Facing Ghosts of an Impoverished Israeli Past

In his new film, nominated for 11 Israeli Academy Awards, Marco Carmel delves into the richness and mystique of the culture into which he was born - without pandering to a mainstream audience.

It was a winter's night, in 1989. A car was parked at the entrance to a large house in Herzliya. In it sat a penniless young fellow from Or Akiva, fresh out of the army, who was now employed as the neighborhood security guard. An elegant gentleman approached the car, and told the guard he thought someone had broken into his home and asked if he would be kind enough to accompany him so he would not have to deal with the burglar by himself. The two entered the luxurious dwelling, and the guard then went off to check the area. "Everything is fine," he soon declared, preparing to leave.

marco - Kobi Kalmanovitz - September 23 2011
Kobi Kalmanovitz

"I was about to go back to the car, but then the man said, 'Do me a favor, sit with me a while,'" relates Marco Carmel, who is today a filmmaker. "He was very lonely. We went into his house, we sat, we talked and he asked me what I did. I told him I was saving money to study film, and then he said: ' It was my dream to study film, too. When I was young I really loved the cinema, but my father didn't let me study it. He made me become a businessman. Today I'm a millionaire, but I never fulfilled my dream."

Then the owner of the house, French-cosmetics executive Jacques Konckier, asked the young man how much film studies cost and made him an offer that seemed to come right out of a corny Hollywood movie.

"He said to me: 'I am prepared to pay for your studies. At the end of every school year, you will show me the film you did for your final project, and then I will give you another check, to pay for the next year," Carmel recalls. "It seemed unreal. I asked him what he really wanted from me."

Konckier then imposed an additional condition on Carmel for the generous scholarship: He made him promise that if eventually he became a successful director, then he himself would choose two more young people and underwrite their film studies. And then there was a personal request.

"He said he wanted me to realize his dream for him, and asked that after I completed my studies, I would make a short film together with him about a man in a wheelchair who travels in a dream. He had in mind a short film based on the end of 'Citzen Kane' and wanted me to help him," says Carmel, who is today 46.

konckier - Haaretz - September 23 2011

And thus the young fellow who was born in an immigrant transit camp in Or Akiva, and spent part of his childhood in Paris, agreed to carry out his part of the deal and soon enrolled to study in the Camera Obscura School of Art, in Tel Aviv.

"When I got to school," he says, "they were talking about [Pablo] Picasso, [Jean-Luc] Godard and [Francois] Truffaut - but I had no idea who those people were. I was still in the world of [singer] Ofra Haza from Or Akiva, from the 'hood. I told Jacques I had to learn about all those people and he started buying and sending me piles of books, about all the great directors, different genres, Italian cinema and French cinema. I would sit for days on end and read. For two years I kept my mouth shut at school and read like a madman."

Today Konckier owns the Jacques Bogart Group, which produces various perfumes, among them Ted Lapidus, Bogart and others.

During one summer vacation, he sent Carmel, who spoke French from childhood, to France and arranged for him to work on the set of a film, so he could see how things work. In 2007, when Carmel invited Konckier to the world premiere of his debut French-Hebrew effort, "Father's Footsteps," which was being screened at a cinema on the Champs-Elysees in Paris and was accompanied by limousines, a red carpet, champagne and stars like Gad Elmaleh and Richard Berry - the French millionaire was moved to tears. The movie, in French and Hebrew, is a coming-of-age tale inspired by Carmel's fraught childhood years in France, where his father became a criminal.

"He sat there and wept," recalls Carmel. "'I didn't believe you would get here,' he said to me. I told him that this was just the beginning."

carmel - Ran Mendelson - September 23 2011
Ran Mendelson

Now Carmel's second feature film, "My Lovely Sister," is being screened locally. It was produced by David Mandil, Moshe Edery and Leon Edery, with support from the Israel Film Fund and the Keshet media group. It has been nominated for 11 Ophir (Israeli Oscar) Awards by Israel's Film Academy - among them are nominations for best film, best director and best actors (Evelin Hagoel for best actress, Reymond Amsalem for best supporting actress, and Norman Issa for best supporting actor ).

Whereas Carmel's first movie was autobiographical, and set mostly in Paris, where he lived from ages 3 to 9, this movie's fictional plot is set in today's Israel, though with hints of the past. In Hebrew and a Moroccan-Arabic dialect, the new film focuses on a family of Jewish immigrants from Morocco living in a small, unidentified town in Israel. Rahma (Hagoel ) is married to the insensitive and macho Robert (Moshe Ivgy ), who seeks excitement with other women. Over the years she has insisted on ignoring her younger, beautiful sister Marie (Amsalem ) because of the latter's marriage to an Arab fisherman (Issa ). Rahma is superstitious and converses with one of the walls in her home as though it were a living being, and she refuses to forgive her sister despite her repeated pleas and desire to return to the bosom of the family. For his part, Robert, who has been in love with Marie for years, has difficulty ignoring his passion for her and devoting himself to his own family.

Marie's death shakes up Rahma and Robert's lives. Her spirit, which is in no hurry to leave this world, charges both of them to do a thorough reckoning of conscience. The spirit of Marie continues to be present in their lives as well as in the lives of other relatives, and a man who drives a strange vehicle, a kind of combination of a rickshaw and a bicycle, collects the dead of the town and drives them through the streets in scenes with a surrealistic touch. Indeed, the dead in "My Lovely Sister" are only partially dead and the living relate to them as an inseparable part of life that goes on.

'Grandma is crazy'

Carmel got the idea for the film from the character of his paternal grandmother Miriam. "My grandmother always believed there are hiyalas- ghosts of women who protect other women from their husbands. Like many others, she believed they lived in the walls and in the floor, and as long as the women in whose houses they live agree to bake cakes for them, they repay them in gold and bring peace to the home. She would tell us a lot of stories about them, like the story in this film. Like how the spirits come and start dancing at night to seduce women and then their husbands have to come and rescue them."

carmel - David Zarif - September 23 2011
David Zarif

Growing up, Carmel obeyed his parents' request not to tell outsiders about his grandmother's beliefs: "They'd always say to me, 'Do us a favor, don't talk about this nonsense. They'll say Grandma is crazy, so please just leave these stories aside.' They were very ashamed of this, so we were a little ashamed, too. I trembled with fear because of her stories. They worked on me emotionally. I was scared to sleep at night because I was afraid a ghost would come to me all of a sudden. However, because I loved horror films, I also wanted my Grandma to prove to me that it really was possible to talk with the dead."

In one scene in "My Lovely Sister," Rahma's daughter, who has left home for Tel Aviv, tries to persuade her mother to come to the big city and see a psychologist there. Rahma reacts with fury. "Who says your psychologist is better than my wall?" she asks.

In Carmel's opinion, the belief in spirits was a kind of crutch in years past that helped these women contend with their reality: "There weren't psychologists who helped them deal with their internal distress and insensitive husbands. This was their way of coping, and there is something beautiful in it. During my childhood I was embarrassed and I didn't talk about it, but when I was studying film all of a sudden I thought - to hell with it. This is folklore, it's poetic, it's beautiful, it has a lot of love and compassion and culture in it, and these are our roots. So I decided to make a movie about it."

"Since this is a story that's larger than life, with big characters, I tried to minimize the directing as much as possible. With North African characters like these, everything is out there - there's a great danger they will become caricatures. Therefore, I tried to direct in as refined a way as possible, restraining the direction, so the film wouldn't fall into the 'bourekas' category," he says, referring to a genre of Israeli melodramas largely revolving around ethnic stereotypes.

Like the character Yael Abecassis played in "Father's Footsteps," the character played by Hagoel in "My Lovely Sister" is a strong woman who rules her home and family with an iron fist.

carmel - David Zarif - September 23 2011
David Zarif

Carmel: "I think women are a lot stronger than men. It is usually they who are active in my films, and the men get lost. In general with us, the North African communities, the men make a lot of noise, but the women are the ones who take charge and lead things," he says.

Carmel was born in a transit camp in Or Akiva to a father from Algeria and a mother from Tunisia. When Marco was 3, his parents moved with their five children to France. They lived in Paris for twelve years, during which his father got involved with the underworld, and was imprisoned after being convicted of 36 acts of robbery.

"When my father went to prison, I was 9 years old and the two years he was there were the most difficult two years of my childhood. That's when I learned to survive, to roam the streets. I myself also sunk into crime: stealing from supermarkets, breaking into cars and the like," says Carmel. "Suddenly one day my grandmother showed up from Israel, knocked on our door and when she heard our father was in prison, she announced she had come to release him. She visited him, told him, 'I will rescue you' - and immediately thereafter died. When he came home with a police escort to attend her funeral, he managed to escape and we all returned to Israel."

During that period in Paris, Carmel also first became acquainted with the movies. "As a boy, I lived at the movie theater. I would go to a theater that screened two movies in a row, and there I saw every fifth-rate movie that came out: horror films or historical action films [with names] like 'Hercules Versus Spartacus' and 'Dracula Versus Spartacus' and 1970s' B-movies from Italy. The lowest films possible. Because of that, years later when I started studying, I was sure all Italian cinema was either westerns or 'Spartacus,'" he laughs.

After Carmel returned to Or Akiva at the age of 14, he joined the Orot group, which put on productions involving singing, dancing and skits in the style of the army entertainment troupes - and mainly, he adds, kept local teens off the streets and out of trouble.

After his military service and film studies he moved to Tel Aviv. Among other things he directed "Hartzufim" (a political-satire television show with puppets ) and "Rehov Sumsum" (the Israeli version of "Sesame Street" ) and videos for children.

"I was really the Orson Welles of the preschool set in Israel. A lot of the DVDs parents are buying for their children today are things I made. At that time I took every job possible because when I finished my studies I swore to myself I would never be poor again," he says.

A mid-life crisis at the age of 40 led to a big change in his life. At the time, Carmel weighed 120 kilos, he was well-established financially, he was living in upscale Kikar Hamedina in Tel Aviv - and suddenly, he says, he realized "there wasn't anything about which I could say, 'this is Marco.'"

He started riding a bike and surfboarding and decided that from then on he would direct only his own work. He made two documentary films - "Moments of Glory" (2004 ), about extras in the film industry, and "From Tripoli to Bergen-Belsen" (2005 ) - about the history of Libyan Jewry during World War II, while waging a Sisyphean battle to raise money for "Father's Footsteps." In the end, after four years of exhausting effort, he managed to enlist investors from Israel and France.

Despite the impressive cast, the budget of 4 million euros he managed to raise and its five nominations for Ophir awards (including best film, best director and best screenplay ), Carmel admits today: "The film is not good. I wasn't strong enough to tell the story the way it was. The first version of the screenplay was completely different. It was supposed to have been much blunter, more violent and more painful. But when you are making your first film, and broadcasting organizations and producers are involved in it and putting a lot of money in - you find yourself making a mainstream film and not the one you wanted.

"The saddest moment from my perspective came after I raised all the money to make the film and already had all the actors. I was taking the train back to the airport and crying over how I wasn't really going to make my film, because I knew it was not based on the screenplay I'd intended to use.

"Canal +, which invested 1.5 million euros in the film, was pressuring me to change it because they didn't want it to have violent or emotionally and sexually difficult scenes in it. They said: If you want to put in the scenes of abuse, no problem, take 400,000 euros and we'll broadcast it at midnight instead of at 8:30 in the evening. And that is how, all of a sudden, my film became a film for the whole family.

Carmel says that was when "I promised myself that in the next film I would go with my own truth and, really, in 'My Lovely Sister' I didn't make any compromises. I went all the way with my characters, and I love it."

Today, Carmel is writing the screenplay for his next feature film, "My Neighborhood," which centers around a variety of unusual characters living in a single neighborhood. In addition, he is about to film a 60-minute television drama, "The Perfect Wave," about what is now a great love of his: surfing. Indeed, seven boards stand in the corner of the modest Tel Aviv apartment where he lives today.

"Every day there are waves, I am at the beach from 5 to 9 A.M. Surfing is my refuge in life," he explains. "I also travel regularly to surf abroad. Right after I finish dealing with the release of the new film, I am off to Hawaii. This is one of the decisions I made at the age of 40. After every film or project I do, I go somewhere to surf. That is how I am living today. The way one should."