Paint It Black: Israeli Film Tackles Euthanasia With Pinch of Comedy

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"I play a character who shows a lot of understanding for the suffering of people on the brink of death - a character who, because of the illness of a close friend, invents a euthanasia device operated by the patient, who just has to push a button," says Ze'ev Revach during a break on the set of "A Good Death," currently being filmed.

"My character isn't a scientist - he's actually a metalworker - but he and a veterinarian come up with this contraption. Word spreads fast and people start coming out to ask for it."

Revach is sitting next to co-star Levana Finkelstein on a faded sofa in the entranceway of Utopia Studios in Petah Tikva. They have only a few minutes until the crew finishes arranging the set for the next scene. Most of the outdoor shooting has been done in Jerusalem; the indoor scenes are being filmed here.

"A Good Death," co-written and co-directed by Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon, is a black comedy about a group of friends living in a hostel in Jerusalem. The main character is Yehezkel (Revach), who constructs a mercy-killing device to help his ailing friend.

At the end of the break, Revach and Finkelstein, who play husband and wife, return to the set. Zelda, an elderly woman (played by Ruth Geller), is lying in bed. She looks thin, weak and ill. At her request, Yehezkel has brought his device to her house to help her kill herself. He and his wife sit next to her bed.

"So that's it, sweetie? Giving up?" asks Yehezkel. "Yehezkel, dear, I've fought but my body can't take it any longer. I can't lie in bed anymore waiting for death," Zelda retorts.

"The doctors suggested an experimental treatment that could extend her life by a few months," says Zelda's husband (played by Michael Koresh).

"I'm turning 90 next month and people are fighting for my life as if I were 16," Zelda says, turning a tired smile at Yehezkel. "Enough. I've had enough."

In a nearby room, Granit and Maymon, wearing headsets, are sitting across from the film monitor, anxiously following the scene being shot on the other side of the wall. From time to time they consult each other and every so often they ask the actors to repeat a certain line.

While this is the first full-length feature film they have written and directed together, their association began long ago. In 2004 they co-wrote and co-directed "Mortgage," about a young couple looking for creative ways to raise money for a mortgage. It won the best drama prize at the Jerusalem Film Festival,

In 2009 they created "Killing Deborah," which took the best short film prize at the Haifa festival. The film follows two men who go hunting in the forest. Another project this year tells the story of a family on vacation; it will be screened at the Sundance Film Festival.

Horrendous pain

Maymon says the idea for "A Good Death" came up when his partner's grandmother was dying. "Before she died, we went to visit her, sat around her bed, and it was amazing to see how hard it was for her to accept that she was being forced to leave this world while suffering horrendous pain. She told us she'd never imagined she'd have to suffer so badly. Her body was riddled with cancer," he says.

"We were still sitting there when she died and was finally released from the pain. But just when it seemed she'd finally been freed from pain and was at last at peace, the paramedics showed up and started to resuscitate her. They fought to bring her back to life for 25 minutes. There was something absurd about the fact that just when she'd been released from pain and her suffering was finally over, they showed up to revive her. And this absurdity became the kernel for this movie."

As Granit puts it, "You often meet people who are suffering horribly. There are places in the world where such people are helped and are given the freedom to choose to stick it out or die with dignity and suffer less.

"There's also the issue of humiliation. I, for example, wouldn't want anybody to wash me or change my diaper. I think death is preferable to such humiliation. So that and the story Sharon told me and the suffering, humiliation and loss of dignity that come with terminal illness made us think about ways to confront death."

Maymon says they were trying to figure out how to get their type of twist into the story and decided to use the black comedy approach they used in 'Mortgage' and 'Killing Deborah.' They consciously chose black comedy because the topic was so completely unsuited to comedy.

"But there are comic moments even in these situations. For example, a few years ago I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and the way they told me could have been taken straight out of a comedy sketch .... Maybe I'll do something with it one day," Maymon says.

"So I get to the doctor's office, he looks at me and says, 'You have cancer either of the intestine or of the thyroid gland.' I was 30 years old at the time and I said, 'Oh my God, how am I going to tell my mother?' So he starts yelling at me: 'You're 30 years old, you're an adult, you don't have to tell your mother anything!' He turned away from me, started talking to the nurse, and I passed out.

"They stretched me out on the floor, gave me some water, and when I came to I said to the doctor: 'Wait a minute. You've known about this for a month now. Why didn't you call me? What were you waiting for?' So he screamed - I mean literally screamed: 'You're not going to blame me for your cancer. I'm just the doctor!' It didn't seem very funny at the time, but when I left his office, I laughed a little instead of crying."

Comic actors, of course

Other cast members are Aliza Rosen, Ilan Dar and Rafi Tavor. Maymon says they looked for comic actors. "It's true this is a drama and you've just seen the filming of a particularly dramatic scene," he says. "But we opted for comedians because comedy is part of their DNA, so although this is a drama there's comic timing going on, which is just amazing."

Maymon and Granit say Yehezkel's character was an import from "Mortgage." There, too, Revach played someone named Yehezkel who likes to help others. In that movie, he explained to a young couple how to chop off their fingers in his carpentry shop in order to get money from the National Insurance Institute. In the current film, the idea to use mature actors could have been considered unattractive to investors and moviegoers, but it didn't put off Maymon and Granit.

"You know, sumo wrestlers in underwear aren't so great to look at either," says Maymon. Adds Granit, "No one made a big deal out of it, and in any case, these people aren't seen on the big screen that often, so it seemed more interesting to me to showcase them for a change."

Not many screenplays are written for people her age, says Finkelstein, 65. She plays Yehezkel's wife, Levana. "Sharon told me they wrote the part with me in mind, so they called her Levana in the script and the name stuck," she grins. In the film, Levana is vehemently opposed to euthanasia and therefore to her husband's device.

"I really connect with the character because I'm opposed to the idea of mercy killing. I think everyone has to live as long as possible without interference from others," says Finkelstein. She adds that she has been confronting her own thoughts on old age, death, suffering and mercy killing; her mother died two weeks ago.

"At the end she was begging me, saying 'Let me go, let me go.' We were in the middle of filming and suddenly reality and the movie seemed to merge," Finkelstein says. "At first I was sure she was telling me that she wanted to be released from life. It was only afterward that I understood she wanted to be released from the hospital and go home. I saw her suffering, and when a person so close to you suffers, you carry it in your heart. It's very powerful and painful."

The day after her mother's funeral, Finkelstein was back on the boards. She's currently playing in 'King Solomon and Sol the Shoemaker' at the Habima Theater. On the day of the funeral her understudy filled in, but then the understudy was busy with other plays, and the second understudy came down with laryngitis. Given the emergency, the theater asked Finkelstein to come back, so she said yes, the show must go on.

"I also had the feeling that my mother, who'd been a singer and choral director, had somehow arranged for this to happen to make sure I'd go on working, as if telling me, 'Life goes on, don't be afraid, keep your chin up.' So I don't have any guilt feelings," she says.

"It may be a little tougher for me to work these days because my emotions and thoughts are closer to the surface, but all that really happened was that I went back to my routine a little earlier, before the seven-day mourning period was over. Other than that, the warmth of the people and the love and support I get from my colleagues are very comforting."

Ruth Geller, right, in the film 'A Good Death.' 'I can’t lie in bed anymore waiting for death,' her character says.Credit: Moti Milrod

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