Avi Nesher
Nesher, left, and Street in Jerusalem this week. Their collaboration on 'Plaot' was 'like a jam session of ideas,' says Nesher. Photo by Emil Salman
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Israeli filmmaker Avi Nesher first starts to think about the music for his movies even before he sits down to write the screenplay.

Last week, during a brief break in the shooting of his film "Plaot" (Wonders ), Nesher explained how his thoughts on the music for the film actually led him to abandon his original idea for the script - and to bring in an unusual and surprising partner.

All it took was one good performance, Nesher recounted, as the film crew scrambled in the background to prepare for the next scene.

Nesher had had three ideas for a film, and he was starting to think about suitable music when he wound up at a performance of the Israeli hip hop/funk band Hadag Nahash. He was so excited about what he heard that as soon as the performance ended he sent an SMS to the lead vocalist, Sha'anan Street.

"I wrote him that it was wonderful and I would be glad to meet him to talk about writing music for my next film," Nesher recalls. "We met at a Tel Aviv cafe and we talked music, and since he is one of the nicest people ever he said to me, 'Come and I'll show you Jerusalem.' Just like that, without any ulterior motive."

And with that, Nesher, a Tel Aviv resident, and Street, a Jerusalemite, began meeting regularly - sometimes in Jerusalem, sometimes in Tel Aviv. As their friendship grew, Nesher shared his ideas for a new screenplay.

"It was a bit like a jam session in jazz," says Nesher. "In my past I was a not-particularly-talented jazz musician for many years - I played guitar - and suddenly it was a delight to meet another musician and set out on a musical journey with someone else. It was a jam session of ideas, which grew and ballooned and became so enjoyable that, at a certain moment, as they say in American films, 'I popped the question.'"

And so, Nesher asked Street to co-write the screenplay for his next film. The Hadag Nahash vocalist was initially taken aback, but Nesher reassured him: "The texts you write are brilliant and you are a very verbal person. You'll be good at it," he told the musician. "In screenwriting there is an element of architecture and structure, along with a dimension of poetics. I know a thing or two about architecture, but poetics is a gift from God. That's what you will bring."

Street ultimately accepted the challenge and the two set out to co-write the screenplay for "Plaot." After several intensive months of writing together, the crew began filming last week in Jerusalem.

"This is just the second time in my life I've been on a film set," says Street, adding, "Everything here is new for me."

Neither comedy nor drama

Street has grown a thick beard for a small role he plays in the film, that of an ultra-Orthodox man, the proprietor of the cafe where the protagonist has his coffee every morning. Nesher leaps up from his chair and attends to the filming of the next scene, as Street ambles over to the steep and narrow alley in the Musrara neighborhood where the scene is being filmed. He watches what is happening from the sidelines.

Nesher gives final instructions to the actors, cameraman Michel Abramowicz gets into position, and the filming begins. Actor Adir Miller, garbed in a black hat and a long coat, walks quickly behind Uri Hezekiah. At a certain point he reaches forward, grabs Hezekiah and shoves him into a doorway, where he presses him up against the wall: "Tell me, what do you think you're doing?" Miller hisses, threatening Hezekiah with his fist. "What do you have in your head - sense or baklava? What have you done?"

"What have I done?" replies Hezekiah, terrified. "Take it easy. I haven't done anything."

"Do you even know what you're getting into? It's a bad business, very bad. I asked you to help, not to mess things up," Miller charges.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to. Let me go," trembles Hezekiah. "I don't owe you anything."

Hezekiah, with a wild mop of curls, a stubbly beard, and clothes covered in paint stains, plays the main character, Arnav, whose name translates in English as "Hare."

Arnav is a bartender in a Jerusalem pub, as well as a graffiti artist. One day he discovers that a famous rabbi (Yehuda Levi ), who has mysterious powers, is imprisoned in the apartment next door to his own. A private investigator (Miller ), who is trying to locate the imprisoned rabbi, tries to get help from Arnav, and also from a beautiful woman (Yuval Scharf ), who is a relative of the rabbi's. The only person who comes to Arnav's aid is his ex (Efrat Gosh ), who works with him as a waitress in the pub.

Is this a comedy? A drama? Even the filmmakers aren't so sure.

"I'm no expert on genres. I call this a laugh-thriller," says Street.

He notes that Arnav's character is partly based on him. "I was a barman for eight years, until I was 30," says Street. "That was at the beginning of Hadag Nahash, before we issued the first CD. The bar where Arnav works is very similar to the bar where I worked. The people who come into it are very similar to the people who came into the bar where I worked. And his whole life, working at night and being an artist during the day, is also similar to the way mine was. The humor is similar, and the personality, the desire to avoid conflicts, to avoid anything that's a little bit complicated. That's something you need in order to survive in this city."

Nesher's decision to place Jerusalem at the center of the film was not the result of his encounter with Street, however. According to the filmmaker, he made the decision before he ever met with his writing partner.

"I love films in which the city where they are set, or the place where they happen, has significance just like a character," Nesher explains. "This, for example, was the case with the development town in 'Turn Left at the End of the World,'" with Safed in 'The Secrets,' and with Haifa in 'The Matchmaker.' And Jerusalem has always fascinated me. I'm not from here but I've been teaching here for quite some time now. It's a poetic city which is nearly always depicted in its prosaic stereotypes, and I decided I wanted to make my next film here."

In this sense, it would seem that Nesher could not have asked for a better partner than the musician who has helped him write the film. Street, a proud Jerusalemite who was born in the city, grew up in the capital and even managed to survive all the waves of emigration. He took Nesher on tours of the city, helped him become acquainted with it from up close, and made sure to pack its special atmosphere into the screenplay.

"For me as a Jerusalemite, the main quality of this city is that in a very small unit of space you can meet populations as different from one another as day and night," he said. "I think this is the only city that can offer encounters among such different characters, like the characters in the film, in a natural way. It was important for a Jerusalemite subconscious to seep into the film."

A city that is fighting for its identity

The film "Plaot" offers an encounter between a secular artist and a rabbi - two characters who on the surface seem worlds apart. Yet Nesher emphasizes that there is an attempt here to examine the similarity between art and faith. Believing in God is believing in something you can't see, while making art is bringing something from the unseen into what is seen, he explains. In both cases there is a process of investigation and clarification.

"We talked a lot about this meeting between a secular artist and a religious person, and about the dialogue that develops between them while the earth is burning under their feet," says Nesher. "Sha'anan was more religious in his youth, and I went to a yeshiva, but we have a lot of friends who have gone in the opposite direction and have become religiously observant. The internal tension between art and faith looks to me like a major issue in the Israeli experience of today. We are living in a society that is fighting for its identity: It used to be involved with socialism and realization, whereas today it is more and more involved in faith and money. To my mind this war for identity is just as fundamental an issue here as the debate on returning territories."

Though in many ways the protagonist is indeed based on Street, he and Nesher decided that Arnav should be a graffiti artist, not a musician or songwriter. This choice enabled them write a more alternative character, one who is further from the mainstream, Street explains.

"Over the years I've known scores of alternative Jerusalemite artists," he says. "There are lots of them. Rap is a marginal art and so is graffiti. Graffiti is to painting as rap is to poetry."

Nesher, meanwhile, sees a resemblance between street art and cinema. "To my mind, ideally, movies would be free and everyone could watch them," says Nesher. "One of the beautiful things about graffiti artists is that they paint for everyone. In the purest sense of the word graffiti is a bit like film, in the sense that it is an art that communicates with the entire culture, not an elitist art. In my films I talk to the people whom I live in the midst of. I love art that has lofty and hidden sides in it but is also very open, accessible to everyone. Like Hitchcock's films, for example."

In "Plaot," Arnav's graffiti sometimes serves as the starting point for scenes the production people call "Arnavision." These are scenes in which the audience joins the protagonist and sees a different reality through his eyes - perhaps hallucinatory, perhaps imagined.

"Arnavision is the ability to see what doesn't exist, to see a painting come alive, to see things that aren't there, to experience simultaneously both reality and an alternative reality," Nesher explains. "The film has an orderly story but from time to time there is a flight into an initiated, non-existent reality. This is an attempt to translate the way an artist perceives reality."

To this end, Nesher is working for the first time in his career with animation. A few months ago he began to look for animators; he received 500 applications, and from them he has chosen five animators, he says. He is developing with them visual concepts for animation that will be introduced into some of the Arnavision scenes.

Filming is scheduled to be completed next month, and "Plaot" is currently on track to be released next year. It is being produced by Moshe and Leon Edery and Dodi Silber, with support from the Joshua Rabinovich Foundation and the Jerusalem Film and Television Initiative.