Filmmaker Arik Kaplun saw babies everywhere when he moved back to Israel nine months after the Persian Gulf War. "It was a demographic explosion," says the Moscow-born director, who did the math and figured there'd been nooky in the sealed rooms. "I assumed that quite a lot of people had had that experience."
The assumption led to a romantic comedy, "Yana's Friends," possibly the only mainstream movie in film history to show people having sex while wearing gas masks. Set during the 1991 aliyah of 1 million Russians to Israel, the story revolves around a pregnant émigré, abandoned by her husband, who takes up with her feckless roommate during the war.
Love amid the Scuds may be a 10-year-old story, but the movie, which won 10 Israeli Oscars in 1999, is suddenly timely in the wake of Sept. 11. While the U.S. premiere of last year's big Israeli Oscar winner, "Time of Favor," about Jewish terrorism, was postponed after the tragedy, "Friends" -- which depicts life blithely continuing during wartime -- will resonate when it opens next week in Los Angeles.
"This movie, for me, is all about hope," says Kaplun, 43.
The director, an ex-medical student, was anything but hopeful when he immigrated to Israel in 1980. Though he was reluctant to leave Russia, he elected to follow family members who hoped to reunite with long-lost relatives. "But I so much disliked the country," he says. "I didn't feel at all that it was my motherland. I hated the people, the culture, the mentality -- and this feeling persisted for three years."
During that time, Kaplun set out on a quest to see if he could find a place where he could belong in Israel. He lived on several kibbutzim, mined phosphate with Arabs in the Negev and spent a year in an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva in Mea Shearim. "But I realized I was too weak to commit to Orthodox Judaism," says Kaplun, who finally found his niche after enrolling in film school at Tel Aviv University in 1983.
Three years later, he won a U.S. student Oscar nomination for his short film, "Solo for Tuba" -- an allegory about the artist's condition during a civil war -- inspired by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The nomination led to a second-unit directing job with American zero-budget filmmaker Roger Corman, who offered to help develop "Solo" as a feature film. "I declined because I was stupid," Kaplun says. "I was too lazy to make the same movie twice."
Instead, he cut his teeth directing dramas for Israeli television and planned to shoot a movie co-produced with money from a Baltic state fund in 1991.
There was one major snag.
"The Soviet Union collapsed, and the money fell through," he says.
The director says that his wife, Evelyn, who plays Yana in "Friends," was one inspiration for the movie. Like her character, the now-30-year-old actress was once a feisty Russian immigrant who found herself all alone in Israel at the beginning of the Gulf War. "She arrived on the first day of the Scud attacks, went to sleep and didn't know what to do when the sirens sounded," Kaplun says. So she just put on her gas mask, rolled over and went back to bed. She was so dead tired after her long flight from Leningrad that she just didn't care."
Kaplun strove for an equally realistic approach to "Friends," his irreverent, tragicomic take on the immigrant experience. "Immigration is never just a tragedy," he explains. "It may seem tragic to the immigrants. But to the residents of a place, it's often a comedy. It's always amusing for them to see the newcomer with his strange clothes and funny gold teeth."
He believes he wouldn't have been able to make the romantic comedy during his early years in Israel. "When you write about this kind of thing too soon, you speak only out of your pain," he says. "When you speak out of pain you shout, and you alienate people."
Nevertheless, the director did manage to alienate some important Israelis -- officials of the Israeli Film Fund (IFF) -- when he turned in the first draft of his script several years ago. "They kept asking, 'Where are all the successful Russian dentists and engineers?'" says Kaplun, who rewrote the script numerous times to meet their demands. He even added an engineer character. "I did what they asked to get the money," he says, sheepishly. "But with every rewrite, the script got worse and worse."
Eventually, the IFF came under new management and approved Kaplun's original story idea, which he transformed into a script with co-writer Simeon Vinokur in 1997.
As the 27-day shoot got under way a year later, Kaplun was careful about how he behaved on the set. "I had to be stricter with my wife than with the other actors, so no one felt she was getting any special treatment," he says.
But the director wasn't at all concerned about the sex scenes she had to perform with another man. "I was so busy behind the camera that that never occupied my thoughts," he says.
Far more nervewracking was the Israeli premiere in 1999, which Kaplun watched with a severe case of the jitters.
His anxiety was relieved only when the audience stood and cheered his feature film directorial debut.
"Yana's Friends" went on to earn kudos on the international festival circuit and a movie deal for Kaplun with mega-producer Arnon Milchan in Los Angeles. The director has been living here for the past nine months. But the once-reluctant Israeli insists he doesn't have plans to stay. "I feel content in Israel on a human level," he says. "The 'personal space' people require in the United States is very large. In Israel, it's small. That's what I'm missing. That's why I prefer to live in Israel."
"Yana's Friends" will be shown Nov. 16 at Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills and the Town Center 5 in Encino.