You touched God, now touch me
In `Reaching for Heaven,' which returns to Channel 2 after a five-year hiatus, the conflict between the rotagonists moves from religion to the settlements.
"There's no need to kiss a mezuzah when you enter a room," calls out Yafit Moshe, who is responsible for religious matters in the production of "Reaching for Heaven," from the backstage darkness to the strictly secular Yoram Hattab. Hattab, who plays the newly religious Roni, is filmed as he enters the bedroom in the home of Nurit (Orly Zilberschatz), which was once his home as well. Behind the monitors, dresser Keren Ron giggles along with scriptwriter Shlomo Mashiah: "He's in a frenzy over door frames," she says. The two are amused. They have been filming since 5 A.M. and it is now noon of the last day of filming - January 24, about a month and a half before the series was to begin broadcasting, this evening.
The prizewinning drama is returning to Channel 2 after an absence of five years. It won the prize for best drama series at the Jerusalem International Film Festival in 2001 and the Israeli Academy Award that same year. It is hard to define this as the series' second season, as it doesn't fit the usual television definition of consecutive seasons. "It's a strange beast," says Mashiah. Producer Assaf Amir prefers to replace the term "second season" with "view of the situation," whereas director Roni Ninio says that the transition between seasons needs "to be cracked." "And now that we've cracked the transition from season to season, we can continue with it infinitely."
"Roni and Nurit were almost completely cut off from each other during those years," says Mashiah. "The conscription of their son Oded brings them closer together." Nurit asks Roni to help her keep Oded out of the army. Roni refuses, but the connection is renewed. "At first, he comes for a weekend, and the ice is broken," says Mashiah. "During those five years the couple has remained married, and they have two children together - Oded and 14-year-old Shira. Nurit has a boyfriend (Shmuel Vilozny), a pharmacist who is a nice guy but doesn't thrill her, while Roni has had difficulty finding a match, despite the help of the people around him."
Thanks to the tender
"Reaching for Heaven" is a mini-series in length, six episodes in total. The first episode is the film that will be broadcast this evening at 9:25 P.M. It was filmed scene by scene, in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and in the studio. Each scene is separated from the next by a black screen. The second episode will be broadcast on Thursday to create viewing continuity for a series that has perhaps already been forgotten. The rest of the episodes will also be screened on Thursdays.
What has happened during those five years in the inner sanctum of Keshet, the franchisee responsible for "Reaching for Heaven?" Why did they decide to revive the series at this particular time? Amir and Ninio say half-jokingly that the tender for the new Channel 2 franchises gets the credit. "Keshet originally wanted a second season. I've always wanted one and even when I was head of the drama department at Keshet I tried to promote it," says Ninio, "but each time it was rejected for various reasons." Amir adds: "They always wanted it, but they didn't always find the money."
The possibility that the series will continue infinitely, as Ninio says, or even another few seasons, doesn't appeal to Amir. In fact, he rejects it. It's an expensive production and is not profitable to keep going. From the moment it was decided to film a second season, it was filmed quickly and under great pressure.
In any case, the first season of "Reaching for Heaven," which was based on Ora Morag's book "One Hundred New Apples, Including VAT" ("but even in the first season there was no real connection to the book"), was not at all suited to what today is generally supposed to be the spirit of the Channel 2 tender. Early in the first series, Roni "performs a selection," as Nurit calls it, of their children's books and throws away those of which he does not approve, like Greek mythology. She calls him "benighted" and wants him to leave the house.
The new season deals less with religious divisions and more with the political divide - and does this in a non-objective way. Roni goes to live in a Jewish settlement in the territories and develops a relationship with Hadas (Sarah Adler, who recently appeared in Jean-Luc Goddards' film "Our Music.") This upsets Nurit and creates additional conflict. "Then, the religious issue was the hottest topic," says Amir. "Today, we're all living in peace with one another. Everything's fine."
In a more serious tone Mashiah says that the treatment of the religious fission between the two was deep enough in the first season and now it is necessary to go on to the hot political issue of the day - the Jewish settlements in the territories. "We wanted to ratchet up the conflict in the series a degree, to the conflict between the land of Judea and Israel," says Ninio, "to show via the couple the gap that has opened in Israeli society, at the human level and also at the ideological level. We wanted to give dramatic expression to a very large rift that I think is engaging us at this time."
Changing the sheets
Another major topic is the couple's relationship. After a period of separation they grow closer and find that even though they are not able to live together, they are still in love and attracted to each other. Lust is in the air, but before they make it to bed the film crew changes the sheets twice, to match Zilberschatz's sweater.
The implied sex scene begins with a kiss near the clothes closet. After the first take Zilberschatz, who gives an excellent performance in the new season as well, takes a cigarette break. "This is the first time I've done a sex scene," she says in a way that seems to be nervous. "They never cast me for roles like that. I don't exactly know what you're supposed to do. Am I supposed to enjoy it?" She is called back in to work. The two find it a bit difficult to play the scene. Ninio, in an attempt to create a relaxed atmosphere, reminds them, "It's not such a big deal. You've already done it once or twice. You were married for 20 years."
It seems like Ninio does want to maintain the actors' tension. According to him, the scene shows a release of tensions. "They go to bed together after she has had another boyfriend. As far as Roni is concerned she has whored, and she tells him that she has not been to the mikveh (ritual bath). He is violating a great many religious prohibitions. For him, this is huge laxness."
Just as these serious scenes are being filmed at the Broadcast Studios in Holon, in the adjacent studio filming of the Yes satellite telenovela "Our Song" is underway. Some members of the crew drew comparisons. Ninio says that in "Reaching for Heaven," the camera work is soft and very precise and the lighting is also soft, in contrast to the telenovela, in which everything is flooded in a strong light.
He says that they are using three cameras the whole time and that they use the different shots in the editing. To break away from the standard three-wall television look, part of a fourth wall has been placed on the set. The assistant director pays strict attention to every word spoken by the actors and stops them when they make a mistake, especially Zilberschatz, who approaches everything with some frivolity. "I'm also capable of causing trouble when I'm not on camera," says Zilberschatz during a scene when she is supposed to be talking with Roni on the phone. "I adore this."
Amir, who heads the producers' association, uses "Our Song" as an example in a discussion of audience tastes. "The viewers also want to see quality drama, and not just what is being filmed on the other side of the wall here. After 15 years of commercial television [in Israel], we see that the audience enjoys Israeli dramas. We have made progress since the days of Dan Shilon's circular studio. `The Bourgeois' proved that there is place for an expensive drama, and that it brings in the ratings."
There is nothing to add but to say, "Thanks for this series." Amen.
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