigrants, took a degree in economics at the Hebrew University and then went to England for further study.
"There someone gave me camera and I was hooked," he said. "I decided on a career transfer, went to film school in England, returned to Israel and first worked on two American films being shot in Israel."
Evan formed his own company in 1977 and has since produced such titles as "Wooden Gun," "Clean Sweep," "On the Edge," "Family Secret" and "Dangerous Acts."
In the early '90s, he was the Israeli producer for two American TV films, "Held Hostage" and "Charlton Heston Presents the Bible."
Evan, an upbeat kind of person, is optimistic about the current and future state of Israeli films and their greater acceptance in the United States.
"Our films are becoming more mature, we have better production values, and we're getting a new crop of talented young directors," he said.
Film festival viewers will see a more urban aspect of Israeli life in Amos Gitai's "Alila," set in a rundown Tel Aviv neighborhood, bordering Jaffa.
Gitai has populated a shabby apartment building with a dozen characters who battle each other and their surroundings for survival and small share of happiness.
As Israelis of diverse backgrounds, they naturally fight and stick their noses in each other's business, but when the chips are down they pitch in and come to their neighbor's aid.
"Alila" is Gitai's 30th film feature or documentary in as many years, which include, most recently, "Kedma," "Eden," "Kippur" and "Kadosh."
At 53, Gitai is arguably the most controversial of Israeli filmmakers, who insists on pressing his countrymen's most sensitive nerves. As a British journalist put it, "Gitai is a director with a mission to tell the country of his birth the truth about its intolerance, its insecurities and its willingness to bowdlerize its own recent history."
In an interview with The Journal a couple of years ago, Gitai accepted the description, adding, "I have great compassion and passion for Israel, but I want it to remain as human as possible. I will never legitimize what Israelis may do wrong, just because I belong to them."
In the strife-ridden Middle East, Gitai sees movies as a possible bridge between Arabs and Jews.
"To me, cinema is not just a commodity to be sold like hamburgers, but it represents a form of dialogue," he said. "Beneath the surface, there is already an undercurrent of cultural dialogue in the Middle East.
"For instance, Israeli music is affected by Arab music," he continued. "When the time comes for a real peace agreement, it can't be just a piece of paper. There must be, at the same time, a cultural dialogue."