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Avi Nesher | Photo by Iris Nesher
Interview and edit by Rotem Pesachovish-Paz
Multi award-winning director, screenwriter, and producer Avi Nesher has made, to date, over 20 feature films – several of which have since become timeless Israeli classics, including The Troupe, Dizengoff 99, Turn Left at the End of the World, Rage and Glory, The Matchmaker, Past Life, The Other Story, Image of Victory, and many more. In this interview, Nesher opens up about the creative process behind making a period piece film, and the very choice to even tackle historical subject matters – both in general and specifically, in his 2004 film, Turn Left at the End of the World, now available to stream on the Israeli Film Archive website.
What makes you opt for these historical narratives? What is the source of this connection you seem to have with the subject?
AN: I wouldn’t call myself a historical filmmaker, per se. Film is not a historical medium. Film is a mythological medium. Film doesn’t portray reality as it happened; it creates reality out of nothing. It is the instigator of the act and the weaver of the fairy tale derived from reality. I am exceptionally keen on visual and linguistic precision whenever I’m making one of my ‘realistic’ fairy tales set in the past; but when it comes to the narrative itself, as a creator, in reality you are limited in your ability to produce a historical truth.
I am tremendously interested in the past. If to borrow William Faulkner’s fabulous quote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” – the fact is, we are all hugely influenced by our past. Any and all essence of the present goes by in the blink of an eye. Just say the word ‘second’ and already, it’s a thing of the past. The fact is, we all create so much past at a head-spinning rate, whilst lacking any sufficient perspective to let us make sense of the present. Exploring the past is fascinating, as it allows you to wrap your head around a range of national, personal, cultural, and ideological spheres. It enables one to commentate and draw one’s own conclusions about our present day, based on all that has been – whether it be historical or mythological.
In the process of making a film, you are basically committing to a reconstructive act that, frankly, warrants a great deal of responsibility. Could you discuss your own place in this process and how you navigate wanting to stay true to the source and to historical research vs. wanting to avoid becoming illustrative.
AN: I don’t do illustrations. In film, as you well know, suspension of disbelief is sacrosanct. When we’re watching a film, we have to connect with the characters on an emotional level. If we don’t believe – then we’re not going to be moved; we’re not going to cry or laugh and essentially, we won’t have had an experience – full stop. Which means it’s up to the director to produce a narrative that is consistent. If you’re working in Sci-Fi, you’re creating a world with its own distinct set of rules, and if your film is set in the past then it’s up to you to make sure that the past, both linguistically and visually, is meticulously recreated and that is one thing I’ve been known to be ultrastrict about.
I remember this fascinating interview with Stanley Kubrick I once read about the making of Barry Lyndon (1975). Just like the silent film director, Josef von Sternberg, Kubrick too made his cast walk around in period-appropriate underwear. Sure enough, his producers were up in arms about it because that is one hell of a budgetary clause with all of zero onscreen visibility. And Kubrick just reiterated what von Sternberg originally had said – “but the actors know.” Why this is so important is that it does have an effect on the actors, and it does transform their body language. And the actors’ body language is what determines whether your viewer successfully suspends disbelief, thereby relating to the character(s).
I am highly meticulous when it comes to recreating a period – be it the body language or the vernacular – and it is especially important to me to present something at the end of the day that would make anyone watching who had lived through that period feel comfortable and relaxed in this space I had created. In Turn Left at the End of the World, this one film critic who just thrives on catching you out, argued that one of the posters we see in the movie may have been of a film that was released in 1968, but that it was never shown commercially in Israel. And he and I bet on a meal at a very expensive restaurant that that movie on the poster was in fact showing in Israeli cinemas at the time, which is why it made it into the film. I must say I took great pleasure in watching that critic pick up the tab for our meal.”
It would be great to hear about the process of researching a historical film. Which archival or historical sources do your draw your information from, and at what point do you feel that you have everything you need to start writing?
AN: The archives are a very important aspect of the research stage – whether it’s the Yad Vashem archive in Past Life or The Matchmaker, or the Cinematheque Archive which is a hugely helpful resource when it comes to recreating the mood and atmosphere of early days Israel. Recently, I was writing a TV series set in 1937 Tel Aviv and our beloved mutual friend, Russo [Meir Russo, Director of the Israeli Film Archive – RPP], was able to dig up so many incredibly rare Tel Aviv-related elements.
And while we’re on the subject of Russo, I cannot stress enough his immense contribution to my film, Image of Victory. As you recall, the film features all these newsreels directed by the protagonist – the young Egyptian director. And in order to recreate just the right soundtrack for these newsreels, we had to do some pretty exhaustive research in the archives. We also collaborated with the Herzliya Studios Archive where they have all the Geva and Carmel-Herzliya newsreel collections, and some Egyptian archives too.
I don’t write so much as a word before I get to this place where I feel as if I can write like someone living through that period. For instance, in Turn Left at the End of the World and Past Life – both of which are set in the seventies, i.e., back when I was a kid and a teenager, I felt like I knew my way around the period. But take Image of Victory for instance, that is set long before I was around – that required some pretty major, comprehensive research. In Image of Victory, beyond relying on the different newsreels, we also drew heavily on materials from various other archives including those at Kibbutz Nitzanim, Yad Mordechai, Washington, and Cairo. We were looking to find out, amongst other things, what cigarette brands Egyptian intellectuals of the period were partial to, as well as the land crops grown at the time in Nitzanim.
Nowadays, we live in a time when there’s just about nowhere on the planet you can’t visit. Eighty years ago, you could make a film set in Bali and everyone would go, ‘gosh, you could never get somewhere so exotic without this film.’ Whereas these days, you just buy a plane ticket and pretty much the whole world is your oyster. But the only place you can’t visit is the past. That is to say, it is only through film that one can truly experience the past.
And though I am terribly interested in the past, as a person I am far from nostalgic. I never have any of these thoughts about how in the old days, everything was allegedly so much better. I don’t buy into any of those ‘Good Old Israel of Yore’ narratives, and I do believe that every period has its own pros and cons. People are people and they are capable of doing things that are extraordinary and atrocious at the same time. I don’t wax nostalgic about early ‘70s Israel or the flatshare I was living in at 99 Dizengoff St. Creating and engaging with the past has nothing to do with longing for or savouring a particular period because as far as I’m concerned, every period is riveting in its own right.
When you’re creating the film’s narrative world, the period plays a pivotal role. I spend a great deal of time immersing myself in the period and sometimes, the research will end up deciding the nature of the film. In The Matchmaker for instance, which is about the relationship between a matchmaker and a teenage boy, in the original version of the story, there was no cinema, nor were there any little people. And whilst I was researching the period, someone made this rather unsettling comment, having just had their memory jogged, “Ah, yes! The midget movie theatre!” – and the moment I learnt about the existence of that cinema, I realised what the film’s main conceit was.
Who was that someone?
AN: I am well aware of my limitations as a person who writes when it comes to writing for characters who aren’t me. When I’m writing, I can do a really good job nailing a character or even two, because they’ll be people who are like me in some form or another – who, incidentally, can be both male and female – but as for the remaining characters, I will always research the hell out of them. Take being a matchmaker for instance. That’s not a career; it’s an existential point-of-view. That extraordinary comment about the “midget movie theatre,” the person who made that remark was matchmaker, Helena Amram, during a series of interviews I was doing with 25 matchmakers, just so I could do an accurate enough job writing for the character of Yankele Bride. After all, a person’s craft ultimately defines and shapes both their identity and point-of-view.”
And were you able to find a common ground between all 25 matchmakers whom you’d interviewed?
AN: I was indeed. They all genuinely do believe that in some form or another, love is salvation.
I suppose they’re right, as far as they’re concerned.
AN: You know how all pilots are kind of the same, right? Well, all film directors are kind of the same – there’s something about this line of work that sort of steers your perspective of life. I suppose that every director is a bit domineering, by the very nature of their job. When I’m creating characters, I go to great lengths to compile as vast a well of knowledge as possible, including familiarising myself with the jargon. Matchmakers, for instance, have this broad vernacular that neither you nor I will probably ever use in a sentence. Every line of work comes with its own vernacular, so just the task of fleshing out that unique language and point of view, that takes longer than writing the actual script. In the screenwriting workshops that I lead, I always emphasis how much harder it is to think up a script than it is to write one, and this is an all-too-common problem in screenwriting – folks who write before they think.
From the movie “Turn left at the End of the World”, directed by Avi Nesher
Could you talk to us about that still image of your father in Turn Left at the End of the World? I’m trying to imagine your creative process and it strikes me as if that were the first thing you knew was going to be in the film.
AN: That photo at the end of Turn Left at the End of the World was in fact the image that started the whole thing when my dad passed away in New York City in 2001, almost at the exact same time as 9/11. My dad was one of those people who had grown up in a city that, at various periods had been part of Romania, Germany, and Russia. In that sense, he was the quintessential immigrant who embodied many multiple identities, but who could never quite reach an equilibrium or make peace with any of them. I, as his son – the proud new Israeli – knew nothing about him and had also refrained from asking any questions. That, of course, was a cardinal sin on my part, but it was also very much in keeping with the spirit of the times: we, the Sabras [native Israelis – EE], would do anything to distance ourselves from those who went like lambs to the slaughter.
When I got older, I became very troubled by that behaviour. I felt guilty. My dad once said to me, jokingly but with a tinge of sadness, that he was brought to Israel so that his son could make the film, The Troupe. If you look at that photo in the film, you see my father who was a brilliant man; an intellectual; a trained sociologist who, after World War II, was forever an alien, anywhere he lived – and right there next to him, there’s me – his son. The Israeli boy. The native who loves his football and his youth movement, flashing this big cheeky grin at the camera, whilst my dad is looking all sombre. It breaks my heart.
Turn Left at the End of the World was born out of this very difficult feeling I was carrying around with me. Which is why I put that original photo at the end of the film, as a sort of direct sequel to what Liraz Charhi is saying in that last bit of voiceover narration at the very end when she mentions all “those lost people” who loved us so much. In a sense, I’m repaying a debt to my father because even though my dad was neither Moroccan nor Indian, he ultimately was an immigrant. And in our country, there is a tendency to ascribe a greater deal of misery to an immigrant who happens to come from one place over another; but the immigration experience, in and of itself, is by no means an easy one and in that sense, where you come from is utterly inconsequential.
I feel compelled to say that unlike the character of the Indian girl – whom I felt I knew inside and out – I could never have written Neta Garty’s character had it not been for the huge help and input of my two massively talented co-writers, Sarah Ezer (née Eden) and Ruby Porat Shoval who wrote the script with me. Of course, both Sarah’s and Ruby’s overall contributions to the script cannot be stressed enough.
Incidentally, I’d love it if you could elaborate a little on Neta Garty’s character and in particular, that nude scene in the opening sequence. Would you say that there’s been a change in Israeli film’s portrayal of women?
AN: From The Troupe and all the way to Image of Victory, the women in my films have always been independent, cognisant, dominant individuals. I have never, in any of my films, regarded the female character as the protagonist’s “love interest,” or as someone without her own independent storyline. In fact, in the vast majority of my films it’s the women who are the main protagonists. The way I see it, women are no less powerful than men, and in my work, they are often tougher, braver, and far more rebellious.
You know, this past decade, there seems to have evolved this newfound aversion to nudity. But the issue here isn’t with nudity as a cinematic state of being. The issue is the objectification; that is to say the manipulative ways that film has been using female nudity. Specifically, with that scene you referenced, I was a film critic for many years which is why I never make anything up – if I do, I just end up thinking I probably saw it in another film.
My writing is almost always based on the most extensive research, which is why just about everything that happens in the film is based on some story or another I’ve been told. Neta Garty’s nude scene at the start of the film is based on a story someone once told me: there was this big water reservoir in this small industrial town and this woman who grew up there, she told me how they all used to go there and skinny dip because it was smack in the middle of the desert, and no one could see them.
The point of that scene isn’t the actual nudity but that liberating reality of knowing you’re in the middle of nowhere, the heart of the desert, aka – left of the end of the world [a popular Hebrew phrase] – and how, when you’re in the middle of the desert, you get to shed all those stringent rules you’re bound by because literally no one can see you. You’ve got Neta standing there, taking her clothes off when in comes Liraz Charhi, all prim and proper and buttoned up, and the two of them just stare at each other bemused, smiling, and realising the absurdity of the situation. They’re not so much embarrassed as they are bewildered by the circumstances of their bizarre encounter, but what’s also surprising to them, at the same time, is how at ease they both are. And indeed, it marks the start of a beautiful friendship.
Do you think that nowadays there’s a greater sensitivity around the subject of nudity than there was in the past?
AN: I do think that nowadays there is much greater sensitivity, and that it is entirely justifiable and called for. This heightened sensitivity is there to usher in a much-needed social change, and I don’t believe that such a change is tenable when you’re exercising just ‘moderate’ sensitivities. Change needs to be born out of hypersensitivity. I get where this sensitivity is coming from, and I think it’s perfectly legitimate. But having said that, I do hope that at some point, some balance will be restored; female objectification will become obsolete, and then nudity can once more be present and accounted for because there is something truly beautiful about human nudity – be it male or female. But lest there be any doubt – I take absolutely no issue with any contemporary hypersensitivity to female nudity because this sensitivity is part of a fight that is both important and just.
The immigration experience as it is portrayed in Turn Left at the End of the World is arguably very clean and sterile. Today, with the visceral exposure we’ve since had to war and refugees, do you imagine you would you have made a different-looking film? Might you have opted for a ‘dirtier’ aesthetic?
AN: I steer well clear of making films whose core experience I haven’t had, myself. In all my films about the Holocaust, you’ll never see one emaciated prisoner or concentration camp watch tower. I can’t go around directing scenes set in a concentration camp because literally nothing about my experience can ever make me comprehend the essence of what it’s like to be a human being trapped in a concentration camp. Here’s a paradox for you: as a creator of mythologies, I try my hardest to speak nothing but the truth, which is why I also turn to materials that are based on people’s stories. There’s this American saying about how you have to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes if you really want to understand them. So yeah, I can walk around in stiletto heels if I need to, but I can’t very well parade around in a concentration camp prisoner’s rags.
I am very careful not to write about things or characters whose immediate experiences in the film are far removed from anything I might know. In Turn Left at the End of the World, the aesthetic choice of wardrobe and costume design is a very conscious one. There was something about 20th century Israeli film where industrial town locals were always portrayed as these beings from another planet; of course, in the most unflattering way – they were the ones who were always dressed in rags which, onscreen, also projected an educational, intellectual, and moral deficiency. Those Indians and Moroccans who’d settled in those small towns, many of them were highly educated, and it isn’t by chance that you see them in the film clinging onto to their extremely colonialist image – take the Indians for instance, who identify themselves as British. For one, it was a way for them to push back against their humiliating association with a so-called Third World country.
In terms of wardrobe and costume design, the statement in Turn Left at the End of the World is that you have to treat these people as you would yourself. They are no less educated than you are, and their culture is every bit as valid as yours. It’s possible that there’s even an attempt in the film at righting a historical wrong. I very much believe in a type of filmmaking that can get the viewer to alter their point-of-view and come to respect the other; those who aren’t like you.
Before we wrap up, could you tell us what you’re currently working on?
AN: Astonishingly, a film set in the past.
Does it also attempt to right some kind of wrong?
AN: Yes, in a way it does. It’s also based on a great deal of extensive, ongoing research, featuring characters that are very near and dear to my heart, and set in my hometown of Ramat Gan.
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