Israeli Filmmaker Plays God

After decades of insightful feature films and television series, Haim Bouzaglo's latest project for Channel 10, 'House of Wishes,' borders on psychodrama therapy.

Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
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Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich

If he were capable of bringing the dead back to life, Haim Bouzaglo would direct the following scene: His mother and father are sitting in the kitchen and he joins them. His 6-year-old son, Netanel, is there too, and they talk about life and everything that has happened since his parents died. They drink tea with mint leaves, just like old times.

Bouzaglo is now making such wishes come true on the television screen. At an abandoned railway station, cut off from time and current experience, actors gather, waiting for a customer to choose them. The customer – a man or woman who wishes to deal with a past trauma, heal an old wound or say goodbye to a person who has died – gives information to a psychiatrist who presides over everything that happens there. Then, under his close supervision, a scene is acted out in which the actors play the parents who died or vanished, relationship partners who left scorched earth behind them or even an entire family that is gone. All this takes place at a peak of pure, throbbing and sometimes even violent emotion – but at the end the customer pays the fee and goes home.

House of Wishes, Bouzaglo’s new, ambitious television series that premiers tonight on Channel 1, is the televised, psychodramatic version of surrogate services.

Bouzaglo came up with the idea for House of Wishes when he was a young man living in Paris. It also appeared in the film Scar (1994), which he wrote and directed, where it was called “the meeting house.” He went back to the idea in recent years and it led him to a long process of research and meetings with actors.

As in the sex industry, on which the idea is based, it seems that here, too, the work claims a psychological price. The project employs 172 actors, and so far 52 episodes (which will be divided into two seasons) have been filmed, many of them dramatizations of their personal desires. The series itself includes one-time meetings, dialogue from a painful scene and ongoing stories. Participating actors include Uri Hochman (as the psychiatrist), Evelin Hagoel, Eldad Privas, Florence Bloch and Orna Fitusi. All of them had to meet Bouzaglo’s exacting requirements, which included a frame story for the scene and a clear understanding of the nature of the conflict and how it would be solved. Beyond that, the scene was improvised based on the principles of psychodrama therapy.

“The first question I asked each actor I met was what he would want to do if such a place really existed,” Bouzaglo recalls. “I got a wild variety of stories from that. Sure, there are lots of moments of fiction in the plot, but there are more true stories of the actors.”

He says that the process of putting the show together took about two years and 150 meetings. “I knew what the ongoing stories would be and what the story of the psychiatrist would be. Beyond that I kept index cards, and when I met with a person I wrote his wish down on the card when the meeting was over.”

Florence Bloch, for example, wanted to meet with her three ex-husbands: the one who doesn’t pay child support, the unfaithful Don Juan and the one who came out as gay. Another story that found its way into Bouzaglo’s program involved an actress who wanted to “meet” her late father, who had carried on an affair with a neighbor for years. Bouzaglo allowed her to “meet” with her father and have another meeting with an actress who played her mother. He then surprised her with a meeting between her “father” and “mother,” which shook her deeply.

“At a particular point during the scene between the actress and her mother I brought in her father and they reconciled in front of her. That was her dream.”

'I’m not afraid to go to dangerous places, cinematically speaking'

This is not the first time Bouzaglo has used unconventional, even disturbing, methods in his work. He is 60 years old, a father of three and lives with his wife, Lisa Mamou, and their youngest son in central Tel Aviv. His long career includes many film and television works in Israel and around the world.

House of Wishes, his 19th project, was preceded by films such as Fictitious Marriage (1988) and Time for Cherries (1990). He also created the television series Zinzana (1999), Criminal Reports (2005) and Marciano’s Honor (2011), and acted in several French films, including a starring role alongside French actress Anne Brochet, and will soon be appearing in another film as the husband of actress Fanny Ardant. He also plans to produce a comedy film in France that he wrote together with his wife, and is trying to produce local versions of House of Wishes in France and the United States.

His projects have garnered reviews ranging from enthusiasm for some to contempt for others. In the past he lashed out against critics, particularly those who panned his films Scar and Rebirth. Now he responds with patent unwillingness, if diplomacy, to the question of reviews and his image in Israel.

“All the work I’ve done has been experimental,” he says. “I’m not afraid to go to dangerous places, cinematically speaking. I don’t always succeed, but I try. I’ve done some things that were very successful abroad, but there’s some kind of block that keeps them from succeeding in Israel. They don’t get a platform here. Let the critics speak, and let the film speak.”

He developed his unique working style with actors over many years. He calls it “readiness for change,” and in House of Wishes, it means the actors, too, are treated on the set. “That was the concept from the beginning,” he says. “The idea is simple – to create a conflict, to have data overlap to create a situation. When you do rehearsals you erode the emotion, it becomes artificial. The key is to create a conflict and its resolution, to know in advance what the conflict is going to be and how we’re going to resolve it.”

60-year-old father of 6-year-old son

Bouzaglo’s decision to deal with the world of feelings and emotion was not something one might have expected. For many years he dealt with political and social issues in a long series of works. His film Blank Bullet (2012) dealt with the trauma following the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The films Janem Janem (2005) and Fictitious Marriage dealt with the issue of exploited workers in Israel. Distortion (2004) took place against the backdrop of the second intifada, while Time for Cherries dealt with the Lebanon war.

Bouzaglo’s personal project, Rebirth (2008), which dealt with the immigration of Moroccan Jews and was based on the story of his father, led him to make the film Honor, followed by its spin-off television series Marciano’s Honor that was broadcast on Channel 10. Both latter works dealt indirectly with the Moroccan community’s involvement in organized crime.

House of Wishes, with its surrealism, hyper-realistic emotion and deliberate disconnection from the state and from society, is a step in an entirely different direction. One wonders whether a deeper emotional motive stands behind it. Several years ago, Bouzaglo suffered a heart attack. Afterward, he spoke about the sorrow he felt on realizing that he might not live to see his son grow to manhood. It was no accident that he decided to film his son in the series, playing the son of one of the actresses in various scenes. He reflects, “It’s possible that something happened. I’m 60 years old and I have a 6-year-old son.”

Does this going back to the past, the desire to put traumas to rest and have things come full circle, have to do with that?

“I have three children, and all of them work with me. It was a lot of fun filming my youngest son and my two older boys, Yinon and Itay, who are also in the series. There’s no doubt that I want very much to immortalize my youngest son on the screen. It goes through your mind – how much time will you have to be with him? It’s there, and it was a special pleasure to film him. I love my three sons, but the older ones are 28 and 30, and they got those years from me. The youngest is six, and the timer works differently at my age. All the time it goes through my mind that tomorrow I could have another heart attack and suddenly disappear on him. It’s gotten to be tangible. I’m not afraid to die or anything like that, but today I want as much as possible for Netanel.”

Haim Bouzaglo.Credit: Ilya Melnikov

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