In the film "Streets of Yesterday," a Jewish extremist assassinates an Israeli foreign minister in response to the minister's decision to engage in open talks with the Palestinians. The film was made in 1989, when such a political assassination seemed impossible. But only six years later, we witnessed a cinematic fantasy become reality. The assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing fanatic made it clear that the plot of "Streets of Yesterday," directed by Yehuda (Judd) Ne'eman, was a bold forecast of a prospect everyone preferred to repress.
Still, most local moviegoers did not have the privilege of seeing the film: Ne'eman was commissioned to direct it by Britain's Channel 4 television, and therefore it was produced in English. Ne'eman's request for additional funding from the Israel Film Fund to produce a Hebrew version was rejected, and no distributor was found to screen the film commercially, due to the belief that local audiences would reject a work in which Israelis do not speak their native language, in addition to apprehensions about the public's reaction to the content.
"After Rabin's assassination, I showed the film to someone at [Israel's] Channel 2 in the hope that they would decide to air it. But her reaction was, 'It's not interesting because all of that already happened,'" Ne'eman recalls, sitting in his Tel Aviv apartment. "Despite that, during the 10th anniversary commemorations of Rabin's assassination, the Yitzhak Rabin Center and the film department at Tel Aviv University (TAU) organized a conference, during which the film was screened. Dalia Rabin, and many others who approached me afterward, asked me, 'Why didn't we see this film? Why didn't you show it in time?' I answered that in fact I did suggest it be screened, but that no one would listen."
"Streets of Yesterday" marked a turning point in Ne'eman's career. After directing the film, he abandoned the movie industry and embarked on a career in academia. He became a senior lecturer in TAU's film department, chaired the department for several years, and focused on the study of Israeli filmmaking. Now releasing his latest movie, "Nuzhat al-Fuad," he explains why he didn't produce any films for 17 years.
Ne'eman, 71, confesses that the way his films were received locally, particularly "Streets of Yesterday," drove him to despair: "I certainly want my films to be seen, but not at a cost of fabrication and lies. That's how I felt about Israeli politics in 1988, and that's how I presented it. But a Maariv critic wrote a review entitled 'Lust and Stupidity,' which claimed that only someone as delusional as me could invent a plot like that - a blood libel about an extremist assassinating a political leader. And a headline like that incites fire.
"It wasn't easy to make 'Streets of Yesterday' and, in my opinion, it is cinematically excellent," Ne'eman adds. "But no one wanted to relate to it. So I decided not to make another film because my work didn't interest anyone. I was only tempted again many years later. I fell off the wagon and decided to make a film even if it was destined to attract only six viewers."
Ne'eman became famous for his political films: "Paratroopers" (1977), a critique of Israeli militarism; "Fellow Travelers" (1983), which like "Streets of Yesterday" addressed the Israeli- Palestinian conflict; and a few documentaries he directed. But in his new film, he returns to the early days of his filmmaking, which preceded his focus on goading the establishment and scrutinizing the ills of Israeli society. Like his first film, "The Dress" (1970), in "Nuzhat al-Fuad," Ne'eman focuses on personal stories, family tragedies and love.
The film tells the story of two young women: Tamara (played by singer Efrat Gosh), a successful soap-opera star, who discovers she has leukemia; and Odelia (Yael Hadar), the soap opera's scriptwriter, who copes with a critical father, memories of a mother who committed suicide, an unexpected miscarriage and creative dilemmas.
The two characters revolve around one another and reflect one another while each helps the other recognize her own shortcomings and decipher her own passions and fears. But unlike in most contemporary Israeli films, the script, which Ne'eman co-wrote with Shirley Ram-Amit and Daniel Avitzur, makes no attempt to mollify viewers' experience. It does not present a coherent, linear narrative, but instead integrates one story into another, blurring the borders between reality and imagination. At times it is difficult to follow the plot, as the film fearlessly juxtaposes a drama and a musical, songs and chemotherapy, a contemplation of anorexia, and colorful scenes from "One Thousand and One Nights." (The title is the name of a character in the "Nights.")
Ne'eman knew from the outset that a plot of such complexity might not attract viewers, but he insisted on remaining true to his vision. "I wanted to obscure any possibility of understanding the plot, to create a film that would force the viewer to relinquish any possibility of comprehending what's going on," he explains. "I fought over that, particularly with the producers, with the foundation that financed the film, with the creators with whom I collaborated, and even with the scriptwriters during the writing process. At one point, for example, when I decided that Mohammed Bakri would play two different roles, everyone was alarmed. 'How can that be?' they asked. 'You'll ruin the film.' And I maintained that it wouldn't, that it would actually make the film - contribute to the difficulty of understanding. My battle was with the demand that it be comprehensible or popular, and succeed. And because I am accustomed to failing in all my films, it turned out this way. It didn't bother me."
'Friends with death'
Ne'eman chose a similarly unconventional script for his highly acclaimed "Paratroopers" - the story of a new army recruit who is harassed by officers and comrades, and is finally killed in an incident which is either a training accident or a suicide. "They wrote that 'Paratroopers' was a 'betrayal of dramatic foundations' because the main character was killed in the middle of the film. Kubrick did the same thing in 'Full Metal Jacket' - 10 years after me - but no one criticized him," Ne'eman says, smiling. "I'm into making it difficult for both myself and the viewer."
He believes that in Israel, "we have yet to get to the point where we legitimize a film like 'Nuzhat al-Fuad,' because we still admire realism. We always want to understand what's happening, even though we rarely really understand what is happening in life - quite the opposite."
Before embarking on a career in film, Ne'eman weighed other options. He initially studied math and physics at university before switching to medicine. He worked as a surgeon in a Tel Aviv hospital and was a battalion physician in a paratroopers unit in three different campaigns - the Six-Day War, the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War.
"It was clear to me that I wanted to make films, but I knew it was difficult," he explains. "I was doing shifts in the emergency room and received all the trauma cases and emergency surgeries. Those were shifts with a lot of adrenaline, and they made me forget everything I was not - a film director, a writer, a poet - everything I considered worthwhile during those years of my youth. Back then, I didn't find enough appeal in medicine unless I was immersed in that high drama and could meet people who came to me pulverized and fix them. That's how I learned to make friends with death."
Ne'eman says that this led him to serve in a combat unit and later use the term "death mask" to describe some of the films produced in Israel during the 1960s and '70s. He was associated with a group of filmmakers that included Avraham Heffner, Nissim Dayan, David Perlov, Moshe Mizrahi, Isaac Zepel Yeshurun, Dan Wolman and Assi Dayan, who produced films influenced by the European cinema of that period and created a new wave of Israeli filmmaking.
Ne'eman: "Back then, addressing death was powerful. We opposed the films of contemporary Israeli cinema - the 'bourekas movies' and 'commissioned' films, propaganda films. We opposed everything in our European-influenced films, which also had a local dimension that I called the 'death mask' - in other words, a defense mechanism. It was a generation that lived in the shadow of World War II and the War of Independence, in the shadow of the deaths of young men. It was our obligation, but on the other hand, we wanted to live. When we donned the 'death mask,' it was a defense mechanism, because someone who is already dead does not fear death. That mask was reflected in the cinematic expression of those films: an introverted rather than extroverted style, very restrained, minor, minimalist."
It seems as though Ne'eman continues to befriend death to this very day, as illustrated by his latest work, "Nuzhat al-Fuad," in the form of the reproductive losses experienced by both heroines, the death of one's mother and, of course, the battle with cancer.
"I return to death and the battle with death in 'Nuzhat al-Fuad,'" admits Ne'eman. "The Sheherazade character tells an endless story in the film, employing a One-Thousand-and-One-Nights technique to thwart her own death. Protection from death here comes by way of telling a story without an end."
Ne'eman was honored for his unique contribution to Israeli film in the opening ceremony of last year's Haifa Film Festival, and both of his new films, "Nuzhat al-Fuad" and "Sheherazade's Tears," a documentary, were screened there. In lieu of a polite and grateful acceptance speech, he chose to use the establishment stage to deliver a bold political address. He confessed that he had considered refusing the government-subsidized prize, mentioned the need to separate the state from its army, contended that the Israel Defense Forces determine the nation's policies, and said that, instead of engaging in another war, the government should negotiate with Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria in any location and without preconditions.
"I initially did not want to receive the prize," he says. "I said that those prizes are given to filmmakers who have reached the end of the road instead of filmmakers with a future, who they believe in and wish to provide with an incentive to go forward. I thought the prize was an entry ticket to a retirement village. But then I asked myself: 'Why constantly kick and scream?' If they give me a platform, I can take advantage of it to make political statements instead of talking about filmmaking, because that isn't interesting."
As expected, one can also detect his political footprint in "Nuzhat al-Fuad," which is supposed to be a personal rather than political film. "Someone told me this was the first binational film," he says. "It moves between Hebrew and Arabic, and has an Arab actor playing a Jew, who has a Jewish lover. He speaks Arabic and tells the story of 'One Thousand and One Nights' in Arabic, turning everyone around him into actors in 'One Thousand and One Nights.' So it is not a political film, but a political artery passes through it."