Living on the edge
With ‘Not in Tel Aviv,’ Nony Geffen proves that even a rookie can make a full-length feature film. His complete creative freedom and shoestring budget have resulted in a charming, wild and deeply flawed movie.
The independent feature film competition at the Cinema South Festival, whose winner will be announced today, was made for movies like “Not in Tel Aviv.” The contest, which is running at the festival for the second year, is aimed at movies on the margins of the local film industry, independently made and low-budget. In addition to the difficulties such guerrilla productions encounter, they also benefit from one, big advantage − complete artistic freedom.
“Not in Tel Aviv,” screened at the competition on Sunday, is far from being a perfect film. Its script has many pitfalls that are handled superficially, as well as some infuriating themes. Nevertheless, it’s hard to ignore its charms. At times it is funny, surprising and unexpected, it manages to extract good performances from its actors, it features engaging music (by Uzi Ramirez, of the bands Boom Pam and the Ramirez Brothers), and it fills the screen with black-and-white shots that suit the experimental feel. In this case, all the praise, and the criticism, goes to one person − Nony Geffen, the initiator, creator and driving force behind this film.
With “Not in Tel Aviv” Geffen proves that even a young guy with no experience can produce a full-length feature film, for better or for worse, provided of course that he has enough creative spirit, real determination and the ability to mobilize several more experienced partners in the effort to realize his dream.
Geffen not only directed the film without any previous experience, he also wrote the script and plays the lead role, Micha − a young, mild-mannered teacher who gets fired because of budget cuts. Either in revenge or as a result of a mental breakdown, wielding a pistol he kidnaps one of his students, (Yaara Pelzig, known for her role in the 2011 movie “Policeman”). Micha holds the girl hostage in his house and, while she could easily escape, she falls in love with him and chooses to stay. When the two, armed with a pistol, head out to settle some scores with Micha’s mother, the plot seems to veer toward the familiar pattern of lovers choosing a life of crime, but very soon Micha enlists the girl’s help in a different mission that he cannot carry out alone − to win over the neighborhood beauty (Romi Aboulafia), with whom he has been in love for years. From then on, the movie features a love triangle that involves various adventures.
Geffen (no relation to the famous Geffen family), 30, was born in Kiryat Ata and moved with his family when he was 10 to Kiryat Tivon. He came to Tel Aviv less than 10 years ago. At first he tried writing poetry but, finding himself unable to get published, he decided to change course. He began writing screenplays, without any formal film studies. “I bought two books − Kobi Niv’s ‘Scriptwriting’ and Robert McKee’s ‘Story’ − and that’s how I learned to write,” Geffen tells Haaretz. He started working as a production assistant on television shows, toyed with the idea of becoming an actor and started appearing in student films. He also continued writing screenplays and putting them in a drawer.
In one student film he appeared in, Geffen got to know students from the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem. “I befriended many in that group, among them Ziv Bercovich [the cinematographer of ‘Not in Tel Aviv’]. We became close and, basically, I learned about cinema from them,” Geffen says. “Suddenly I realized I really enjoy talking to them and felt that finally there’s someone who speaks the language I want to speak − a language that intrigues and interests me. It was a stepping stone for me in the world of cinema.”
Four years ago, a screenplay Geffen wrote for a biopic about musician Yossi Elephant got a development grant from the Israel Film Fund. “I wrote the screenplay with Nimrod Koren, who had already written a telenovela. Rani Bleier did the editing and Naftali Alter was the film fund’s consultant,” Geffen says. “It was really very interesting for me to suddenly work with these professional writers but, in the end, I realized it was an experience that didn’t express anything introspective from me, because each one of them had an opinion, an idea, and I still wasn’t self-confident enough to say, ‘Hang on guys, this is what I want.’ I was really influenced by them, and rightly so. Still, I think that, because of this, the screenplay turned out very proper but charmless.”
Consequently, Geffen decided to embark on a new adventure, where he alone would have total control. After taking a short break to shoot Ido Fluk’s road movie, “Never Too Late,” in which he played the lead role, Geffen went back to his desk. “I sat down to write a new screenplay, this time with no rules. I told myself that now I would do what I want − not what is proper, but what is right for me,” he says. “I decided I wanted to write something I’d be pleased with, even if I did so in a way deemed to be incorrect. I wanted to kick in the door.”
The result is a wild, occasionally funny screenplay with a feverish plot that is amusing, strange and that certainly lashes out. Geffen got lucky and, by chance, when he finished writing he met the experienced producer Itai Tamir (“Infiltration,” “Policeman,” “Vasermil”), who liked the screenplay and decided to get on board.
'Buddy, you’re nuts’
The cast and crew that Geffen put together for “Not in Tel Aviv” mostly worked on a voluntary basis. “The people who came to work with us, including [actors] Anat Atzmon and Tal Friedman, came because of the screenplay and were excited that there was something different here, something a little crazy,” he says. “Everyone who came was enthusiastic about the essence − that it’s a film with something a bit brazen, a little wild. I assume that even the people who didn’t come did so for the same reason. Or simply because we didn’t have money to pay them, which is of course legitimate.”
In a particularly entertaining role, Friedman plays the brother of Nony (Aboulafia), a famous actor, Ofer Shechter, who posts bail to get the hero out of jail. He has to deal with admirers wherever he goes, is aware of the necessity of protecting his reputation and is shocked when Micha enters the car he is in holding a pistol. “Hey, hey! I’m Ofer f***ing Shechter and my reputation will be at risk!” he cries.
Geffen says this role was originally written for the actor Ofer Shechter but he declined. Still, Geffen decided to keep his name in the film. When he called Friedman to offer him the role, “Friedman told me, ‘Listen, Israeli film, forget it, I don’t have the strength. It’s all boring.’ I realized there was zero chance, but still I persuaded him to let me send him the screenplay. And then a month later he calls me and says, ‘Buddy, you’re nuts, I’m in,’ and he really did come.”
The decision to include Tel Aviv in the film title even though it was shot entirely in Tivon and takes place there, sparked objections from many, Geffen says. But he was adamant. “For me it expressed a general sense of disgust with myself and life here. After all, everyone knows that not everything happens in Tel Aviv and, still, when we’re in our cafes and with our friends the conversations are always very much about here ... So this was an attempt to laugh a little at myself and about the place I’m in,” he says. “Apart from that, I personally was fed up with seeing scenes shot on Rothschild Boulevard. It’s a nice street, but it’s been filmed enough, hasn’t it? It’s time to get out of Tel Aviv and shoot a little in some other places.”
The Israel Film Fund invested a modest initial sum of NIS 50,000 in “Not in Tel Aviv” as part of its program to support indie films, and Geffen and Tamir matched that sum from their own pocket, he says. With this minuscule sum, they set off. “I was like a locomotive − you couldn’t stop me,” says Geffen. “And because Itai [Tamir]’s an experienced and well-connected producer, he was able to get things that helped us make the film. The low budget forced us on many occasions to come up with creative solutions. It wasn’t easy, but it was fun.”
For example, when the production couldn’t cover the cost of a crane to hoist a camera to shoot from a specific angle, the photographer was suspended between two cars, Geffen says. Lunch was served in the dining room of a nearby kibbutz, thanks to the fact that Geffen hails from the Zvulun Regional Council area, and the accommodations for the cast and crew were free because everyone stayed in the homes of Geffen’s childhood friends’ parents.
After shooting, however, Tamir and Geffen had to raise more money to complete the production. The Israel Film Fund assisted them, but the amount provided was insufficient, and Tamir suggested raising more money over the Internet. They produced a polished trailer, which was uploaded at the beginning of the year to the Indiegogo global funding forum, and invited potential investors to join them. In return for their cash, they promised investors various incentives − from a film poster to a credit as a production partner, depending on the amount of the investment. The effort exceeded their expectations. Various media outlets covered this fund-raising effort and some 200 people from Israel and abroad invested various amounts. Tamir and Geffen raised more than NIS 100,000 this way, enabling them to complete the production (not a single shekel was left − it all went into the film, Geffen notes).
Still, despite its uniqueness, Geffen’s film includes a few infuriating chauvinistic missteps − for example, having two good-looking young women fall in love with the hero, even though one is kidnapped at gunpoint by him and held in his home against her will, and two scenes depicting a group of feminists in a particularly demeaning way. It seems feminism is not Geffen’s strong point.
“The film remains within the limits of morality. The hero doesn’t engage in the forbidden act with the girl,” Geffen says in response. “She falls for him, but he knows she’s just a girl falling for her teacher. Apart from that, I purposely tried to make their worlds places that aren’t really sane, so that the reasons motivating the characters exist even if viewers perhaps don’t experience them [in their own lives] ... For me, it’s a classic romantic film. If it’s chauvinistic it’s only in jest, because I’m a feminist.”