Roy Sher's movie came about by chance. Five years ago, a friend dragged him to Husha Shel Zuki, a small club in Jerusalem's Nahlaot neighborhood. The Perah Adom (Red Flower) band was performing songs by the great rebetiko singers, to which oud and bouzouki player Tomer Katz had added Hebrew lyrics. Among the songs were some by the Jewish singer considered to be the Greek-Turkish genre's greatest star of all: Roza Eskenazi. This was Sher's first encounter with this thrilling, urban-folk style of music.
Sher, now 32, but at the time a major in the air force, was more into Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. He had also just enrolled in Tel Aviv University's film and television department with the aim of directing dramas. In his wildest dreams, he never imagined he would be swept up in the world of rebetiko - a whole universe of songs, (mostly) of pain and despair, rooted in the culture of the Greeks who were transferred from Turkey back to their homeland in the mid-1920s after the end of the Greco-Turkish War.
Although Sher wasn't totally carried away by the show, rebetiko music, whose melodies recall Arabic-style music, gradually wormed its way into his heart. In the November 2004 International Oud Festival in Jerusalem, one performance was dedicated to Roza Eskenazi. Sher became intrigued by Eskenazi: a Jewish woman and singer in the macho world of the 1920s and 1930s, who sang social protest songs to male audiences crammed in smoky hashish dens.
On stage that evening, Istanbul-based Hadass Pal-Yarden (accompanied by the Yehudije Ensemble) performed Eskenazi's songs. A short story about the famous singer was also read, by a Jewish poet from Thessaloniki. Written by Dinos Christianopoulos, the story was published in 1991. (Called "Roza Eskenazi," it was also published in Haaretz in 1996, in a Hebrew translation by Amir Zuckerman.) It begins as follows: "Oh, hell, the half-crazy old lady has once again lost her way in Athens' endless streets. And her policeman will once again pound the pavement like a madman, going from police station to police station, until he finds her. Only then will his concern be allayed. He'll lead her affectionately and tenderly back to her shack, and there he will try to calm her down, feed her, clean her, and put her to bed like a baby."
That story, recalls Sher, "just killed me."
"The opening refers to the last days of Roza Eskenazi, when she was ill with Alzheimer's," he explains. "Christianopoulos wrote that she was the most famous singer in the 1930s; the diva of the old urban-folk song genre. Her picture hung in all the record and gramophone stores, and her bohemian look used to drive even the toughest men wild. In this story, you can sense the great drama of her life. I decided to search for as much information about her as I could. The Mizrahi-Arab sound [of the rebetiko genre] was hard for me at first, but I really got into that world. Her Jewish connection helped me feel that I had a right as an Israeli to make a film about her."
Before he knew what was happening, Sher found himself thoroughly addicted to rebetiko; indeed, he now knows entire songs by heart. And thus, what began as a random experience evolved into a documentary film, "Kanarit Metuka Sheli" ("My Sweet Canary"), about the life and music of Roza Eskenazi. Specifically, it focuses on three musicians who are keeping her legacy alive today by playing updated versions of her work with local musicians in Istanbul, Athens and Thessaloniki: The three are Tomer Katz from Israel, Mehtap Demir of Turkey and Martha D. Lewis of Britain/Greece.
Sher began working on the film a year and a half ago, in the framework of his studies at TAU. In December, he completed the lion's share of the filming, which took place in Jerusalem, Istanbul, Thessaloniki, Piraeus, London and the town of Stomio where Eskenazi is buried. The result was some 100 hours of footage. When the editing is complete, the film will run about 90 minutes.
"It's a film about Jewish-Turkish brotherhood," Sher explains. "It is not intended to be a lengthy and detailed portrait of Eskenazi. What I'm interested in is the cultural world in which she lived and created her art."
Lately, he has been spending days in the editing room of the university film department, where it is usually stifling, or, if the air conditioning is on, freezing. But he and editor John Avishay, both young and consumed with their work, have learned to ignore that. However, they can't quite finish the film because they are still short of money, Sher says.
Drawn to the stage
What is it that draws you to rebetiko?
Sher: "The people and places ... and the sounds of course. It's a world that doesn't exist anymore, and while I didn't experience it myself, I wanted to paint its portrait. For me, it was thrilling to hear rebetiko songs. The character of Roza really intrigued me. On the one hand, she seems to be weak, but at the same time she possesses this tremendous strength. It makes me feel like I'd like to spend an evening with her and thus maybe witness a model of femininity you don't find anymore.
"The gender aspect is important. This is the life of a female singer in a patriarchal, male world, in an era where it was the bouzouki player in the ensemble who decided what she would sing. She was strong and made her way in the world of rebetiko and the mangas - the hardscrabble laborers on the fringes of society, in the port cities of Piraeus and Thessaloniki, who got drunk in the taverns where she performed. Who looked after her? How did she manage?"
What is the movie about?
"The movie has two intertwining axes: one is Eskenazi's life story, from her birth in Istanbul in the late 19th century to her death in 1980. The second axis concerns the story of three musicians: a Turkish woman, a Greek woman and an Israeli man, who set out on a musical quest in Roza's footsteps that takes them to the rebetiko clubs of Istanbul, Thessaloniki, Athens and Piraeus."
Delving into Eskenazi's biography proved a rather daunting task. Her exact birth date is not known, and Sher tried, to no avail, to locate in the archives of Athens' Jewish community the date Roza's parents, Vida and Avraam (Avraham) Skinazi, got married. He also had difficulty determining which Jewish neighborhood of Istanbul the family lived in when Roza was a child. He searched for information about her brothers, and discovered that Sami died in Thessaloniki. Brother Nissim, however, is buried in the Holon cemetery: He immigrated to Israel after World War II and his granddaughter, Sarah Bejerano, lives here but doesn't know much about her famous Aunt Roza.
Beyond the problem of finding proper documentation, it seems that Eskenazi tended to fabricate elements of her biography. Nonetheless, Sher promises that his film will offer the first accurate account of her life, which began in Istanbul, took her to Thessaloniki and on to a small town called Komotini, back to Thessaloniki and eventually to Athens where she first gained renown.
Already as a child in Istanbul, Eskenazi was drawn to the stage. "I went to the places where she lived her life," says Sher. "She first encountered the stage at the theater of the Grand Hotel around 1910. Her upstairs neighbors were dancers and she used to bring them their costumes for shows, and they took her on stage for the first time. In 1912, she started performing in Thessaloniki as a dancer, at about age 14. In 1920, she sang in cabarets, accompanied by a classical orchestra with violinists and oud players.
"Around 1922 she moved to Athens with a vaudeville group; she was unmarried and about 25. She performed in hole-in-the-wall clubs and had to contend with the owners and musicians who told her what to sing."
Eskenazi's first record came out in 1929, and she went on to record hundreds of songs and performed in Greek, Turkish, Armenian and Ladino, notes Sher. One of the people he interviewed in the movie is Kostas Hatzidoulis, a journalist and publicist who has helped to preserve rebetiko culture, and who talks about the singer's lovers during the peak of her career.
"In 1930, she had an affair with a vaudeville actor named Gianko Zardinidis, who was an alcoholic," Sher says, recalling Hatzidoulis' words. "He died when she was pregnant. Their child, Paraschos, was given to an orphanage after his birth in 1934. Gianko came from a prominent family; one of his relatives is currently a member of parliament. They were embarrassed that their son lived with a woman out of wedlock, and that they had a child from this union, which was considered a big disgrace then. Paraschos was taken out of the orphanage at some point and Gianko's sisters raised him. He grew up to become an officer in the Greek air force and married a Greek woman of British extraction. They had two children, Roza and Yanis. But Paraschos' wife left him and moved to America with the children.
"All my efforts to find the children were unsuccessful," says Sher. "Paraschos got remarried, to a woman named Vasiliki. I located her and she invited me to her apartment in Athens, a very Christian home with a huge picture of Paraschos, the family patriarch, who died in 1984, on the wall. Before the widow told me anything, her 50-year-old daughter Flora - Roza Eskenazi's granddaughter - came into the room. After a short conversation, she said to me: 'We really love Roza and her music, but she has a dark past and we don't want to have anything to do with the movie.'"
During World War II, Eskenazi remained in Athens. "In 1943, when Eichmann arrived to oversee the deportation of Jews from Thessaloniki and Athens," Sher explains, "the really terrible times started. Athenian Jews managed to blend in with the Greek community thanks to Damaskinos, archbishop of Athens, and Angelos Evert, the Athens police chief, who issued false papers to the Jews with Greek names and affidavits declaring the bearers of the document to be Orthodox Christians. About 1,000 Jews, including Roza, received these documents.
"In the movie, Yitzhak Hazan, originally from the Greek Jewish community, recounts how, as a child, he hid with his family in a suburb of Athens. Eskenazi and her brother Nissim and his family took shelter in the same apartment. At one point, she was arrested by the Germans and taken to the train station in Athens to be sent north. The person who saved her from being sent to her death was a Greek officer who worked under the Germans. His name was Zigantes and she had a romance with him that lasted throughout the years of the German occupation."
From lover to caregiver
Sher says there was a turning point in Eskenazi's life in 1947: "She performed in Patra and a young gendarme in uniform attended the show. His name was Christo Philipakopoulos [and he was 20 years her junior], and they became lovers. Eskenazi was about 50 then and their relationship lasted until the end of her life."
In October 1952, Eskenazi embarked on her first tour of America, where she remained for about a year and a half. She also got married for the only time in her life there - to an American man named Frank Alexander - to obtain the documents that would allow her to stay in the United States for an extended period. She reportedly made a great deal of money there.
In 1955, after a successful series of performances in Istanbul, she returned to America again, staying for nine months. However, she went back to Athens and spent the remainder of her life there.
"She donated money to the needy," Sher notes. "She also bought a few trucks and started a small [transport] company and lived off that income until the day she died. Philipakopoulos was her partner and also drove one of the trucks. She received a pension from the truck drivers' union. The fact that she rummaged through garbage cans in her final years wasn't because of poverty, but because of her illness."
In Roza's last years, Philipakopoulos went from being her lover to her caregiver. In addition, says the filmmaker, "in 1968, when Roza was about 70, Voula entered the picture." A Greek woman from Athens, Voula developed a relationship with Philipakopoulos that only became official after Eskenazi's death, when the two married.
Eskenazi mostly earned a livelihood from her business ventures, and not from rebetiko music, until there was a renaissance of the genre among the younger generation.
"In the 1970s, after the fall of the military junta in Greece," Sher explains, "journalist Hatzidoulis did much to bring back rebetiko music by arranging performances devoted to it. He helped Eskenazi return to the public's consciousness. Her songs were performed by singer Xaris Aleksiou, who included four of Eskenazi's songs on her first album in 1975."
Sher managed to track down Voula and Philipakopoulos' nephews, and with their assistance found Eskenazi's grave. Until 2008, 28 years after her death, the location of the grave of the revered rebetiko artist was not known. It turned out that Eskenazi, who converted to Christianity three years before her death - although that only became public knowledge afterward - was buried as a Christian.
Sher: "[The family] wanted to hold a Christian burial service, although the chief rabbi of Athens said she had to be buried as a Jew. But Christo [Philipakopoulos] produced her baptism certificate and she was buried as a Christian."
People didn't know where she was buried?
"When there's just a mound of dirt with no name on it - you don't know who's buried there. We arrived in Stomio, a quiet and picturesque village, and the nephew took us to a simple house with a cement floor and introduced us to 83-year-old Voula, Philipakopoulos' widow. It was the first time she ever consented to be interviewed.
"She has trouble walking but with incredible patience, she went with us to Roza's grave. She hoped that the people who were making a movie would help her pay for a tombstone on the grave of her two sons from her first marriage, who are also buried under a mound of dirt."
Who erected Eskenazi's tombstone?
"In 2008, when the nephew was appointed head of the village's cultural committee, he placed a tombstone on her grave in the hope that it would attract tourists."
Nothing in Roy Sher's background could have foretold his infatuation with Roza Eskenazi. He was born in Haifa, the eldest child of an architect and a teacher, and has two sisters. He attended the city's Reali School and then moved with his family in 1989 to America, where his mother was from: "We lived in Florida for two years. I was 13 and it was not a positive experience; I didn't speak the language well and people made fun of me. You build a wall around you and long to return to Israel, and when you get back you find out that it's as alienating for you here as abroad."
He specialized in biology at Reali upon his return and began his army service in 1996. Until April 2008, he served in the air force as commander of an Arrow missile battery. Through the Ofek program for combat officers, he was offered a chance to study and enrolled in film and television studies in 2004. After his discharge, he worked as an assistant director on the "New Evening" program.
At the 2008 Haifa Film Festival, he won a prize for a short film he directed called, "Mazal," with Hana Laszlo playing the no-longer-young hostess at a sailors' pub in the Haifa port. The judges commented: "Roy Sher has created an allegorical picture of an entire world ... With a sensitive cinematic touch, he created a believable atmosphere and an implicit analogy between the bar facing closure and the heroine who is trying to cling to it, between a disintegrating past and fading femininity ... Laszlo's acting is very thoughtful and inspired."
Sher and his wife, a student at the Technion, currently live in the Hadar Hacarmel area of Haifa. He is completely devoted to working on the movie, and a CD of the soundtrack is also in the works; 16 songs have already been recorded, he says: "The idea is to give the listener an experience that complements the viewing of the movie."
Sher plunged into this big adventure with eyes wide open, but has found himself stuck with a huge pile of debts. However, he is ambitious and seems sure of himself, and has done some unusual things for someone involved in the local contemporary film industry. For example, he invested all his savings in the movie - NIS 300,000 from a grant received upon his discharge, plus other money he had in the bank - and also spent a year and a half working exclusively on the film. He has also received support from several foundations, the TAU film department and various organizations (in Israel, Turkey and Greece), although he still lacks funds to finish shooting and editing the project.
But even without financial support forthcoming, Sher never considered abandoning the project. "At some point, it became an obsession with me," he explains. "My failure to obtain support for the film in Israel actually turned out be important: No one wants to help me? I'll do the movie myself and I'll show them. I went to all the TV channels and all the foundations that promote cinema and to the Mifal Hapayis national lottery and just anyone I could think of. The lack of interest in the film really struck a chord in terms of how Eskenazi herself is perceived and the way that she's remembered. I'm not talking about the people in Greece because you walk into any store there and find a few of her discs, and it's the same in Turkey.
"Eskenazi is a cultural icon and I don't understand why she hasn't entered the Greek canon and why no one is preserving her musical repertoire. She does not get the cultural and historical recognition she deserves as a musician and performing artist. When she sang it was a unique event that could only have taken place amid the specific cultural and historical and geographical circumstances that I try to show in the film. No other voice can be that powerful. When she sings, you hear in her voice the blend of Turkish, Greek and Ladino, amid all the influences and cultures that this woman embodied. Was she Greek? No. Turkish? No. Jewish? Until 1977, when she converted to Christianity."
In January, Sher premiered an abridged, 30-minute version of his film at the David Perlov memorial documentary competition at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, where it was very warmly received, he says. Sher also organized a musical tribute marking the 30th anniversary of Eskenazi's death, as part of next week's 12th Salonica Film Festival, in which musicians from Israel, Greece, Turkey and England will take part. He plans to add footage of that performance to his film.
The edges of sadness
The last chapter in the life of the legendary Roza Eskenazi was very sad.
"Even before she had to battle Alzheimer's, which began in around 1977. She was isolated and closed off from the culture and music that were developing in Greece at the time, and were unfamiliar to her. She continued singing her songs and every once in a while, when she was invited to perform, showed up dressed in her old dresses, and with two suitcases full of her familiar clothes and jewelry ...
"[In latter years] she lived in a house in Kipoupoli, an Athens suburb. And there were dozens of dogs and cats roaming the house and sleeping in the beds and closets. She was alone."
Were you able to find any of her old outfits or other objects that belonged to her?
"After her death, Christo Philipakopoulos apparently took her apartment in Athens. The clothing and jewelry was taken by his father, who had many lovers to whom he gave out Roza's things."
Her life was depressing at the end.
Eskenazi and her son used to meet from time to time, but did not have a warm relationship, adds Sher: "Hatzidoulis related that one day he called Roza's son and told him that his mother had been missing for three days, and might have been murdered. 'What do you want me to do?' replied the son, as his wife yelled at him to hang up. Christo Philipakopoulos was the only one who cared for her. She was naive and some people saw her as a loose woman." W
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