Child of the dream
Filmmaker Dror Shaul's kibbutz childhood was brutal: His father committed suicide and his mother, who consoled herself in the arms of a Swiss lover, gradually lost her sanity. In his new film, he softens that painful reality with cinematographic finesse
No one could guess that neurotic urban yuppie and well-known hypochondriac Dror Shaul (his business card used to have drawings of pills alongside his company's name) once lived on a kibbutz - an experience that permeates every aspect of his life today. Now, however, everyone will know; especially the members of Kibbutz Kissufim, on the border of the Gaza Strip, who will be invited to a special showing this week of Shaul's new film, "Adama meshuga'at" (literally "crazy land," but called "Sweet Mud" in English).
"An (American) Oscar candidacy opens all the doors," Shaul says. "It changes the prices of the distributors abroad and the whole situation for me and for the movie."
Starring Shai Avivi, Tomer Steinhof (a child actor) and the former model Ronit Yudkevitch, "Sweet Mud" is a personal, compact, sometimes poetic film that paints a portrait of the kibbutz in the 1970s. It is not a flattering portrait. According to the film, kibbutz society is cruel, violent, lecherous and self-obsessed, and above all is incapable of dealing with exceptions and "weak" families - families that have deviated from the norms dictated by the kibbutz movement. Such was Shaul's family. Everything he absorbed, including the effects of psychological treatment, welled up and flooded him until his inner dam seemed to burst.
But then he ran into a serious problem. If he were to tell the story as it really happened, he was liable to get into trouble not only with his own soul, but also with his extended family - his wife and the whole kibbutz. To get around this, he chose an impressive technique: Using rich visuals, special cinematographic effects and melancholy music he blurred and softened the painful reality that arises from the plot and transformed it into a semi-fantasy, not necessarily concrete. Like a desert mirage.
The film is set in 1974, the year after the Yom Kippur War, when the class of the protagonist, Dvir, is getting ready for its collective bar-mitzvah celebrations. Dvir is the personification of Shaul and the story is told from his viewpoint - that of a 12-year-old boy whose father has committed suicide and whose mother is gradually losing her mind (she eventually died in 1983). In this critical year the boy is basically growing up on his own, and his exposure to the hypocrisy of the kibbutz spells the end of his innocence.
"'Sweet Mud' is not a true story, in the sense that it did not happen in one year to one boy," Shaul says. "At the same time, most of the events did not have to be invented. It is based on fragments of my childhood, on memory, on dreams and on things that I thought or heard that happened, and out of which I made one story."
It is a story rife with secrets and lies. Everyone knows why the father killed himself and why the mother is hospitalized from time to time. Everyone apart from Dvir, the filmmaker explains: "Dad played a key role on kibbutz. For years I was told it was a firearms accident, but at about the age of 10 I learned by chance, from a kid on the seesaw, that it was something else: that my father did not die in a shooting accident but committed suicide."
Did you ask your mother what happened?
"To be the son of a father who kills himself is very complex, especially when on the one hand, he is presented to you as a hero, as someone who loved archaeology, who has an archaeology museum named after him, who played musical instruments, and yet on the other hand, there is constant thunderous silence around his death. I grew up in a melancholy situation. Most of the children had two parents who showed them the way. I grew up with a mother who was dysfunctional most of the time, very elderly grandparents with whom it was a bummer to be with, and a father who died not in a war but just like that. There was another boy, whose father was killed because of a land mine, and that was more prestigious. He had a monument and I had nothing."
Were you angry with your father?
According to the film, the kibbutz did not exactly treat your mother with compassion.
"People ask me whether I am settling accounts with the kibbutz. The kibbutz invented equality, and a lot of amazingly intense things happened there. It was a tremendous feeling to grow up with so many brothers and sisters. And there were also a lot of amusing things and a sense of pride. Yet, as a boy, you fantasize that equality is endless and that the system truly protects the weak; you expect that this value-based system will have absolute justice. But that is a fantasy. So you are very disappointed and your dreams shatter. It's not a story of bad or good; it's a story of misunderstanding. You were sold truth, ideals, endless quality and values, and as a boy you believed: You saw them sweating, they had muscles, in basketball they passed you the ball, but in practice it didn't work the way it purported to. Not when it came to protecting the weak. And against that background, in reality, it's disappointing. So in the film I tried to show the beauty and the love."
Why do you say there is love in the movie, when all we see is cruelty, alienation and difficulties?
One of the film's moments of grace is provided by Stephan (Henri Garcin), the Swiss companion of Miri, Dvir's mother, a former judo champion who is considerably older than her. As an outsider, Stephan emphasizes even more powerfully the rigidity of the closed kibbutz society; his character embodies the disparity between the utopian vision and its actualization. Stephan is based on a real person from the life of Shaul's mother.
The film depicts Stephan and Miri as lovers who meet once a year, and when Stephan wants to pay his annual visit the kibbutz assembly must give its approval. It is not given easily. All the self-righteous women wrinkle up their noses, and in the end, instead of a month, the couple is only allowed two weeks together. In one of the film's harshest scenes, the evil dairyman (Avivi) abuses Dvir. None of the kibbutz members come to his defense, but Stephan, the judo champion, breaks the man's arm and is expelled the next day for the act. The filmmaker doesn't understand what's wrong with the expulsion; at least that is how he presents the scene. "He deserved it, because he broke someone's arm," he says.
But he is the only one who came to the defense of a little boy who has no father - none of the kibbutz members took action.
"I placed the spotlight on something I wanted to show, and everyone can do what he wants with it."
Shaul recalls his mother's condition deteriorating. "After my father died, she experienced another five deaths within two or three years: two brothers, a sister, her mother and someone else. She developed a mental illness and was always sad. The kibbutz did its best so that her room would be full of volunteers and others who would enliven and occupy her. There were many periods when her home was packed with people, and there were periods when she was completely alone, and I would ask myself where everyone was.
"You don't need a lot of imagination to understand that the sickness came in waves and that the situation was unclear and unknown. And there actually was a Swiss guy who gave her a lot of light and happiness. I don't know how they met. He was much older than her and was a skiing champion, and I remember he had bristles on his chin and a certain aroma which I took to be aftershave - I always sniffed him. One day, not long ago, I was on a bus in Munich and the person who sat next to me helped me find my way to the old city there. He had the same aroma, and then I understood that this is a European smell of everyone who has put away two beers in the morning, and I was appalled.
"They met once a year. He sent us jigsaw puzzles, chocolates, firecrackers and plane tickets. Sometimes she went to him. They communicated in French. She didn't know much French, so a neighbor woman would translate his letters into Hebrew and hers into French. When the situation deteriorated, everyone gave advice about what to write and what to leave out. The neighbor woman advised my mother about what to omit. I remember that when I was nine, he wrote that he wanted to come and she wasn't in a good state and I grasped that it wasn't a good idea for him to come now - it would be better for her to go to him and rest a little. So I grabbed a pencil and with a lot of spelling mistakes I wrote, on my own, after having seen that quite a few people were involved in the romance of this odd couple: 'Mon amour, thank you very much for the invitation. Just at Hanukkah my son has school vacation and I don't leave him here, so if you can, send two tickets.'
"I handed it to the neighbor woman and forgot about it. Two months later an envelope arrived with two plane tickets and my mother said, 'What's this all about?' I said, 'Don't you remember? You wrote him to send two.' We flew to Switzerland for a few weeks. I even learned French. I remember that it was charming. We stayed with him. I remember snow and good food, and they bought me a sweatsuit to shut me up. That was a fantasy that was realized for me."
Shaul did his army service in the Nahal paramilitary brigade. Unfortunately, though perhaps not unexpectedly, he had a series of parachuting accidents - "including some that don't appear in the literature." After his service he got his army profile lowered because of recurring sinusitis and was transferred to the unit that operates the nationwide sirens on Holocaust Remembrance Day. But he didn't last there, either, after forgetting to turn off the siren in Kiron for 20 minutes on one occasion.
At the end of the 1980s he was kicked off the kibbutz. "I didn't want to move from the cotton fields to the orchard. Working in the fields gave you the best chance to meet volunteer girls from Sweden, if you weren't a basketball player or a champion joke teller. In the orchard and the chicken coop you had zero chance of meeting Swedish girls. The coordinator told me, 'Either you move to the orchard or you leave.' I packed my record albums and went to Tel Aviv."
In Tel Aviv Shaul had friends in the film industry, nearly all of them drivers. "Kibbutz guys have one clear advantage, namely a license to drive a 15-ton truck, so they can take the kibbutz members to the nearby intersection. When I came to the city I automatically got into film production."
At first he worked on an American film, "Not Without My Daughter," with Sally Field. The production leased all the trucks from GG Studios. He then progressed from production assistant to third assistant director, second and then first, until becoming production assistant for the Chamber Quintet satirical group, and finally executive producer. His breakthrough as a filmmaker occurred by chance.
Around 1993, when Shaul was in his mid-twenties, he wanted to study film but wasn't accepted by the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem. At this time he was barely making a living on the fringes of the industry, from clips and promos, and was seriously thinking about finding a serious job in the postal service or a bank. But then his grandmother Esther came to his aid - if one can put it that way.
Esther died in an old-age home where she had moved two years earlier at the recommendation of the kibbutz. However, when she died the kibbutz did not allow the family to bury her in its cemetery, because of an arbitrary regulation. The three Shaul brothers smuggled the body into the kibbutz and buried her. Shaul liked to tell the story to his friends - so much so that he became annoying.
"One Friday I was at Shmulik Hasfari's place" - referring to the noted director and playwright - "and my good friend Amir Hasfari, his nephew, was there, too, and told me, 'Enough with this story already, get off our case. If you want to be director so much, make a movie out of it.' I bought Kobi Niv's book on screenwriting and told myself I would give it a go, why not? At the time I was working for ICP - which is now the HOT cable company - doing all kinds of embarrassing clips ... I gave the screenplay to the director of development. Before that I gave it to a friend to read and asked his opinion, and he said, 'Do 'select all' and with your other hand press 'delete.'"
Dror Shaul did not follow his friend's advice. In 2000, his "Mivtza Savta" ("Operation Grandma") won an Ophir award in the television drama category. Everyone who has seen the film knows it is one of the most successful Israeli comedies ever seen on the small screen. The Cinderella kid who never studied anywhere became an item, receiving budgets for commercials, winning prizes and even doing the television campaign for the Meretz party in the last elections.
In January 2003, Shaul was accepted to the prestigious screenplay workshop at Sundance, the institute and film festival founded by Robert Redford. "There were top screenwriters there who changed 'Sweet Mud' into what it is. In June of that year I was also invited to a directors workshop, with Ed Harris, Sally Field and other great actors and directors. I returned to Israel and rewrote the whole script. I took out a great deal and cleaned up everything that was self-evident. In August I went to a music workshop." The fine score for the film, which also won an Ophir, is by Tsoof Philosoph and Adi Rennert. "They came up with a 'Canaanite,' deeply rooted concept, which I didn't understand at first. But when they said 'minimalist, minor, accordion and trumpet,' that turned me on. Those are the instruments of the film. My dad played the accordion, my mom the trumpet."
Are you also a victim of the children's house?
"If you were a weak child and you were picked on, you went through hell there. I was a strong child, but even so that came back to me when I started to dig deep. It was a daily abandonment. One day I discovered that my earliest memory is from age two. I am lying in bed in the nursery and a bluish light is coming in through the window, and suddenly I see a black figure peeking in. When I remembered that, a few years back, it really frightened me. It shocked me. In all of nature the tigress sleeps on her tigers, and in the city the children sleep in the innermost room. In the kibbutzim they slept with the door wide open. All kinds of people wandered around there at night, and as a child you don't know who they are. I am not even talking about a potential pervert, like every society has, and on that kibbutz there was also a story involving someone. But in the end they did not file a complaint to the police against him, they only gave a him a letter of recommendation to leave."
The children's house is really the most difficult thing to grasp in the history of the kibbutzim.
"When a child cried the caregiver would come and tell him "Go to sleep,' but he didn't want to sleep, he wanted his mother, so she would say, 'All right, I'll call Mommy,' but she didn't call Mommy, because that wasn't done. So the kid would wake up again an hour later and ask, 'Where's my mommy?' And she would answer, 'Your mommy was here, go to sleep.' This caused great remoteness between children and adults, and tremendous mistrust, and into this niche stepped the educators and the caregivers, who told the parents: 'Don't mix in, we work in education, we know best, and your child is problematic - he runs home every night.' Much later I discovered that it wasn't only me, that many more children felt the same way I did, and that this created a barrier between us and our parents. And an endless chain of complexes in the children."W