Nissan Nativ
Nissan Nativ, second from left, with a number of his students, as seen in the film The Acting Teacher.
Text size

"The Acting Teacher," Shlomo Hayun's documentary film, tries to solve a convoluted mystery: that of Nissan Nativ, the man who founded one of Israel's leading acting schools and gave several generations of Israeli actors their start, yet remained a mysterious figure until his dying day.

The sunglasses that always hid his eyes, the emotional restraint he manifested in everything he did and his perpetual solitariness (he lived alone, never married and left no children ) were all obstacles that Hayun had to try to penetrate to get a glimpse into the soul of this man, who died three weeks before he was to have received the Israel Prize for theater.

But after Nativ's death about two years ago, the mystery only deepened. In one section of his will, he took a light tone. "I have lived a full, interesting and fascinating life until the end (or so I hope )," he wrote. "If anyone wants to organize a memorial gathering, he should avoid eulogies. Instead, it is possible to tell jokes."

And at the memorial evening held shortly after his death, one of his beloved and successful students, Rami Heuberger, obeyed his teacher. "Nissan, we have a problem. You have gone - or in your lingo, 'Something has happened. There is a change in the situation,'" he said, imitating Nativ. The audience laughed.

"But we don't know what to do," he continued. "We are just crying. And I know that if you were here with us now, you would be angry and say that everything happening here is tearfulness for it own sake, whining, rubbish and nonsense, and we should stop it immediately and leave the stage and start working." And the audience laughed again.

But another provision in the will was less amusing. In it, he imposed a strange task on his good friend, physics professor Moshe Deutsch: He instructed him to take 21 items from the art collection he left behind and give them to 21 people who were dear to him, most of them graduates of or teachers at the acting studio.

But there was a problem with these instructions: Nativ did not specify which person should receive which item. Instead, he left his friend the task of matching the items to the various beneficiaries.

Thus even Nativ's final gesture, which could have been a moving, personal act of friendship, became a strange, confusing process - formal, alienated, disturbing and exactly suited to the Nativ's character as it emerges from the film.

"The Acting Teacher," which will be screened today as part of the Jerusalem Film Festival's documentary film competition (as well as on Friday at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and on July 26 on the Yes Doco channel ), tries to decipher this character with the help of the 21 legatees, whom it tracks in the aftermath of Nativ's death.

Hayun, 38, described himself at the start of the film as one of the many who wanted to study acting at Nativ's studio, but did not pass the tough auditions. Nevertheless, he related, "I remember that after he told me I hadn't been accepted, Nissan went and phoned the director of Seminar Hakibbutzim and told him about me. Nissan sent me to him, and even though the class list had already been finalized, I did an audition and was accepted.

"Still, the sense of missing out accompanied me all through my studies: What in fact do they learn there, at the studio? What happens there?"

Hayun had an opportunity to find out several years later, when he was a student at the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem. One day, he went to visit a friend at Nativ's studio and received a surprising offer: Michael Gurevitch, one of the studio's senior teachers, and Michael Warshaviak, its administrative director, suggested he film a "digital diary" of the school's director and document the lessons he gave on video.

Hayun did not hesitate. For a whole year, he and his partner, Avishag Shaulsky, filmed all the classes Nativ gave to first- and second-year students at the studio. "These materials are supposed to serve anyone who wants to learn Nissan's method," he explained.

Ultimately, therefore, he did have the opportunity to peek into the "Holy of Holies" that had so intrigued him over the years. "I was finally able to sit in Nissan's classes and learn," he smiled. "But imagine how badly I wanted to get up on the stage myself and try sometimes. So maybe it was a kind of closing of a circle, but not entirely."

During this filming, Hayun realized he could use the opportunity to make a documentary about Nativ. The two became close, and Nativ was enthusiastic about the idea and agreed to cooperate, he said. Thus after the digital diary was completed, Hayun spent another two years, until Nativ's death, hanging around the studio and Nativ with a camera and recorder. He also, of course, interviewed the 21 people named in the will.

Given how much time he spent with Nativ, it is surprising that so few of his conversations with the legendary teacher are included in the film, which he produced together with Renen Schorr (Neta Dvorkis did the editing ). He explained that because of Nativ's mystifying and perplexing personality, he decided to make the film "a journey from the outside in - [going] inward from the myth Nissan built and the stories he told about himself.

"I tried to understand the dissonance between the public side of his character and the private side, which he tried very hard to wall off. I didn't want to tell the story he wanted to tell, and which he told everyone for decades. I wanted to tell the story you feel exists there but can't manage to hear. On one hand, he radiated distance, and on the other, fragility and sensitivity. And this didn't fit together for me. Why was he so mysterious? All his life he hid behind sunglasses. He tells what he wants to tell and you want to hear about other things. What was really there?"

How did the professor decide?

One of the most surprising moments in the film is when Hayun reveals the fact that one of the major events in Nativ's biography, which he repeatedly mentioned over the years, was in fact not exactly true. Nativ boasted that he had been a member of the troupe run by Etienne Decroix, the father of modern pantomime. Hayun's research, however, found that while Nativ had indeed been very close to Decroix, he was never a member of his troupe.

The people interviewed in the film, who were among those closest to Nativ during his lifetime, praise him warmly, but also talk about his weaknesses. This creates an interesting and complex profile. They describe a person who went around with a pervasive sense of being oppressed, who offered a subversive alternative to the establishment theater, who was always the bad boy, the outsider, of the local theater scene.

They also depict someone who did not know how to be a politician, who got into trouble with too many of the people and institutions that could have helped him, who was too choosy to compromise on a life partner, and who often declared that his children were his students and his wife was the studio.

When Deutsch came to see the objects Nativ had left in his apartment, he discovered that the apartment had been broken into and many items had been stolen. Nevertheless, he found a way to match the items to the heirs in accordance with Nativ's request.

The 21 legatees reacted to the unusual legacy in different ways: Some were happy, some moved, some astonished and some angry. Actor Moshe Ivgy, for example, asked the lawyer in charge of Nativ's estate with a smile: "Did the physics professor decide this??" and examined the painting he received with satisfaction.

Rachel Schorr, an actress and teacher at the studio, held the statuette she was given and asked the lawyer, "On what basis did Prof. Deutsch decide [what would suit me]?" And she submissively accepted the answer that the professor simply followed his own best judgment.

Actress Michaela Eshet, however, found this difficult to accept. After describing her complex relationship with Nativ, she voiced anger at this gesture on his part. He always expected her to be at the heart of the system, she said, and when she did not meet his expectations, he was disappointed with her. "So why did he leave me this? 'I wasn't able to give you this appreciation during my lifetime, so I am giving it to you after my death?' Why?" she protested.

"Collecting was Nissan's thing, the world he loved to dive into," Hayun said. "It was his refuge from the studio. And then when he died, he in fact did something very symbolic, a very emotional gesture, and chose 21 people to whom he gave a work from his collection."

But the way he chose to implement this charming gesture, Hayun argued, demonstrates an emotional handicap: "It's as though he said, 'Guys, I've left you some things, but someone else is going to make the choice for me.' He didn't go all the way with it. This is a gesture of someone who doesn't want to hurt anyone. But I think he nevertheless did hurt people."