Memories of the Self-styled 'Ashkenazi Iraqi'

In her new film, Dina Zvi-Riklis challenges two deeply entrenched views: the rosy narrative of the pre-state Zionist experience and her own perception of her identity.

When Dina Zvi-Riklis was a young girl, she read a book that cast such a powerful spell on her that she abandoned her identity in order to adopt - at least in her own mind - the identity of the heroine. That book was Rachel Eytan's "The Fifth Heaven," and Riklis' film adaptation of the story that haunted her for decades, featuring the girl who fed her own faux identity, opens in local cinemas October 11.

"I don't remember a thing from my childhood," says the 62-year-old director and screenwriter, who is married to filmmaker Eran Riklis, and whose previous films include "Dreams of Innocence" (1994) and "Three Mothers" (2006).

"We lived in a two-room apartment, but I do not remember where I slept in the house or where my clothes closet was. Nothing. I don't have any photographs from that time, and no memories, either," says Riklis, in a wide-ranging pre-premier interview.

This, she believes, is the result of a sophisticated repression mechanism, which was intended to detach her from the environment from which she wished to distance herself. In 1951, when she was a year old, Riklis moved with her parents and two brothers from Iraq to Israel, and after five years in an immigrant tent camp, the family moved to Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv. When Riklis started school, she was already what she calls "an Ashkenazi Iraqi," the daughter of immigrants who turned their backs on the place from they came, who refused to listen to Mizrahi (that is, of North African or Middle Eastern origin ) music at home, who refused to speak Arabic.

"We were ashamed of our parents. We felt that they could not help us; we didn't want these people to be our parents," she says.

The only event that is inscribed in her head and her heart, Riklis says, is her encounter with "The Fifth Heaven," sometime in the 1960s. She immersed herself in it with complete abandon, allowing herself to be drawn into a total identification with the young protagonist of the book, Maya, who lives in a hostel for abandoned children.

Today, Riklis understands the profound effect that character had on her own identity. "She had honey-colored hair, just like all of us wanted," she smiles. "She was a girl who grows up in an orphanage without the supervision of parents, and who does anything and everything that she wants. I was especially enchanted by the idea that the parents are not at all in the picture. The book touched my heart so much, I so much identified with it, that I truly was Maya, I felt like Maya.

"I identified with her dark side, with her secrets, with the fact that she was not a nice girl and didn't suck up to anyone. That is what attracted me, because I was of course expected to be a sweet, charming, beautiful girl, the good and socially well-adapted pupil, who does everything that is proper. And so it was that I adopted a different biography for myself. As if I had not even grown up in Ramat Gan, but rather in this orphanage, and as if I did not grow up in my parents' home, but that I only came to visit them every so often. That's really how it was. Because I so very much did not want to be who I was, I simply expunged my past and adopted the identity of Maya."

The idea of turning "The Fifth Heaven" into a feature film first occurred to Riklis about two decades ago, when she took part in a writing workshop led by the American screenwriter Lou Hunter in Israel. When the participants in the workshop were asked to write screenplay for a feature film, it was obvious to Riklis what she would do.

"I decided that I was going to adapt this book into a screenplay, because it had accompanied me all my life and because Maya resided within me for so many years, and also because the book is awfully cinematic," she explains. "When you read the book by Rachel Eytan, you truly see things in front of your eyes; you don't even have to imagine it. I had graphic memories from this book."

Riklis sat down to write the screenplay right away. Afterward, she got hold of the phone number of Omri Eytan, the son of the author, who died in 1987, to ask him for the film adaptation rights to the book. But Eytan informed her that the rights had already been sold, and the disappointed Riklis was compelled to shelve the screenplay as well as her plan of turning the formative book of her childhood into a film.

Five years passed, and then one day Eytan called Riklis and informed her that since the buyer of the rights had not realized his plan to adapt the book for the cinema, he was transferring the rights to her. The thrilled Riklis went back to work on the screenplay. For years, she rewrote and adapted, wrote and deleted, and submitted it again and again, in various versions, to the Israel Film Foundation, in the hope of winning its financial support. However, each time the answer was negative.

"I had dozens of submissions. In the meantime, I made 'Dreams of Innocence' (1994 ) and 'Three Mothers' (2006 ), but 'The Fifth Heaven' was always in the background," she recalls. "Dozens of written opinions that I received about the film were sitting in my drawer. I was asked if it was a children's film or a film for adults. They said that there was no plot connection; there were countless criticisms. But I have no complaints. Really. Because I know that in this screenplay there is something that is not ingratiating, that it doesn't make you happy, and that here in Israel they don't exactly love period films. Everyone was always filled with admiration for the screenplay, but the bottom line was always, 'To our regret, we will not support it.'"

At one stage, Riklis was joined by two partners - screenwriter Alma Ganihar and the producer Yifat Prestelnik, who also worked with her on "Three Mothers" and "The Witch from Melchet Street" - and together they finally succeeded in winning the support of the Yehoshua Rabinovich Foundation for the Arts. ("I very much believe in the power of women. Very much so," emphasizes Riklis. ) Producers Moshe and Leon Edery joined the project, the search began for the girl who would play the heroine and the other characters; finally, in the summer of 2010, Riklis shot the film "The Fifth Heaven."

Alternative narrative

The plot of the film revolves around Maya (Amit Moshkovitz ), a beautiful 13-year-old girl who arrives in the summer of 1944 at an orphanage for abandoned children. Her mother has left the country and her father, who has remarried, has decided that he does not want to raise her. Instead, he hands her over to the director of an orphanage for abandoned children, Dr. Markowski (Yehezkel Lazarov ). The two men, it develops, were once good friends, but the friendship fell apart when it emerged that Markowski had an affair with his friend's wife - Maya's mother. In the wake of this affair, a question mark remains hovering over the true identity of the girl's father.

Maya is forced to fight for her status in the society of girls in the orphanage, while at the same time gradually falling in love with Doucha (Guy Adler), a member of Lehi (the pre-state militia) who is engaged to one of the institution's employees.

"The Fifth Heaven" explores Maya's efforts to widen her base of support in the competitive and ruthless society of girls, while also taking an interest in the adults around her, who are also compelled to conduct vicious struggles in order to survive. Through these characters, the film outlines several of the conflicts that typified Jewish society in Israel during those years. Among other things, the socialist Markowski is in conflict with another childhood friend, a wealthy capitalist (Aki Avni), who pressures his benefactor-mother to withdraw her support for the orphanage and to replace the building with a prosperous factory. The film also pits Markowski, who is a pacifist, against the militaristic Doucha, who dreams of kicking the British Mandatory authorities out of the country, and the Arabs right behind them. And the movie also presents the character of Berta (Rotem Zisman Cohen ), a cleaner at the orphanage who, in spite of the abuse she is taking, perseveres in spending time with her lover, a British officer, and believes that immediately after the war he will rescue her from this accursed land.

The film has outstanding acting and stunning cinematography (by Shai Goldman ). It also succeeds in presenting an alternative narrative, one that is critical and original, in place of the hackneyed narrative that usually describes the Zionist enterprise in pre-state Palestine. In the film, the collective existence - the group struggle for a shared objective and the great hopes of forging a new and better reality for the Jewish people - all are supplanted by strong sensations of loneliness and hopelessness. All of the characters in the film are alone, aloof from their surroundings, and all of their attempts to rely on others are doomed to failure. Ruthless capitalism starts to raise its head in the face of the socialist dream, the horrors of World War II are beginning to become evident, and the characters act as if they have nothing to look forward to, that the future holds no promise, and even if the war ends, it will not be long before another breaks out in its place.

"I was interested in exploring the image of this period, of the collective and of the high hopes," says Riklis. "These people have nothing, really nothing, not even hope. I was interested in dealing with this calamity, of representing the opposite of the familiar narrative, of presenting other sorts of personalities within the collective catalog of the Land of Israel characters.

"In my opinion, there is a very political, very critical subtext to this film," Riklis says. "The opportunity that presented itself then, at the end of World War II, of another war not breaking out here, and of the capitalism that was gaining strength and facing off against communism - and the characters that are so self-sacrificing. Actually, all of us are like that. Now, for example, all of us are hearing about the threat of a war with Iran, and are saying 'Whatever happens, happens.' To me, that's shocking. The entire population is sitting and talking about a war of choice that may very well break out here, and no one is doing a thing. Everyone is repressing things. It's a sort of lunatic fatalism. In the mirror of history, it is simply shocking."

Painful concessions

Riklis admits that the film adaptation of Eytan's book required her to make several painful concessions, but also led her to creative solutions. "There's no way around it, when you adapt a book, you also lose something of it," she notes.

For instance, Riklis says she decided to do without the plot line that focuses on the children, aside from the parts that pertain to Maya, in order to avoid "making a coming-of-age movie." She added to the screenplay the possibility of Markowski being the protagonist's father, something that did not exist in the book, because she needed some sort of element to link the world of the children with the world of the adults.

In addition, the relatively low budget, which allowed just 18 days of filming, prompted Riklis to focus the plot in one location: "A great deal of the book takes place in Tel Aviv, but we did not have enough time, and, of course, the Tel Aviv of then no longer exists. So we decided that the film would concentrate on what takes place in the orphanage. We contracted the story, and we created a sort of microcosm in an isolated place, one whose location is itself unclear, which exists in some frozen place in time. Both the cinematography and the atmosphere try to create a bubble in which the people that exist inside it are waiting for something to happen, for a war to end. Everyone there is waiting for some redemption, but it will not arrive, of course."

For many years, Riklis says she attempted to escape her own biography. Now, however, when she looks back, she understands that her films actually bring her back to the same historical place in her life, time after time. This happens in "Cordonia" (1984), which told the story of an Iraqi family's life in an immigrant tent city; in "Dreams of Innocence" (1994), about children who search for their father, who is having a hard time getting accustomed to life in Israel; and in "Three Mothers" (2006), which traced the complicated lives of three sisters who immigrated here from Egypt.

"In all of the films, I admit that I am making a connection of sorts to this desire to be someone else," she says, "and it has to do with the experience of an immigrant girl with parents who are not functioning. As time passes, I realize that my films are totally immigrant films. The lives of immigrants are lives of missed opportunity, with a sort of bitterness, and I assume that this is why I repressed it. But, of course, it doesn't help, because it is something that seeps down into you; it is assimilated in the genetic imprint. I didn't want to be the daughter of the embittered, poor immigrants who missed their lives. I very much wanted to fight it, but the fact is that it appears in all of my films. So evidently I did not really manage to get away from it, and that I am basically living it all the time."

Riklis notes that it was not only Eytan's book, "The Fifth Heaven," that fired her imagination, but also the author who wrote it.

"Rachel Eytan once said something to which I very much connected. She said that if she had not had such a difficult childhood, than presumably she would not have become an author. I very much identified with that," says Riklis. "In general, I read a great deal about her; I followed her from afar. She was the most beautiful woman in Israel, but also the saddest. In her face was something sad, and I remember that I would always look at it and say, 'This is the big Maya, the Maya who grew up.' She and her husband, the architect Dan Eytan, were such a glamorous couple - like today's Ninet and Yehuda Levi," she says, referring to the pop singer Ninet Tayeb and actor Levi, her partner. "Nevertheless, apparently you can be very beautiful and marry a successful architect, but there is something in your fate that doesn't leave you be. Your Rosebud.

"I am a happy-go-lucky person, with a good sense of humor, but I know that deep inside I am a sad person. So I feel very much connected to her. I admire her for having succeeded in taking her sadness and bequeathing it to others. And maybe that is what I want to do in my films. Sadness, in my eyes, is not a bad thing, but a complex thing that can even be pleasant. Rachel, for instance, succeeded in her novel in translating sadness into catharsis. I've always followed her; she was always of interest to me. She and Maya have been with me throughout my life; my children grew up on "The Fifth Heaven," and I even thought of calling my daughter Maya," she smiles.

Riklis is currently at work on two new projects. One of them is the screenplay "Wildflowers in October," which is currently awaiting approval from one of the cinema foundations. It concerns the life of the poet and author Tirza Atar - the daughter of Natan Alterman and Rachel Marcus - who committed suicide in 1977 at age 36.

"It is a story about the struggle of a poet, a charming creative person, who could not handle all the expectations made of her, and who was unable to cope with the status of her parents and with her obsessive love for her father. It is a sad story, but it will be a musical film, because she wrote so many songs," says Riklis.

The other film on which she is working is based on a story taken from "GPS," the book by Alma Ganihar, which was recently published by Am Oved.

"We extracted from it one story that is called 'The Ambassador's Wife,' which is about the wife of the Eritrean ambassador in Paris, who ends up here as a refugee, lives in a shelter for refugee women and has to deal with her fall from high status," says Riklis. "She arrives at the border crossing with a Gucci bag and a Louis Vuitton suitcase, and lives as a refugee here until a romance develops between her and an Israeli man who she happens to meet." Ganihar is now at work writing the screenplay.

Nearly six years ago, Riklis was interviewed in Haaretz as her film "Three Mothers" was about to be released. Then she adamantly stated that she would never again work with her husband, Eran Riklis, who produced the film.

"This is the first and last time that I am making that mistake," she said at the time, and explained that she has no intention of ever again combining the immense pressure of managing a production's budget, with family life. Yet now, she surprisingly relates that Eran will produce her film, "The Ambassador's Wife."

How did that come about, we ask. "He was home, so I asked him," she laughs. "He is an excellent producer, and I have changed my mind since then."