Sex and the farm girl
On the set of 'The Slut,' Hagar Ben Asher explains how she became the lead actress in her first full-length feature film.
A strong smell of hay fills the old building stuck in the fields near Binyamina. Strands of hay are strewn on the floor, yellow bundles are drying in the blazing sun and the crows of the roosters can be heard every few minutes from the plot behind the building. Once upon a time, this was the stable for the Zion Mule Corps of the Jewish Brigade. Today it serves as a hayloft for local farmers. But last week, the former stable began a stint as host to film props, photographic and lighting equipment as cameramen began preparing to shoot a chicken coop scene in an Israeli film called "The Slut" ("Hanotenet" ).
Hagar Ben Asher, the 31-year-old director, gets behind the camera, consults with the cameraman and decides to zoom in a little closer. But she is forced to imagine how the tighter shot will come out, since - as a discerning observer might have gathered from her knee-length dusty black rubber boots, just the kind of footwear that would suit someone working in a chicken coop - she is also the lead actress.
Satisfied with the camera angle, Ben Asher goes to the other side of the room and positions herself in the center of the frame, next to window with a panoramic view. Action! The shooting begins. Ben Asher leans out the window, toward a man outside who is offering her a banknote; she hands him a tray of eggs in return. Another man enters the room and walks around in angry silence, takes a coil of rope and departs, ignoring her gaze. In a telephone conversation with a third man, she asks in a soft voice whether he will be able to pick up her daughters. At the end of the conversation, she remains standing silently next to the window.
"The Slut," Ben Asher's first full-length feature film, is an Israeli-German co-production produced by Mark Rosenbaum. Ben Asher, a graduate of Tel Aviv's Minshar art school, is not only directing the film and playing the lead, but also wrote the screenplay. Other actors include Ishai Golan, Itcho Avital, Yoav Levi and Tsahi Hanan.
Five months in Paris
Ben Asher began to look like one of the most intriguing rising stars in the Israeli film world when her short film "Pathways" ("Misholim" ), which she created as her graduation project, was screened in 2007. "Pathways" is a daring, blunt protest movie about a young woman from a moshav in the countryside who seeks consolation by having occasional sex with men and who falls victim to rape. The movie won an honorable mention at the Jerusalem Film Festival and it got Ben Asher the Cannes Film Festival's prestigious Cinefondation Residency scholarship, which provides promising young artists with a stay of several months in Paris to write the script for their first full-length film. During her five months in Paris, during which she shared an apartment with five other artists from different parts of the world, Ben Asher wrote two draft scripts for "The Slut," which is a longer and more developed version of "Pathways."
Tamar, the heroine, is considered a loose woman on her moshav. In the latest film, she is 38, a few years older than in the short film, and the mother of two little girls. She is unable to break away from the pathology of her sexual adventures, until a veterinarian named Shai (played by Golan ) shows up on the moshav and offers the hope of change. She falls in love with him, awakens his love and stops sleeping around. The optimism and romance, however, are short-lived.
Filming started last week and is expected to continue until July 20. During the lunch break on the third day of filming, Ben Asher explained that the film sprang from her desire to continue to delve into the subject she had explored in "Pathways," to ask additional questions about it and examine it from different angles.
She was particularly interested in the paths Tamar chose. Tamar, says Ben Asher, is examining "the story she tells herself about herself, what she thinks others see in her, and her functioning as a mother, both real and imagined.
"There is something in her complexity that interests me, because in my eyes she does not fit into the categories of either the victim or the one who makes the sacrifice, the one who satisfies or the one who is satisfied. I want to hope that she moves inside her own specific sphere and that she is not representative of anything else. But I'm still looking for her; she is still moving from scene to scene."
The daring and callousness of "Pathways" find expression in several coarse sex scenes, including a several-second close-up of an erect penis. In her new film too, Ben Asher will be directing and acting in several such scenes. She says the sex scenes are among her biggest challenges. "I can no longer shake off this discourse that came up in 'Pathways' - whether this is a provocation, whether it is effective or not, exciting or not, necessary or not," she says. "From my point of view, the process is emotional and only at the end will I know what the result is. At present, things are still changing and I try not to think about it in terms of profit and loss, of what will happen to me if I'm provocative or if I'm soft, if indeed there is such a thing."
No, or perhaps yes
A sex scene in a movie is a complicated affair, she says, "and the endless questions that arise in this context must be asked and must receive answers that are sufficiently wise. Since this movie deals with this subject, among others, I think there is a big challenge here. I hope to be sensible in choosing the expressions that sex gets in this film. I feel that the treatment of this subject has to be sensitive - both in the way it is done and from the point of view of intellectual observation."
Asked whether she treats sex scenes differently from a male director, she answers simply: "No." But then, after a short pause, she smiles and says, "But actually - perhaps yes."
In addition to her burgeoning career as a film director, Ben Asher has in recent years been nurturing a career as an actress. Three years ago, she played one of the leading roles in the television series "The Ran Quartet" ("Reviat Ran" ) and the lead female role in "Julia Mia" (directed by Yuval Granot ), which plays off the physical resemblance between her and Julia Roberts and tells the tale of a B-movie director who decides to make his own version of "Pretty Woman."
However, when she was preparing to film "The Slut," Ben Asher was decisive: This time she would focus on directing and leave the acting in someone else's hands. "In the beginning, my decision was unambiguous - I am not going to act in this film," she says.
"It seemed to me crazy to direct my first feature and also to act in it. Nevertheless, the passion to do so had always been inside me. The process of casting was drawn out; I saw a large number of excellent actresses and had the maximum number of options, but when it came to the moment when I knew a I had to make a choice for the leading actress role, I gave in to my own temptation, and apparently my actual desire was to go and bang my head on the wall. People said it was a very daring move. I replied that only in retrospect would we know whether it has been courageous or foolhardy. It is a huge risk. It makes many things very cumbersome, it makes things very difficult, but we are learning slowly how to do it. Right now, despite the difficulty, I am happy with it."