Rachel Michaeli

Interview and edit by Rotem Pesachovish-Paz

In 1985, director Rachel Michaeli made the short film, Foreign Body. It was Michaeli’s directorial debut as part of her film studies but also, in hindsight, late actor Mona Silberstein’s final film role prior to her death, just three years later. Ahead of International Women’s Day 2022 and the 34-year anniversary of Silberstein’s untimely passing, we caught up with Michaeli for a chat about the film, her work process, and her own personal relationship with Silberstein.

We would love for you to tell us a bit about Foreign Body and your decision to cast Mona Silberstein in the film.

RM: Foreign Body is a short, nonverbal film about a woman who’s not at peace with her own body. It’s a state of mind that she experiences through a relationship of love and betrayal, both with her boyfriend and her own body. I was super keen on getting Mona for the role. I was intrigued by her. It all started with finding out that we had both shared the same boyfriend, only 20 years apart. The film was based on my relationship with this guy, and she said yes on the spot. She had just got back to Israel after getting clean and was just in the process of setting up the first ever [narcotics] support groups, so I really couldn’t have reached out to her at a better time – with her embarking on this new chapter in her life and mostly, eager to get in front of a camera again after all these years she hadn’t been working.

You cast a 40-year-old to play a young woman. Were you not at all worried by this discrepancy?

RM: My teachers at film school were also asking me how I was going to handle the age gap. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t all that bothered by it. When we first met up to talk about the film, it felt like we were both pretty much in a similar place. I was at an age when I was still learning how to navigate my way through adulthood, still very preoccupied with all these questions of identity that had really weighed heavy on me throughout my teens; then there was Mona, who had just kicked her drug habit, and she made me realise that she was in a similar place to mine. She talked about herself a lot in terms of rebirth and all that.

We must have shared the same sense of a clean slate when on the one hand, every road is still wide open and everything out there is just so amazing and it’s all yours for the taking, and you get to reinvent yourself – and at the same time, it’s all still so raw and all over the place. In a series of stories that I later did with her, she gave a really good example as a way of illustrating it: it was something along the lines of, “right, so now that I’m clean, I had to learn that if I wanted to get some milk, I had to go to the shops. But then, I got to the supermarket and found myself standing there and there were so many different types of milk, I just didn’t know what to choose!”

So you’ve just cast Mona Silberstein to be in your film. What place is she in her life at the time?

RM: The film tackles all these questions of body image. I’m desired – I’m undesired – and if I am desired – then what is it that they desire? And Mona, who had come on the set after years of being away from camera and naturally, no longer the looking the way she once did, approached the film with a similar sense of vulnerability. She talked to me and our cinematographer, Hagai Sharir, about this insecurity she was bringing along with her, and the way it looked and photographed.

Mona studied acting under Lee Strasberg in New York. She would always say that she learnt from him – thanks to his famous acting method and actually, even earlier than that, from Uri Zohar – how to channel your own reality into acting. Working on this film ended up being a form of therapy for the both of us. For me, as the director, I had the privilege of recreating and processing behind the camera my own experiences of insecurity, whereas Mona was tapping into the insecurities she’d brought along with her to create her character.

Did you speak amongst yourselves about experiencing vulnerability with one’s own body image?

RM: There’s a scene in the film where Mona is drawing out that unique, uninhibited laugh of hers. Whilst we were filming, she made a choice to cover her mouth with her hand whenever she was laughing. She said that seeing as she’d only just recently kicked her drug habit, she still hadn’t got round to fixing her bad tooth. I then remembered that scene in [Uri Zohar’s] Peeping Tops where she’s saying goodbye to Arik Einstein and then, turns her back to the camera to get in the sea. If you watch that scene, you’ll notice that she’s crossing her hands over her backside. Mona admitted she did that because she wasn’t feeling especially trim or confident about her body at the time of the shoot.

On the other hand, it was painstakingly obvious that Mona was fully aware of what a beautiful woman she was, and that it brought her joy. For instance, there’s the scene in Foreign Body where she’s playing a nude model and those body shots – that’s not her. When we were shooting, she made an offhand joking remark that in the credits, we should say that the breasts aren’t Mona’s because hers were more ‘stately,’ and she loved them. Of course, that was obviously said in jest on the set, but there you have it – here’s another chance now to put things to rights and bring them full circle.

From the film “Foreign Body”, directed by Rachel Michaeli

Hang on a minute, so the body in the film, that’s not Mona?

RM: No, that’s not Mona’s body, as was the norm – at least, back then – when you were shooting actresses in the nude. Naturally, I assumed that Mona wouldn’t want to bare it all on camera, least of all in a student film, and I was right. And we also came up with a pretty good workaround for it so that in the film, there’s a montage sequence between the face that is Mona’s and the body, that is a body double’s.

That scene, that we shot at [Israeli artist] Yair Garbuz’s studio, and also throughout the rest of the shoot, my experience of Mona that has lingered with me the most has to be her approach to the work – in particular, making this film, but as a whole, the way she treated her work and her craft which, for her, were sacrosanct. She was extremely dedicated and precise. A highly sensitive scene partner, both with Danny Segev and Ariel Vromen – her fellow castmates – and an actor also treated us, the creators, with the utmost respect, even though she was the seasoned professional and we were the new kids on the block who were still wet behind the ears.

Whilst making the film, could any of you have foreseen the tragedy that lay ahead or were you genuinely convinced, at that moment in time, that she had in fact managed to get clean and sober?

RM: It’s hard to imagine a fellow human being’s tragic demise when all you have in front of you is them at their prime, coming into their own, full of optimism, strength, and hope as she was at the time. Everyone believed it was going to stick. She died three years later, and in those last days, it was impossible not see that things were indeed heading to a very dark place. That she was becoming withdrawn, asking to be left alone and that people mind their own business; denying that there was a problem, and sabotaging any attempt at getting help. But here’s the thing; even in good times, she always had this perpetual disquiet about her – and maybe that, right there, is a way of predicting why some people are able to get clean and stay clean over time and for others, like her, the struggle was that much more difficult.

Considering her all too short life in Tel Aviv’s bohemian scene and her having got addicted to drugs at such a young age, could one come out and say that Mona Silberstein was a victim?

RM: You see, I didn’t know her back then. And knowing her when I did, she never struck me as anyone’s victim. And I don’t think she saw herself as one either; if anything, maybe a victim of herself, and her own life’s circumstances. I also could never wrap my head around this notion that it all boiled down to her so-called self-destructive streak, as others used to argue. She exuded optimism and positive thinking. She was as enamoured with the camera as she was with life and yes, the paparazzi cameras.

As a journalist, folks at the time knew that we were in touch and whenever they’d ask me for her number, she would always tell me, ‘Just let them have it. You don’t need my permission.’ I’m giving you this as an example of the way she experienced life, always in a state of constant forward motion, and with zero fucks given. Why ask for permission? Of course she wants her bloody phone ringing and those lenses clicking and flashing at her. And if she’s not up for it, then she would politely decline.

The way I saw it, she had more of a lust for life and for living out every moment to the fullest, as opposed to hitting some self-destruct button. In that sense, the period that she’d grown up into – an age of sex, drugs, cameras, and rock n’ roll – was a shoo in for her. And it took the ultimate toll. She talked a lot about the pain, the void, and the loneliness that were actually very common amongst those who lived taking the biggest bites out of life.

Silberstein was usually cast in similar ‘Girl Friday’-type supporting roles, like in Peeping Toms, Schwartz: The Brave Detective, and Two Heartbeats. Can you think of any character that you would have liked to have seen her play, perhaps as the female lead for the first time?

RM: I once told her that she should have had the female lead in Arthur Penn’s Four Friends. She was born to play that role. The fact is, we missed out on Mona, the comedian. And those aren’t my words but Lee Strasberg’s. She told me he’d said that to her back in the mid-seventies: ‘I couldn’t care less how many pictures you’ve already made. You belong up on a stage, you should be making people laugh.’ You see, he recognised her knack for adlibbing, her physical gestures, her uncanny comic precision and timing, and the pleasure she would take – especially because she was a very attractive woman – in making herself ugly.

She once told me about this one time, back in New York at the acting studio, when her scene partner onstage started fluffing his lines. And Mona, she adlibbed something to dig him out of that hole and ended up building this whole comic routine around it that not only kept the play going but also had the audience in stitches. And since she loved the camera way more than the stage, and since she always shone brightest as s comedian when she had a scene partner to bounce off then who knows – maybe she should have been the Israeli Lucille Ball or Gilda Radner and ended up in some late-night TV comedy ensemble like Saturday Night Live. They failed to recognise and use her talents on [classic Israeli comedy] Lool. It wasn’t long after she died that [Israel’s second major TV broadcaster] Channel 2 was launched. Perhaps if Mona had lived, then she would have been discovered and life might have taken her places altogether different.

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