The drama opens in a smoky saloon somewhere in a remote corner of Israel. A young stranger, Avram (Dudu Tassa), enters the bar, where he is regarded suspiciously by the tough-looking musicians slinging back shots of arak, a Middle Eastern liquor. Avram has arrived with a message for a certain Josef Tawila (Uri Gavriel), a legendary tar (Persian lute) player who has abandoned music and lived like a recluse since a devastating car accident that killed two of his comrades 20 years earlier.
Turns out Avram’s father, Tawila’s best friend, is terminally ill and wants his former band mate to keep an old promise: to perform a musical piece they wrote together, “The Ballad of the Weeping Spring,” in the cave where they composed it decades ago.
The brooding Tawila eventually agrees to the endeavor, which launches him on a journey to gather the best classical musicians he can find for the concert. The odyssey of this reluctant hero is reminiscent of the protagonists of Akira Kurosawa’s iconic “The Seven Samurai,” which in turn inspired the John Sturges Western “The Magnificent Seven,” according to the film’s director, Benny Toraty, who spoke through a translator in an interview by phone from his home in Tel Aviv.
Toraty’s “The Ballad of the Weeping Spring” — the opening-night film of the 27th annual Israel Film Festival (IFF) — is as much homage to American and spaghetti Westerns as to Persian classical music, a testament to Israel’s burgeoning, sometimes quirky and often-provocative film industry.
The film won four 2012 Ophir (Israeli Oscar) awards and will be the centerpiece of the IFF’s opening-night gala, to be held at the Writers Guild Theater on April 18.
The largest film festival of its kind in the United States, the IFF will showcase more than 30 of the nation’s best new films, including features, documentaries, animation and shorts, all to be screened at Laemmle Theatres in Beverly Hills and Encino. Highlights include “Zaytoun,” the highly anticipated new film by esteemed director Eran Riklis (“Lemon Tree”), and Rama Burshtein’s “Fill the Void,” winner of the 2012 Ophir for best feature as well as the best actress award for its star, Hadas Yaron, at the last Venice Film Festival (see story, p. 25).
Since its founding 27 years ago by festival executive director Meir Fenigstein, the IFF has grown into a mega-event that has, over the years, screened 800 films for more than 900,000 patrons in several U.S. cities; just how far the festival has come is evidenced by its opening-night lifetime achievement honoree, former Paramount Pictures head Sherry Lansing, who in her decades in the industry has overseen such award-winning movies as “Forrest Gump,” “Braveheart” and “Titanic.” Also feted will be actors Martin Landau (see story, p. 28) and Gavriel, the latter perhaps best known outside Israel for playing the blind doctor who befriends Bruce Wayne in prison in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Toraty, 57, is emerging as an Israeli director to watch. In an hour-long interview, he said he made “The Ballad of the Weeping Spring” in large part to honor his parents, Iranian Jews forced to leave all their belongings behind when they fled their country for Israel in the massive aliyah of the early 1950s. What they brought with them was their love for Persian classical music — melodies played on the kamancheh (Persian fiddle) and oud that frequently wafted through their home in a slum near Tel Aviv. “It was like the Harlem of Israel,” Toraty recalled of his childhood neighborhood.
But as a youth he didn’t warm to his parents’ music: “It was exactly the opposite,” he said. “I was born and raised in Israel, and like many of my classmates, I was almost ashamed to listen to or be involved with the music of my [elders].”
Instead, he found his passion at his neighborhood cinema, where he fell in love, in particular, with Westerns by filmmakers like John Ford, Howard Hawks and Sergio Leone. After studying in the film department at Tel Aviv University, Toraty made his debut feature, “Desperado Square” (2001), to honor his old neighborhood theater, in the vein of Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show.”
Much like “The Ballad of the Weeping Spring,” “Desperado Square” is a saga about fathers and sons and old promises kept: The story spotlights a young man and his brother who struggle to reopen the cinema their father had closed down a quarter century earlier in their impoverished neighborhood.
“The Ballad of the Weeping Spring” is Toraty’s ode to the power of music and, specifically, to his parents’ music, which he rediscovered and fell in love with in recent years while listening to Persian classical singers such as Hassan Sattar. “This music is not so well known in Israel,” he said. “It’s not from North Africa or Iraq, but more from the silk road from Persia crossing into Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and India. I also wanted to explore the lives of musicians who are playing the other Sephardic music that people don’t know and have never heard.”
Actor-musician Dudu Tassa plays Avram, who, we learn, has rejected his father’s Persian classical music, but over the course of the film grows to love the genre; for the film’s score, Toraty said he turned to composer Mark Eliyahu, whose father was an esteemed tar player and musicologist from Dagestan, and who spent two years in Azerbaijan mastering the kamancheh.
Since Toraty also drew inspiration for the film from Western movies and their outlaw protagonists, he conceived the central role for Gavriel, whom he describes as “the No. 1 actor [portraying] gangsters in Israeli cinema.”
“It was very natural for me to take on this character,” Gaviel, who was nominated for an Ophir for his performance, said in an interview from his home near B’nai Brak. And not only because he has been playing outlaws since his breakout performance in the seminal 1982 Mizrahi crime caper “Big Shots.”
“My parents are from Baghdad, and I grew up with their music,” Gavriel said. “My father was a singer who wrote songs and was a specialist in the music of the Egyptian musician Mohammed Abdel Wahab, whom I still listen to this day.”
For Gavriel, playing Tawila was also a means to escape the typecasting that he has encountered throughout his career; he’s still playing gangsters, most recently on the popular Israeli series “HaBorer,” where his character is nicknamed “The Nazi.”
“I was drawn to the longing within this character,” Gavriel said of Tawila. “He had hung up his instrument since the accident, but now the music is calling him, and the [yearning] wells up inside of him.”
For tickets and more information, call (877) 966-5566 or visit IsraelFilmFestival.com.