On the Outside, Looking in

His own feelings of being slighted by the local cinema establishment spurred filmmaker Dror Reshef to produce a sensitive work about people thrust into the margins of society

The heroine of the film "Mi Ata Bishvili" ("Who Are You to Me" ) is Anya, a delicate young girl who suffers from a mental disability, but has an independent, full life. She lives alone in her own apartment, works as a cleaner in a large office building and is a regular participant in a community theater group run by Akim, the National Association for the Habilitation of the Mentally Handicapped in Israel.

One day Anya meets a rather strange young man. He tries to get into the building where she works, but a guard prevents him from entering. With no other alternative, the man asks her to help him. Gradually, a friendship develops between the two - a friendship that can ostensibly rescue each from their own social isolation.

Who Are You to Me

"Who Are You to Me," which premiered last week at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, is a sensitive and courageous work that trains the spotlight on characters from the margins of society. Filmmaker Dror Reshef not only chose an unusual subject for his film, but also an independent, challenging and unusual way of making it: by skirting the local, established cinema industry.

In parallel, Reshef was involved in and also closely observed the greatest successes in local filmmaking in the past year: He edited Shlomi Eldar's "Hayim Yekarim" ("Precious Life" ), which was on the short list of nominees for the Oscar for best documentary (but did not make it to the final stage ). He is also the life partner of Yael Hersonski, who made "Shtikat Ha'archion" ("A Film Unfinished" ), which garnered much international praise and many prizes in the last year.

Reshef, 39, completed his studies at the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem about 10 years ago. He then went to Madrid, where he was the personal assistant of famed Spanish acting teacher Jorge Eines; upon returning to Israel, he began working on the script for his first feature film. He invested four years in working on the script; he also applied to the two main local film foundations for financial assistance but was turned down. He filmed three scenes and pitched them to one of the television companies, but did not get the support he sought.

"They said to me, 'It's terrific, but forget about a film. Let's make a series of this' ... So I decided to drop it," he says in a recent interview in Tel Aviv. "In the face of all those closed doors, I decided to veer off and do something completely new. I decided I was going to make a film that I could produce on my own."

He realized he would have to make a modest movie - an independently funded, low-budget production. Therefore he abandoned the script he had in hand, and started writing a new one. He says he wrote the skeleton of "Who Are You to Me" quickly, within about a week.

Dror Reshef
David Bacha

Reshef: "I think this script is really a reflection of what I myself was feeling then. I felt like an outsider because I understood that I apparently would not be able to make films in Israel. I took that feeling as far as I could, and chose the most extreme example of a character of someone who doesn't have a chance of integrating into this society. I decided to make a film in which the heroine is a disabled girl who meets a former high-techie - a man who, until not long beforehand, had been in the mainstream but was thrown right out to the margins - and some kind of connection develops between them, on the basis of being outsiders."

At the end of 2008, Reshef recruited a professional crew and a cast of young actors, who all agreed to work on a volunteer basis. He invested a modest sum from his own pocket ("a few tens of thousands of dollars" ) and quickly got to work.

"For me, this production was like a master's thesis in film, because I was the producer, but also the scriptwriter and director. I wore the hats of three people with three entirely different jobs, who had to conduct a dialogue among themselves the whole time - and this was very difficult. I literally divided the day up so that for two hours I was a director, for two hours a scriptwriter and two hours a producer. What was good about this arrangement was that all were working for one another in perfect coordination and this also became a kind of advantage," he notes.

Immediately after recruiting his crew, Reshef and the two main actors - the impressive Hila Meckier and Lior Doron - embarked on a long period of rehearsals and research; Reshef also worked with them on improvisation techniques. Among other things, they observed activities at a club run by Enosh (the Israel Mental Health Association ) and the Akim theater group, members of which also appear in the film.

"At first we just observed them and gradually Hila started to mingle with them. That was the direction: We would come to a rehearsal and she in effect would become one of them. They accepted her in an amazing way and also helped and gave her tips," Reshef explains. "In the first stage we focused on her physicality, then on entering into the mind of the person with a disability."

The filming lasted for two weeks and was done mostly at a friend's house, relates Reshef. The editing was done at home and work on the film was completed within just a year - even though Reshef was also working, full-time, as an editor on Channel 10 news. At the end of 2009, with the completed film in hand, he left his job in order to accompany the film on its rounds of the festivals - such as those in Milan, China, Russia and Brazil, where it won a compliment from renowned German filmmaker Werner Herzog, notes Reshef.

"He delivered a speech there, talked about cinema today, its commercial aspects and he mentioned this film as a very courageous and extraordinary move. Dear Werner," smiles Reshef. "It was heartwarming, really nice."

During the time Reshef was working on "Who Are You to Me," his partner Hersonski was working on her debut cinematic work. But while his movie evolved into a particularly low-budget indie production, Hersonski and "A Film Unfinished" were the recipients of especially impressive funding thanks to local foundation support and European partners.

Did this gap create tensions between you as a couple?

Reshef: "There is a shared feeling of coexistence. I learned from her how things go along the highway, but as for me, I traveled far on a side road, a dirt road, which is nice, it's fun, in a rickety coach. With them, the others, they travel fast, it's forbidden to go under 120 - and that's fine, it's amazing. But this gap also creates a certain illusion, because each of us experiences a difficulty. That is coexistence ... Each of us has our own way. This is mine and that is hers - and they are right for each of us."

Has the extraordinary success of "A Film Unfinished" abroad made you envious?

"I am very, very glad her film is succeeding, it is excellent. Yael is succeeding because she deserves to. She is brilliant. Success might be a bit annoying in the case of people you think don't deserve it, but in her case it's amazing."

Reshef first became acquainted with Shlomi Eldar at Channel 10, where Reshef edited Eldar's story on efforts to save the life of a baby boy from the Gaza Strip, who was hospitalized in Israel for a bone marrow transplant. That was the report that gave rise to the film "Precious Life." Afterward, he says, it was clear to both of them that Reshef would edit Eldar's film.

Reshef says the film's success has not surprised him: "Success is like a hug, but a hug that can't last for a long time because otherwise you lose all sensation. After this hug your skin is still warm, but that's it. What next? At a festival in China I met Isabelle Huppert, an actress who in my opinion is one of the greatest in Europe today, and had a conversation with her. She was about to start some film and frustrated about another one ... and [after our talk] I understood it has no end - that success isn't enough.

"Therefore, in my opinion, it's preferable to focus on the process. As I see it, cinema is a journey. The result is, of course, important, but the way you get there is the main thing. Because along this way, you learn a lot of things about yourself and about the world."