In her own image
Veteran director, screenwriter and actress Michal Bat-Adam says she still feels like she’s at the start of her career. With the release of her latest film, ‘Maya,’ she talks about her haunted childhood, her early struggles and why the local film industry considers her an outsider
Michal Bat-Adam doesn't like watching screenings of her films in movie theaters. It stresses her out. At premieres she would rather wait outside until the closing credits roll. "The first cough I hear devastates me," she says. "Right off, I think the movie's not interesting." Recently that has changed, she explains, because "when a film is still new you shouldn't abandon it alone in the world."
So two weeks ago, when her new film "Maya" was given an advanced screening at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, not only did Bat-Adam accede to the distributor's request to attend the event and answer audience questions afterward, she also went to the screening itself. She sat in the last row, in the aisle seat closest to the door. Half an hour into the screening she began to interrogate me. "How's the sound?" Fine. "Not too weak?" No. "Maybe I'll go and ask to have it turned up?" No need. "Okay, I'm going to the projectionist for a minute." She didn't return.
"I couldn't take it," she apologized afterward. "I shouldn't come to these screenings; I misinterpret things out of hysteria." After leaving the theater, she'd spent the remaining hour of the 90-minute film outside, next to the steps of the Cinematheque. "Whenever people walked up the steps I was sure they were coming from the movie, until I figured out that they were probably coming from the restaurant in the building. The tension is terrible. Did anyone walk out?"
No holds barred
"Maya" was shot in 23 days and finished two years ago, but because Bat-Adam edited the film at home, on her PC, she allowed herself to dally. During that time she even spent two months in Paris, where her son, Daniel, and her grandson live. One bright morning last December, the completed film was screened for a handful of confidants and participants; since then, she says, its release has been delayed for technical reasons related to the distributor. The original screenplay is based on Bat-Adam's experiences as a novice theater actor.
"I wrote it a few years ago," she says. "It's about a girl who comes to Tel Aviv and wants to get into the theater, which is filled with men who swoop down on her. These days men might have more inhibitions, because accusations can be made against them easily, but back then the theater world was totally wild. The first thing a director wanted was to get you into bed."
Maya (Liron Ben Chelouche ) is chosen to play a mentally ill girl in a theater production and becomes involved in an affair with the director (Gil Frank ). To research the role, she checks in voluntarily to a psychiatric institution, where she fits in well, but she then starts to clash with the director.
"As an actor," says Bat-Adam, who studied acting at the Beit Zvi theater school in Tel Aviv, "I was known as the woman who goes on stage and gives herself completely." She also knows something about having affairs with directors - even prior to her relationship with Oscar-winning director Moshe Mizrahi, who has been her partner for the past 40 years.
"I wasn't interested in sleeping with directors in order to get parts," she says. "In the end I married a director, yes, but that was because I fell in love with him, after I got the part. But there were directors who actually tried to rape me. Once I was thrown out of a play because of that. It still happens today, but back then it was rampant and with no holds barred. I remember one director who told me there was someone more suitable than me for a part, so I should be nice to him. I told him to cast her and I would be just as nice to him as I'd been before. Three weeks later, the new woman showed up in the theater."
How did you react?
"Back then, at the beginning of the 1970s, no one thought to create any awareness of the phenomenon, as is done today. I just thought that was how it was. A girl who went out with a man didn't say no if he wanted to sleep with her. People asked me how I didn't sleep with him. Every girl who worked in the industry at the time probably has a suitcase filled with stories like that, but I don't want to get into it. 'Maya' started out in the same way, but I simply erased that episode from the screenplay. I don't deal with that anymore."
There were two primary reasons Bat-Adam's movie takes place in the theater rather than on a film set. First of all, "I already used the movie within a movie concept in 'Aya,'" she says, referring to "Aya: An Imagined Autobiography" - her 1994 film about a director, who she portrayed herself. Second, "In the theater you have this moment, when an actor goes onstage and you can't control him. In the cinema, the director's control is absolute. If it doesn't work, you do another take or you cut during editing. In the theater, the moment the curtain goes up the actor can do whatever he wants." Madness, as with "Aya," returns in "Maya." "That's a subject which is naturally of interest to me." Bat-Adam often interweaves biographical elements into her films. Some central themes recur time and again: her childhood on a kibbutz (she was born in Afula, raised in Haifa and at age 6 was sent to Kibbutz Merhavia ); her attraction to photography (like her father, Adam, and some of the characters in her films ); and above all, the mental illness of her mother, Yemima, who suffered from manic depression and was sporadically hospitalized in institutions for the mentally ill until her death in 1970, at the age of 58.
"We were told that she died from a heart problem," Bat-Adam says. "Before she died, she had [the illness] in its manic form so they gave her a lot of drugs to bring her down."
In her second film, "The Thin Line" (1980 ), Bat-Adam dealt with the ordeals of a family in which the mother (Gila Almagor ) suffers from a mental illness, and she took up the theme again in "Aya," more than a decade later. "In our society a mentally ill person is considered slightly less than human and I wanted to show that the mentally ill are also human beings," she says. "When you are born into something like that, you develop a different way of listening to people whom others easily shrug off.
"At first I didn't know my mother was sick - no one explained it to me," she continues. "I only saw that she was not like all the other mothers. She didn't get up in the morning to send me to kindergarten and she didn't wash the dishes - I washed them, standing on a chair, when I got home from kindergarten. She could stand on the street for an hour talking to someone when I had to pee." On one occasion, Bat-Adam couldn't wait any longer and wet her pants. "My mother just did not look after me the way a small child needs. When she was hospitalized I was told she had gone to visit an uncle in Tel Aviv. It was only in my mid-teens that I understood she was in the hospital.
"One of my problems was that I was never angry at my parents," she adds. But the effects of the trauma lingered. "One psychologist told me, 'A small child who constantly receives love and warmth from his parents is like a balloon that gets fuller and fuller, and with that embarks on his life. Your balloon is empty.' It's not that they didn't love me, but they couldn't deal with me. My mother was sick and my father worked all the time."
Therapy in creativity
Bat-Adam's childhood on the kibbutz was a lonely time for her. Being an outsider, the kibbutz refused to allow her to take piano lessons but did allow her to play piano so she devoted herself to that instrument instead. "There was also a drama group, but I did not allow myself to take part in it because of the violin lessons," she recalls. "I stifled the desire to act because I knew I was a musician, and there was no discussion of the subject."
When her mother's condition deteriorated, she left the kibbutz in her senior year in high school and returned to Haifa. "I didn't want her to be hospitalized, which is why to this day I do not have a matriculation certificate. My sister was already married with children, so I went back to Haifa to be with our parents."
She turned elsewhere to find the attention she did not get at home. "[Once I was old enough], I wanted everyone to court me. I was compensating myself. But I didn't go far and men didn't like it, because they wanted to reach the goal [so to speak]. I once tried to explain to a castmate in a Nissim Aloni play how much I need love. I told her: 'Do you see that electricity pole? I want it to love me, too.' I was desperate. Courtship is a kind of support - it means you're here, that you're liked, that others are interested in you. Today these scenarios that involve sitting in a cafe with shining eyes are so well-known it's terrible, and at a certain point there's no substance to it. I move straight to friendship."
As a young woman she was not afraid that she too would suffer from mental illness ("I said that if I ever do not want to live, I will kill myself" ), but nevertheless took precautions throughout her life. In talking about drugs, for example, she says: "One day I chewed some hashish and had a very scary trip. I stopped using it after that. Maybe because of my mother, but I was so afraid to fly to some place from which I wouldn't be able to return."
She channeled her fears into creative work. After acting in Mizrahi's films in the 1970s, she directed her first film in 1979. Their son was born in the early 1980s. Shortly after, she began to get panic attacks. "I don't know if there's any connection between the things - no one knows," she says. "Sometimes you are in a clean, orderly place and suddenly there is a drop of oil and you slip. It has nothing to do with the place itself, but it happens because someone passed by a minute before and something dripped. I was not interested in [getting at the root of the problem] to figure out how to go on existing. It's a sickness of attrition. I would go to the ER and be given Assival or Vaben and go home happy, and then it would happen again, until I understood that it wasn't from the heart but from anxiety.
"Anxiety is not an illness - it's a friendly mechanism that sounds a warning, telling you something in your life is unresolved and that if you want to go on living with yourself you have to resolve it. It can still happen to me even now, but no longer with the same intensity, because when it starts I take Lorivan. I befriended the mechanism once I understood what was underlying it. You can't discard it like an item of clothing you no longer want and throw it away. I told myself: It's here and I have to find a way to live with it."
Between attacks, Bat-Adam directed four films in the 1980s. "My desire was so powerful that it subdued the anxieties. It was hell and horror, but I went on. I told myself that if I did not make the films I would collapse. After I hired actors and a crew, the commitment and responsibility constituted the strength that stopped me from falling by the wayside."
Was it therapeutic to delve into the autobiographical material?
"Doing creative work itself is therapeutic, but arranging the house is also creative."
Still, her childhood deprivations continued to simmer within her and burst out unexpectedly. One day, when Daniel refused to practice piano, Bat-Adam ripped up the sheet music in front of her stunned son. Bat-Adam describes that situation, which is depicted in "Aya," as "one of the darkest moments of my life."
"Playing the violin on the kibbutz was my consolation for being an outsider. I looked at other girls and couldn't understand: They don't play, what are they living for? When my son reached the age at which I'd started to play, I couldn't understand how he could not practice. On top of it, he played the piano, which is what I had wanted and been denied. Finally, I went to a child psychologist who told me: 'The boy is perfectly fine, leave him be, but if you want, stay - I can help you.' And so I stayed with her. We can be cruel and stupid to the people we love most."
What is the most common mistake people make about you?
"People say terrible things about me; I will not repeat them, because I don't want to say such things about myself. They say I am bad, but God did not put a single evil hair on my body. My psychologist [actually] says it's a flaw of mine. When I began acting in the theater, people said I would step on bodies to get a part, that I was so ambitious I was prepared to kill."
Where does that come from?
"People don't know, so they just talk - and then someone hears them and doesn't look into it, and also talks. In the theater, people were always suspicious about how I got parts. They kept waiting for the cat to be let out of the bag."
And that's where the rumors about your special relationships with directors started?
"It was not too long after that, and everything was so wide open back then, that those who were stupid enough thought they could have me if they gave me a part."
Paying a price
Bat-Adam is obsessed with hiding her age, a subject that comes up in every article about her. She has no problem talking about almost everything, but has one request: "You will not write my age under any circumstances! That bothers me. It's not the old age. I do not fix my face, even though I am told that it's falling. It started when I went to directors and said I was 18 and they wouldn't hire me because they said: 'We need a 20-year-old.' I learned how to say: 'Here I am, this is me, is this good for you?' There is something very cruel in the fact that everything is about youth, and if you're not youthful you get kicked around. Maybe it hasn't happened to you yet, but it arrives terribly fast." Nor is she ready to say how old she was at the time of her first marriage ("young" ), how long it lasted ("a very short amount of time" ) or the age of Mizrahi, her second husband ("there is a decent gap between us" ), as this might make it possible to infer her age.
Your year of birth appears in the Hebrew Wikipedia entry for you, so you have lost the war - give in.
"It's not me, it's our stupid society. On the street, at home, in my heart, I have no age. The way you behave is your age. When you put a number on it, it affects others and yourself as well. Sometimes, at the university, I have to remind myself - and I know this is pathetic - that I am not the same age as my film and acting students," says Bat-Adam, who teaches in Tel Aviv University's film department. "We conduct ourselves as though we are friends, but they look at me as an elderly woman, so I have to be serious."
She changed her last name from Breslavy to Bat-Adam, meaning "daughter of Adam" - her father's name - when she was an adolescent and after her older sister, Neta, had adopted the name (but she is registered as Michal Mizrahi on her ID card ). After high school she moved to Tel Aviv and enrolled in a music academy; she did not do army service ("I didn't want to, I didn't feel like being some girl in some office" ). She started playing in orchestras for musicals to earn a living, but soon cast her eyes to the stage. She auditioned for the Beit Zvi drama school and was accepted.
"My father was shocked when I told him I was going to study acting. He lived with a mentally ill woman and thought that something had gone haywire in me, too," Bat-Adam recalls. She began acting in the theater immediately after completing her studies. "I got a leading role [as Abigail] in Arthur Miller's 'The Crucible' and was a hit, so I got more parts. Moshe saw me on the stage in Lorca's 'The House of Bernarda Alba,' in which I played Martirio, the hunchbacked woman. I made myself ugly for the part and Moshe says that when he saw the play he was very impressed and thought only: 'Too bad she's so ugly, otherwise I would have considered her for a part.' But in the program he saw that I looked very different, and that is how we met, on a totally professional basis."
Mizrahi cast her in his 1977 film "Madame Rosa" ("La vie devant soi" ), which won the Academy Award for best foreign language film (representing France; he has also been nominated twice for Israeli productions ). They formed a close relationship while working on the film (Bat-Adam was still married to her first husband, and subsequently divorced him ). The two were eventually married "after being together for many years, when I was in my ninth month. We got married to make the paperwork easier. I am not a French citizen but he is. He wanted to stay here because of me, but nevertheless went back to France, because that was where he was working and things were difficult here. At some point I decided to move to Paris and be with him." Her career as a screenwriter and director began in Paris. "I didn't know French, so I sat down to write myself a part, thinking I'd have Moshe direct. He suggested that I direct it myself. It was strange, because I had never studied film."
How did you know what to do?
"When I started to direct, the people [on set] didn't understand me. A director is a kind of enlightened dictator, in the same way an orchestra has a conductor and not every member of the orchestra can decide at any given moment how he will play. Because there was no tradition of female directors in Israel, the cinematographer would decide, for example, where to locate the camera instead. But I was born to a photographer father, so I knew what stills were. And when I was an actor I kept a close eye on the set and somehow I knew the language. You know what you want to get across and from whose point of view at every moment, and the camera is situated accordingly."
Her first effort, "Moments de la vie d'une femme" (1979), got relatively good reviews and was sold in Cannes for distribution in a dozen countries. In Israel, Bat-Adam got free publicity thanks to the famous scene in which she is in bed with Assi Dayan and the French actress Brigitte Catillon. The Israeli censors wanted to cut the scene altogether. "They couldn't stand the idea of a Jewish woman being in bed with another woman and a man," Bat-Adam says. The issue went all the way to the High Court of Justice, but in the end Bat-Adam gave in, fearing she would miss the submission deadline for the Oscars. In Israel 40 seconds of the film were cut, but around the rest of the world it was screened in full.
The movies that followed were less well received. The mass-circulation newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth described "A Thousand and One Wives" (1989) as one of the worst films of the decade. Bat-Adam believes that the reviews killed "Aya," her central cinematic work. "The same thing happened to many of my films, with the exception of 'The Lover'  which was already lynched at its pre-screening but did extraordinarily well at the box office. There are movies that can draw a big audience, and then you overcome negative reviews. Nowadays Israeli films are treated like human beings, but in those years they were treated like mental patients - slightly less than human beings - and if the reviews were not outstanding people didn't go. I paid a price for that. There are sometimes things that come from places that are..." she contorts her face "...people take out irrelevant things on me."
What do you think they want from you? "I don't know. Maybe it's my independence - suddenly, here's a woman. The reviews were not substantive. Yehudit Orion was like a lone voice when she gave 'A Thousand and One Wives' a good review... After all, we don't know the true value of works; history filters them. It's like a cake that's ready but hasn't been baked - only time will do the baking. Immediate observation falsifies many things. Sometimes the timing is wrong and a film that everyone applauds looks essentially old a year later."
Do you have the feeling that your films have simply been discarded?
"I will not answer that, because I don't want to settle accounts with anyone. We are people who do things and we want a proper response."
You are very sensitive.
"I always will be. It's not like on the kibbutz, when we went barefoot and at the end of the summer we had hard soles. The soul has no skin... But that sensitivity, although painful, also contains a great deal of joy. It produces the kind of pleasures and emotions that people who might pass by are completely unaware of. I would not forgo it."
Bat-Adam is a productive director but has never acquired a central, canonical place and still has a hard time getting funding for her films. She financed her previous film, "Rita Working Title" (2007 ), out of her own pocket. "I didn't have the strength to see if the foundations would approve it or not, or to argue with them, so I decided to do it without money - just me, Yoav Kosh [her regular cinematographer] and actors. It cost pennies, something like NIS 40,000. Without a lighting man, without a set designer, nothing. We lugged things around ourselves. I took actors whom I didn't have to pay. I played all the female parts and my friend, Yigal Sadeh, did the male parts. My husband also acted in the film and in 'Maya,' too. He doesn't cost me money."
"Rita Working Title" was screened two years ago but disappeared after a few days when no one came to see it. "It was terrible," she says. "I [dealt with] it irresponsibly, because I was busy with 'Maya.'" The lessons were learned.
In contrast to the critics, people who have worked with Bat-Adam have good things to say about her. "She is a wonderful director and it was a great pleasure," says Rita, who starred in "A Thousand and One Wives," the Israeli diva's first film role. That was 20 years ago, and only this year did she act in another film, "Ben Comes Home," a 30-minute student production.
Was working with Bat-Adam traumatic?
"How is this relevant?" Rita says. "[Bat-Adam] is an amazing director and a sensitive woman, filled with tenderness and resilience."
The director of "Ben Comes Home," Eldad Zakay, is a student of Bat-Adam's at Tel Aviv University. "Because she is also an actor she understands the actor's need - beyond the matter of technique - to be enveloped with love by the director," he says. "She understands the emphases an actor needs to get from the director. She lets directors try their hand at acting in her courses, so they will understand those feelings. When I asked for her advice on how to work with Rita, she said: 'Just love your actors.'"
The acclaimed actress Gila Almagor played the sick mother in "The Thin Line" but has not worked with Bat-Adam in the intervening 30 years. "It always saddens me that [Almagor] did not stand behind 'The Thin Line' and did not take pride in it, because after that she made 'Summer of Aviya,'" Bat-Adam says, referring to the autobiographical film in which Almagor portrays her own mother, who also suffered from mental illness. "I was sorry about that, because 'The Thin Line' is an excellent film and she was excellent in it. But we get along very well."
"As soon as I saw the script for 'The Thin Line' I dove in," says Almagor. "It was clear to me that [Bat-Adam's] biography and mine [overlap on the issue of] the mother. Even if I thought this or that scene could have been done differently, I never even considered saying so, because it came from her gut, from truth, from searing memory. She made what she wanted very clear and I am grateful for the opportunity she gave me. That was the first time I played a woman who is hospitalized and tied up - and I remember that afterward I came home, got into a bubble bath and said: 'I can be crazy by day and a healthy person at night.' The start of [my process of] letting go of the wound came through her."
Is there some sort of unsettled account between the two of you? Could it be that Michal was offended because you were not congratulatory enough about "The Thin Line" when "Summer of Aviya" came out?
"It's possible that that's what she feels - that's her problem. What does being congratulatory mean? When 'The Thin Line' came out I praised her. When 'Summer of Aviya,' which is my story, came out, why did I have to be fulsome in praising someone else's story? I love her and Moshe very much."
Why haven't you worked with her since then?
"There was one time when she offered me a part, but the producer wanted to pay me as though I was a novice actor and I was very hurt."
Michal Bat-Adam, how are you?
"Everything's complex. I get up every morning in a place where - if I actually listen to what I hear - I have to scream at people in the street about how we have possibly agreed to everything that's going on. The occupation. The way certain people are treated. It's impossible! And then you get up and have a cup of coffee and know that at a certain hour you have to go and teach. Life goes on."
When did you last lie?
"Today, but [the kind of] lie that does only good. Sometimes you are in a situation and you see that a person might be offended and you want to make sure he will not be offended. That is a lie that does not harm anyone. The truth is flexible. And my truth is not to hurt others."
What is the biggest lie you were ever caught telling?
"I wasn't caught. By my nature I am not a liar, but sometimes I do when it's needed. I don't have any kind of complex about that. How is a lie less good than anything else? The truth is also baseless."
Alienation and feminism
There are few Israeli creative artists with whom every conversation will invoke, as though incidentally but also with deep seriousness, the names of some of the most important filmmakers in the world − such as Eric Rohmer, Francois Truffaut and Federico Fellini. Michal Bat-Adam is one of those few. For three decades now, against all odds, she has continued to write and direct. And even if the reviews are not always flattering, and even if reaching the heart of the Israeli viewer has become ever more difficult, she persists.
“I have great admiration and high regard for the determination shown by her and by her husband, Moshe Mizrahi, to go on making films,” says Prof. Michal Friedman from the film department at Tel Aviv University. “That couple is eager to give its best to the local cinema. The problem is that their best is not always the best of cinema in general as they are both engaged in minor cinema, with the small problems of life, problems not addressed by the cinema. Yet just that preoccupation attests to sensitivity of the kind we are familiar with from the films of Rohmer and Truffaut.
“For me,” Friedman continues, “the cinema of Bat-Adam represents most of the postulates on which feminine theory is based − namely, at bottom, the problem women have in cutting themselves off from their family obligations. Bat-Adam deals with the nitty-gritty of life in her films, such as the need to take care of children, a mentally ill mother, a father with Alzheimer’s − things which by their nature are taken on at the expense of personal development as a woman, as a person and of course as a creative artist.”
“She has not yet made her masterpiece,” says Dr. Shmulik Duvdevani, a film critic and lecturer in Tel Aviv University’s film department. “True, each of her films is interesting in its own way, but the true importance lies in their constituting a totality. From where I sit, I have very high regard for filmmakers who move from one film to the next with their fingernails, their teeth and who create a continuity that is so important for all cinema, and of course for Israeli cinema, too.”
According to Friedman, Bat-Adam’s career has had its ups and downs, but “Aya: An Imagined Autobiography,” she says, “is one of the best films I know which deals with the theme of feminine autobiography. The fact is that she is very frank with herself, exposes many of her misfortunes so openly and is not reluctant to talk about things that people are always afraid to talk about. That is her career, as I see it: she tries over and over, and sometimes succeeds.” (Goel Pinto)