Surroundings Bus Station Blues

Toward the end of the documentary by Shirli Nadav, Avi Haheikhal ("Master Builder") about Tel Aviv's central bus station, the camera lingers for long, hypnotic and exasperating moments on an ostensibly routine scene: An elderly couple is trying to enter a bathroom in the complex. The turnstile is coin-operated. The woman first drops in a one-shekel coin. The door does not react. She tries to push the iron teeth of the turnstile, but in vain. Another attempt succeeds, somehow. She crowds in together with someone else, whose luck held when the turnstile opened for him, and she enters. Her partner, who was pushed back meanwhile, tries his luck and drops in a coin. The mechanism jams again. He remains outside. He tries using force, in vain. He is outside, she is inside. Frustrated and desperate, in broken Hebrew, they turn for help to a station employee she spotted from afar.

The dialogue that develops from here on, like the entire scene, is a parable that in a few incisive minutes distills the experience of the station and the sense of dead-end and helplessness that Nadav discovered there.

In their distress, the couple call to the employee and ask her to open the door for them or remove the shekel from the machine. She replies that she has no key and in any case, she is not allowed to open the door, she's not the landlord here, only the cleaning woman. I don't have a shekel, I don't have money, no shekel, no money, she repeats, her voice rising and cracking. Enough, I'm sick of this work, I don't want to work here. I want to leave. That's it, she says, and her despair mingles with theirs.

The half-hour film is the final project for Nadav's master's degree in the Department of Film and Television at Tel Aviv University. A few weeks ago it was screened on Channel 2, and received no attention whatsoever. Perhaps because of the unpopular day and hour - Shabbat afternoon. Perhaps because it seemed that everything there is to be said about the bus station has already been said and written and photographed and filmed, and there is no room for more criticism.

But as it turns out, the treasures hidden in this voracious urban monster are endless, and are released each time anew like Aladdin's lamp. There is not even a need to rub the correct and precise places, because all the places in the station are correct and precise. Once could almost say that as a resource for creativity, theory and criticism, if the station did not exist we would have to invent it.

Nadav came across the station for the first time by chance about three years ago, because of some disruption in the transportation schedule to Jerusalem. As a Tel Avivian for whom Tel Aviv is the center of her life, she says, "I never had to pass through there before." Like many before her, she was trapped in the bus station's maze, tried to find her way through the endless corridors, passed among the abandoned levels and empty stores, and decided to make a film about it.

In a conversation with Haaretz this week, she recalls that the bathroom turnstile was broken intermittently already from the first day of her research. The scene with the couple "was funny at first, but as time passed there was terrible distress. On the other hand," she says, "it warmed my heart that they didn't give up. They continued to fight against the mechanism and refused to drop in another shekel. I saw that as a sliver of optimism in the gloom."

The initial direction she chose for her film was to cast the blame for the station's existence on the project's architect, Ram Karmi, source of the film's name, "Master Builder." "In other words, he is the Great Father and the omniscient one, and all of us, the people below, are his subjects and slaves," she explains.

Later, she reached the conclusion that "the individual is allowed to be a megalomaniac," and that those to blame for the station's sins of arrogance and hardheartedness are the decision makers. Whatever the case, during her research for the film she discovered that the central bus station is actually absent from Karmi's autobiography "Adrikhalut Lirit" ("Lyrical Architecture"), an absence that aroused suspicions. In the book Karmi explains his credo and his architectural philosophy in an almost messianic tone. "There are dozens of works displayed in it, including some that were not built, but not the central bus station," notes Nadav in amazement.

During her frequent visits to the station, Nadav was exposed to the vision and megalomania of the building - to date the largest bus station in the world. "You descend the floors and the levels, and you understand that someone thought that the parking lots would be full, hundreds of stores would be open and the place would be bustling. What arrogance," she says.

Even after making a film about it, Nadav was not captivated by the presumed urban charms of the station. The fury and hatred that overcame her from the start - "Every time I went there I left physically ill," she says - did not die down. The film itself, on the other hand, is low-key and restrained, and does not even make a photogenic cinematic drama of the millions of legendary bats that hover like vampires in the skies of the gloomy cellars.

"When I began to make the film I understood that first I had to neutralize my anger," says Nadav, explaining the minimalist policy she adopted, "and to restrain my emotions. Otherwise there would be no film, but I would end up with an accusatory consumer report for the TV show 'Kolbotek.' I said to myself that as a city person I don't have to hate this terrible urban rot so much, and I took deliberate breaks in working on the film in order to calm down," she says. "But the fact that the film is low-key does not mean that I calmed down."

On second thoughts, she admits that "maybe if the station were abroad I would be more forgiving in my criticism of it. And maybe one day we will yet be requesting that it be preserved. After all, nostalgia accumulates about everything."

Despite the fact that it deals with an ever-burning issue in the Israeli urban experience and with raw architectural and social nerves, and it contains a social statement, even if indirect, Nadav's film was not accepted for the documentary film festivals in Israel. "Maybe the restraint doesn't sell it well enough," she tries to explain.

Recently, however, the film was accepted for a documentary film festival in Colombia and was screened there in September. At the end of October it will be screened at a media festival in the Canary Islands. Soon it will be possible to borrow the film free-of-charge at the Haozen Hashlishit ("Third Ear") store in Tel Aviv. Nadav also plans to try to screen it "at the scene of the crime" - in one of the spaces of the central bus station itself, which attract many artists.

The new central bus station was a failure from the moment it was conceived in the 1960s, and has become an example of a planning and social crime, of the destructive connections between capital and government and of architectural megalomania. On the other hand, since it exists, many are finding their place there, even though for the most part for lack of choice. And others find themselves captivated by its mazes.

The question of what to do with the station is raised repeatedly. The solutions range from fantasies of total destruction (which are unpopular for ecological, economic and legal reasons) to ideas for revival that are now on the municipal planning agenda. Whatever the case, the station, as they say, has not yet said its last word.