GENEVA - The list of Israeli dramatic films doing well around the world - "Or," "The Syrian Bride" and "Atash" - can now be joined by "Avanim," directed by Raphael Nadjari. Unlike the other three films, "Avanim" was not well received in Israel. Members of the Israeli Academy of Film did not award it any nominations in the recent Ophir prize ceremony, and after it was screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival, the critics suggested the director return to the editing room.
Beyond Israel's borders Nadjari's film has been getting great reviews. At the 10th International Film Festival in Geneva, which ended on Saturday, he won the big prize, and the panel of judges wrote in its decision that "this is a powerful film with brilliant direction of the actors."
In addition, "Avanim" is the first and only Israeli drama so far to get past the preliminary and meticulous selection process of the European Academy of Film. It was chosen as one of the 40 films sent to the academy members for review and therefore may be a candidate in the academy's annual award ceremony, which will be held next month in Barcelona. Only two other Israelis will compete there - Keren Yedaya, the director of "Or," who will compete in the promising director category (which does not entail a selection process) and "Barriers," directed by Yoav Shamir, which will compete in the documentary category.
Raphael Nadjari is a Jew of Algerian descent who studied film in Paris and directed the films "I'm Josh Polonski's Brother" and "Apartment 5C" (which competed in last year's Cannes Film Festival in the "two weeks of directors" category). Nadjari chose to film "Avanim" using a unique method that usually does not succeed: He granted the actors the threatening freedom of improvisation. Although the process that each character undergoes was known and the scenes were written in advance, the actors were asked to fill in the dialogue in the empty spaces that remained.
Such a decision is considered dangerous in the production of any film, but seems especially dangerous when the director does not speak Hebrew. During the filming, a translator sat beside Nadjari and translated to the director the dialogue that the actors put into the scenes he had written.
The actors in "Avanim" include Uri Gavriel, Danny Steg, Florence Bloch and Shaul Mizrahi, while Assi Levy plays the lead character, Michale. "The work process in improvisation enchanted me," says Levy, who came for the film's screening at the festival in Geneva. "It's a style of work I was unfamiliar with, and I had to try it. The entire script had a very clear anchor, and in the 30 pages I received, there was a detailed and precise description of the scenes. Beyond the fact that I wanted to try out this method, I trusted the director, whose previous films I liked, and I connected strongly to the overlying story. Michale's character and the way she copes with her oppression, lack of independence and fears interested me specifically because I am a woman who always did what she wanted; I never listened to my father, who tried to restrain me."
"Avanim" tells of the journey of a young woman, married and a mother of one child, to free herself from the family and cultural ties that are choking her. In the first scene, Michale is shown - a beautiful woman wearing a short mini-skirt - sitting in a cafe and waiting. A man approaches her, apologizes for the delay and they go together to a hotel room. Almost without exchanging any words, they have sex. Later on it emerges that Michale is married to another man and is dominated by her father, a widower who runs an accounting firm and with whom she works. During the film, the conflict between her and her father intensifies, and when it reaches its peak, Michale's family unit disintegrates and she herself embarks on a journey of redemption.
But not only is Michale's life Sisyphean. The experience of watching the film also isn't easy. Nadjari does not make it easy for the viewers and presents a film made in a documentary style with a shuddering camera. Although it is possible to connect this choice with heroine's mental state, it doesn't always seem to have narrative justification. At a certain point it seems as if the film has no beginning, middle or end, and that it offers nothing more than a momentary intrusion - vulgar and devoid of a dramatic story - into the lives of real people.
Another obstacle is the long scenes, which are sometimes too long. One example is the scene where Nadjari chooses to highlight the importance of Jewish tradition in the characters' lives. Instead of sufficing with a short scene in which the father recites the blessing over the wine following the Saturday morning prayer services, Nadjari shows viewers the entire kiddush ceremony as well as the havdalah ceremony at the conclusion of the Sabbath.
Nevertheless, toward the end of the film it seems that the parts connect and successfully paint a picture that accurately reflects life in Israel and focuses on a large segment of the population - secular though traditional Jews - that is usually absent from contemporary Israeli film. Even though the director is not Israeli, he does manage to present a complex array of characters that does not creep into political issues. Even the terrorist attack that occurs in one scene in the film does not prompt Nadjari to delve into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and therefore the film provides the European audience with a rare look at the private lives of people in Israel - a perspective that the news programs do not supply.
"I really don't understand the bad reviews the film received in Israel," says Levy. "It seems to me that it stems from the fact that Israelis don't like to see themselves on the big screen. The critics praised `Or' and `Atash' because it wasn't really them - they are not prostitutes and not Arabs. But in `Avanim' there is a terrorist attack and for the most part, secular people coping with life. In Israel, they are fond of escapist culture, and viewers like to come out with a smile on their faces. People like things short and light, and `Avanim' is long, slow and heavy."
Throughout the film, the character Michale remains very restrained, and that is also how Levy plays the role. Even in particularly difficult moments - such as when she is told of her lover's death - Michale's reaction is muted, and only at the end of the film, in the final scene, does a tear glimmer in her eye. "That seemed most appropriate to me from an acting perspective," says Levy.
"The least interesting thing in my opinion is seeing an actor crying throughout the whole film because life is tough. I believe that an actor should never give his all to a role. There always should be something left for the viewer to grasp. It moves me more as a viewer to see an actor holding back the tears than to see an actor crying hysterically."
A tomato a day
Nadjari also favors the restrained approach and prefers to show the viewer a portrait of normal, everyday life. He shows the heroine cutting up a tomato for a salad, preparing schnitzel, trying to persuade her son to eat and sprawled out on the couch after a hard day of work, waiting for her husband to come home from work.
The director is also restrained in his treatment of the terrorist attack, and his handling of it is reminiscent of Israelis' attitude towards terrorist attacks - such an attack is an almost daily occurrence that is glanced at, and then immediately they move on, continue with their normal life.
As the film's climax approaches, Michale leaves home in a scene that would seem to invite an act of rebellion and dramatic breakaway, but instead the director chooses to send his character to the sea, to cope alone with her isolation.
"Originally, in the script," says Levy, "there was a scene where she goes to a bar, meets two young guys, hangs out with them at the beach, smokes a joint and goes into the water in the nude. But it wasn't right from a narrative perspective, in terms of the heroine's personality, and that's why it was dropped in the editing room."
Around a month ago, Levy was in a serious road accident when a car hit her as she was riding a motorcycle. She was hospitalized for a long time and still hasn't fully recovered. Because of the accident, she had to give up the role she was to have in "Behind the Scenes" at the Cameri Theater. Though she won the Israeli Film Academy's award for her role in the film "Kesher Ir" and has appeared in the theater in the successful production of "Lysistrata," Levy does not consider herself a star. "Even when people come up to me on the street," she says, "I don't believe it's because I'm a star in their eyes. That is also because there really is no such thing in Israel, but mainly because it doesn't interest me. I know that I'm an excellent actress and that I'm considered one of the best young actresses, but that doesn't concern me. The only place that I feel truly attached is my family."