Israeli Director's Journey From a Family Tragedy to a Bitter-sweet Victory at Tribeca

Israeli director Ruthy Pribar discusses how the untimely death of her older sister influenced her new movie, 'Asia,' starring 'Unorthodox' breakout star Shira Haas

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Director Ruthy Pribar
Director Ruthy Pribar. 'They scheduled an interview with me about the film and said, ‘Dress up as if it were a red carpet event.’ 'Credit: Avishag Sha'r-Yishuv
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

Everything was ready. The plane tickets were purchased, the visas were stamped in the passports, the hotel rooms were reserved. Ruthy Pribar, her husband and their two small children were set for the long flight to New York. Pribar’s debut film “Asia” had been accepted to the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival, and the young family was planning to be there for the festive premiere. But then, in mid-March 2020, the festival directors announced that the whole event was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Incredibly disappointed, Pribar stayed in Israel. The film festival was ultimately held online and “Asia” earned ecstatic reviews, but she had to watch it all from afar. Israel was then in its first lockdown, and Pribar and her husband were home with their 4-month-old daughter and 3-year-old son when someone from the festival called and asked Pribar to prepare for a Zoom interview about her film.

“They scheduled an interview with me about the film and said, ‘Dress up as if it were a red carpet event.’ But come on – I’m sitting in the living room of a tiny apartment in Tel Aviv, it’s 10 or 11 P.M., the two kids are sleeping, I’m between nursing sessions and just hoping the baby won’t wake up in the middle of the interview,” Pribar recounts when we meet at a Jaffa café. “I got all dressed up, I prepared for the interview with the questions they sent me ahead of time, and then the Zoom session starts. I’m waiting, and all of a sudden, instead of doing an interview with me, they tell me: ‘We are pleased to inform you that you have won the Nora Ephron Prize.’”

The Tribeca Film Festival used the video that captured Pribar’s expression of shock at their prank to breathe a little life into the strange online version of the event last year. And just 24 hours later, the Israeli director found out that the judges had awarded her film two more major prizes: Shira Haas received the Best Actress Award for her work in the film, and Daniella Nowitz received the Cinematography Award.

Ruthy Pribar's surprised response at winning the Nora Ephron Prize

And then, with three important prizes from a prestigious festival, rave reviews and an international star in the making, rather than go out into the world, win hearts and sell tickets, “Asia” plunged into a year of hibernation due to the pandemic along with the rest of the world. Its encounter with a wider audience and the big screen, which was what Pribar was anticipating the most, was postponed.

Only in the last few weeks, now that movie theaters in Israel and elsewhere are finally getting back to normal and reopening, has “Asia” truly begun its journey. The interview with Pribar in Jaffa took place just hours before she was set to board a flight for New York. A little over a year after the cancellation of the Tribeca premiere, she was off to launch “Asia” in America, where it premiered on June 11.

“Asia” tells the story of a mother, Asia (Alena Yiv), and daughter (Shira Haas) who live in the same apartment but exist in nearly separate worlds. Asia is a young single mother who immigrated to Israel with her daughter from the former Soviet Union. By day she works as a nurse at a hospital and also helps care for an elderly neighbor, all with touching gentleness and compassion. But outside of work hours, she slips out of the house, avoids spending time with her daughter, and insists on living the life of a carefree single woman, going out to bars and clubs and having casual affairs, sometimes with married men. Vika, her daughter, spends most of her time at a skate park with friends, struggling with the challenges of adolescence and yearning for a little warmth and affection. She prays that her serious illness won’t erupt and wreck her life, but when it resurges and her condition starts to deteriorate, the distant relationship between mother and daughter is put to a new test.

The film gives Israeli audiences an excellent chance to get to know one of the most talented directors to emerge here recently. In “Asia,” Pribar paints an original, sensitive and precise portrait of characters forced to contend with the fragility of life and the shadow of death while learning to find comfort in the not-very-cheerful deal that life has to offer. All of the short films she previously directed also address death and loss, with loved ones torn away, changing our lives. A tragedy that struck her own family keeps making itself felt in her films.

Alena Yiv and Shira Haas in a scene from "Asia."Credit: Daniella Nowitz

A phone full of memories

Pribar, 38, was born in Be’er Sheva, the youngest of three sisters. Her father was a chemistry professor, and her mother worked in management. A few months after she was born, the family moved to the nearby town of Omer, where she grew up. As a child, she loved to draw, and she studied painting and sculpture, but she left that behind when the family moved to the United States for her father’s sabbatical year. When she returned to Israel in time for high school, a new cinema track had just been launched, and she decided to sign up.

“From the start, I knew I would continue with it,” she says. “I was pretty young to be deciding what I want to do in life, but it was immediate. I loved it all – editing, filming, adding music. I loved the idea of putting so many different aspects of art into one thing. With filmmaking, I understood that you need to be good enough at a lot of things. I no longer had to be outstanding at one specific thing. And that suited me.”

She improved her skills, especially editing, during her army service, working on instructional films, and she later worked in the promo department for the Keshet network. Around that time, her oldest sister Hadas, an interior designer who had been living with her partner in Nigeria for more than a year, suddenly began to feel extreme fatigue along with numbness in her extremities and to suffer from memory problems. She returned to Israel and was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor. The doctors said it had to be removed right away. “They explained that while it was not a simple operation, it should be relatively easy, and that she would be out of the hospital a few days after the surgery,” Pribar says. “But instead she got an infection, some hospital bacteria that wouldn’t leave her.”

Credit: Barak Brinker

Hadas was 32, eight years older than Ruthy. For three months, she was sedated and intubated on and off, until she finally succumbed to the infection in May 2006. Throughout her hospitalization at Ichilov H in Tel Aviv, she was unable to communicate with her family, her sister says. “They said it might be ‘Locked-In Syndrome,’ that she may have been completely conscious but unable to communicate that outwardly. Or it might not have. We don’t know. She could open and close her eyes if we asked her to, but no more than that. And the whole time, they were trying to fight the bug, she underwent more operations.”

Although she was at her sister’s bedside in the hospital every day, Pribar says she remembers very little from that time. “I have some very small memories left, and the truth is that even when I sometimes think of them, I push them aside, because she died, and I don’t want to remember her the way she was in the hospital, all hooked up to machines,” she explains.

Two months after her sister’s death, she left Tel Aviv and moved back in with her parents. She also applied to the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School for a second time (she had applied previously right after the army), and this time she was accepted. Six months after her sister’s death, she packed her things and moved to Jerusalem to study filmmaking. She tried to focus on her studies. She built a new life in the new city and tried to push away the traumatic memories. But she desperately missed her sister, and in her first year of film studies, when she had to film an exercise for class, she found herself doing something she says is completely out of character for her: She stood in front of the camera, holding her sister’s phone, which hadn’t been canceled, and started calling people from her list of contacts. On Hadas’s birthday, less than a year after her death, Pribar called a random assortment of people her sister knew and started talking to them about her dead sister – hearing stories, pulling up memories, listening to emotions.

The idea was so unusual, the conversations so surprising and the emotions so raw that the resulting film was uniquely powerful. Thanks to this film, Pribar, who’d been accepted into the school’s film production track rather than the directing track as she’d wanted, immediately won over the faculty.

Ruthy Pribar in her short film, calling contacts from her deceased sister's phone.Credit: Orit Fox

“It is rare for students who aren’t even studying directing to turn out as directors. I can count on two hands how many I’ve seen like that in the 30 years I’ve been teaching there,” says director Yair Lev. “In this case it was like Truffaut’s famous maxim that a director’s entire career is contained in his first 100 feet of film… There was obviously a very strong talent here, so the faculty committee decided to switch her to the directing track. We clearly had a future director here.”

Following the responses to that first-year film, Pribar conducted the exercise again and turned it into a five-minute film. At first the school’s administration refused to let her distribute the film, saying it wasn’t good enough. But she persevered and in 2009 received permission to submit the film to a short film competition on the subject of memory. It ended up winning the main prize.

Did you have any hesitations about making a film that touched on your sister’s memory?

“Every exercise and everything I did during my studies had to do with my sister. It was inevitable. It was such a short time after (her death), I didn’t have something else. At first it was hard for me, I felt like I was exploiting her death, taking it and turning it into good material for a movie. But I don’t think that touching on pain is something that started for me with my sister’s death. It’s something that I am drawn to in my art, and also in the kind of films that I see.”

For your final film project for school, “Last Calls,” you took this idea and went even further with it.

“I made it into a feature film. You could say that the main character is my alter ego, but she is also far from me, because what she does in the film is not something I ever did. She takes it another step further, she calls one of the last numbers that was dialed from her sister’s phone and reaches someone who turns out to have been her sister’s partner, whose existence she didn’t know about. She finds a way to meet with him without him knowing who she is, and without him knowing the sister has died. And then she takes what I did in reality a step further and enters her sister’s shoes.”

“Last Calls” was shown at a long list of international festivals, won several prizes and was selected as one of the top five student films for 2012 by CILECT, the International Association of Film and Television Schools.

Motherhood and an all-female crew

After graduating film school, Pribar found work as an assistant editor on Tomer and Barak Heymann’s documentary series “Families,” worked her way up to become an editor, and enjoyed every minute of it, she says – she got to polish her editing skills and became close with several of the characters in the series. When that job ended in 2014, she wanted to take a break for a few months and go abroad, and convinced her partner, Omri Borstyn, who was still a student at Sam Spiegel, to join her. She sugested they go to India for three months. Half the time they would tour and the other half they would stay somewhere where he could dedicate himself to writing.

“We traveled around, and then we found the most pastoral place on earth, a cabin in the Himalayas with a small kitchen and a writing desk,” she recalls. That’s where the first outline of “Asia” was written. Her sister’s phone wasn’t starring in this film, but loss and illness and a young woman on the brink of death too early in life – these elements were all still there.

“In the years since that time in the hospital, I’ve tried many times to go back to what happened there, to understand what happened there. But like I said, I hardly remember anything. But what I do remember is my mother. I remember her endless devotion, her ability to sit there for days on end, her physical strength and also how she kept a journal of everything that was happening, so she could be totally focused. She was focused but she was also very emotionally and physically present, despite the bottomless pain. It was very hard for her, but she didn’t break.

A scene from director Ruthy Pribar's film "Last Calls."Credit: Assaf Snir

“And I was in awe of her ability to be so emotionally and physically present, because I was light years away from that. Yes, I was just 24, but I just didn’t have the emotional capacity that she did, because I wasn’t a mother. And then the question haunted me: What does it mean to be a mother? Was she able to do what she did because she was a mother or because of who she was? Was she born to be a mother? Did she get these abilities the moment she became a mother, or was it a process? In a way, the film is about a woman who is going through this process – of moving from where I was, a place of emotional detachment, to where my mother was, which was a place of absolute emotional commitment. So the character was very clear to me.”

When she started writing it, Pribar decided that Asia, the mother, would be an immigrant from the former Soviet Union. This would make mother and daughter more detached from Israeli society, more isolated.

“I placed them at the farthest edge so they would have to be there for one another. And I chose the Soviet Union because it is a very large community with many mothers who are raising their children alone,” Pribar says. “Pretty close to the beginning, when I saw this was where it was going, I started learning Russian, because I understood that part of the film would be in Russian. I don’t know Russian well enough to speak it but I know enough to make it easier for me to direct. I don’t need it to be spelled out for me phonetically, I can read the text in Russian.”

By the time you started filming, you were a mother yourself. Did that change “Asia”?

“Sure. The script didn’t change, but my ability to get certain moments right changed. Now when Asia talks about kicks in her stomach, I identify with that differently. And my dialogue with Alona as an actress – she has two small children – was also totally different. Suddenly we had a lot more in common than we did before. My understanding of this character, my sensitivity to her situation, was much greater. Also, it made me very goal-oriented. I didn’t let myself get distracted, I didn’t have time for it. During filming, I was getting up at 4 A.M. every morning to nurse my son, and when I got home after a day of shooting I wanted to maximize every minute with him, so I didn’t spend much time going over that day’s filming in my head.”

Director, producer, cinematographer, editor, music director, art director – all the important behind-the-scenes roles in this film were filled by women. How did this come about? Was it deliberate?

Musician Karni Postel, who won an Ophir Award for writing the score in "Asia."Credit: David Bachar

“I met with male and female candidates for the crew and I took the best people I could find. I didn’t say from the start, ‘I am only hiring women because that’s my agenda.’ But I think it’s not completely random. Apparently it’s easier for me to communicate with women and to work with women. It’s more intuitive for me, and so I chose the people I felt I could best work with. I think it’s also a matter of men being given more opportunities. A man wouldn’t be asked what it’s like to work with men, or why he chose to work with a male crew. But I get asked about this again and again.”

As if there weren’t enough delays already, the coronavirus came and put the film on hold for an extra year. And after the red carpet premiere in Tribeca was canceled, you also didn’t get to experience winning nine Ophir Awards, including for Best Picture, in the traditional way.

“It was between lockdowns. They held the ceremony on the [television program] ‘Culture Agent.’ Everyone from the main crew was supposed to get together someplace outside, and to hear the news together, but three days before that, we were told we had to go into quarantine because of something that happened at my son’s preschool. So that whole thing was canceled. And then I learned about the awards when I was at home, in quarantine with my family. To this day, I have a hard time believing it really happened that way.”

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