Israeli Entrepreneur's Journey From Property to Photography

Nirit Anderman
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Nirit Anderman

Enrique Rottenberg produced three films by Amos Guttman, was instrumental in introducing gay culture into Israeli cinema, and directed one successful movie himself. However, the producer and businessman left Israel for Cuba in the early 1990s, at the height of his success. He recently returned to Tel Aviv and to artistic work, investing all his time in his new vocation: stills photography.

Born in Argentina in 1948, Rottenberg came to Israel aged 13. His family was in the theater business in Buenos Aires, and Rottenberg says his family still owns some 30 theaters there. He didn't stay in the family business, though. When he completed his army service here, he began working as a building contractor. He also worked in marketing and imported shoes - and it's to that shoe-importing business that he owes his first foray into the film world.

It happened the day he went to a shoe store in Ramat Gan to show his wares, and got into a conversation with the store owner. "He said to me, 'Listen, I have a son who doesn't want to work with me in the store. He wants to make movies, and he's looking for a businessman who will invest in his film. Do me a favor and talk to him,'" Rottenberg recalls. "I agreed, and then his son, Amos Guttman, came to meet me, together with Edna Mazia, the playwright and screenwriter. He didn't even give me time to talk about my shoe business. Right away he told me about his screenplay, 'Drifting,' that he wanted to make into a film."

As befits a businessman, Rottenberg started looking into the relevant financial aspects and wondered about the film's profit-making potential. Since the storyline was about the life of a young gay man in Tel Aviv who dreamed of becoming a film director, he figured that the film's potential audience would come mostly from Israel's gay community. When he asked Guttman how many gays and lesbians lived in Israel, Guttman said they made up eight percent of the general population - and that got Rottenberg thinking.

"There were four million people in Israel at the time, and I calculated right away that this meant 320,000 people," Rottenberg says, smiling. "Since I came from a family that worked in a similar field, the investment didn't seem unrealistic to me, and my financial situation at the time was good enough. I decided to do it in the hope that the film would be a great commercial success. But as we know, it wasn't."

While "Drifting" (1982 ) may not have been a financial success, Rottenberg was persuaded to produce another of Guttman's films, "Bar 51" (1985 ). He says that at the time, the tax rate for businesspeople in Israel was particularly high. Since he continued running his business while he was involved in the cinema world (he was also involved in constructing malls ), and since the investment in the film would bring him various tax breaks, he saw that investing in the film would be worthwhile, even if the film was not a commercial success. Although the critics found Guttman's film interesting, audience response was not enthusiastic.

After "Bar 51," Rottenberg and Guttman got the rights to adapt Yoram Kaniuk's book "Himmo, King of Jerusalem," for the big screen. "One can't think of two more polar opposites than Amos Guttman and the War of Independence," Rottenberg reflects, smiling. "Guttman didn't want to do it, but he agreed when I insisted. After the critics panned him, we fought terribly once more. He said to me: 'I told you I couldn't do that film,' but I still think it's the best one he ever did."

The stormy quarrels brought an end to the men's working partnership. When Guttman gave him the screenplay of his next film, "Amazing Grace" - about a young man from Tel Aviv who falls in love with a man dying of AIDS who lives in New York and visits Israel - Rottenberg rejected it out of hand. He didn't know that Guttman was a carrier of the virus himself by that time (Guttman succumbed to AIDS at the age of 38 ).

Instead, Rottenberg chose to work with Daniel Waxman on his film "The Appointed" (1990 ), starring Ronit Elkabetz and Shuli Rand. But after that film also failed at the box office, he decided to write a screenplay and direct a commercial film. "More than 100,000 people came to see 'The Revenge of Itzik Finkelstein' - many more than all the previous films combined," he says.

"The Revenge of Itzik Finkelstein" (1993 ), won seven Ophirs from the Israeli Film Academy, including for best picture, best director and best screenplay. The audience flocked to the theaters, and the film made the rounds of the international festivals. Despite its success, Rottenberg decided to walk away from it all a year later.

"I realized that film wasn't bringing in any money," he says. "I'd already gotten the honor I wanted, and I decided it wasn't right for me to spend two to three years on every film. Also, it was then I discovered Cuba."

On his first trip to Cuba, he got a chance to meet with the Cuban minister of foreign investment. "He told me, 'Listen: we need an office building here because foreign companies are starting to come to Cuba.' And I was a show-off, like all Israelis, so I said, 'A building? What for? Let's do a whole real-estate project together.' He asked me how much land was required for that. Of course, I had no earthly idea, so I threw out a number: 'A hundred dunams.' Two months later, somebody from his office called me and said, 'Let's get started. We found 72 dunams in the best place in Havana.' So I built the project, which I run to this day, and meanwhile I fell in love with the place."

Five years ago, Rottenberg started taking his first photographs. He began by walking the streets with his camera, taking what he called "National Geographic photos." But he quickly changed direction, abandoning documentary photos for staged ones. He credits his daughter, the successful video artist Mika Rottenberg - who lives and works in New York - with the change.

On the wall of Rottenberg's studio in south Tel Aviv (1 Shvil Hameretz, building 9, third floor ) are dozens of his photographs, most of them taken in Cuba (the studio is open to visitors ). One series shows bedrooms in various Havana homes. Rottenberg says he walked the city's streets, knocking on doors and asking the residents to allow him inside briefly to photograph their bedrooms. The results are impressive. With overexposure and cropping, Rottenberg creates a slightly surreal, dreamy effect that benefits from unnatural, revealing and fascinating lighting.

In another series, he received permission from a Cuban woman to photograph several women from the neighborhood in Havana as they lay, partially nude, on her bed. A third series portrays a Cuban family, two parents and four children, whose hardship shows on their skin and faces, in various staged situations that are very distant from their real lives.

A photograph taken in Israel is particularly eye-catching, connecting with Rottenberg's distant past. Two men are sitting on a bed, covered in a blanket, their upper bodies naked. One of the men, Rottenberg himself, leans on the wall behind him, embracing the bearded but feminine-looking man in front of him. As the man leans on him, both look directly at the camera with an expression that is part serious, part melancholy.

"For many years, gays and lesbians were persecuted in Cuba. That sexual preference was considered antirevolutionary," Rottenberg says. "And then, a few years ago, the gay and lesbian association in Cuba began fighting for their rights and decided to mount an exhibition on the subject. They commissioned works from 20 artists, myself included. I sat and thought about what to do. Then I remembered Amos [Guttman], and asked myself what would happen if he were alive today. That's where the idea of that photograph came from. I spoke with my friend, the photographer Ariela Shavid, and she suggested that she dress up as a man. That's how the photograph came into being. It was sent to the exhibition and was very successful."

Enrique Rottenberg at his Tel Aviv studio. Credits his daughter for his new direction. Credit: David Bachar

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