Occupation, Gang Rape and Racism: Israel's Most Controversial Rock Opera Set to Become a Movie

The legendary Israeli rock opera 'Mami' is packed with explosive material. Time to brace for the cinematic version

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Go to comments
On set of the new motion picture version of 'Mami.'
On set of the new motion picture version of 'Mami.'Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

The 'Mami' returns: after it dared to pick at the most painful sores of Israeli society, “Mami,” the angry, kicking and defiant rock opera that was first staged in 1986, is about to become a film.

But is the Israeli audience ready to deal once again with the work of playwright Hillel Mittelpunkt, who wasn’t afraid to touch any subject and crammed all the ugliest and most violent displays of racism, discrimination, harassment and rifts in Israel into a few scathing songs?.

The most brutal and best known of all the songs describes the gang rape of Mami, a poor woman from a development town who comes to Tel Aviv, by a group of Palestinians.

“Mami, O Mami / Open your legs / to seven oppressed men / to seven Palestinians / 20 years of occupation, we won’t wait any longer / with an erection and semen we will redeem Palestine,” according to “The Rape Song.”

In hindsight, it seems that it was only thanks to the musical packaging that all the horrifying ingredients of “Mami” somehow slid down the throats of Israeli spectators, turning the play into a hit.

The album art of 'Mami.'
The album art of 'Mami.'
On the set of 'Mami.' How will the public react?
On the set of 'Mami.' How will the public react?Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

During a very short break in the filming, director Keren Yedaya (“My Treasure,” “That Lovely Girl”) finds time to explain why she suddenly decided now of all times to take “Mami” and turn it into a cinematic rock opera, which will be based on the original songs (written by Mittelpunkt and set to music by Ehud Banai and Yossi Mar-Haim). “I saw this show when I was 14 years old – what did I understand then, as a child of 14? When I watched the play again on YouTube I saw things very differently,” recalls Yedaya, “and the next morning I rushed to find out from producer Marek Rozenbaum whether the rights to “Mami” were still available.”

Yedaya had not shied away from painful social wounds in her previous films which dealt with prostitution, incest and Jewish-Arab relations, among other subjects. She was ready for a complex cinematic challenge. The script she wrote included Mittelpunkt’s original songs and nonverbal transitions to describe Mami’s everyday life. How she works in a gas station in a development town in the south, how she is forced to take care of her husband who was wounded in the war and became a vegetable, how she arrives in Tel Aviv and enters a pub to look for work, unaware that she is about to be raped there that same evening by a gang of Palestinians.

Zero tolerance

During the filming, the creator of “Mami” stands and observes from the sidelines. “My attitude when I wrote it was that I didn’t owe anyone anything,” recalls Mittelpunkt. He recalls that two of his songs – “The Rape Song” and “The Worm Man” – were banned on the radio, and it took time for the show to fill theaters. In the end it became a cult show, in large part thanks to the idea hatched by the former director of the Tzavta theater (where the play was first staged), Nissim Zion, to distribute free tickets to soldiers. “There were guys from [the development town of] Yeruham who you knew that when it came to politics would have hit you in the head with a bat – but the music gave them a different place to be,” notes Mittelpunkt.

Mami - The Rape Song

Thirty years ago “Mami” shocked people, but today the reactions will be even harsher, he predicts. “Today in Israel the sociopolitical situation is more difficult for material of this kind, because anyone who isn’t in the right-center stream is considered something between a traitor and a collaborator. After all, today even someone who dares to read testimony at a conference of Breaking the Silence [an NGO that collects testimony from Israeli soldiers about their service in the territories] is immediately marked as a Jewish informer.

“Today the codes are terribly fascist, and that’s why I’m afraid that ‘Mami’ could even lead to physical violence, which didn’t happen 30 years ago. The level of tolerance has dropped to zero, people are being silenced, and when you come with a very critical statement – and ‘Mami’ is a very poetic work, but also sharp and scathing – that’s something that really scares those who want everyone to think and do the same thing.”

Director Keren Yedaya, right, and playwright Hillel Mittelpunkt on set of 'Mami.'
Director Keren Yedaya, right, and playwright Hillel Mittelpunkt on set of 'Mami.' Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The film foundations found it difficult to digest the idea of making “Mami” into a film, mainly because of its unusual structure (the transitions between the musical numbers will be nonverbal and poetic), claim Rozenbaum and Yedaya, and not necessarily due to the political content. But the two are convinced that it wasn’t the songs that disturbed the script readers, but the fact that they simply didn’t know how to deal with the script. “They’re not used to reading such a thing, 40 pages composed mainly of descriptions of activity and songs. They didn’t realize what it was going to be,” says Rozenbaum.

Seeking funding, Yedaya and Rosenbaum submitted the script to film foundations repeatedly for three years only to be rejected time after time. Only on their fifth or sixth attempt did the Israel Film Fund agree to support the film with a limited sum: 1 million shekels ($275,000), instead of the 2 million that are usually invested in the major films selected by the script readers. Rozenbaum and Yedaya raised some additional money in Germany. Rozenbaum recruited producer Moshe Edry, and the two of them invested another 800,000 shekels each in the film. With a budget of 3.5 million shekels they started to work.

The musical arrangements for the film were created by Dudu Tassa and Nir Maimon. Listening to three of them – “Habsora,” (“Tidings”), “Hasadot Ha’adumim” (“Red Fields”) and “Shir Hapub” (“The Pub Song”) – melts you with its blend of nostalgia and beauty. Yedaya explains that most of the songs are recorded live and not inserted into the film in the editing room, as is customary.

The original production of 'Mami,' with Mazi Cohen (pictured) in the lead role, in 1986.
The original production of 'Mami,' with Mazi Cohen (pictured) in the lead role, in 1986.Credit: Yochi Lang / Yad Yaari archives

She says that Tassa (who also appears in the film in the role of the narrator-singer) and singer Neta Elkayam are full partners in the film, as are the rest of the participants: Ami Abu (who plays the husband who’s a vegetable), Yuval Banai (Guta Guta), Riki Gal (Batya Classa), Eran Tzur (Cop Machine), Riad Suleiman (the singing Palestinian) and Aryeh Moskona (the Worm Man).

“As far as I’m concerned, the process of the work on this film is identical to its political declaration – in other words, the construction of ‘full creative partnership,’” she says. “My partners in the film bring with them their own political truth. Neta, for example, grew up in [the development town of] Netivot, and I, who didn’t grow up there, want her to be the one to decipher ‘Mami’ for me. And the same is true of Riad, who’s a Palestinian. When they sing their parts they have some kind of political burden on their shoulders, and that’s why I waived my control as a director, so that each one of them could bring his own truth.”

'Mami' on stage.
'Mami' on stage. Credit: Yossi Zvicker