When he is asked whether he would be prepared to meet on Saturday morning, director Gidi Dar, whose film "Ushpizin" will be coming to the movie theaters on August 5, bristled. "No, no, no," he exclaimed, explaining that in return for the opportunity that was given him to make a film with a plot that takes place in ultra-Orthodox society in Jerusalem, he agreed not to be interviewed about it on the Sabbath. An even more severe constraint was that the film would not be screened after the start of the Sabbath on Friday evenings - the most important time of the week for showing films with respect to their economic potential. When this concerns an Israeli film, whose fate at the box office is always a very fragile matter, this concession could have a crucial effect on the success of the film.
But Dar, who has never taken a completely expected and accepted path, agreed to these constraints. When we finally meet on an ordinary weekday there is the sense that he is doing this with willingness and even with an understanding of the desires and the needs the public about which he made the film. Only in this way was it possible for him to make what he defines as "the first feature film that depicts ultra-Orthodox society from the inside," and also to continue the collaboration with his good friend, actor Shuli Rand. Rand has become religiously observant, and Dar speaks of him not only with considerable and justified admiration, but also with great love.
Dar and Rand met about 10 years ago, when the director was looking for an actor for his short film, "The Poet," which began as his final project for his studies in the film department at Beit Zvi; his friend Eitan Bloom suggested that he meet with Shuli Rand. "The moment I went into his apartment and met him, I knew that he would act in the film," says Dar. Rand also acted (together with Eitan Bloom) in "Eddie King," Dar's first full-length film, which made its debut in 1992 and won the Bronze Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival. (In Israel the film was a box-office flop and was panned by most of the critics, who did not know what to do with a work of such an experimental nature that was very different from the films that were being produced here at the time.)
Rand's process of becoming religiously observant was gradual, says Dar, and they naturally drifted apart. "I nearly gave up on him as an actor," he said, but in the end, he didn't. He relates that Rand - who in recent years has been appearing in one-man plays based on the works of S.Y. Agnon, which have been garnering considerable success - asked him once: Why shouldn't we do something together again? This gave birth to "Ushpizin," Dar's second full-length feature film, in Hebrew with English subtitles, which was one of the participants in the Wolgin Competition at the recent Jerusalem International Film Festival.
Deserving of success
"Ushpizin" (literally "holy guests" in English) - for which Rand wrote the screenplay, and which was produced by Rafi Bukaee, who died of cancer last year, and Dar - is deserving of success. This is a work that is full of charm and also perhaps of importance in the splintered society of Israel.
Set in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem during the festival of Sukkot, the film tells the story of Moshe and Mali Berlinga (Shuli Rand and his wife, Michal Bat-Sheva Rand), a couple that has become religiously observant. Their financial state is shaky and their married life is also in trouble, mainly because of Mali's difficulty in becoming pregnant.
But then a series of "miracles" begin to happen to Moshe and Mali: An anonymous benefactor pushes an envelope with money in it under their door; one of the inhabitants of the neighborhood informs Moshe that there is an abandoned sukka (a booth traditionally used during the holiday for meals and sleeping) that he can use. Although they had thought they would be spending the festival alone, a pair of guests (ushpizin) come to their sukka. These are Joseph (Ilan Ganani) and Elijah (Shaul Mizrahi), Moshe's friends from the days before he became religiously observant.
But miracles, at least in the world of this film, have a tendency to be a double-edged sword. And with an etrog (citron used in Sukkot rituals) with a miserable fate and two escaped prisoners, Dar has made a film that he defines as "a legend," which deals on several levels with the search for redemption and the power of faith to bring this redemption closer.
There is something surprising in the fact that a director, who defines himself as "completely not religious," makes a film of this sort, which relates very lovingly to the ultra-Orthodox public. Despite the awful superficiality inherent in a statement like this, in the secular society to which Dar belongs there is, on the surface, something very "unfashionable" about making a film like this. Did he have any doubts about making the film?
"Of course, and at several levels. I was afraid, for example, of the way in which my society would react to the film; that they would say that I had made a propaganda film for the ultra-Orthodox. But the moment Shuli suggested to me that I make the film, and told me the main idea of the plot, I knew this was an offer I couldn't refuse because it fit together with everything I have done until now and everything that attracts me about making films. I am fascinated by the idea that we are living here with a sense of a chasm with the past. I have always envied directors like Bunuel and Bergman and Fellini, and in fact all the great directors, who even when they are dealing with the present, are connected to the culture and the history of the place where they are working. The American cinema is also like that - history is present in the most basic Hollywood film.
"This alienation of ours from the past doesn't seem right to me, and it doesn't seem healthy. It creates a certain sense of disconnectedness, which I dealt with in `Eddie King' - the hero was a theater actor who is seeking meaning in the aggregate of all of the fantasies and myths from which he is trying to put his life together. One of the things that attracted me to making `Ushpizin' is the fact that the film takes place both in the present and in some sort of past; here, very near to us, and at the same time very far away from us.
"There was also the fact that `Ushpizin' is a film that comes from within ultra-Orthodox society, was written by someone who belongs to that society and received their permission, and even more importantly, looks at it from the outside - and this fascinated me. People who have already seen the film have told me that it reminds them of works by Shalom Aleichem, S.Y. Agnon, Isaac Bashevis Singer and others. The person who brought these materials to the films is Shuli Rand, who not only wrote the screenplay but was also involved in the directing, and I am glad he brought these things in.
"And what interest me most of all in making films is the possible connection that exists in them between reality and fiction. This connection exists in all the films I have made so far, both features and documentaries, and `Ushpizin' gave me the possibility of pushing this to an extreme."
Cut off from reality
"Ushpizin" does not deal with the place of the ultra-Orthodox in the overall fabric of contemporary Israeli society. It does not deal with its political aspects and it does not situate it within general Israeli cultural and economic contexts. On the contrary. The world that appears in the film - part of it was shot in a number of ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem, and most of it at the Schneller military camp where a copy of such a neighborhood was erected - is depicted as completely cut off from any other reality that is all around it.
"I made sure that the noise of the city would not enter the film," says Dar. "Toward the end of the film, when you suddenly see buses and you realize that there is a city surrounding the neighborhood where the story takes place, I wanted there to be something surprising about this, even though all along you know this city exists."
This restraint is liable to arouse opposition to the film and to be perceived as a romantic attitude toward the ultra-Orthodox community. Under better circumstances, it could arouse a productive and important local debate on the question of how to represent in the cinema the various sectors and societies that currently constitute the Israeli reality. But it seems these questions do not really concern Dar. Every time the word "criticism" comes up in the conversation, he prefers to change it to "perspective."
What there is in the film is Dar's perspective and his view. And if from within these there is also a measure of criticism of the reality it depicts, this is apparently something for viewers to pick up. What interests him far more is the degree of truth he has succeeded in transmitting.
"There is irony in the film," he says, "but the ultra-Orthodox are themselves more ironical about their world than we secular people are. At the screenings of the film that have been held until now, at which an ultra-Orthodox audience was also present, including the screening at the Jerusalem film festival, the ultra-Orthodox laughed a lot more than the secular people."
Other words that are important to Gidi Dar are "intent" and "intention." These words are linked in his consciousness to the main subject with which the film deals, which is faith. "One of the things that characterize ultra-Orthodox society is that everyone in it believes in God. You know that this is the case, yet it still manages to surprise you when you come from a secular society in which everyone is in a kind of constant search for something in which to believe.
"The need for faith among the ultra-Orthodox is terribly deep, terribly extreme, and it derives entirely from choice. My hope is that watching the film will arouse among the viewers the question of what they believe in. The cooperation I was granted by the ultra-Orthodox society stemmed from the fact that they formed the impression that I really intended what I said. Of special importance in this context was Shuli's rabbi, who is a very courageous person and aware of the fact that the biggest problem that faces Israeli society today is the alienation within it. He was persuaded that I was speaking the truth, that I intend to respect his world and to depict it with love.
"We are living today in a reality of extremes, in which you are either one of us or you are not, in which if you hold a certain political opinion, you don't even try to understand or to identify with an opposing opinion, and to my mind this is very dangerous. I think secular society's fear of ultra-Orthodox society stems from the sense that it holds a certain truth and that if we let go for only a moment of our defense, we will fall into it. In `Ushpizin' I wanted to enable viewers to give up those defenses and at the same time to remain in the place from which they are able to look at this world from a certain distance, to understand it and even to love it."
In Dar's opinion, intention also characterizes Rand's appearance in the film. He was and remains a great actor, one whom in Dar's opinion can be compared with no problem to Jack Nicholson, but in "Ushpizin," there is greater intention in his performance and therefore the result is especially precise and powerful.
Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, who is not an actress, evinces considerable comic ability in the film. "She is a strong and courageous woman," relates Dar, "who, like her husband, was involved the whole time in writing the screenplay and in shaping the character she plays. It's all a matter of trust and faith," he adds. "Because she has strong faith in herself and strong faith in God, the moment she had faith in me and had faith in the film, she became completely free and did her work devotedly and faithfully. And this is no simple matter for someone who is the mother of six small children."
"Eddie King" was marked by an attempt on your part to create a slightly different Israeli cinema, with an experimental bent. Do you still consider yourself as belonging to this pole of the Israeli cinema?
Dar: "Yes, even if in `Ushpizin' I have tried to follow a very different path than in `Eddie King.' In `Eddie King' the viewers were aware the whole time of the fact that they were watching a film. The story and the form are one in `Eddie King,' and in a certain sense the form is even more dominant than the story.
"In `Ushpizin' I aimed at far greater cinematic transparency. In a certain respect, the film is very stylized in order to give it the coloring of a modern cinematic legend - I wanted the viewers to be swept up in the tale it relates, and for them to concentrate on the character and not on the movements of the camera that accompanies him.
"The reality that I depict in the film is so unique, different and unfamiliar - it is full of different kinds of fiction - and therefore I decided that only full transparency that would avoid any kind of alienation would best serve the combination that there is in it, of imagination and fiction, truth and faith. What the two films have in common, along with the other films I have directed, is intention; the truthful intention to reveal truth. And this happens when you look, really look, at the reality in front of you and the characters that populate it.
"After my documentary film `Shine,' in which I, on my own, documented with my camera the portrait of a single character, someone asked me what in fact I had wanted to say about the hero of the film. `I looked at him,' I replied. `This is what I have to say about him.'"
And now Gidi Dar has looked at ultra-Orthodox society. This is what he has to say about it.