'And the Paint Begins to Move'

Attracting backers for the production of 'Good Morning, Mr. Fidelman' was tough for director Yossi Madmoni and his colleagues; but this intimate and surprising film, now in local theaters, is racking up the awards.

Back when "Good Morning, Mr. Fidelman" was taking its first steps in the local industry, the film project was considered an ugly duckling. Though the Israel Film Fund decided to support it, the aspiring creators of the movie were turned down by all the broadcasting organizations they applied to with requests for investment. From their point of view, the idea was not sufficiently interesting: They found it hard to imagine that audiences would flock to the box office to see a film whose protagonist was a grouchy old man.

fidelman - Nir Kafri - August 26 2011
Nir Kafri

So director Yossi Madmoni, screenplay writer Erez Kav-El and producer Chayim Sharir decided to make do with a modest production: a mere 21 days of filming and a budget of just $650,000. This is a small, even intimate film devoid of any political messages, for which no one predicted great things in the international arena. Keshet Broadcasting decided to invest in it only later, when it was already nearly completed.

And then, this past January in Salt Lake City, Utah, at the awards ceremony of the Sundance Film Festival, "Good Morning, Mr. Fidelman" (whose official English title is "Restoration" ) won the prize for the best "world cinema" screenplay. Last month it won the prize for the best film at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, in the Czech Republic, and at the Jerusalem Film Festival it won three prizes - for best film, editing and music. Earlier this month, when the nominees for Israel's academy awards, the Ophir Prizes, were announced, "Good Morning. Mr. Fidelman" was nominated for 11 titles, including best film, direction and screenplay.

In the film, which opened nationally in theaters earlier this month, Sasson Gabai plays Mr. Fidelman, owner of a well-established workshop for antique furniture restoration in south Tel Aviv. His partner has died and has bequeathed his share in the atelier to Noah (Nevo Kimchi ), Fidelman's son. This legacy reinforces the son's desire to sell the property to real estate developers who want to erect an apartment block on its ruins, and this exacerbates the already strained relationship between father and son. It also interferes with Fidelman's desire to remain shut up in his workshop, where he has spent most of his life and where he intends to live out his remaining days.

To the rescue comes Anton (Henry David ), a mysterious young fellow who shows up at the shop and begins working there as an apprentice. He comes up with an idea for saving the business from economic collapse: to restore an old Steinway piano that is on the premises and then resell it at a high price. The tension between Fidelman's biological son and his newfound "spiritual" son only escalates when the young apprentice falls in love with Hava (Sarah Adler ), Noah's wife, who is in the advanced stages of pregnancy.

First solo effort

Eight years ago, Yossi Madmoni directed "The Barbecue People" ("Hamangalistim," in Hebrew ), together with his regular working partner, David Ofek. "Good Morning, Mr. Fidelman" is Madmoni's first solo feature effort. Having affixed his signature to a considerable number of screenplays, for both film and TV, and as someone who has also long been regarded as a highly gifted screenplay editor (Madmoni has also served for four years as chairman of the Scriptwriters Guild of Israel ), it may seem surprising he chose to entrust the script for his debut feature film to someone else.

"True, I had a lot of difficulty with this decision at many stages," admits Madmoni. "There is that romantic myth about the artiste, who is himself the sole creator of his work, but cinema challenges this ideal a bit. Even the great masters - like [Federico] Fellini or Francis Ford Coppola, worked with a writer on the screenplay. We have so thoroughly internalized the theories about the lone artist, and the French even tried to coerce the cinema and impose the auteur theory on filmmakers, but the truth is that movies can't be made without feedback and without endless input from a number of people: the screenwriter, the cinematographer, actors and sometimes the producer as well.

"As I see it, it's like an artist who puts paint on the canvas and the paint suddenly starts to move. These are your actors. Sometimes the paint doesn't do what you want it to do, but rather something better, and then you get a lesson in modesty, perspective and the ability to look at yourself from the outside. For me this was a very important lesson, which I had to learn a number of times. If after I stopped working with Ofek, I thought the auteur theory was more appropriate for me, then on this film I discovered that Ofek is still with me because I internalized a lot of the things I learned from him - all the secondary characters in this film are played by non-actors, for example - and this lesson in modesty is still important to me."

Discovering the masters

Yossi Madmoni was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Jerusalem in 1967. At the start of the 1980s, after the Cinematheque was officially opened in Jerusalem, he began to visit it regularly.

fidelman - Courtesy - August 26 2011

"There I got to know the classics of the cinema, the masters, and it was a powerful experience, one in which the whole world is discovering these things together with you," he recalls. "It was a powerful experience for me as an adolescent that at the end of a film by [Pier Paolo] Pasolini or Fellini, everyone would stand up and clap, as though the masters themselves were there to accept the applause. You felt as though you and all the rest of the people in the auditorium were encountering this cinema for the first time."

From there to studying in the first class of the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, in the capital, the way was short. Upon completing his studies, Madmoni and his classmate Ofek were chosen to co-produce a number of humorous short films.

"This encounter was forced on us, because we were the biggest suckers in the class, and they dumped this on us," he smiles. "During our course of studies, Ofek did marvelous things, and I less so, but the things we did together ... were to my mind the best things I had done until then. They drew out the best from me and I think from Ofek too."

In 1995 the two wrote and directed together the acclaimed and prizewinning television drama series "Bat Yam - New York," which was considered innovative in many respects, in part thanks to the depiction of Mizrahi characters (Jews with origins in Muslim countries) that were authentic, rather than caricatures.

"We created a way of working, writing and directing together, even though we were complete opposites," says Madmoni. "There is something documentarist in Ofek's essence, even when he is doing drama. He adores chaos, he loves the unexpected and he wants the world to burst into his scenes, whereas I, by way of contrast, go in a much more planned and calculated direction."

In "Bat Yam - New York" there was something very controlled with respect to the thematic structure, he explains, but along with that there were chaotic scenes. "Ofek also introduced the work with non-actors there, and at the time, that was something new in Israel. When I wrote the character of the father in the series as a conservative Mizrahi, Ofek suddenly brought along a kanun [a type of oriental zither] player from the Iraqi bohemia - the exact opposite of the character I had written. This made me anxious. But when I saw how well it worked, I think I internalized the lesson. For me, Ofek is not just a friend but also a teacher, and this lesson was formative for me. The ability to let the world take control of you and not to be afraid of this was for me not only a lesson in cinema but also in life."

The productive partnership between Ofek and Madmoni continued in 1998 in the series "Alilot David" (roughly, "The Adventures of David" ), a spin-off from "Bat Yam - New York," starring Yigal Adika, and "Take Away," a 2001 series centered on a man of Russian origin who is the owner of a courier service, and who has just been released from a psychiatric hospital. "The Barbecue People," which the two also made together, came out in 2003, and though it met with a chilly reception in Israel, it won a series of prizes at international festivals. "This is a film in which we made a lot of mistakes," admits Madmoni. They also made "Melanoma My Love" (2006 ), based on the true story of actor Adika, whose wife developed a fatal skin cancer. "That is the best thing we made together," says Madmoni.

"Melanoma My Love" was Madmoni's last joint project with Ofek. While Ofek continued to make documentary films, Madmoni turned to editing screenplays for TV ("Loving Anna," "Srugim," "Another Life" ). As a man with a family, he explains, this was the right place for him to earn his living.

Yet Madmoni has a lot of criticism for commercial television in Israel. And no, its main problem isn't, in his opinion, being enslaved to ratings. "Ratings in and of themselves aren't a bad thing," he observes, "and therefore when it started out, Channel 2, which worshiped ratings, did reasonable things. Today, though, the name of the game is no longer ratings but rather how to make shows that are desirable to advertisers. The control of the content is in fact in the hands of the advertiser, who has something to sell. Series like 'The Bourgeoisie,' for example, brought in good ratings, but they didn't get renewed because there was some 'downer' in them that doesn't sell well. How are we going to sell disposable diapers with this depression? After the industry internalized this way of thinking, something in it became corrupt, and now it prefers series that clearly encourage consumption, like 'Mesudarim,'" (the sitcom, whose title means "Set for Life," about four friends whose gaming start-up is bought up by American firm; the show's concept itself was picked up by Fox Television ).

Because of the changes in the local television world in recent years, Madmoni decided he would not go back to directing series and would stick to writing: "Nowadays a director is nothing more than a cog in the system, part of the branding of one channel or another. Even the moment you articulate the idea for a screenplay, which is a very intimate moment, becomes an asset of the broadcasting organization. These days, at that moment, which is supposed to be the holiest and cleanest, you have to think about whether or not the series will encourage consumption and whether or not there is going to be a foundation that will put money into it. In addition to that, Israeli television has become a factory: In a drama series you have to produce 10 minutes of filming a day and also insert marketing content left and right, and this is embarrassing. Writing is still in a cleaner place."

Repulsion and attraction

While Madmoni was working with screenwriter Kav-El on the series "Another Life," the latter showed him the screenplay of "Good Morning Mr. Fidelman." The drama focused on several different themes, says Madmoni, and he decided to focus it on the issue of fatherhood and father-son relations. To avoid a hackneyed perspective on this issue, he tried to refine it in a mythic direction.

Madmoni: "The interesting 'place' in 'Fidelman' in this context is the struggle between the blood and the spirit: A triangle develops between the father, the biological son and the apprentice Anton, who becomes the spiritual son, and the question is what will win: biological fatherhood or the connection that has developed between the father and his spiritual son? In addition, we also applied this dilemma in the romantic context: Noah's wife is pregnant by him, which is the strongest blood connection there can be between a man and a woman, and then Anton comes along and the two fall for each other. What will win? To my mind this is the most interesting angle relating to the seemingly banal subject."

The relations between Anton and Noah's pregnant wife bring unusual images to the movie screen: scenes of a passionate pregnant woman and her representation as an attractive, sexy character who has desires and urges - far from the usual image of a pregnant woman as devoid of sexuality and sex appeal.

"Pregnancy is something attractive and interesting. The problem is with the way the masculine world essentially creates the dichotomy between the woman as a sexual object, on the one hand, and on the other an object for bringing children into the world, a kind of vessel," explains Madmoni. "To take a lover who is a pregnant woman is a kind of taboo in our society. And this is a masculine taboo in its essence, because it undermines a man's ability to control the fruit of his loins and makes the woman something independent."

At a certain stage, Madmoni realized this could deter certain people. A French investor who had been interested in the film, for example, informed Madmoni and his producer, Sharir, that he would invest in the film only if they removed the element of pregnancy from the film. "He said it would mainly be hard for women to see this," smiles the director. Madmoni and Sharir passed up on the investment and left the screenplay as it was.

Another issue that is often kept off-screen but that Madmoni has chosen to put at the center of the film is old age: "I look at the Israeli screen, more so on television and less so in the cinema, and there is a whole group that exists here, in fact not a group but rather a stage in our own development, which is kept off the screen in a brutal way. This is really a crime.

"When you say that a certain age is unpleasant, scary and it's better not to see it - you are ignoring a certain aspect of existence, castrating it and scorning your parents and yourself 30 years from now. There's something horrifying about this. We yell about how we don't see Mizrahim on the screen enough, or this group or that group, but this is really something we don't see. In this sense I am proud that 'Fidelman' takes a person in the autumn of his years and puts him in the forefront, with his fears about his body's betrayal and about becoming irrelevant," he explains.

Madmoni has been criticized for his decision to cast Gabai, who is only 64, in the role of the elderly Fidelman. Madmoni agrees that on the surface, with respect to his age, Gabai looks young for the role. But, he says, "the actor's face is the landscape of the film. The palette of colors. And something in the sculpting of Sasson's face, with all the curves and wrinkles, looked to me like the most suitable thing for all of this character's internal debates. The feeling is of someone in whom the years have etched furrows. I felt not only that he was the most suitable actor I could find for this role, but also the only one in Israel who was right for it," he says.

Most of the work with Gabai on shaping the character was done by building a fictional biography and in discussions about the character's personality, in which Madmoni and Gabai understood they were walking a very fine tightrope. "This is a difficult, cruel character," says the director, "not a good father, from whom violence erupts now and then. To what extent can he be a character who can carry the film and with whom the audience can identify? He is after all a kind of anti-hero, whose first smile comes in the 95th minute of the film.

"Sasson's fears, and also mine in a certain sense, had to do with how far we could go with this delicate balance, of such a difficult character whom we nevertheless wanted the audience to love," explains Madmoni. "Once we had agreed to that, we came to the set and it was no longer necessary to guide Sasson. There I could already let him be because he really is a great virtuoso."

During the course of work on the film, Madmoni realized that father-son relations are a recurring motif in his work. That was the case in "Bat Yam - New York" and it also is the case with the screenplay for the feature film "A Place in Paradise," which he wrote before he started the work on "Fidelman," and on which filming is slated to begin early in 2012.

"A Place in Paradise" is about Simcha, a rabbi and a Holocaust survivor who during the 1950s served as a cook in the Israel Defense Forces, an era when the army was involved in reprisal actions against Palestinians across the border. Simcha had signed a surprising contract with a combat officer who was serving at the base with him: The officer "sold" him his ensured place in paradise as someone who as a soldier had saved many Jewish lives, in return for a tasty shakshuka (a spicy egg-and-tomato dish ). Forty years later, as this officer lays dying, his son, a newly observant Bratslav Hasid, sets out in search of Rabbi Simcha in order to cancel the strange contract and ensure his father a place in heaven.

Also forthcoming on the small screen is a new collaboration between Madmoni and Ofek, six years after they last worked together, a series called "Thirty Shekels an Hour," that has been picked up for broadcast by Channel 1.