If You Can Make It There

Shimon Dotan, an Israeli director working in New York, was here to screen his new movie, 'Watching TV with the Red Chinese,' whose theme recalls 'The Smile of the Lamb' from 1986. With the new film, Dotan returns to his original focus - political issues. His next project: a movie about Herzl


Shimon Dotan directed his new film, "Watching TV with the Red Chinese," in New York, where he lives. The film was screened this month at the Jerusalem Film Festival, at which Dotan chaired the judges panel in the competition for best Israeli feature film. At the conclusion of our talk, I asked Dotan how he defines himself as a film director from a nationality perspective.

Shimon Dotan
Emil Salman

This is a legitimate question, because Dotan's life and work led him from Romania, where he was born in 1949, to Israel, where he arrived at the age of 9. Following his studies in the first graduating class of the Department of Film and Television at Tel Aviv University (where I first met him ), he directed two highly regarded films - "Repeat Dive" (1982 ) and "The Smile of the Lamb" (1986 ) - then moved to the United States, then to Canada and finally back to the United States.

In reply to the question, Dotan said unhesitatingly that he classifies himself as an Israeli film director who works outside Israel.

Our paths parted after university. Naturally I saw the two films Dotan made in Israel, but I did not see any of the films he produced and directed in the United States and Canada. The last time I saw a film of his was in 2007, when his impressive documentary "Hot House" (which was awarded a special prize at the Sundance Festival ) was screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival. Now I have seen "Watching TV with the Red Chinese." I spoke with Dotan during his stay in Israel with the aim of trying to understand what he has done since our paths crossed nearly 40 years ago.

Deep dive

"I grew up in Moshav Arugot" - an agricultural cooperative - "and served in the Navy Seals," Dotan relates. "Until I reached the film department I had hardly seen any movies. Maybe once in a while I would go to Kfar Warburg to see an evening feature and fall asleep in the middle.

"For me," he continues, "studies in the film department were a formative experience. It was there that I acquired my cinematic education and there that I directed my first short film, as part of the directing workshop taught by David Perlov. Those were years of exciting discovery for me, years of such an extreme transition from what I had done before - in the village, in the navy - to artistic activity. I made another short, and then, not long after graduating, plunged into my first full-length feature, 'Repeat Dive,' which by its nature was one of the most powerful experiences of my life."

Dotan drew the story line of "Repeat Dive" - about a Navy Seal (Doron Nesher ) who marries the widow of his best friend (Liron Nirgad ) - from his own experiences in the navy. It's not a story that happened to him, he emphasizes, but he was familiar with similar stories. What was important for him to get across in the film was the disparity between the emotional paralysis of the commandos in their private lives and their activity in the armed forces. Indeed, for many of them, a military career is a kind of escape from the difficulties of coping with their personal life. The film represented Israel in the 1982 competition at the Berlin Film Festival.

"I was very surprised that people reacted well to the film," Dotan says, "because it was my first attempt at artistic creation and exposure and, not that I have tremendous self-confidence now, but then I had absolutely none. I also didn't have anything to compare the movie to, because the films I had seen until then were the ones we saw together at university, and most of them were in English, which I didn't yet speak, or in English translation. "After 'Repeat Dive' I ran into a wall, and the wall was to find a subject for my next film. It never occurred to me to make a film that did not stem from inner truth or from political involvement - namely, to testify about myself within the world in which I live. At the time I read a few chapters of David Grossman's 'The Smile of the Lamb' and I decided to base my next film on that book. I produced the film with a very small budget, and for the first time felt a disparity between what I wanted to do and the means available to me. Maybe it was a failure of a sort on my part, because in cinema you always have to find the right balance between what you want to do and the means you have to do it."

"The Smile of the Lamb" was also screened at the Berlin Film Festival, and the Turkish actor Tuncel Kurtiz, who played the lead role, won the festival's best actor award. However, the difficulties of producing the film prompted Dotan to change the course of his life and artistic career. "The film drew mixed reviews in Israel, some of them actually lethal, and I came out of the experience disenchanted," he relates. "Someone wrote that I was a 'coffee-house leftist,' and you have no idea how much that hurt me at the time, because I am really not like that. It's amazing how that comment has stayed with me to this day. People also recoiled at political movies at that time, which contributed to the fact that the film was not a success."

One for me, two for them

The "Smile" experience led Dotan to Los Angeles. "I was curious to see how films were made in the Mecca of the industry, or what I thought was the Mecca. I wanted to see how I could integrate into the film industry and not work in a place where for every new movie you feel you have to reinvent the wheel. But I did not go to Los Angeles thinking I would be able to make the films I really wanted to make. Before leaving, I read an interview with the Yugoslav director Dusan Makavejev in which he talked about the difficulty of being a non-American director trying to make films in America. But I told myself that the Czech director Milos Forman, who by then had already won an Oscar for 'One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest,' had succeeded. It took me a long time to understand that Forman was one of a kind.

"I didn't know a soul in Los Angeles and I didn't speak English," Dotan continues. "I also didn't realize that Los Angeles is a very cruel place, where if a secretary hears you speaking choppy English in a foreign accent she will not put the call through. I went through quite a few humiliations, but found an open door with Menahem Golan, who knew my work. In 1991, I directed a military action movie, 'The Finest Hour,' for the company Golan ran at the time, starring Rob Lowe, which was set partly against the background of the Gulf War."

Weren't you frightened of suddenly doing a film starring Rob Lowe? A film for which, as you yourself say, you were paid a higher salary than the entire budget for "The Smile of the Lamb"?

"No, I wasn't frightened. First of all, because the film, which is about Marine officers serving in the navy, was a kind of cousin to 'Repeat Dive,' and I knew I was familiar with the milieu in which it takes place. I was also certain of my ability to position a camera and direct a film.

"Los Angeles and the American film industry as a whole demand great determination, and that may be why so many Israelis do well there - because they have that determination. In the years I spent in Los Angeles, I expressed that side of my personality. At the same time, after directing my first film in the United States - and it was the first time I had done a film for someone else - I decided that I no longer wanted to be in a situation in which I was not in full control of the film I was making.

"After a year and a half in Los Angeles, I decided to move to Montreal with my family - my two children were still young - because I knew financing was available there. I thought they were just waiting for me and that the moment I arrived they would realize that the savior of the Canadian film industry had landed."

Dotan soon found that no one was waiting for him in Montreal. Producers took no interest in the personal products he pitched to them. He responded by establishing his own production company in partnership with a friend, a Hollywood producer named Etchie Stroh. He produced, and sometimes also directed, a series of action films starring actors such as Gary Busey, Michael Pare, William Shatner, Patrick Bergin, Pam Grier, Ryan O'Neal and Dolph Lundgren. Films of this kind, particularly the more popular ones, tend to possess a heavy-handed chauvinistic and militaristic dimension. Did Dotan find himself going through an inner conflict as a result?

"No, there was no conflict," he replies. "I don't regret having made those films and I even enjoyed doing them. It was a living, and first of all I saw the positive aspect of every project I was involved in. Still, at a certain stage I decided that I had to stop making movies I would not pay money to watch. At first, when I started to make those films, I thought I might be able to adopt the formula that the director Steven Soderbergh once articulated. He said that he tries to make 'one movie for them and one movie for me.' He then amended it to 'two movies for them and one movie for me.' But it doesn't work like that.

"When I decided to stop making action movies, one of the first films I did, in 1998, was 'You Can Thank Me Later,' based on a play by Oren Safdie. It's a drama about a Jewish family from Montreal that is awaiting the results of surgery undergone by the father of the family. It starred Ellen Burstyn, Amanda Plummer, Genevieve Bujold, Mary McDonnell and other fine actors. I shot it in 12 days and it went well. It's one of the films I am most proud of."

Perfect Israeli

Dotan then took a break from directing, produced four successive action films and returned to New York. Leaving the hothouse of producing action films was scary, he admits, but perhaps because of his experiences until then, beginning with the move from Romania to Israel, he was ready for a life on the move and constant change. In the first phase of his life he wanted to be "the perfect Israeli," which for him meant a military career ("to be chief of staff," he says, and laughs ), and afterward he pursued artistic ambitions, a choice foreign to the place he came from.

A few years ago, he says, he had to spend a lengthy period in Israel because his mother was ill, and he asked himself what he could do during this period. To make a feature film seemed too complicated, so he decided on a documentary, even though it was a genre he had never worked in (apart from two short documentaries included in a film collection together with works by Yehuda "Judd" Ne'eman, Yigal Bursztyn and Ram Loevy ). After seeing a television report about security prisoners in Israel, he decided to make that his subject. The result, "The Hot House," opened a new creative channel for him, Dotan says, and he is now looking for a subject for another documentary.

In the meantime, he was in Israel to screen his new feature film. "Watching TV with the Red Chinese," set in New York in 1980, deals with the developing relationship between a young American and three Chinese students who are in the United States on a student exchange program. The film's creative freedom differentiates it from most of the independent American films being made today, which tend to be quite standard in terms of style and plot structure.

"The independent American cinema was long ago hijacked by commercial cinema," Dotan says. "The trouble is that the majority of the most highly regarded film festivals today, including Sundance, are encouraging this tendency. What drew me to make this film, which is based on a novel by Luke Whisnant, is that it presents 'a fish out of water' story, namely, three Chinese students in New York. That is not exactly my existential experience, but I won't be surprised if one day, it will be the existential experience of every human being. The plot also raises the question of 'What would have happened if?' and I have always been interested in that, philosophically. I made the film with the assistance of my students at NYU, where I teach. I paid them $100 a day and did the film on a lower budget than I had for 'Repeated Dive' and slightly more than for 'The Smile of the Lamb.'"

Dotan agrees with me that the film's preoccupation with the difficulty of coexistence between people of different origins, races and cultures links it to "The Smile of the Lamb" and returns Dotan to his original ambition of making films about political issues that reflect the world in which he lives. "I can't say that was my intention," he notes, "but there is no doubt that the connection is there in the film, even if I hadn't actually thought about it until now."

What's next?

"I am working on a screenplay based on Amos Elon's biography of Theodor Herzl. It's unbelievable that the only film made so far about Herzl's life was done in 1921." W