May 27, 2009
Documentaries Explore Mysteries of Fate
Two documentaries, two mysteries: the life and death of a family of Holocaust survivors attempting to rebuild their lives in an Israel ravaged by war; the other reveals the life and death of a Greek musician attempting to build his career as a pop star in Israel, seeking normalcy through music. Together, these films showing at the Israel Film Festival highlight starkly contrasting realities in the development of the State of Israel.
“The Green Dumpster Mystery,” which aired last year on Israel’s documentary channel, is a straightforward chronicle of director Tal Yoffe’s quest to figure out the story behind a stack of family portraits mysteriously trashed in a dumpster in south Tel Aviv.
“The Mystery of Aris San,” which aired to high ratings this year on Israel’s major television network, is executed like an episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music,” telling the story of a Greek musician who rose to Israeli stardom.
Whereas “Aris San” takes us to nightclubs, homes of celebrities and through the streets of New York, “Green Dumpster” visits gravesites, homes of Holocaust survivors and the streets of Tel Aviv.
From the first scene, recreating Yoffe’s encounter with the photographs, the tone of “Green Dumpster” is laconic and staid, signaling a tale of a tragedy and loss.
“I immediately went to my house and Googled the information I found,” said Yoffe in a phone interview from his home in Ramat Gan, describing the day that altered his filmmaking career. “Immediately I knew there was a film behind the photographs, because here was a couple, probably Holocaust survivors, whose son was an IDF casualty.”
In frame after frame, Yoffe painstakingly recreates the family tree of the Volkovich family, using Internet searches, interviews and logical deductions. Their story, as told in the film, starts with the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, when Yaakov and Pola Volkovich fled their hometown of Lodz for Russia, only to be sent to a Siberian labor camp.
After the war, they had three children who didn’t live to survive them: Sarah, Rivi and Shoa. Shoa, described as a fun-loving young man with many friends, was killed in the Yom Kippur War. Rivi, a beautiful clinical psychologist, died at 42 while giving birth to her second child. Sarah’s death is revealed only toward the end of the film.
“It started as a curiosity, and little by little I got attached to this family, then it almost turned into an obsession,” said Yoffe, who credits his Zionist curiosity to his upbringing at Kibbutz Maoz on the banks of the Jordan River. “At the end, I almost felt like I was a member of the family, and I felt a big responsibility. I thought it was on my shoulders to tell their story.”
By contrast to the tone of “Green Dumpster,” “The Mystery of Aris San” opens with the famed musician sporting his signature wig and wearing an unrelenting smile beneath a Clark Gable mustache, dancing with his guitar against a psychedelic backdrop. His appeal is immediately apparent: Here is a talented guitar virtuoso who left his Greek hometown in 1957 to embrace the culture of the new Jewish country, bringing with him a musical act bursting with joie-de-vivre and romance.
“At the time there weren’t so many people allowing themselves to become a superstar, because Israel was still in its socialist stage, where you’re not really supposed to have an ego,” said Dani Dothan, who co-directed and produced the film with his creative and life partner, Dalia Mevorach. He spoke from their home in Tel Aviv.
San’s success doesn’t last, however. Like an Israeli-Greek Elvis, he goes from pop icon to flabby performer at second-rate venues, to medication junkie, to a dead man some believe is actually still alive.
Even today, many Israelis love Greek music for its hybrid of Eastern and Western sounds. And San, born Aristod Saisanas in 1940, first won Israeli hearts as a teenager performing at a Greek club in Jaffa. He didn’t swing his hips like the American “king,” but he swung his guitar with an ease and joy that spellbound even the Israeli political royalty at the time, including Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan, who invited him to perform at the double wedding of his children. The Israeli government even granted him, a non-Jew, Israeli citizenship.
“We knew Aris was a not a Jew, but he was so much an Israeli,” said actress Gila Almagor, one of the Israeli celebrities interviewed in the film.
At 25, San began singing in Hebrew, and a musical collaboration and, at-times, abusive affair with Israeli singer Aliza Azikri (whose revealing interview was fortunately captured prior to her death this year) catapulted him into the Israeli mainstream. San’s hits, “Sigal” and “Boom Pam,” remain among the country’s greatest hits.
But just at the peak of his fame in Israel, he moved to Manhattan to open the hotspot Sirocco, a Greek nightclub frequented by Anthony Quinn, Harry Belafonte, Telly Savalas and the Gallo mafia clan, whose patronage eventually got him sent to prison for two years — an ordeal from which he never fully recovered.
“He was a very strange character in the ’60s in Israel,” said Dothan. “For us, it was like a detective story, trying to solve the riddle of who Aris San was. We didn’t want to find out if he’s dead or alive — we wanted to unravel his mysteries, what made him tick, how he became a great guitarist, why he came to Israel and why he left.”
Yoffe sees the “Green Dumpster” story as characteristic of a particular era: “I think there are thousands of families with not exactly the same story but families with Holocaust survivors as grandparents and great-grandparents, with IDF soldiers who got killed,” Yoffe said. “It’s a typical family, and a tragic family. Everything that could have happened to them, happened to them.”
San’s story is more unique, but it reveals another side of Israeli life, showing how in the midst of the pain of Israeli’s creation, Israelis sought joy and levity through music.
“It’s strange,” Dothan said. “It doesn’t happen a lot. I think his magic was something we were very captivated by.”