Haunting Iranian Music Stars in New Israeli Film - but Don't Expect to Buy the Soundtrack

Israeli cinema has prospered in recent years, but it appears that the release of the music from Israeli cinema has been left behind - even when the soundtrack is so central to the film.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

"Wow, what an amazing film," exclaimed the salesman at the Tel Aviv record store. "Wait a minute, I'll find out right now about the soundtrack." He calls out to another store clerk, who is responsible for ordering discs, and asks whether the soundtrack for "The Ballad of the Weeping Spring" ("Balada Le'aviv Habohe") has arrived. But his cohort announces that a soundtrack has not arrived, and that he isn't at all sure whether there is a soundtrack. "As far as I know, there is no such disc," he says.

"What?" The first salesman is surprised. "How come no soundtrack has come out? I saw the movie a few days ago, and I can't remember the last time I saw a film where the music was so important." He goes on to say that Mark Eliyahu, a very special musician, composed the music, and there were also some wonderful old Persian melodies in the film. "My background is Persian, and that music really moves me, but you don't have to be Iranian to like it." He turns again to his colleague, the one responsible for ordering discs, and asks: "Are you sure there's no soundtrack?"

This second salesperson was right. "The Ballad of the Weeping Spring," a film directed by Benny Torati, has not issued a soundtrack, and it seems that no such disc will be released soon. That is an artistic absurdity, and it appears also to be a dubious economic decision. The seller at the record store was right - it has been a long time since music has played such an essential part in an Israeli film. If the music wasn't so melodious, that would be one thing. However, Eliyahu's score is superb (and, justifiably, won an Ophir award last year ). It's a safe bet that many of the film's viewers left the theater and later looked for a soundtrack and found nothing. That's absurd, but not very surprising.

Israeli cinema has prospered in recent years, but it appears that the release of the music from Israeli cinema has been left behind. Perhaps there is a need to legislate an Israeli soundtrack law banning the release of films (or at least movies in which music plays a central part ) without their being accompanied by a soundtrack.

One telling example is the music from the film "Someone to Run With," composed by Ran Shem-Tov. After I left the theater, I looked for the soundtrack, partly due to the stunning scene in which Bar Belfer starts to sing "Shuv," by Shmulik Kraus and Josie Katz, and then Yuval Mendelson, who plays her musical brother, joins in, accompanying her on electric guitar, and then plays an acoustic number. However, the "Someone to Run With" soundtrack's release came belatedly, and was available only a few months after the film reached theaters. The truth is that it is a pretty disappointing disc, but that doesn't alter the fact that it should have been available when the film came out. In the case of "Ballad of the Weeping Spring," a film that has music running through its veins, it appears that a delay of a few months for the soundtrack release is an optimistic estimate.

Turned his world upside down

Among other things, "Ballad of the Weeping Spring" is a film about how music serves as a powerful code that records and transmits memories, feelings and stories. This is apparent in one of the film's first scenes, in which Amram Mufradi, played by Dudu Tassa, tries to draw the attention of legendary tar (Iranian lute) musician Yosef Tawila (played by Uri Gavriel), who put his instrument down twenty years earlier and left the music scene. Tawila is determined not to be enticed by the young Mufradi, and does not want his tormented isolation to be disturbed, but Mufradi climbs up to the small stage at an inn, and starts to play the kamancheh, a kind of Persian violin. Its sounds manage to pierce the armor surrounding Tawila's solitude, and that begins the film's journey, which ends when Tawila and a group of musicians he gathers play in honor of Avram Mufradi, Amram's father, who is terminally ill.

The image of a heart being won over by the raw melodious sound of the kamancheh belongs also to the soundtrack's composer, Mark Eliyahu. Eliyahu left school at the age of 16 and went off to learn to play the saz, a Turkish string instrument. He was taught by a Greek musician of Irish descent, Ross Daly. His parents (the father, Peretz Eliyahu, is a gifted composer, and his mother is a pianist) supported his decision and funded his studies. Eliyahu lived and studied in Daly's home for half a year, then one day he heard sounds that turned his life upside down, and ended this Greek period of his journey.

"This was a disc featuring Habil Aliyev," Eliyahu recalled in an interview a year ago. "Aliyev is one of the leading kamancheh instrumentalists. ... This was the first time I heard this sound, but I felt as though I had always heard it within me, as though it were my own inner voice. I had chills, and I knew definitively that I had to quit the saz, and start playing this new instrument. When I told my father about this, he was very moved. As it turns out, my great grandfather was a kamancheh player in Dagestan." Eliyahu immigrated with his parents from Dagestan when he was six years old.

Love for the kamancheh led Eliyahu to Azerbaijan. For two years he lived in the home of a kamancheh instructor, and devoted himself totally to the instrument. In recent years, after his return to Israel, Eliyahu has had one foot in traditional music (playing in ensembles with his father) and another foot in Israeli popular music (he has written music for Rita and Idan Raichel).

The music he composed for "Ballad of the Weeping Spring" reflects his seamless movement between traditional and popular genres; all told, it appears as a musical amalgam that is both very Israeli and completely foreign and unlike the usual noise heard in this country. One might say that this music, like the film itself, is a kind of fantasy of how Israeli culture might look and sound if the forces that shape its character were altogether different from the ones that actually do.

"Ballad of a Weeping Spring" is also a film about musicians, about the baggage they carry, and about their ongoing internal conflict between a desire to devote themselves entirely to their craft (and deal with the chaotic lifestyle that comes with it ) and a more balanced and humane mix between life and art. The journey described by the film is not only Tawila's effort to heal his wounds, but also the search for redemption of the musicians who join him. One, an alcoholic and former oud player (Nir Levy), who stopped playing so he wouldn't lose his family, learns how to strike a balance between music and life; a violin player (Mark Eliyahu) who insists on performing only for himself learns how to play for others; a blind flute musician (Amir Shasar) frees himself from the tyranny of a loan shark; and a cello player (Uri Klauzner), who is in danger of being violently beaten by the bellicose brothers of a woman he left on the altar, reaches an agreement with the woman and her siblings.

Without synthetic aid

The time has come to admit that despite the film's expansive treatment of music, I didn't enjoy "Ballad of a Weeping Spring." The film seemed artificial to me, and sometimes even ridiculous. I understand that this artificiality is deliberate. This is a highly stylized movie, one that draws its aesthetic quality from Westerns and melodramas. When it comes to music, an aesthetic vision and style may not be completely clear to me, and might even be at odds with my natural instincts - but I am happy nonetheless to listen to a musical composition. But when it comes to film, I want things to be clearer, and easier to decipher. When I think of this film, and this is a movie that causes a viewer to think after he leaves the theater even if he didn't like it, I have respect for the fact that Benny Torati left a special stylistic imprint, one that is even defiant (as it turns out, a quiet, refined movie can also be defiant); but that doesn't change the fact that while viewing this film, I harbored doubts and sometimes squirmed in my seat out of embarrassment.

One of the question marks that hovers over "Ballad of a Weeping Spring's" unconventional aesthetic derives from the way music is used to fill spaces in this film, if that is a good way to put it. Just as the props, dialogue and acting are not realistic, the music also has a sound and emits feelings that don't seem natural. In one scene, Tawila tells Amram Mufradi that playing an acoustic instrument provides a bridge to the soul. That is a cliche, and it's not clear whether the director Torati really believes that it is true - in the scene where Mufradi draws Tawila's attention with the playing of a kamancheh, you can see the musician playing the traditional instrument, but you can also hear the sounds of a synthesizer. Why is that? Why not let the kamancheh emit its own sounds, without the assistance of a synthesizer? I don't have the answer to that question, but Torati clearly dismissed the conventional possibility of letting the kamancheh speak for itself; he didn't allow Eliyahu to play freely, and relay fully his natural sound. On the contrary: The director drew Eliyahu into a highly artificial cinematic context, one which reaches its peak when Tawila and his musician mates play for the deathly ill Mufradi. Instead of letting the instrumental work flow directly from the musicians in a natural way, the music is separated from the playing, in a kind of distorted playback sequence. Why is this done? Torati must have the answers.

If a soundtrack had been released, one could listen to Eliyahu's music on its own, without the artificial, highly stylized musical context. Might we hope that the people who have the power to produce such a highly worthwhile album do so in a timely way, before "Ballad of a Weeping Spring" is taken off the silver screen and fades from public awareness?

Publicity agents for the film state: "Due to the great demand for the "Ballad of a Weeping Spring" soundtrack, the producers and distributors of the film, in conjuction with NMC United, have decided to examine the possibility of releasing it promptly."

From 'Ballad of a Weeping Spring': A film about musicians, the baggage they carry, and their struggle between art and life.Credit: Eyal Fisher
Mark Eliyahu, the composer.Credit: David Bachar

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