Film on IDF to explore 'melting pot' forced on immigrants
Directing a film about IDF soldiers has made Dover Koshashvili an expert at bullying actors.
Zero, lie down, we're starting again from the beginning, from the moment he kicks you," called director Dover Koshashvili to one of the young men surrounding him. "Go on, everybody line up in threes," comes a call through the megaphone urging them along, and a group of guys in white undershirts, short gym pants, army boots and with dog tags dangling around their necks take their places in front of the camera.
The nickname for the character Koshashvili has sent to lie on the ground is based on the identity number he has been given in the army - a number that ends with the digits 00, but of course it also hints at the way he is treated in the film and what is about to happen on the set. A moment after the order "action" is thrown into the air, the camera starts working. Zero lies on the sand, clutching his neck in both his hands and coughing as though he is choking. "You've killed me! I'll strangle him until he really dies! This is death here! Death!"
The squad commander approaches him, mercilessly. "Get up," he orders, this time shouting. "I said get up!" he repeats the order. "And calm down fast, before I kill you for real! Enough of this crying!"
The squad commander bends down, grabs the coughing and weeping young man, swings him into the air and stands him on his feet.
This will be the opening scene of "Infiltration" (hitganvut yehidim), the new movie by director and screenwriter Dover Koshashvili, which is now being shot on the outskirts of Kibbutz Harel and other places in the country. Six years have elapsed since Koshashvili's previous film, "A Gift from Above" (matanah mishamayim), and the new work by the admired director - whose 2001 film "Late Marriage" (hatunah meuheret) won 10 Ophir prizes (the Israeli equivalent of the Oscar) and was a critical and box-office success worldwide - is arousing a great deal of interest.
"Infiltration" is based on Yehoshua Kenaz's 1986 story about a squad of unfit rookies at Training Camp 4 in the 1950s. The script, which Koshashvili wrote together with Reuven Hecker, follows this squad, which comprises new immigrants alongside native-born Israelis from different classes and ethnic groups. Together they find themselves in the demanding and pressured Israeli military setting and are forced to deal with the difficulties, the power and ego struggles and the demands to blend in socially that are piled onto their shoulders.
Koshashvili's previous two feature films (as well as his short film "By the Law" from 1998) were based on screenplays that he had written himself, and dealt with characters who live and act in the world that he knows from his personal life: the world of immigrants from Georgia who live in Israel.
During a short lunch break from filming last week, Koshashvili, 42, found time to explain what it was in Kenaz's book that for the first time attracted him to writing a script based on a work of literature and set in an environment different from that of his previous movies. "Reuven Hecker came to me with this book a long time ago, back in 1998, and together we wrote the script for a film that he was supposed to direct. But in the end he decided not to direct it and he gave up the script," relates Koshashvili.
The director didn't have a hard time making up his mind, and decided that he wanted to make this film himself. "It's a good story, and ultimately in every good story you can find yourself," he says. "I liked Kenaz's ability - I don't know whether to call it clinical, cruel, sour or corroded - to look at a situation and distill it into a simple truth. It's really like x-raying life. You arrive with all your materials and suddenly he knows how to put life onto its skeleton - onto what, in effect, is holding everything up. He looks, points his finger and knows how to put it on the right place. I am trying to keep the whole thing from escaping through my fingers, trying to preserve this point of view: that the film won't be too comic, or too tragic, and keep the right distance from which it is necessary to observe the scene taking place before your eyes."
The movie was slated to have been filmed a year ago, but was delayed because of Koshashvili's decision to accept a tempting offer to direct an independent American film, "The Duel," based on a story by Anton Chekhov, which is due to be released later this year. Now, however, he relates that the intriguing challenge became a nightmare for him. He spares no harsh words when describing the experience. "It was shit, disgusting, bad, dreadful. I fell on a shitty producer who tried to interfere with my directing and it was awful. I had to fight the whole time so as not to let him meddle in my decisions."
Koshashvili admits that he even considered picking up and leaving the production in the midst of the work, but in the end he decided to come to terms with the task. He says that he has not given up on his plans for an international career, but it appears that he is definitely glad to have come back to work in Israel, in the secure, familiar surroundings with his regular producer, Marek Rozenbaum.
Koshashvili immigrated to Israel from Georgia when he was six years old, and his engagement with the community of immigrants from his native country has already become his cinematic trademark (along with his lack of inhibition about showing stark nudity and direct, unsanctimonious sex scenes in his films). Although "Infiltration" diverts him from this familiar environment to new realms, this time, too, Koshashvili continues to deal with characters who are trying to fit into the Israeli environment where they are still considered foreign and different.
"Infiltration" will try to outline the Israeli "melting pot" that is forced on immigrants who come to this country, and the demand directed at them to leave behind any sign of weakness or "diaspora mentality" in favor of adopting the values of the local society, with it's bullying and macho characteristics. He himself is able to identify in a certain way with the characters in his new film, says Koshashvili, because he, too, went through boot camp at Training Base 4. Although this happened much later than the 1950s, and although he did not undergo training for recruits with a low fitness profile but rather regular boot camp, after which he went to a squad commanders' course and commanded rookies, most of the experiences the characters in the film encounter are familiar to him.
"The whole military atmosphere that pervades the film," he says, "reminds me a bit of those days. The harassment of the rookies, the infinite power in the hands of the staff - these are things that I definitely remember. The soldiers in the film do undergo experiences that are a little different, but we too were made to crawl under barbed wire and go though all kinds of bullying."
The filming is taking place on a hill that overlooks a beautiful green landscape, just a few meters from a dirt road that is none other than the famed Burma Road from the War of Independence. Alongside this road the production people had to hurriedly set up buildings and tents to look like a military camp. "We were in contact with the Israel Defense Forces for them to give us an abandoned military base for the filming, but after about three or four months, a week before the filming began, they suddenly informed us that that they didn't have an empty base for us," relates producer Rozenbaum. He thinks that the IDF decision not to help the production was influenced in part by the film's subject matter. "This isn't a film that the IDF comes out of all that well - it isn't, after all, anything like the (television series) 'Basic Training,'" he says.
Unlike many other movies about IDF soldiers starring well-known actors, in "Infiltration" the director decided to cast young, mostly unknown actors in the leading roles. "This was a constraint of the script," explains Koshashvili. "All the adult actors I could have chosen are already identified. The moment you are an experienced actor, you can no longer play a young guy and here, in this film, all the characters are 18 years old."
The leading roles are played by Oz Zahavi (who acted in the children's series "The Island") and Guy Adler. In the supporting women's roles, however, there are some better-known names, among them Rona Lee Shim'on, Michaela Eshet, Keren Berger and Idit Tepperson.
Koshashvili's previous films were more like chamber pieces. Now, seeing him standing next to a "platoon" of more than 20 young men and handing out instructions before filming the next shot, it is clear that this work is not simple. When asked about how he is dealing with his challenge, it appears that the military atmosphere into which he has suddenly parachuted in his 40s is taking him back to the IDF world of concepts: "It's a blast - that joy when you fire in bursts rather than single bullets. It's as though they're letting you fire a submachine gun and suddenly you're having lots of fun. However, they expect you to shoot all the time, but there isn't always time and therefore it's also pressured. I'm sometimes afraid that I haven't achieved everything I wanted in a scene, because with so many actors it's possible to try lots of other angles. Work with such a big cast is fun, but it also leaves you not entirely satisfied."