Zooming in on the Periphery

Last Thursday, two days before the Jerusalem Film Festival ended, the competition for the Wolgin prize awarding the best Israeli dramas was a nonstarter. Six of the competition's seven films had already been screened; "The Band's Visit" seemed destined to win the top prize. It was difficult to imagine that the last film on the list, the first production of an unknown director featuring unknown actors and an inexperienced crew, would manage to breathe some life into the competition.

Yet the film "Vasermil," by director Mushon Salmona surprised everyone. The hallway conversations after the screening were brimming with the impressed opinions of the young director's premiere. The audience discussed the film's style and the subjects it raises - the name ofBritish director Ken Loach was mentioned repeatedly. Combining rough-edged realism, social criticism, an original screenplay and touching performances by three inexperienced young men, Salmona proved you don't necessarily have to be a famous director to create a good film - nor do you need a large budget and an arsenal of famous actors.

Film critics raved. Uri Klein (Haaretz) heaped praise on the movie. He said "Vasermil" was not just the best film in the competition, but also the best Israeli film he'd seen since "Or" and "Zero Year." Meir Schnitzer (Ma'ariv) declared the film a real discovery: "'Vasermil' is everything a film festival could wish for. A completely unknown director, unknown actors who are just starting out, and no prior media buzz, just a routine premiere. And then suddenly, boom, a discovery."

Even the judges of the Wolgin competition were convinced. At the festival's closing ceremony, "Vasermil" was awarded the prize worth NIS 40,000. "For his brave effort in depicting an anguished and divisive human reality, ethnic hostility and tensions, for his actors' precise and strong performance, and for building his end, which does not offer a condescending solution for understanding reality," the judges explained their decision.

As the fanfare of the festival dissipated, Salmona was still excited about the reactions to the movie and was ready to help clear the fog shrouding his image. The meeting with him actually takes place in Tel Aviv, where he lives with his partner and their two children ("the third is on the way"), but unlike most Israeli filmmakers, Salmona, 37, does not feel like a Tel Avivian. He prefers not to meet in a cafe, but on a park bench, and arrives wearing shorts and sandals, acknowledging that he still doesn't know the city very well. Only three years ago, he returned from a 10-year stay in London; before that he lived in his hometown of Be'er Sheva, where the plot of "Vasermil" unfolds.

The film's heroes are three boys who live in the southern city. Everyday they have to deal with a reality of serious violence, broken families and people struggling to make ends meet, as well as inter-ethnic conflict. Adiel (Adiel Zamro) is from an Ethiopian family and has to take care of his younger brother because his mother's health is deteriorating. Dima (David Teplitzky), whose parents emigrated from Russia, witnesses their helplessness and humiliation in trying to earn a living, and arranges drug deals with violent criminals. Lastly, Shlomi (Nadir Eldad), who works in a pizzeria, lives with his widowed mother and stepfather and has to suffer the pressure of his older brother, a petty criminal, who is trying to impose his authority on him. When the three are enlisted in the local soccer team, they get a chance to change their lives.

Salmona attests that he included childhood memories and materials he accumulated during his youth in the screenplay, along with the reality he observed during his visits to Be'er Sheva, while he was living in London. When he was a child, teenagers did not walk around armed with knives, he says. But already then, violence was an inseparable part of everyday life in Be'er Sheva. "Then, too, there was a feeling that if you're a teenager, and you leave your house to roam the neighborhood or play, there's an element of survival in that. Maybe it wasn't like in Harlem, but you certainly knew which territory you could and couldn't roam through," he explains. "In my time, for example, there were Georgian neighborhoods and Moroccan neighborhoods, and you knew that if you went there, you'd get beaten up."

But the violence and the conflicts between different ethnic and national groups, Salmona stresses, are not unique to Be'er Sheva. He also came across it when he was living in London and believes this situation exists everywhere, all over the world. "I wanted to see whether it is possible to overcome these differences, whether everything is built into our biology, or if it's something cultural. I was drawn to the idea of testing the magic formula we were raised on: as youths in the 1970s, we read in 'Mikra'ot Yisrael' about the idea that we are a melting pot and how much fun it is for us to be together, and that in this way we will create some kind of new Israeli, different from everyone who had arrived here. But, of course, that never really worked, even though they really wanted us to believe that it works."

As someone who was an immigrant in the U.K., he says of himself, "perhaps I am also a little like an immigrant here ever since my return. I think this perspective allows you to look at where you came from differently, at the importance of the place where you came from, and how you feel in the place where you are, about the people who live there permanently.

"In 'Vasermil,' I wanted to examine the subject of immigration, to look at what is behind the numbers, behind the statements such as 'how nice, a million immigrants from Russia have come and they will bring momentum to the economy and the developing state.' After all, people pay a price to move from one country to another. For the most part, the first generation that comes to the new country pays the price, but the scars usually remain in the second and third generations as well."

Salmona never formally studied film. Before he left for London, at the age of 24, he applied to the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, but was not accepted. Because film studies in England were too expensive for him, he made do with undergraduate and graduate degrees in culture studies in London; but his "university for film," as he calls it, was located between the walls of the London Cinematheque, and on the bulletin board of a London film club. In his first two years in London he would frequently go to the local cinematheque, "which offered a triple screening, three films for one ticket, from 11 A.M. to 5 P.M. I would do the night shift in my job at El Al, sleep a few hours and go out to see a few films. Until then my cinema diet consisted of what the mainstream theaters in Be'er Sheva were showing; and in London, all of a sudden I was able to see French, German and English films, as well as classics."

At the same time, he took advantage of the flourishing London indie scene. "There was an explosion of independent films following Quentin Tarantino's 'Pulp Fiction,' which called out to people to pick up a camera and go out and film. Many people in London did just that and I arrived at the [London film] club, which had a large bulletin board, with notes of people searching for workers without pay for all kinds of productions. I wanted to gain experience, to see what it's like to work on a set and I did everything on the sets of all kinds of particularly unsuccessful films - from being a production assistant, to a film photographer with a camera that someone in his ignorance gave me to operate."

In 1997, he directed a short drama, "Father's Day." Afterward, he worked in a variety of jobs producing documentary films for television. At the same time, he supported himself by working in a deli. In late 2004, he returned to Israel with the screenplay for "Vasermil" in his bag. The producers Marek Rozenbaum and Itai Tamir were enthusiastic about the project and the Israeli Film Fund agreed to invest in the film. And so its production began.

From the outset, it was clear to Salmona that he did not want famous actors to appear in his film. He wanted to make a documentary-like movie and knew that stars did not suit this approach. So he set off with casting agent Limor Sheetrit to tour the country in search of youths without acting experience. They found Adiel in the Rehovot community center, Dima in the Ashkelon club for at-risk youth ("The actor is not an at-risk youth, he is actually from a wonderful family. He went there because that's what there is to do in the neighborhood"), and Shlomi in an acting agency ("His father signed him up but he had no acting experience at all"). Salmona let each one of them choose the name of the character he would portray, so they would feel as comfortable as possible with it. Even when casting the other characters, he preferred actors for whom life in the periphery is not something foreign. "I looked for people with something in their biography that would make them recognize the character they were portraying. I wanted them to really understand what it was about, without them having to go on an investigative outing. That they should know the meaning of living in a neighborhood in Be'er Sheva."

The team that worked with Salmona, including photographer Ram Shweky and editor Reut Hahn, also did not have a lot of film experience. He notes that the work on the set was shared and explains that in order to film in a documentary style, Shweky was not permitted to attend the rehearsals of some scenes. That's why he didn't know what was going to happen in them, and during the filming, which lasted only 19 days, there was a sense of immediate and unplanned camera movement.

Even though the Israel Film Fund invested in the film (which was produced with a budget of $400,000), none of the local broadcasters agreed to invest in. Perhaps it was the subject that deterred them, said Salmona; perhaps the content of the film is "explosive material" from their perspective. He is curious to know how the Israeli audience will respond to the film, especially in the periphery, but he will have to be patient. "Vasermil" (which is named after Be'er Sheva's soccer stadium) will only reach the screens in a few months, after it completes its planned visits to foreign film festivals.