Ephraim Kishon’s "Sallah" takes home the 1965 Golden Globe for Best Foreign-Language Foreign Film; Chaim Topol wins the Most Promising Newcomer category

Ephraim Kishon
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In 1965, director-screenwriter-playwright-satirist Ephraim Kishon’s Sallah made history twice, becoming the first-ever Israeli film to take home a Golden Globe in the Best Foreign-Language Foreign Film category, and the first to have been nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. However, the road to the promised statuette and red carpet land was riddled with obstacles, challenges, and setbacks. The Story of Sallah Shabati who moved to Israel with his large family from one of the Middle East’s Muslim countries in the 1950s (Kishon got his inspiration from a new immigrant with whom he had shared a small shack at the Sha’ar Ha’aliyah Israeli migrant transit camp) started out as a play. When Kishon pitched it to the Cameri Theatre, its bosses promptly passed on the idea (“they found it too low brow,” Kishon bemoaned.) Next, he took the idea over to military entertainment troupe, The Nahal Band (‘Lahakat HaNahal’) where, according to Kishon, it was met with “staunch resistance from band members who claimed it wasn’t funny and far too serious.” However, following the band’s visit to the Ramat Hasharon migrant transit camp, those objecting finally came around.
Trouble, however, was far from over; even after the sketch – starring Chaim Topol ended up adapted into a film produced by Menahem Golan. It is said that when Topol first finished watching a cut of the film, he turned to Kishon and said, “this is no good, it’s a dud, and we need to come to terms with that fact.” Even after Sallah became a box office runaway hit, critics still tore it to shreds. Golda Meir opposed plans for its international release and claimed that showing this film around the world will disgrace the State of Israel and tarnish its standing in the eyes of gentiles. It took the Hollywood Foreign Press Association giving Sallah a Golden Globe, and Topol the award for Most Promising Newcomer for the commanding politician to have a change of heart.
Sallah is considered the first ever Israeli ‘Bourekas’ film (a genre of predominantly working class, ‘low brow’ ethnic comedies and melodramas) and indeed, Kishon came under fire from many critics and scholars for having the temerity as an Ashkenazi director to go and make a film about Mizrahi (Middle Eastern / North African Jewish) life. Critics were also fuming at Kishon’s casting of Ashkenazi actors such as Topol in the roles of Mizrahi characters, whilst also resorting to excessive mimicry of Middle Eastern Hebrew accents (over-the-top guttural pronunciation), and a host of other exaggerated and warped mannerisms. Their ire was also aimed at the stereotypical portrayal of Middle Eastern Israelis as primitive, uneducated, anise-slugging, backgammon-playing caricatures, alongside the portrayal of prostitutes of Moroccan descent, and a family patriarch that is typically unemployed and a raging alcoholic. On the flipside, other scholars have argued that Bourekas films at the very least did offer Sephardi Israelis a voice and a form of representation they were hitherto denied at the hands of the dominant classes. Professor Yehuda (Judd) Ne’eman even went as far as to suggest the existence of a subversive element in Bouerkas films: an implied, radical assault on an ethos that lies at the very core of Zionism – the ‘cult’ of labour. Bourekas films such as Sallah highlighted choosing cheap thrills, fun and entertainment, a string of casual jobs, and idly mucking about through life over hard work and toil.
One of Sallah’s most memorable scenes – the general election scene – is a perfect illustration of the highly contentious debate between critics and scholars. The scene begins when two smug, condescending political party representatives, both of whom are of course Ashkenazi, arrive at the migrant transit camp with the aim of locating the local community leader and persuading them to act as their political mouthpiece and secure them all the votes. The pair walk into the neighbourhood café where Sallah – the camp’s ‘commander-in-chief’ – is hanging out with his happy-go-lucky Mizrahi chums – all of whom are singing and dancing along to Old Messiah (‘mashiach hazaken’) (an original song by Uriel Ofek, composed by Yohanan Zarai). The uppity, stern-faced politicians end up letting their hair down a bit and get carried away by the singing and the overall joie de vivre. They are soon followed by other party reps – all of whom are lobbying the immigrants with pledges to come up with suitable housing solutions for them. However, the whole thing reaches its frenzied conclusion at the polling station where Sallah stuffs every possible ballot into the ballot box and ends up, of course, with his ballot rejected. Kishon, in this scene, highlights the chasm between the Ashkenazi establishment and its new denizens, whilst shining a satirical if not farcical light on Israeli politics.

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