A Small Story With Big Questions

True to form, director Raphael Nadjari allowed his actors to create their own dialogue and make suggestions based on their own life experiences in ?Tehilim,? which debuted locally last week.

All five of Raphael Nadjari's films to date have been invited to participate in one of the major international film festivals: Three of them have been screened at Cannes and the other two at the Berlinale. This is without a doubt a fine achievement for the 36-year-old director, an autodidact who never formally studied film. The accomplishment is even more impressive when one learns that the French Nadjari made all of these films in countries not his own, employing a technique that few directors dare to use.

The actors who appear in Nadjari's work are required to take an active part in creating the dialogues in the film by means of improvisation. "My work with the actors is interactive," he explained in an interview he gave recently on a bench at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. "I speak with them before each scene and they bring something of themselves, coming up with stories from their past that are related to the problem that the film is dealing with, in order to connect with the characters they are portraying. Thus, for example, they often bring up experiences from their childhood related to the story of the film, and talk about their relationships with their parents. They recall specific experiences that are linked to certain scenes."

The scenario he writes before the start of the filming serves Nadjari only as a framework for the process. A film, as far as he is concerned, is an organic work. He sits with the actors in rehearsals, explains to them along general lines what is going to happen in each scene, and listens to the memories that this information prompts. During rehearsals he lets them improvise on the set. He does not give them their lines, but rather expects the actors to enter the characters' shoes and say what they would have said in real life.

"I explain to them what is going to happen," says Nadjari. "For example, I explain to a child that in this scene his mother is talking in the room with a girlfriend about a problem she has, and then at a certain point he enters the room and does this and that. I sit in advance with each of the actors separately, building the story of his character in the scene together with him, and in the end, at the rehearsals, we work on combining all of these streams and we see how all of the stories and the mise en scene of the characters work together."

Nadjari's new film, "Tehilim" (Psalms) premiered on local screens last week. It tells the story of a religiously observant family that lives in Jerusalem, focusing on the character of Menachem (Michael Moshonov), an adolescent boy torn between the tradition and religion that he has absorbed in his parents' home, and the temptations offered him by secular society.

The film begins with a scene of Menachem sitting beside his father, studying the Torah ; a few hours later he leaves his parents' house in the evening to go out, removes his skullcap, and joins his secular friends for an evening full of beer and cigarettes. However, the sudden and mysterious disappearance of his father (Shmuel Vilozni) shakes up his world and forces him to reexamine his relationship to religion and his family.

Apart from the dramatic scene in which the father disappears, the film moves along calmly. It progresses with a contemplative slowness, making room for small details and daily rituals, devoting a great deal of attention to the characters and the dialogue between them. According to the director, this serenity, the modest story and the choice of following, patiently and delicately, the psychological process undergone by the main character experiences - a combination that gives the film a European, very non-Hollywood flavor and can perhaps offer an explanation for the affection European festivals have for Nadjari's work - serve his method of working.

"Three years ago, I wrote the treatment for this film in France with a friend of mine, Vincent Poymiro. I wanted a story that would raise questions about Jewish identity, about Jewish tradition, and I wanted it to be a small story that asks big questions," explains Nadjari. "From the beginning it was important to me to tell a small story, because in my opinion a choice like that is taking a stance: I didn't want too strong a story because I wanted to build something with the people I'm working with, to develop the story together, to ask questions together with them and not give answers."

For four years now Nadjari has been living in Tel Aviv with his actress-wife Sarah Adler (whose credits include performances in Joseph Pitchhadze's "Year Zero" and Jean-Luc Godard's "Notre Musique") and their nine-month-old daughter. At the Cannes Festival this year Nadjari and Adler were each involved in a different film: His "Tehilim" was screened and she starred in "Meduzot" (Jellyfish), the film by Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen, which won the Golden Camera award. Although "Tehilim" did not return from Cannes with prizes as did both the latter, and Eran Kolirin's debut effort "The Band's Visit," it participated in the prestigious official Golden Palm competition. Three years ago Nadjari's previous film, "Avanim" (Stones), won him the French Culture Prize for best cineaste, and actress Assi Levy was nominated for the best actress prize awarded by the European Film Academy. In that film, Adler appeared alongside Levy in a supporting role.

Like Adler, Nadjari was born in France. He studied visual art, worked in design for television before moving, at age 25, to New York. There he very quickly decided that he wanted to make films. During his seven years in the city he managed to write and direct three independent features: "The Shade" (1999), "I Am Josh Polonski's Brother" (2001) and "Apartment #5C" (2002).

Principles, not reality

In the beginning of his filmmaking career, at least, Nadjari's choice of improvisation stemmed not from ideological or aesthetic considerations, but rather from practical constraints. "I chose improvisation because I was a foreigner," he says in Hebrew with a marked French accent. "At the start, for my first film, I wrote a full screenplay, with dialogue, but when we started to film I felt that it wasn't coming out right, that it wasn't genuine and wasn't precise. I realized that I didn't understand the nuances of the language well enough, and after two days of filming, I threw out all the dialogue I had written and started to work with the actors on improvisation. I remembered this method from when I was 16, from theater classes, and suddenly I felt great freedom in working that way with the actors."

As he speaks, he ranges between Hebrew and English, mixing in a word or two of French now and then, smiling as he admits that his English is already afflicted with an Israeli accent and testifying that he feels like a one-man Tower of Babel.

"I am a foreigner everywhere," he says, "both in New York and here in Israel, and as a director I like to work with local people - not to tell them what to do, but rather to let them open their heart and give me the things they want to give."

He adds that in "Avanim," the work with the actors was harder for him, because his Hebrew was less good and so he had to use his body and physical gestures more to explain himself ("It was hard, but I discovered that this situation also has an advantage: A person who doesn't speak is usually more open, more attentive and hears everyone.")

In his childhood Nadjari attended a Jewish school. Until the age of 16, he says, he was religious, but he notes that today, too, when he no longer defines himself as religious, he studies Torah once a week with a friend from Jerusalem.

When he is asked about the focus on Judaism in his two most recent films, he explains that what interests him is not defining Jewish identity, but rather the question of what Judaism is for us. "We are living in a connection with Judaism and therefore it is important for us to know what it is. 'Tehilim' doesn't solve anything and it doesn't attack anyone. I'm not saying that it is necessary to be religious, but rather that it is necessary to understand what Judaism is."

He stresses that his film does not pretend to offer any answers to this question, but rather mainly asks questions. It does not, he says, try to represent Israeli reality, but rather to conduct a modest discussion of issues of principle. "This is a group of people who are working together on something fragile," he says. "'Tehilim' isn't a film that has a statement. It is more like a meditation than a 'highway' leading to a certain idea. We tried to let the film ask questions, to create a dialectical process and not to take a stance."