Double Take: Looking Back on the Man Who Revolutionized Israeli Cinema

Filmmaker Uri Zohar ditched flamboyance for religion, and revolutionized Israeli cinema.

Nirit Anderman
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Nirit Anderman

In January 1967, at the peak of a successful career as an entertainer, Uri Zohar held a press conference. Several days after one of his shows at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center was savaged by critics, he stood in front of the media representatives and declared that he had decided to abandon the stage and devote himself to another, more “serious” discipline: cinema.

At the time Zohar already had experience in making movies. He had acted in several ‏(including “Amud Ha’Esh” and “Blazing Sand”‏), and had codirected the film “Etz O Palestina” alongside Nathan Axelrod and Joel Silberg. He had also directed several short films and his first feature-length movie “Hole in the Moon,” which was a box-office flop but won critical acclaim at the time ‏(and to this day‏) and was shown at the Cannes Film Festival.

Zohar’s decision to abandon the stage and focus on making movies proved to be a good one: Within a decade he had become one of the most interesting and prolific filmmakers this country has seen. Moreover, he also succeeded in creating a unique type of Israeli cinema, managed to portray many issues that troubled his contemporaries on the silver screen, and was one of the chosen few who knew how to use cinema as an artistic medium, as well as an entertaining and commercial one.

This week, the first comprehensive retrospective of his works opens at the cinematheques in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. It enables viewers to re-examine his works from a vantage point that is many years after he turned to religion, became an ultra-Orthodox rabbi and left the movie world. The Cinema South film festival currently underway in Sderot is also holding a slightly different retrospective of his work.

The comprehensive retrospective includes 23 films, and was first shown at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris six months ago. It includes all the feature films Zohar directed apart from “Hitromamut.” The rights to “Hitromamut” are held by Hagashash Hahiver, the iconic comedy trio who star in the movie. They have refused to allow the film to be screened for years.

The retrospective also includes films that Zohar acted in, and some short films he directed. Some of them haven’t been screened here for decades.

New sensitivity

The retrospective’s curator, Dr. Ariel Schweitzer, will give a lecture about Zohar’s work at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque today and the Jerusalem Cinematheque tomorrow.

“Zohar created a revolution in Israeli cinema with his film ‘Hole in the Moon,’” Schweitzer said during a telephone interview last week from his home in Paris. “This was the first modernist film to be made here. It also turned away from the Zionist ethos, paving the way to personal, Israeli cinema and the ‘New Sensitivity’ movement which was active here in the 1960s and 1970s and produced some of the classics of Israeli cinema.”

However, in contrast to most of the directors from the ‘New Sensitivity’ movement, who each managed to direct only one or two movies during those two decades ‏(these directors include David Greenberg, Jacques Katmor, Avraham Heffner, Zepel Yeshurun, Yaky Yosha and David Perlov‏), Zohar didn’t rest for a moment. Over 12 years he directed 11 feature-length films, in addition to several short films and television shows such as “Lool.” He also acted in several movie projects.

“He knew how to correctly read the map of Israeli cinema at the time,” says Schweitzer. “He knew that he couldn’t survive here as a director of personal, modernist cinema, and understood that he had no choice but to develop a career that fluctuated between populist cinema and personal cinema. So he made the modernist ‘Hole in the Moon,’ which was a box-office flop and then immediately made ‘Moishe Ventalator,’ which enabled him to survive financially and to take risks in his next creative projects. Immediately after that he made ‘Shlosha Yamim Veyeled,’ which was much more interesting cinematically. This combination allowed him to create a volume of work that no other director has had since.”

Zohar didn’t just lightheartedly switch between arty films and crowd-pleasing comedies. He also merged the two. “At the start of the 1970s he tried to create a synthesis between popular cinema and modernist, personal cinema. This was mainly reflected in ‘Peeping Toms’ ‏(‘Metzitzim’‏) and ‘Einayim G’dolot.’ In both films you can find influences of the French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism alongside popular elements,” says Schweitzer.

In addition, Zohar’s movies managed to achieve what many before him had failed to do − to reflect Israeliness in a realistic, convincing way. It may not have always been especially heartwarming − it was mostly cheeky, defiant, vulgar and sweaty − but it was certainly authentic.

In contrast to the other directors in the ‘New Sensitivity’ movement who cast Israeliness in a European light, Zohar did not shy away from the provincial way of living or the fierce Israeli sun, says Schweitzer. “For example, he does not see Israeli vulgarity as inferior; rather as something authentic about the place, something which possesses both human and cinematic power,” he says.

“In my opinion, the current success of Israeli cinema cannot be understood without Zohar’s works. He was the first one to understand the Israeli light, the Israeli landscape and the Israeli language. He paved the way for Keren Yedaya, Dover Koshashvili and other artists who are working today − and who are aware of his legacy and the debt we owe him.”

A critical view

The Tel Aviv trilogy of films ‘Peeping Toms’ ‏(1972‏), ‘Einayim G’dolot,’‏(1973‏) and ‘Hatzilu Et HaMatzil’ ‏(1976‏) were perceived at the time as merely being escapist beach comedies, but in retrospect they can be seen to be much more.

“Today we see just how these films reflected the existential vacuum in Uri Zohar’s personal life and amid the group he was surrounded by. Over the years, some of them left their bohemian way of life in secular Tel Aviv and chose religion,” says Schweitzer. “But these films − two of which were created a little before the Yom Kippur War and the third immediately after it − are also a seismograph of Israeli society as a whole. They are a marker of the social crisis, the ideological vacuum that rose up and breached the surface immediately after that war.”

One of the arguments that have been raised over the years about Zohar’s films, and especially against his Tel Aviv trilogy, accuses him of creating particularly chauvinistic characters and having a vulgar, aggressive male viewpoint that makes the women in his movies appear weak, submissive and humiliated.

“I’m not saying that his work completely lacks chauvinistic elements,” says Schweitzer, “and they are already seen in ‘Hole in the Moon,’ where there is a scene where − with a very aggressive type of humor − he interviews young women who want to act in his film. However, I think his films are interesting and complex in this respect, as there are also contradictory elements.

“True, there is chauvinism, machismo, vulgarity and great aggression, but there is also an element of self-loathing − especially in the characters that Zohar himself portrays himself in ‘Peeping Toms’ and ‘Einayim G’dolot.’ This self-loathing, of all the sexuality, vulgarity and machismo of the characters he plays, allows us to look at all these things in a critical way. Thanks to this critical perspective, I actually see Zohar as a feminist director.”

Schweitzer’s thinks that the central theme in Zohar’s movies is his inability to set boundaries for himself. He connects this to Zohar’s religious conversion.

“Some of his films suffer from a lack of restraint − they have an energy bursting out of them that he struggles to control − and a surplus of ideas. It’s clear that the problem of boundaries reflected his life, his family life and his sex life, and was manifested in his films. It seems to me that precisely because he did not succeed in setting boundaries for himself, he eventually needed an external authority to establish them for him and prevent him from giving in to his self-destructive urges.”

A scene from Uri Zohar’s “Einayim G’dolot,” starring Sima Eliyahu, left, and Zohar. Credit: courtesy

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