David Gurfinkel
David Gurfinkel (left) and Mordechai Navon ‏(center), on the set of “What a Gang,” 1963. Photo by From the collection of Mordechai Navon
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In April one of the cornerstones of local cinematic history will be uprooted: The building that saw the birth of the Geva studios' newsreels and films like "Two Kuni Lemel" (also known as "The Flying Matchmaker" ), "A Hole in the Moon," "Halfon Hill Doesn't Answer" and "Alex Is Lovesick" will be eradicated from the face of the earth.

This week an exhibition curated by Hebrew film scholar Ya'akov Gross opened at the Geva building, located at 65 Weizman Street in Givatayim, which is slated to give way to a real estate project. The S. Alon construction company, which is planning to erect seven high-rise residential buildings on the site, put the premises at his disposal for two weeks, and Gross has produced and funded the exhibition at his own initiative.

"For three years I tried to launch a project, which didn't have any funding, to establish a center for documentation of the Israeli cinema, which would gather information about films produced in the Land of Israel and the State of Israel, and would enable easy technological access to this information," related Gross, while he worked on the exhibition.

"At a certain point I thought about establishing this center at the Geva studios because I thought a building like this one, with all its history, was deserving of preservation and could serve as a reminder of the people who founded the film industry in Israel. But when I came to pitch my initiative, I found out the real estate developers had already received all the permits and were in an advanced stage of planning.

"The moment I realized they were already preparing the bulldozers for action and that the building was fated to be razed, I phoned the contractor and asked his permission to give final expression to what this building has symbolized to so many people. In this place, works were created that reached millions of people, nearly everyone who lives in this country. I therefore felt an honorable 'memorial service' was appropriate before it was laid to rest."

"In any normal country they wouldn't allow a building like this to be destroyed, but we aren't normal," says veteran Israeli cinematographer David Gurfinkel, who began his professional career at Geva. "I'm upset, I'm pained and sad because this place is about to be demolished and thus far no museum of Israel cinema has been established in this country, no institution that will preserve it. People know how to miss opportunities here, and that's a pity."

The exhibition, "Farewell to Geva," which closes next Friday (March 25 ), and to which entry is free, is made up of collections of items Gross has gathered from people who worked at Geva. Among other things on display are stills and posters from films made at the studios, photographs taken on the set, and pictures of studio employees and honored guests who visited there. Excerpts from feature films and documentaries made on the premises are also being screened, along with clips from the Geva Newsreels.

In addition, Gross, whose connection with Geva is not only professional but also personal - his father, director Natan Gross, was one of the top figures at the studio from the time of its founding, shortly after Independence - also arranged for the first-time screening of a documentary his father made about Givatayim; it includes footage of the premises that has never been shown before.

Carmel competition

The story of Geva Studios begins in 1948 in a meeting between soundman Yosef Navon and his buddy from the Haganah pre-state militia, Yitzhak Agadati, a cameraman and lab technician, who 12 years earlier had produced the first Hebrew-language film, "This Is the Land" (directed by his brother, Baruch Agadati ). Until then only a few full-length features had been produced in the country, which had no professional movie studios or film labs. Navon introduced Agadati to his cousin, businessman Mordechai Navon. The latter invested his own money in purchasing filming and lab equipment. At the same time Agadati used his connections among additional Haganah comrades to obtain land on which to erect a studio. In 1949 the Geva film labs were thus established on the site of an abandoned woodshed in Givatayim.

Not long afterward, some Tel Aviv film people who belonged to the Colon cooperative offered to produce a new newsreel with Agadati and Mordechai Navon, to compete with Natan Axelrod's Carmel Newsreels. The Geva people were excited by the idea and in early April 1951, the first Colon-Geva Newsreel was screened at the Sderot Cinema in Tel Aviv. In those pre-television days, people made a point of not being late to the movie house so as not to miss the screening of the newsreel; every week a new one was produced, either by Geva or Carmel-Herzliya.

"There was tough competition with the studios in Herzliya and Dad always wanted Geva's newsreel to be better," relates Mordechai Navon's daughter, Omra Zaslevsky. "To that end he would often send cameramen in taxis to film important events and they would rush back to the studios so they could develop and edit the footage on time. They took real pride in getting items into the newsreels like that, and also when they managed to get a good shot of someone important. This, for example, happened with the drilling at Heletz oil field [between Ashkelon and Kiryat Gat, in 1955]: One of the Geva cameramen managed to film the moment when the oil first spurted out of the earth. In such cases Dad would come home the happiest man on earth."

The Geva newsreels, for which poet and lyricist Haim Hefer regularly wrote the narration, focused on current events and also culture and sports.

"Geva received a government subsidy to produce the newsreel. They were under the Ministry of Trade and Industry and always took care to please the minister. So, they always filmed him at all kinds of events and put this in their newsreels," relates Gross. "In addition, they had permission to have 25-percent of their newsreels contain product placement advertising, and in actuality they added far more than that. They wanted to make a good living for their families and therefore filmed events at factories and companies that were willing to pay them for this."

Two years after production of the newsreels began, Colon sank into debt and its rights were transferred in full to Geva Film, Ltd., which continued to function until 1970.

"Working on Geva's newsreels was like going to a tremendous school for cinema because there the cameraman was everything: producer, director and editor, as well as the cameraman," recalls Gurfinkel, who began as an assistant cameraman at Geva and later became a permanent member of the studios' photography team. "The cameraman would make the decisions and film the materials in 35 mm., just like a feature movie. The same raw materials, the same equipment. Everything was done carefully and efficiently, using especially clever calculations of what to shoot and what not to shoot, because you'd always have only enough film for two to four minutes. The sharpness, the ability to make fast, one-time decisions - all of this made working on those newsreels what turned me into a cinematographer."

Feature dreams

Though the studios' technical capabilities were not particularly sophisticated back then, the dream of a making a feature film enchanted Navon and Agadati. Therefore, when the young U.S.-born director Larry Frisch showed up at their offices and declared he had money he wanted to invest in producing a full-length movie, they immediately decided to get on board.

Frisch did not want to direct a film with nationalist or Zionist content, as was usual in those days. Thus, together with Agadati and Navon, he recruited a cast of familiar stage actors, among them Rafael Klatchkin, Shaike Ophir and Bomba Tzur, and made "Ma'aseh B'Monit," a comedy about passengers in a taxi that gets stuck on the way to Jerusalem, who spend their time waiting by the side of the road telling amusing stories. Work on "Ma'aseh B'Monit" was completed in 1956 and it was the first full-length movie produced in its entirety in the country, including the lab work.

The critics were not enthusiastic about it, but the censorship board - which wanted to cut a sequence in the film in which a banker is shown stealing from the rich and distributing the money to the poor - gave it a free publicity campaign. The board's decision was eventually revoked and the movie was a relative success at the box office, enabling Navon and Agadati to finance construction of the new building to which Geva studios moved in 1958.

The premises on Weizman Street contained a studio, offices, storage rooms and editing rooms on the lower floor, and a film laboratory on the top floor. Immediately with the move the Geva staff started working on another film directed by Frisch, "The Pillar of Fire" (1959 ). This time, Frisch decided to try his hand at creating a cinematic Zionist narrative: He made an English-language film in which a love story takes place against the backdrop of the attack on Kibbutz Revivim during the War of Independence.

"The Pillar of Fire" was not exactly a hit, but Geva went on to make two more feature films, while simultaneously producing newsreels, documentaries, PR films, and the like. These were "I Like Mike" (1961 ), directed by Peter Frye, and "What a Gang" (1963 ), directed by Zeev Havatzelet - two comedies that attracted a large audience to the movie theaters and brought in hefty profits, proving that Hebrew-language films could indeed succeed.

Two more films produced at the studios in those years were "Eldorado" (1963 ) and "Dalia and the Sailors" (1964 ) - both efforts by a young director who took his first steps at Geva after returning to Israel from film studies in New York: Menachem Golan. Right at the height of their success, however, a rift developed between the partners, who were also friends, concerning whether they should invest the profits in the purchase of new equipment or use them for other purposes. In 1963 Agadati left his life's work in Navon's hands at Geva, and went on to produce films on his own.

In their book "The Hebrew Film," Natan and Ya'akov Gross related that when Navon was asked how it was that he was the only local producer who was making money from films at that time, he explained: "I will not film anything if things aren't clear from the outset: The only thing that guarantees that I will continue producing Israeli films is the return of the financial investment."

Although he once declared that he had no intention of producing art films with a vague plot line, Navon surprised everyone when, in the mid-1960s, he agreed to produce "A Hole in the Moon" - an experimental and avant-grade film, directed by Uri Zohar.

"This film was without a doubt the most daring film Geva studios took upon itself," recalls Gurfinkel, for whom the movie was his first full-length work. "This was a film ahead of its time. In the movies of those days, the plot was always a cookie-cutter narrative, suitable for any eye, with a clear, linear story. With 'A Hole in the Moon,' no one knew exactly what we were heading into. I think Navon decided to go for it only because Uri charmed him. It was an amazing step on the part of Navon; he went into this production with his eyes closed."

Status and debt

Over the years "A Hole in the Moon" achieved an iconic status and it is considered one of the most important films ever made in Israel, but when it first came out at the theaters it was a resounding flop. After only one week it disappeared from the movie houses, leaving Geva studios deeply in debt. The critics, however, were impressed: "With respect to imagination, daring, vision and originality, the Israeli cinema had been crawling on its belly until Uri Zohar and Amos Kenan [who wrote the screenplay] came along and engendered our first bird," wrote Zeev Rav Nof in the daily Davar in May 1965.

At the Foreign Ministry, they initially refused to send the film to the Cannes Festival, but Navon - who produced it together with Amatsya Hayouni - insisted, and eventually Zohar's film won the Critics' Prize at that prestigious festival.

In their book "The Hebrew Film," the Grosses also tell the story of how after Navon saw "Zorba the Greek," he came to the conclusion that a local folkloristic-musical movie could be a commercial success. He decided to bet everything on this and in 1966 embarked on the first CinemaScope production in Israel, "Two Kuni Lemel," based on a musical in Yiddish written by Avraham Goldfaden and directed by Israel Becker.

"Even as a child I dreamed of playing that role. It's like playing Hamlet for an English actor," says the film's star, Mike Burstyn, who now lives in the United States. "At that time I was the wunderkind of the Yiddish theater. I was acting in 'The Megillah,' and one day Navon came backstage, met my father and said to him: 'I want him in the film. I met with Navon at the studios and signed a contract. My dream had come true. I remember I was paid 5,000 liras. It wasn't all that much, but I was prepared to do it even for free because I had the opportunity to act in that film with all the great stage actors: [Aharon] Meskin, Klatchkin, [Shmuel] Rodensky, Shmulik Segal and so on."

The set of the movie, a small Jewish village in Eastern Europe, was built adjacent to the Geva studios; on hand was a cast of 55, plus 800 extras.

"The village was built according to a plan designed by [Zvi] Tzitzi Gera. It looked like a real Jewish shtetl, with wooden houses, carts, horses, cows and chickens, exactly as though someone had taken you to a hamlet back in the 19th century in Poland or Russia. I remember tourists came to see it," laughs Burstyn, adding that the studio left the filming of the most complicated and costly scene to the last day of shooting.

"This was the scene of the double wedding of Kuni amd Muni, and it required hundreds of extras and a band and horses and animals, even firemen, because at the end Klatchkin was supposed to fly up to the heavens with his umbrella, so for filming that they needed a large crane."

However, the evening before that, a tragedy occurred: "I received a phone call to come to the studio immediately, and they informed me that Navon had died. We faced a dilemma. He was the movie's producer and the boss at Geva, and no one else knew whether there was enough money to finish the film. I will never forget that evening. We all stayed there until very late at night, until the Geva people finished checking and informed us there was indeed enough money to film the final scene the next day and complete the film."

Thus, Mordechai Navon, who died at the age of 58, never witnessed the success of "Two Kuni Lemel." It attracted a large audience, and was named the year's best movie by the Israel Film Academy; in the following years two sequels came out.

"I think that from a sentimental perspective, this film was very important to my father," says Zaslevsky, Navon's daughter. "He was born in a small hamlet in Poland, studied at a yeshiva and was considered a brilliant student. He was nicknamed 'Motke the Brain.' This film closed a circle for him. Many of the people from his village perished, and he felt he had to create a memorial for it. When Becker came to him with the script he felt it was his opportunity to do this."

The film also marked the end of the historic Geva studios, though cinematic activity continued in its building for many years: In 1967 an Israeli-American partnership headed by businessmen Itzhak Shani and Yosef Diamant bought the studio and changed its name to Berkey-Pathe-Humphries. The company continued to provide laboratory services to Israeli films, and Shani and Diamant, like their predecessors, also produced their own films, among others such popular works as "Azit the Paratrooper Dog," "Halfon Hill Doesn't Answer" and "Alex is Lovesick."

In 1978 Berkey-Pathe-Humphries merged with Herzliya Studios to become United Studios and in the 1990s the film lab was closed. Since then there has not been a laboratory in the country for the development of cinematic films.

Beyond the movies it produced, Geva studios provided services to many other local film producers, and in the days when there were no cinema schools here, it served as a starting point for many professionals' careers. Among those who took their first steps there were, as noted, Uri Zohar, David Perlov and Menachem Golan, cinematographers David Gurfinkel, Adam Greenberg and Nissim (Nicho ) Leon, and actors Chaim Topol, Gila Almagor, Shaike Ophir, Yossi Banai, Bomba Tzur and Mike Burstyn.

It is sad to think that next month the place where all those glorious careers began will be razed to the ground and a major chapter in the history of Israeli cinema will come to a final end.