'Inside there is a crazy volcano'
At age 45, after major successes abroad and at home, model-actress Yael Abecassis has turned yet another page and has opened her own local film production office. Among her goals, she says in a wide-ranging interview, are promotion of women in Israeli cinema and exploitation of film as an agent of change.
Yael Abecassis is late. We arranged to meet at 4 P.M. at her production office in the heart of Tel Aviv, but she is stuck in traffic on the Ayalon highway after a shoot for her latest film, Reshef Levy's "Hunting Elephants." I am invited to wait in her office, in the center of which stands a large desk made of dark brown wood. Its surface is almost empty, except for a candle, a DVD of Claude Sautet's 1992 film "Un coeur en hiver" and several magazines, among them the French women's magazine Psychologies, with Juliette Binoche on the cover. Later Abecassis will inform me that it has become such a popular magazine in France that every male and female star aspires to appear on its cover.
Abecassis' office is on the ground floor, and greenery is visible through its large window. Beneath the window is a couch upholstered in a delicate floral fabric. On the wall behind me are, among other things, a photograph of Marilyn Monroe by herself and another of her with Yves Montand. On the wall is a shelf of DVDs; as far as I can make out, they are all European films.
Across from me hangs a black-and-white photograph Abacassis bought in Paris of a house bearing a street sign for the Rue du Premier-Film. Below it are the names of the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere, who made the first real moving pictures outside that building, which they presented at the world's first-ever cinematic screening in Paris on December 28, 1895.
It's been 20 years since Abecassis made her premier appearance in an Israeli movie, "Tel Aviv Stories." The film became a hit during an important year for Israeli cinematic history (Amos Guttman's last film, "Amazing Grace," Eitan Green's "American Citizen," and Assi Dayan's "Life According to Agfa" were all released in 1992 ). "Tel Aviv Stories" was actually three separate short films, each made by a different director. Abecassis starred in the first one, "Sharona Honey," directed by Ayelet Menahemi, as an assistant art director whose life is one big mess.
This year, Abecassis, 45, started a production company, Cassis Films, and her first effort, produced together with Pablo Mehler and Hilel Rozman, is a lovely and delicate film entitled "Aya"; it runs 40 minutes and was directed by Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnun. The film, which depicts the relationship that develops between a Danish musician who comes to Israel to serve as a judge in the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition and a women who takes it upon herself to be his driver, premiered at the last Jerusalem International Film Festival and was screened at cinematheques around the country.
I like Abecassis' work as an actress. I like actors who don't make it evident that they are working. Actors, actresses mainly, who reveal their thoughts and feelings in front of the camera but also want to hide from it. In the course of our meeting, she relates that cinematographer Renato Berta, who shot Amos Gitai's "Kadosh" in 1999 - a formative work in her professional career - also told her that she conveys the sense that she wants to be seen and yet not be seen at one and the same time.
She is beautiful, and when you are discussing Yael Abecassis you cannot ignore this fact, but beauty is not always enough. Abecassis has that same mysterious quality of being photogenic that makes us want to watch her when she appears on the screen. If I had to pick one component of her face that typifies her, it would be her smile, which simultaneously embodies the same degrees of pleasantness and melancholy. I do not remember Abecassis laughing wholeheartedly in any of her films; I do remember her smiling, and in that same certain smile resides the essence of her presence as an actress on the silver screen.
When Abecassis arrives slightly late and takes a seat, she claims she is worn out, sweaty and unkempt, but, as expected, she looks fabulous. I cannot remember exactly how we wound up talking about it, but even before I turn on my recording device, we are reminiscing about her favorite actress, Romy Schneider. Abecassis was raised on her and her films, identifies with her anguish, understands why she committed suicide shortly after the death of her son, David, in a horrific accident, and tells me about the shock she got one day when a man telephoned her and introduced himself as Alain Delon - with whom a young Schneider had carried on an affair for several years. Abecassis was sure it was a joke, but no, it really was Delon, who offered her a part in a film that ultimately did not pan out.
"Tel Aviv Stories" was not Abecassis' first movie. Preceding it by a few months was a French film called "Pour Sacha," directed by French director Alexandre Arcady. The film starred Sophie Marceau and Richard Berry, and was set on a kibbutz on the Syrian border in 1967.
How did that come about?
"My mother, actress and singer Raymonde Abecassis, had appeared in a film by Arcady ["Last Summer in Tangiers," from 1987]. When Arcady came to Israel, he and my mother and I met for lunch, and he asked me if I would like to be in a movie. I said: Yes. Why not? I thought it would be an experience. Sophie Marceau, who was also there, said to me: You don't want to do that. That's what she told me: You don't want to do that. It's a bug and it will infect you. But I ignored her warning, I didn't take her words seriously."
You had no thoughts at the time about acting, about modeling?
"Absolutely not. I was enrolled in history and Middle Eastern studies at Tel Aviv University and that was the direction I thought I'd be going in. I believed, and I still believe, that the culture that is being created here must encompass Arab culture and I wanted to study it, to research it. I wanted to learn Arabic. It wasn't taken for granted that I would go to university. The financial situation at home was tough, and really I ought to have gone out to work to help, but I said no, I must study. I was born in Ashkelon in 1967. My father was killed in a traffic accident when I was 10 and my brother was a month old. My father was 33 when he was killed. Nothing stayed the same afterward. From Ashkelon we wandered to Ashdod and from there to Be'er Sheva, Paris, Bat Yam and Tel Aviv.
"I grew up in a bohemian home with a mother who would travel to performances in fancy dresses, properly made up, so maybe something from that world did stick to me even beforehand. But in a sense, I was a girl about whom you couldn't tell that she was blessed with such talents. I was an introverted child, very, very introverted; it was hard to figure out what was going on inside. I was very serious, buried in the books I read incessantly, and a responsible child, because at age 10, after my father was killed, I essentially became the mother of the family, because my mother, in order to make a living, would travel a lot for shows. Within 24 hours of my father's death, I changed from a princess to being the heart of the family. I went from a girl to a woman who organizes, who ensures that the house functions, that there be a home. Prior to my father's death I danced - I was a good dancer, but the moment he died, I cut that out. There wasn't time for it anymore."
What had your father done for a living?
"He was an economist. He worked for a while at a bank and then with my mother as her agent. My mother is the one who persuaded him to come to Israel [from Morocco] and he cut short his academic studies for it. He never found his place here."
Abecassis gets choked up when she talks about him. About her mother she speaks with great love and admiration that she will express in a documentary film she is making. "She is an amazing woman," she says, "but because of her many trips to make a living, there was no household framework, and I was responsible for creating it. The moment Dad died, Yael was put aside. I did what had to be done and didn't ask myself questions and didn't wallow. Because I was responsible for the structure at home, I couldn't function in other ones: I didn't go on school trips and also couldn't do regular military service. I had to look after my brother, my mother's grandmother, who was very old, and also my mother, who worked very hard.
"When I went to university I told myself, 'Now I will study, now I will do what I love.' But then 'Tel Aviv Stories' and the Castro television commercial came along, and I never imagined that they would make such a splash and that then the Children's Channel would snap me up and then Channel 2 - and now 20 years have gone by."
Looking for teachers
In the beginning, when you were offered an acting role, did you have a clue what that meant?
"For years I had no idea what it meant, until 'Kadosh' really. My only bit of luck was that I wasn't faking it, I was acting naturally, but really I didn't have a clue what I was doing. I declaimed the texts, but inside I remained closed-up tightly. You might say I played at being an actress. I thought they wanted me because I have a pleasant face and I represent something, perhaps something very Israel. I didn't think that they picked me because they were looking for an actress."
Did you think you were being picked just for being pretty?
"No, and I'll tell you why: because I didn't grew up as a pretty girl, but rather as a clumsy girl with glasses. I was certain my appearances in films and my work as a model were a passing thing. When I worked with Ayelet Menahemi, who is a dear friend of mine to this day, I would recite the texts, sometimes touch on something inside, something revealing, but I'd immediately recoil. It would drive Ayelet mad and we talk about it to this day. I really didn't understand what they wanted from me. It surprised me. You have to remember also that for most of my childhood and adolescence I kept quiet. I was a very silent girl, and suddenly they wanted me to talk, because acting is also about knowing how to speak, and that was difficult for me. There were also many cases when directors didn't give me a chance, where they said, 'She's only pretty, she didn't study acting.' Was I hurt by that? Of course. But it also strengthened me.
"And then along came Amos Gitai and offered me the role of Rivka in 'Kadosh,' even though there were people who told him that Yael Abecassis is not an actress. And everything changed from my standpoint. Just as I felt I had become fractured at the age of 10 when my father was killed, and remained that way - so the work on 'Kadosh' made me whole again. Suddenly I didn't need a protected space around me. For the first time I was willing to fall either forward or backward, not to be scared to fail. For the first time, with 'Kadosh,' I understood what it means to truly be an actress.
"Then I told myself that I didn't need to study acting anymore, acquire a technique, because I had my own technique. My whole life I had sought out mentors. Ayelet was my teacher, Amos and Renato were my teachers. Michal Bat-Adam, in whose film 'Life Is Life' I appeared, was my teacher, along with her husband, Moshe Mizrahi.
"Now I am not looking for that anymore, even though I still want to learn from every director I work with. Today I am mainly in need of a dialogue with the director I work with. And I think that a director also needs this dialogue with the actor, the 'vessel' he is working with. I feel fortunate as a 'Mediterranean' actress that I have received so many chances to work both here and abroad. I am proud of the work I did on 'Kadosh,' and also on Amos Gitai's 'Alila,' on [the TV series] 'Shabatot Vehagim' and 'Prisoners of War,' on 'Life is Life' and '7 Days.'"
Recently Abecassis worked with Gitai again, on his new film "Lullaby to My Father," in which she plays the director's mother and Ran Danker plays his father. I ask her about the French films she has appeared in.
"For me working in France was a bit like running away, not really working but rather resting. I did some good films there and some less good ones, but it was mainly the possibility of working somewhere where they didn't really know me that appealed to me. I choose roles according to the breathing space they afford and the story around them. In general, I like films that let you breathe. Sometimes one scene like that in a film is enough for me to agree to appear in it. That was the case with 'Live and Become,' by Radu Mihaileanu [from 2005], which dealt with an Ethiopian boy's tortuous absorption in Israel. When I read the script for it, I told myself that it wasn't for me, that it's not the sort of cinema that I like, but it had one scene in it that touched my heart, one scene that caused the whole film to breathe, so I agreed to be in the film, which was a huge hit in France. To this day people come up to me in Paris to talk to me about it."
Did you receive offers from outside France as well, for example, from Hollywood?
"Yes, but I turned all of them down. I have always been exposed primarily to European cinema, and I don't have much of a connection to American cinema. There was even one time when I got offered the part of a James Bond girl in one of the movies in which Pierce Brosnan played Bond. I don't remember which; I refused. I would have to be nuts to appear in a movie like that."
In 2009 Abecassis determined to submit to the biggest test of her acting career and appear on stage for the first time. She was in a Tmuna Theater production of Henrik Ibsen's "The Lady from the Sea." From her standpoint, it was a challenge that called for great daring on her part, and it changed her.
"I took the time I needed to work on my character in the play. There was exploration, there was analysis, practically open-heart surgery. You go on stage for the first time, and it doesn't work. And it doesn't work the second time or the third time either, and then it works, and suddenly you and the character and the playwright become a single entity. 'Kadosh' was the first time that I learned how to dismantle and reassemble myself; my performance in 'The Lady from the Sea' was the second time I learned to do that, only then I did it in a measured, controlled and more mature manner."
While we're on the subject, what is your attitude toward maturity or maturing?
"I am beginning to welcome the fact that I am maturing. I have two children, aged 15 and 7 [Abecassis was previously married to the actor Lior Miller and is now married to businessman Roni Duek]. When I began contemplating a third child, because it's now or never, I realized that I don't need another one, although I have nothing against kids or families with lots of kids, because I create characters and now produce films and this is my choice, which I do not want to forgo. It takes a lot out of me, it takes a lot of time. And this office in which we are sitting is full of little kids - and by little kids I mean films we want to produce, and each of them needs attention as though it were a child that has to be nurtured. It was not an easy decision, to forgo another child, but I felt it was the right thing for me to do.
"Today I look at myself a lot more than in the past and I like what I see - the signs of aging. Today I can no longer play parts I played when I was 30, but I can play parts I couldn't play when I was 30. I remember that when I passed 40 and I was in Paris, I noticed that I no longer got the looks I once did, and on the one hand I said to myself: Wow, I don't get those looks, but on the other hand, it's great ... [because] most of the time back then I didn't want to get looks. I am 45. It's possible that I have lived half my life and it's even more likely that I will only live till tomorrow. After all, my father was killed when he was 33 - but I'm not scared. I like to play older characters and I have also always loved films that deal with mature characters."
Among our Mizrahi actresses, you are nearly the only one who can play both Mizrahi and Ashkenazi characters successfully, and you have. Does a character's ethnic origin play any consideration in your choice of roles?
"Absolutely not. I don't overlook the fact that the Mizrahim ate shit, and we have to talk about it and shout it and not say that it's over because it isn't. And today the Ethiopians and the Russians and the foreign workers and the refugees eat shit. I am the daughter of a tremendous Moroccan actress and singer, and the Moroccan culture and song and language are in my veins, but I am first and foremost an Israeli woman. I did not say, 'but I'm not from there' when the director Vera Belmont offered me the part of a Holocaust survivor in her 2007 film 'Survivre avec les Loups.' Racism is acquired and in recent years, through my work with battered women, I have learned that violence too is an acquired thing.
"Today the main subject that preoccupies me is the place of women in the chauvinist Israeli society and its culture. I want there to be lots of women in Israeli cinema, more women than there are today, and I am definitely planning to encourage that in my work as a producer. I want to produce cinema. I believe in cinema's power to generate change. It is imperative that there be a living, vibrant, active cinema here."
Do you feel you have a sense of calling?
"Calling is a word I have trouble using in a place where it is still so hard to make movies, a place where filmmaking is like guerrilla activity. But I do feel some sense of calling when a director walks in here and we tell him or her: We're going to do this, improve it, bust our asses because of it, and even if only 1,000 or 5,000 people see it, it will be worth the effort if it has this thing, this scene, this fire. There needs to be cinema of another kind here, a lot of cinema of another kind, more and more cinema of another kind. It began for me when I was in France, after shooting some movie, and I was offered a part in another French film, an interesting role actually, but I realized that I didn't have the desire to spend another half a year outside of Israel. I felt that I missed the cinematic stage in Israel, even if there isn't the abundance that characterizes film stages in France. I thought about the money that gets poured into movies made outside Israel, only a small part of which realize the potential that was invested in them. And about the quality of [locally made] films like 'Or,' 'Frozen Days,' and 'My Father My Lord,' that were made for practically nothing ... Or Dana Goldberg's 'Alice,' which perhaps isn't a great movie as a result of production and budget constraints, but does attest to a great talent. And I understood that I want to go home, I want to end my career where it started and contribute as best I can to the Israeli cinema that was so good to me."
How did you pick "Aya" to be your first film as a producer?
"Hilel Rozman, who was in the same graduating class with [the directors] Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnun at Sam Spiegel [Film and Television School in Jerusalem], came to me with the script for 'Aya' and told me he had approached a major production company that told him the money he had wouldn't be enough to produce it, and in any case they don't produce 40-minute films. So we decided to produce the movie with the money we had, with the wonderful Sarah Adler and the Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen [known to us from films such as "The Celebration" and "In a Better World"], whom we sent the script to, and who said yes immediately. Now Thomsen's going to be directing his own first film, and in place of his original plan, he has decided to shoot it in Israel. It is important that great actors come here, that they agree to appear in Israeli films even for negligible money just because these are films that challenge them.
"We've already produced another short film called 'Letter from the Past,' with Gedalia Besser and Yossi Graber, which was accepted to the upcoming Haifa International Film Festival during Sukkot, and the next project will be a full-length feature film. We have to decide between three options. It depends on which of the three is the first to get money from the film funds. I decided to begin with two 40-minute films to see if I was capable of doing the job and meeting the budgets. Now I am ready to continue."
Throughout the conversation I am aware of the intensity accompanying the sense of calm that radiates from Yael Abecassis' face. I ask her what she thinks of the way calmness is ascribed to her character, and she smiles that enigmatic smile of hers, which both reveals and conceals.
"Just last week someone on the set of the film I am working on complimented me on the calm I convey: A cinematographer told me I evince a quiet mental strength and it has an effect on everyone present on the set. It amazes me anew each time because inside there is a crazy volcano that wants to erupt. I believe that you have to keep evolving all the time. I prefer the word 'evolution' to the word 'change.' You have to experience hundreds of incarnations and not be afraid to leap. I believe in instinct and in creativity, and mainly in the connection between the two. There are those who like to leap high quickly, there are those who like to glide, and there are those who like to parachute. There are those who like to sleep and there are those who like to live and feel things ad infinitum."
It is not hard to surmise in which of these categories Yael Abecassis sees herself as belonging.