Eran Merav
Eran Merav. Photo by Daniel Tchetchik
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Zion, 14, lives with his mother and older brother in a small apartment in a Haifa suburb. His father is not around. The children's only connection with him is by means of phone calls via a public telephone. Their mother struggles to support them, trying to earn a living while raising the children and maintaining their home. She dreams of moving in with her boyfriend in a better neighborhood, in Haifa's Carmel district, and of freeing herself from daily economic worries, but her older son is making this dream seem increasingly unlikely.

Zion admires his big brother but fights with him constantly. One sweltering-hot summer day, Zion takes a dip in the sea; when he comes back to shore, he discovers his sneakers are gone. His mother declares she has no money to buy him a new pair. Several days later, when Zion sees a classmate wearing his shoes, he calls in his brother. The latter, in an outburst of violence, attacks the boy and wrestles with him near the railroad tracks. A few days later it emerges that the boy has disappeared. Zion is afraid a disaster occurred, but his brother will not divulge what really happened.

Two years after debuting in the official Sundance Festival competition, the film "Zion and His Brother" has come to movie theaters in Israel. As in the short film "Underdog" (2002 ) - which he made at the end of his studies at the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem, and which marked him as one of the most intriguing and promising graduates of the past decade - in this, his first full-length effort, Eran Merav addresses young people living on the social periphery.

"Underdog" followed a boy from a boarding school who works hawking ice cream at a busy intersection. The boy is humiliated by his classmates and falls in love with a girl. The film won an honorable mention at the Berlin Film Festival and the Wolgin Prize for best short film at the Jerusalem Film Festival, and earned Merav an invitation to participate in the Screenwriters Lab writing seminar at Sundance. It was there that he polished and refined the screenplay of "Zion and His Brother" - and met the woman who would become his wife, for whom he moved to Atlanta, Georgia.

Some weeks ago, Merav, 35, came to Israel for a visit. In an interview in a Tel Aviv cafe, he told Haaretz that he does "not yet know the implications" of living in Atlanta on his career. "At the moment," he said, "I am writing about what I know and I am imagining it in Hebrew and in Israel." He goes back and forth between the United States and Israel because he understands that "this is still my place. I am not going to break my neck because of some dream about making an American movie. It would be great if that happens, but I know how hard it is to make a film there."

"Zion and His Brother" was born of Merav's desire to make "a film that's very Israeli, as Israeli as can be," he explained. This is also why he chose to name his protagonist Zion. "It was easier for me to depict this because it is what I knew. I know those characters, I know the people and there is something of Zion in me, when I was his age."

Merav stresses it was important that the film have a social message. "This film could, after all, have easily fallen into the detective film slot," he noted. "It's very dramatic and that seems obvious: what happened to a boy who disappeared, will he be found, will the police come, will they arrest the brother and will he go to prison. But I realized that what interested me wasn't the detective story but rather the characters. When I was a boy they would turn the world upside down when a child went missing. Suddenly it seemed that this very natural thing had changed, that today a child could disappear and it wouldn't be the main topic of discussion. It seems to me this is less troubling to people who watch this film today. After all, we go to the movies to see people who are challenged, suffering, struggling - and I thought that because of the environment in which Zion and his brother live, it would be better not to resolve the matter of the boy's disappearance.

"After I completed my studies, when I wanted to start writing, I returned to Haifa, to my neighborhood, Bat Galim, where I lived all my life," he related. "That is what I knew and that is what was easiest for me to write about. While I was writing I was locked into Haifa. I thought it would be a statement - to go and shoot a film in that city, in my own neighborhood. For me this was a homecoming but also an entry into untold territory, to a city that isn't storied enough in film."

As compared to the gentle Haifa wrapped in the nostalgia of the 1960s that recently emerged from Avi Nesher's film "The Matchmaker," the Haifa of "Zion and His Brother" is dreamy and promising, but also harsh, poor, oppressive and heavy.

'More locations'

"At first I thought about also shooting the film in Bat Galim, but in the end, because it was a bit claustrophobic, we went over to the other side of the Haifa Bay, to a place where you can look out over Bat Galim. There we had more locations and from there Haifa suddenly looks like a promising city. From a distance, from the hill, it looks very glamorous. So I simply went across to the other side and decided to film in the krayot," said Merav, referring to Haifa's northern industrial suburbs.

His contemporary Haifa story apparently has its roots in Italian neo-realism. "One of the things that drives the story is financial matters," he says. "Zion's whole story could have been resolved if only he had NIS 50 to buy new shoes. Because he doesn't have that money, everything gets complicated. This connected for me with [Vittorio de Sica's 1948] film 'The Bicycle Thief,' a film I loved when I was a student. When I was 20 and a student at Camera Obscura, [filmmaker-teacher] Gur Heller told us the story of that movie in one sentence and it enchanted me. So I decided I wanted to write a story I could tell in one sentence - something terribly simple and basic. I searched for a sentence like that, and in the end I came up with a story that began with a stolen pair of shoes."

As in "Underdog," Merav decided that in "Zion and His Bother" (an Israeli-French co-production by Norma Productions, with support from the Yehoshua Rabinovich Foundation for the Arts, HOT and Keshet ) the main characters would be adolescents.

"There is something about the age of 14 that is very significant. It's an age when a dramatic psychological change occurs," he explained. "An insight one gets at that age remains for a lifetime and therefore it is very tempting for writers, if they are young and close to that age."

In both movies he casted people with no acting experience. In "Zion and His Brother," Reuven Badalov plays the protagonist and Ofer Hayoun plays his big brother Meir. Both are impressive.

"Both of them had never seen a movie camera before," said Merav. "Working with actors like them is challenging and also very rewarding, because children learn very fast. Ofer Hayoun was a first-year student at an acting school somewhere but we found Reuven at a public school in Holon. The teachers said, 'Don't go near him, it's a waste of time,' because he was a troublemaker, and there really was something very problematic about him. He couldn't memorize texts, for example, and would come unprepared. But every time he spoke a line, he was so convincing and believable that it was heart-wrenching."

Opposite the two inexperienced youngsters Merav cast two of Israel's best, most outstanding actors: Ronit Elkabetz plays the boys' mother, and Tzahi Grad plays her boyfriend. This casting created a surprising resemblance to another Israeli film now in the theaters: Guy Nattiv's "The Flood." There too the main characters are a boy (Yoav Rotman ) and his big brother (Michael Moshonov ); there too Elkabetz plays their mother and Grad plays their father.

Merav thinks this is just a coincidence. "Our film was ready two years ago," he noted. "We shot it before they did their casting, but in any event, I take this as a compliment. We had to create a family in the auditions and I consider this confirmation it was a good fit."