After many years of making mostly light and enjoyable comedies, Assi Dayan decided, sometime back in the early 1990s, to change direction. He devoted himself to writing a different kind of screenplay. One that depicted urban loneliness, city doldrums, broken hearts, drugs, alcohol, soldiers behaving like animals, a society divided, racist and violent. And of course death. Lots of it. The script for "Life According to Agfa" brought these elements swirling together in a frenetic demons' dance, taking place during a single night, set in a dark, crowded Tel Aviv bar.
Exactly 20 years ago, Dayan and producers Yoram Kislev and Rafi Bukai were furiously busy with preparations for filming. At the time, they didn't imagine that "Life According to Agfa" would end up becoming one of Israeli cinema's most important films. Nor did they know that critics would identify it as a turning point in the history of local cinema. And they were not even sure enough viewers would deign to see the movie.
Two decades later, we set out to find the people who were involved in making "Agfa." In the process, a number of contradictions and discrepancies between the various versions of events surfaced. Among other things, we learned who was originally supposed to direct the film before Dayan, why the actors were especially stressed on the set, and why, a month before "Agfa" was to hit the screens, the producer was ready to shelve it.
Kislev, for whom "Agfa" marked the beginning of a productive collaboration with Dayan (he went on to produce "An Electric Blanket Named Moshe," "Mr. Baum" and "The Gospel According to God," all directed by and starring Dayan ) recalls: "Over many long months, a large number of drafts were written, 12 or 13 I think, until the script was ready to shoot. The screenplay came to me in its second or third draft, after the person who was supposed to direct the film, Amnon Rubinstein, realized he wasn't going to get to it and returned the screenplay to Assi."
Eventually Dayan decided to direct the film himself; Kislev began raising money for the production. The director and writer's health made things more difficult: Dayan himself once confirmed (but later denied ) he was taking a lot of drugs then.
"Assi was going through a particularly bad period then," Kislev recalls. "The Israel Film Fund was scared to give us money, because they were worried he wouldn't finish the filming. Assi is very professional in everything related to cinema that he does, but they were afraid something would happen and demanded that there be a 'chaperone' director ... I offered them my beloved partner, Rafi [Bukai, director of 1989's "Avanti Popolo"], and the fund accepted this offer ... But when Assi heard the whole story, he was hurt, and as a result Bukai couldn't come on the set. His hands were tied, because he knew that if he did, Assi would eat him alive."
The large cast ultimately included Gila Almagor, Shuli Rand, Ezra Kafri, Irit Frank, Smadar Kilchinsky, Sharon Alexander, Shmil Ben Ari, Uri Klausner, Danny Litani, Rivka Neuman and others.
"I met Assi for the first time on the steps of the income tax office," says Ben Ari, who plays a pimp who arrives with his hooker and bodyguard at the Barby - the fictional bar in which the film is set. "He said, 'Come to Yoram's office, pick up a script, I have a part for you.' When I told my agent about it she was dismissive, but I went anyway.
"I thought he was going to give me the role of the soldiers' commander, because that's the sort of role I'd done previously, but he said he was giving me the role of a pimp. 'You think you can deliver?' he asked, in those words, and when I replied that I did, he said: 'Then the part's yours."
Danny Litani, who plays Czerniak - a charming urban troubadour who hangs out at the Barby's piano, translating the reality around him into songs - says his role was supposed to be filled by Naftali Alter (a regular Dayan collaborator, who composed some of the songs in "Agfa" ). When Alter announced that he would pass, they brought in Litani.
"With the exception of a tiny appearance in 'Rockinghorse,' I had never appeared in a movie, and since I wanted to know a little about the part, I decided to meet with Assi. It was the shortest meeting of my life," Litani jokes. "I got to his house, knocked on the door, he opened it for me wild-haired, cloaked in a cloud of smoke. I asked him what the part was, and he mentioned a character who used to hang around [Cafe] Kasit, Pichu, who would always shout, throw glasses when he was drunk - a well-known figure in the nightlife of those days. Assi looked at me and said: 'Pichu, but without the violence. It'll be fine.' And that was it."
Dayan, who did not agree to be interviewed for this article, once said the film had originally been titled "Life According to Kodak." After the big photography company refused to back the film, he decided to shoot it in black and white, with Agfa film, and revised the name: "[Kodak] told us, 'With such a tough and horrible story, why would we [back the movie]?' So I said, fine, we'll switch to black and white, which is my favorite color," Dayan relates in an interview on the DVD version of "Life According to Agfa": "I decided that this is the true face of the night, and after all, the film takes place in the course of a single night in black-and-white Tel Aviv."
"That is incorrect, total bullshit," declares Kislev. "What happened was that I approached Agfa, I asked them for money, and they kicked me out. This is a giant international company, and they were not interested in investing in an Israeli movie. I said to them, 'At least give us raw materials,' but they refused that too. In protest, we shot on Fujifilm."
In fact, the picture's credits say that it was shot in Agfa film. The mystery, for the time being at least, remains unresolved.
Most of the filming took place at an old bar on Allenby Street, along the stretch between Hayarkon and Ben Yehuda streets.
"Without much effort we managed to persuade the owner of the bar, which was about to close, to let us film there," Kislev recalls. "We explained that the movie would turn his place into an insane success, and thanks to the fact that he was excited about our effort to promote his place, we paid him pennies. Unfortunately, he died right after we wrapped. Later on, a bar called Barby really was built on that spot ... but it never took off."
Production took place between February and April of 1992, according to Kislev, at a budget of $600,000 (funding came from the Israel Film Fund and the Israel Broadcasting Authority ), a large sum in those days for an Israeli film.
"We filmed at night. Working with me was a nightmare. The actors hate me to death," Dayan said in the DVD interview. "Shuli Rand was afraid of me, so he would come to the third assistant director and tell him he would like another take. So I would go to him and say, 'Listen Shuli, allow me to introduce myself, I am the director, I don't know who the guy is that you sent over to me. I heard he's an assistant director but he doesn't assist me in the least, and neither do you, because I saw you [in the take] and you were great, so don't talk nonsense."
'Best thing I had read'
All of the actors interviewed for this article were full of compliments and praise for Dayan. They admitted that filming was exhausting and demanding, but said he was a brilliant director, who knew exactly what he wanted to get out of every actor and in every scene.
"When I read the script I was blown away," says Gila Almagor. "It was without a doubt the best thing I had read." Almagor plays Dahlia, the bar's owner, who takes home random men she meets at her workplace, and has an affair with one who turns out to be near death from cancer.
"From the moment we began working, it was clear that I was going to be a partner to a film the likes of which I had never done before. After an initial two days of pressure, during which Assi was stressed out, because it had been several years since he had directed, I went up to him and said, 'Assi, relax, we are all here to be in this film of yours, each of us knows that he has never done such a thing before. So be assured, we're all with you.' Without having talked it over, everyone had a feeling that this was not just another movie."
Smadar Kilchinsky, who plays Daniella, a beautiful cocaine-loving waitress who has obtained a visa to the United States and is gleefully planning her imminent abandonment of Israel, shared Almagor's sensation. "When I read the script I was blown away," she too says. "If the history of cinema is a vinyl record on which everyone makes his notch, then twice in my lifetime I have had a feeling that I've been given an opportunity to make my notch: with 'Bar 51' [a 1985 film by Amos Guttman] and 'Life According to Agfa.' We knew we were going to make a movie that would make history. Because of its message, because its script was especially moving, and because it's a movie about a lot of people who are together, but each is completely alone."
"We all felt we were on a mission," says Irit Frank, who played Liora, the barmaid who discovers that her lover (Shuli Rand, portraying a singing detective ) is cheating on her big-time, and documents with her camera the surreal occurrences and characters at the Barby. "We were sure the film was saying to everyone: 'Be careful, we are in a very bad state.' It was this point in time in Israeli reality where it seemed like the end of the world was near, and we had come to warn people. We were sure we were headed for the end of the state, that a terrible disaster was looming; we felt we were doing something that went beyond a film."
For his part, Sharon Alexander plays Lt. Col. Nimi, an army commander who has been wounded in a military operation, and is out with his soldiers for a night on the town, during which he leads them to especially violent and brutish behavior at the Tel Aviv bar. Today, he recounts: "In terms of style, it was unlike any script we had known. Not exactly drama, not exactly comedy, not realistic and not non-realistic. It seemed intriguing and fascinating, but we didn't know how to define it. And there were songs in the middle. I remember Shuli saying to me, 'If anything, it's a musical.'"
Filming lasted 22 days and took place mainly at night. "It was a very small place, crowded, and we squeezed a big bunch of actors and crew in there," Alexander remembers. "It was like a bustling hive of activity, with Assi at its center. Most of the time he appeared detached, but it wasn't like that at all. Occasionally he would approach me, mumble something, and without my having understood the words he said, I understood exactly what he wanted from me."
"Between shoots we would curl up on mattresses," Kilchinsky recalls. "We talked, sang, there was a pleasant ambience. Those evenings were magical in my eyes. We were on Allenby during its hard-core period: There were hookers wandering around, they'd come into our makeup trailer, and we talked to them. They were part of the view."
Ben Ari adds: "The place was crawling with hookers and pimps, and we saw terrible sights. I remember someone, a pimp probably, who shattered a bottle on the forehead of some girl, a prostitute probably. Her forehead swelled up, and I told her, 'Go to the police, complain.' But she sat down and went on drinking her beer. I guess this environment contributed to the atmosphere of the film."
One take only
According to Kislev, it was in the course of working on "Agfa" that Dayan formulated the work methods he uses today: "He shoots almost everything in one take. He does another take only on rare occasions. The actors grasped pretty quickly that this was an important movie. Each took his role seriously; they were focused and concentrated because they knew they wouldn't get another take. They were so absorbed in their preparations thapt it was impossible to talk to them. People were in hysterics so as not to break concentration whereas Assi, as always, would sleep between shots. They would wake him up only when a shot was ready. He would get up, shoot, and go back to sleep."
"We were in a panic," says Frank, who today runs Hasimta Theater in Tel Aviv. "We did a lot of rehearsals before each take, but not with Assi. He was in his own world, so we got help from each other ... In this film ... each [person] has his moment in which he is the star."
Frank, who had worked with Dayan on several earlier films, did manage to persuade him from time to time to shoot an additional take. "I knew how great Assi is, and every time I didn't feel comfortable with my take, I'd go up to him and request another. I would make a sort of beseeching face, and he'd agree," she says. "Because of the aura there was around Assi, everyone was terribly scared of him and was afraid to ask for another take. They didn't understand that he is an incredible person, and it is actually very easy to work with him."
According to Ben Ari, "Assi didn't do rehearsals at all. I remember that only 10 minutes before filming ... did he come and tell us, 'Let's talk about the scene and the characters.' I remember that Rivka [Neuman, who played a prostitute] was in a panic. We came two hours before the shoot and she told me, 'Shmil, I don't know what to do, I'm a whore but I don't speak with a het and ayin' [referring to the Hebrew letters, which are pronounced in a guttural manner], so I said to her, 'Why do you have to be a Mizrahi prostitute? Be an Ashkenazi prostitute.' She loved the idea - and did it. But that got me started thinking what I would do with my character ...
"The three of us, Rivka and Uri [Klausner] and I, showed Assi what we were thinking of doing, and he told us, 'Excellent, excellent.' We rehearsed for a few minutes, shot it, and that was it. That's to Assi's credit, because he always knew what he wanted."
"He was very pleased and said, 'I'm going to write a screenplay about the three of you.' We said, 'Yeah, fine' - we thought he was talking from enthusiasm, but then, half a year later, Kislev telephoned us, 'Come, pick up a script.' I couldn't believe it. I came to his office, I took a script and cracked up laughing. Assi had promised, and he delivered." And indeed, the characters played by Ben Ari, Klausner and Neuman in "Agfa" became the protagonists of Dayan's next film, "An Electric Blanket Named Moshe."
At the end of "Agfa," the band of drunken soldiers returns to the Barby. They pull out their guns, shatter the windows, and shoot to death everyone in the bar. In an interview for a project involving the creation of a Hebrew database about Israeli cinema, Dayan explained that he chose to end the film with the mass murder because he realized that otherwise the movie would not be much different from any television series about folks who hang out at a bar. "Unless it ends in a massacre, it will be like another episode of 'Cheers,'" Dayan said, referring to an American sitcom.
He made it clear that "Agfa" embodies something of a Hegelian view of majority culture, and talks about "a pyramid that starts from our national loneliness," and involves "a type of national suicide."
Kislev says that in preview screenings of the film, many objected to the decision to end it this way: "We were told, 'Are you kidding - Israeli soldiers killing Jews? What is this?' People saw in it a political statement in the sense of left-right, even though the film wasn't like that at all. As far as Assi was concerned, that statement was existentialist. I remember that during work on the script we debated whether it would be the criminals who kill everyone at the end, or the soldiers."
"Assi's condition in those days was tough physiologically, but he functioned excellently," recalls Ezra Kafri, who played Eli Shamgar, the bar owner's cancer-ridden lover. "I think that he made this film like a last will and testament. I don't think he believed he would live for many years after this film. I believe that he felt this catastrophe about himself and translated it in the film into an external event."
"I remember myself breaking the window and shooting the woman whom I married a month later. That was amusing: it was clear that the wedding was already a burial," laughs Alexander, who a few weeks after the filming married Kilchinsky, who was previously married to Dayan. She relates that she found herself in a peculiar situation on the set: "It was terribly strange. I was with my future husband, both of us playing in a film by my ex-husband. But they were both charming, and got to like each other very much."
"Agfa" premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival in July 1992. "There was complete silence at the end of the screening," said Dayan in his interview for the cinema database, "and we didn't know what that said. And then there was applause like you wouldn't believe. People came up and said, 'You're a genius, a genius.' With all the genius I forgot to be a junkie."
"We were sure it was going to be a special and powerful film, but that the audience wouldn't come to the movie theater to see it," Kislev says. "So, a month before it came out I had considered shelving it. It never occurred to me that it would succeed at the box office. I thought: Who will come to see such a depressing film?
"I remember we were about to go out on Friday, and on Wednesday I telephoned Lev Cinema and they told me that all of the tickets for Friday and Saturday had already been sold. It was only then I realized it would be all right. The reactions to the film, the reviews, were not enthusiastic, but the theater was packed from Day 1. Assi was afraid they wouldn't understand the film, so we handed out four-page brochures at the movie theaters, with explanations about the film and about Existentialism."
Ultimately 250,000 people saw the movie in Israel. "It was an insane number, because back then people hardly went to see Israeli films," Kislev explain. At the Berlin Film Festival the film won accolades and subsequently was sold for distribution in various countries. "In Germany it was shown at 70 movie theaters for months, and when it came out in France, Paris was blanketed by posters for the film. After a lengthy break, which had lasted since 'Sallah Shabati' and 'The Policeman,' this film restored Israeli cinema to international awareness," he adds.
"It is undoubtedly one of the important films that were made her," Almagor agrees. "I go to a lot of festivals that do retrospectives of my films, and my condition is always that they show 'Agfa.' I am waiting for Assi to repeat that experience."
Alexander says that through the years he has been surprised each time anew at how much this film has penetrated the Israeli consciousness. "I guess it spoke to people somehow, because many took it to heart. To this day people tell me that it is a regular fixture next to their DVD player and they watch it again and again. I don't know why it got locked this way into the Israeli experience, but apparently it really said something about us."
"There is a vision in this film, and unfortunately it is coming true here," says Frank, who has three stills from the film on display in her office at Hasimta. "But I hope that our society will come to its senses and in the end we will have blue skies here, just like Assi chose to end the film."
The final shot, the only one in "Agfa" that was shot in color, provides a view that gazes at Tel Aviv through a window, watching it wake up to a morning of blue skies.
"When the Zionist experience comes to an end, and we're all living in Europe and all sorts of other places," Kislev concludes, "I think that this film will express beautifully the existence we had here."