The Book of Rachel

His movie was considered unpatriotic, 'primitive,' and too sexy. It was denied government financing and blasted by local critics. Its director went bankrupt and left the country. But 50 years later, Nuri Habib still dreams of making a film in Israel.

In the summer of 1960, "Rachel," a film directed by a young Iraqi immigrant named Nuri Habib, opened at the Ophir Theater - a Tel Aviv movie theater long since gone. It didn't make money and the director went bankrupt, leaving Israel to continue his film career in New York.

The film had caused a furor in the young State of Israel. The censorship board tried to ban it, the state denied the financial support the film was entitled to, conservatives were appalled, the critics panned it and the newspapers had a field day. The controversy over the movie, which deals with a young prostitute and her struggle to mend her life, even reached the Knesset.

No physical trace remains of the film, and some say this is not by chance. The negative and all the copies disappeared mysteriously a few years after the premiere. No vestige of it exists in film archives. Some of the film's participants are no longer alive, and those who are retain only scraps of memory and vague emotional recollections. Many local cinema buffs have no idea what became of the director. Even stills from the film are hard to come by.

The quest for "Rachel" exposes the rifts in Israeli society at the time and the dark underside of the proud Zionist endeavor; illustrates the dire straits of the nascent local film industry; and contains a lesson about the problematic nature of censorship.

Nuri Habib was tracked down a few weeks ago in New York, where he lives with his wife, Rachel Tatrako, who starred in the film. A pioneer of Israeli cinema, Habib almost singlehandedly established a well-equipped film studio here, believing fervently that he could kick-start the local film industry. He wanted to make films that would give a voice to population groups that had not been represented on Israeli movie screens until then. But unlike other local cinema pioneers, Habib came from Iraq, not Europe, and in the Israel of the 1950s and 1960s not everyone thought his ethnic background was compatible with a brave new cinematic world.

Habib was born in Baghdad to a wealthy family. "Today our property would probably be worth $20 million," he says in a phone conversation from his home in New York. He declines to reveal his age ("You know, I am still working and I never stopped working, so what do I care how old I am?"). People who know him say he is in his mid-eighties. At the age of 20 he set up a film studio in Baghdad, but nine years later, in the wake of a pogrom in the city, Habib fled to Iran. There, he says, he established four studios and directed 10 films.

After immigrating to Israel in 1954, Habib and three of his brothers established a film studio in Herzliya. From the outset there were hints of the cold shoulder he would get from the Ashkenazi elite. In their book "The Hebrew Film," Nathan and Ya'acov Gross relate that the owner of the competing studio in Herzliya, Margot Klausner, was furious, and scolded the mayor for having the effrontery to give the Habib brothers a business license for a studio in the city. An article in the pro-government newspaper Davar on September 23, 1955, stated: "My inquiries about Habib Films among friends in the film association turned up nothing. A skeptical and mocking smile crossed the lips of serious people when I mentioned the name Habib. No one believed that anything serious is cooking there."

Mizrahi woes

But Habib persisted and was soon hard at work on his first film in Israel. "B'ein Moledet" (Lacking a Homeland), completed in 1956, broke new ground in the local film industry. Besides being the first Israeli film shot in color, it was also the first with a storyline dealing with immigrants from Arab lands rather than from Europe. Moreover, its cinematic language was influenced by the Arab cinema.

"In all the films I had seen, not one was about the Oriental communities, about how much they suffered, the pogroms they endured, how they fought and discarded everything in order to get to Israel, and all their ordeals on the way," Habib says. "I wanted to show the world the great suffering undergone by the Mizrahim [Jews from the Middle East and North Africa] before they got to Israel. True, the Jews in Europe also suffered, but at the time no one took any notice of what the Mizrahim went through. Their homes and property were also taken, and many of them were killed. When I was 12 there was a large-scale pogrom in Iraq in which many Jews were killed and their bodies thrown into a ditch without names or anything, and no one made a movie about that. I wanted to make that movie."

Habib wrote a screenplay about Jews from Yemen who are persecuted by their Arab neighbors and set out for Israel on foot. After an exhausting trek in the desert wastes they finally reach the Promised Land. The lead roles were played by the diva Shoshana Damari and the renowned actor Shaike Ophir. "I chose Shoshana Damari because I wanted an actress who was also a singer. I wanted it to be a film about the troubles of the Mizrahim, but also a film that would make people happy," Habib laughs.

"B'ein Moledet" did well in Israel and was also released in the U.S. For his next film, Habib chose a subject that was even more unusual. Contrary to most Israeli films of the time, "Rachel" did not convey a patriotic Zionist message. Instead, it was a crime melodrama with a social message that sought to make the public aware of the existence of a deprived underclass in Israel's cities.

Habib's screenplay (based on a story by an English writer, Richard O'Hare), was about a village girl, Rachel, who, fed up with life in the country, leaves home to seek her fortune in the big city. There she falls in with hoodlums and prostitutes and becomes pregnant by a hashish smuggler who throws her out when he tires of her. In the end, after the police arrest some of the criminals and liquidate others, Rachel is released from prison, falls in love with the police officer who arrested her, and returns with him to her village.

In contrast to "B'ein Moledet," which had high production values and featured big names in the lead roles, "Rachel" was shot in black and white on a very low budget and almost exclusively used actors who were barely professional. Habib had no other choice: he was in serious financial straits after losing a great deal of money on "B'ein Moledet." According to newspaper reports of the time, that film cost 300,000 Israel pounds - all the money Habib had brought with him from Iran - and he took a private loan of 25,000 pounds as well. At the box office, the film took in less than the loan, leaving Habib without a key source of income he had counted on.

In 1954, the Knesset had passed a law to boost the local film industry. It stipulated that every Israeli film would receive low-interest loans and tax rebates based on the number of tickets sold at the box office. However, Habib did not get even a pound for either "B'ein Moledet" or "Rachel."

The official in charge of implementing the legislation, Asher Hirschberg (who was also head of the Film Review Board - the committee of censors), promised at a public symposium in 1958 that Habib would get a loan to finish "Rachel" and that the money for "B'ein Moledet" would also be forthcoming. But no money ever arrived. "Rachel" was produced in austere conditions and Habib and his family were driven to the brink of hunger.

It is particularly infuriating that Habib did not get the tax rebates, whereas others received the state benefits stipulated by law. "I wanted to make a completely Israeli movie," Habib says. "All the journalists encouraged me. And I really was the first to make an all-Israeli film. The producer, director, screenwriter, the actors - all were Israelis. I did not bring in people from Europe or America, like others did. I had my studio and I made my movies, which were Israeli from A to Z. Despite that, many obstacles were placed in my path."

Irresistible charisma

Though reeling from the economic difficulties, Habib was determined to make "Rachel." To play the lead role he chose a young woman who had captivated him when she did a screen test for "B'ein Moledet": Rachel Tatrako, a dancer from Nahariya. "Many people auditioned for the movie, but he saw me and said: 'That's what I need,'" says Rachel Tatrako-Habib, the director's wife for more than 50 years, from their home in New York. "I was a ballet dancer in Haifa at the time, and by chance a girlfriend from the company told me that auditions were being held for dancers to perform in 'B'ein Moledet.' She wanted me to come with her to Tel Aviv. I told her we weren't actresses, but she insisted. While she was auditioning, I happened to walk past a balcony where Nuri was sitting with Yair Burla [who wrote the dialogue for "B'ein Moledet"]. When he saw me he just gaped, until finally Burla told him to close his mouth," she laughs. "I had no interest in being in the film, but afterward, when he made 'Rachel,' he thought I was right for the part."

The chef Uri Yirmias (owner of Uri Buri, a well-known fish restaurant in Acre) spent time on the set of "Rachel" as a child, accompanying his father, Binyamin Yirmias, who acted in the film. "We lived in Nahariya at the time," Yirmias recalls. "Rachel [Tatrako] stayed with us occasionally, and Habib followed in her wake. He told my father he was 'just right' for the movie and cast him as a grim farmer, the father of the heroine, Rachel. Even if the movie was no great masterpiece, I remember Habib as a man with tremendous drive."

Margalit Lahav (formerly Shmidt), who was a girl of 6 at the time, played Rachel's younger sister. She relates that Tatrako, who arrived in Israel from Poland as a teenage orphan after the war, spent a considerable amount of time at her parents' home in Nahariya. After Tatrako met Habib, the entire Shmidt family pitched in to get "Rachel" made. "He had no resources," Lahav recalls, "but he had irresistible charisma. He could get people to do amazing things for him, and he infected us all with his enthusiasm. My parents collected people from Nahariya for the movie, and when Nuri said he needed a village house with a yard for the film, my father found a family to let him use their house - for free, of course."

The only professional actor on the set was David Ram, who had had stage roles in some of Israel's leading theaters, including Habima and the Cameri. In the film he plays the policeman with whom Rachel falls in love. Ram relates that he traveled from Tel Aviv to Haifa - where the city scenes in the train were shot - at his own expense, bringing sandwiches from home.

"I was a young actor at the time, and I took every part offered to me," he says. "I remember that toward the end of the movie, there was a scene in which I pursued a criminal, which we shot in the Haifa port, at a height of dozens of meters. While trying to escape, the criminal climbs onto a bridge between silos, and I give chase and shoot at him."

But Ram's relations with Habib soured. Meir Zarchi, who wrote the dialogue for the film (he now lives in California), recalls that one day, after most of the film had been shot, Habib told him: "'There's a problem. I have to shoot a few more scenes, but David Ram doesn't want to work on the film anymore.' He asked me to speak to him urgently. I went to Habima Theater and found David backstage. But when I explained why I had come, he informed me that under no circumstances would he return to the film and that he would not work with Nuri again. I told him that if he did not come back he would ruin the whole movie for Nuri. But he made it clear to me that he was finished with the project."

According to Ram, Habib paid him less than the sum he had been promised. "The relations between us were so strained that I said: 'What do I need this for? Let him pay, let him not pay, I don't care anymore.'"

Covered with a sheet

In 1960, despite all the difficulties, Habib had a final cut. But he did not know that his biggest battles lay ahead. As required, he sent the film to the Film Review Board, headed by Hirschberg, and was astounded to learn that "Rachel" had been banned. Lacking connections in the corridors of power, Habib turned to the press. The muckraking weekly Haolam Hazeh rallied to the cause. In its June 6, 1960, issue, the magazine published the director's protest against the censors' verdict. In the article, Habib relates that the censors had explained their reasons for banning the film in a phone conversation. "Where have you seen a story like this in Israel?" they asked him. "Where in Israel is there a girl who runs away from home and people who smuggle hashish?" They also complained that "too many people are killed in the movie. It is impossible to show people being killed in an Israeli movie." Moreover, viewers "will think we are a country of criminals." Worse yet, Habib was told, there was "too much sex" in the film.

Fifty years on, Habib still gets worked up when he talks about "Rachel" and his battle against those who attacked the film. Speaking in Hebrew interspersed with English in an Iraqi accent, he says he is still furious at the treatment he received. "After all, in the film I showed that people who do bad things end up in jail or are killed. I showed that drugs are bad," he says. "Then they asked me why I showed that the streets of Haifa were dirty. So what if I showed that the streets are dirty? It's just a movie. And besides, when I shot there the streets really were dirty. 'Rachel' is a realistic film. At the time, many similar movies were made all over the world. People wanted to see harsh, distressing images. That is why I shot the movie in black and white, instead of color: so it would get under your skin."

A week after the article in Haolam Hazeh, "Rachel" was the subject of a discussion in the Knesset, where the Interior Committee, after viewing the film, considered whether a ban was justified. "Technically, the movie is very bad (the sound, the acting, etc.), and there are few hopes for its success, but there is no reason to ban it," the deputy interior minister, Y.S. Ben Meir, summed up. In the wake of this, "Rachel" was approved for screening in movie theaters. However, for the first time in Israel's history, it was decided to restrict a film: only viewers aged 16 years or more would be allowed to see "Rachel."

What was considered a daring sex scene 50 years ago in Israel? "God in heaven, you couldn't see anything," Habib says. "Rachel was wrapped in a sheet and you saw a little leg and a little above the breasts. I mean, really. And that was important, because I wanted to show that she was mischievous, revolutionary, daring." The scene was shot in his Herzliya studio, he says, and Tatrako even wore a bathing suit under the sheet. He swears that the whole scene was no more than a few seconds long.

The premiere was set for July 17, 1960, at the Ophir Theater in Tel Aviv. Again, though, Habib had no idea that the bureaucrats in charge of cultivating Israeli cinema had another surprise in store for him. "They told me they would not allow the poster for the film in the theater lobby to be lit up at night. Come on," Habib laughs. "It was a huge poster that showed Rachel standing under a street lamp, wearing short, provocative clothes and soliciting men to pick her up, you know. But it was just a poster! I said I objected, so what did the official in charge do? The day before [the premiere] he sent a letter to the movie theater forbidding them to illuminate the poster. So there was no time to do anything about it."

The reviews were awful. Haaretz wrote that "Rachel" was "artistically poor" and "the technical workmanship terrible." Davar asserted: "There is no point in even talking about art of this level, and the technical workmanship is as primitive as primitive can be." The mass-circulation Maariv concurred: "'Rachel' is a combined product of lack of culture, lack of knowledge and lack of ability, wholly stamped with gross primitiveness."

Perhaps "Rachel" was really not a good film, but without a copy, there is no way to judge. However, the repeated use of the pejorative term "primitive" suggests that ethnic discrimination was involved. Did the censors' assault on "Rachel" and the authorities' persistent refusal to give Habib the financial help due to him originate, at least in part, in discrimination stemming from the director's ethnic origin?

"Of course it did - otherwise why did all the others get the rebates and only he did not? Because he made a movie without a plow and a tractor and kibbutzim?" Zarchi says. "It's true that he was no Fellini or De Sica, but he came to Israel with a great desire to establish something. The majority in Israel was Ashkenazi at the time, and their attitude was: 'These Iraqis, what do they know, what can they possibly do? Arab movies? Persian movies?' Even taking into account his lack of talent as a film director - and with time he recognized this, stopped directing and became a superb cinematographer - he tried, and it makes no difference how good or bad the result was, because he broke new ground for others. He created an opening for the film industry in Israel and was the first to make a movie that did not include Zionism.

"But his work was not accepted in Israel," Zarchi continues. "After he made his movies without asking for anything from the state authorities, they pushed him into a corner and said: 'You have nothing coming to you.' The money should be paid to him now with compound interest! It's an absolute disgrace. And why? Only because he didn't show pine trees at the entrance to a kibbutz and pioneers picking lemons?"

Tatrako-Habib likewise believes that the Israeli establishment shunned Habib only because his work did not conform to the ardently Zionist cinema of the time. "'Rachel,'" she says, "was the first realistic movie made in Israel. But the reactions at the time were: 'Hey, we're Zionists, so where do you get off making a thing like this?' Until then all the Israeli movies were like 'Hill 24 Doesn't Answer,' revolving around the War of Independence. That's why 'B'ein Moledet' was accepted - it showed people coming from Yemen on foot. 'Rachel' was ahead of its time. Nuri made films that people did not yet understand. Films like that were accepted in Israel at that time only if they came from Italy or France. But they were considered inappropriate for us to make. People thought: 'How come an Israeli girl is shown covered by a sheet? After all, she's not Brigitte Bardot and we are not in France.'"

The journalist and film researcher David Shalit met with Hirschberg several times in the three years before the former chief film censor died in 2002. "I never heard him make a racist remark or refer in any way to the ethnic element," Shalit says. "But he was part of a ruling establishment that excluded the Mizrahim and decided who would make movies here, and about what. It's not by chance that all the Israeli and Hollywood movies that were shot in Israel until the 1970s dealt with Israelis of European descent or with natives who looked like Paul Newman. Hirschberg was the 'guardian of the gate.' It was important for him to promote the local film industry, which was then in its infancy, but he knew what would be accepted and what would not.

"One of the clauses in the law for the encouragement of Israeli films stipulated that a film would not be recognized if the story did not meet a particular moral code. 'Rachel' did not meet that code. It was about prostitutes and procurers and smoking hashish - the natural materials of a film industry, but not in Israel of that period. Until the 1970s there was no Mizrahi on the Film Review Board, meaning the censorship [apparatus]. In other words, even if a film was produced and was approved as an Israeli work, it was in danger of being banned by the censors. Hirschberg was certainly actively involved in this; that was the system in which he operated and which he served."

Habib himself prefers to think it was not ethnic discrimination that motivated the cinema establishment. "I don't know," he says. "I was told that it was all because I am a Mizrahi, but I don't think so. My best friends were Ashkenazim and all the journalists wrote against Hirschberg, claiming he was only destroying me and not touching others."

Empty studio

Despite his ordeal with "Rachel" and his dire financial situation, Habib started shooting a third film, also starring Tatrako. In an article she published in Haolam Hazeh a month after the premiere of "Rachel," Tatrako announced that she would disrobe in the new movie, too. Because Habib did not receive the tax rebates accruing to him, she explained, their only recourse was "to rely on formulas of melodramas and sex movies which have proved themselves elsewhere."

Habib estimates that half a million Israel pounds of his money went down the drain during his years in the country. He was left penniless. A reporter from the mass-circulation newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth who visited him in September 1961 wrote that "there is hardly any food in the house" and quoted Habib as saying: "It's a good thing we still get invited to weddings, [because] at every wedding we can eat enough for a few days." Production of the new film was halted, and when he received a job offer in the United States, he and his family moved there.

In 1962, he relates, he was informed that his studio in Herzliya had been burgled and that the negative of "Rachel" was among the items stolen. "I came to Israel a few months later and the studio was empty. The sound equipment, editing machines, lighting, cameras - everything was gone. The truth is that I broke into tears. Not because everything was gone, but because I still wanted to return and start over in Israel, so my children would grow up there, and I saw the whole plan falling apart. To this day I don't know who did it and why."

Habib stayed in the United States and worked as a cinematographer and directing consultant. A few years later, during another visit to Israel, he asked the distributor of "Rachel," Malach Films (now defunct), for the three copies of the film. He was told, he says, that the copies had disappeared and no one knew where they were. The Israel Film Archive in Jerusalem tried in the past to track down the movie, but in vain, and an attempt by Haaretz met the same fate. The owners of the distribution company are no longer alive, and apparently no one knows what happened to the movie.

Surprisingly, Habib insists that he does not bear a grudge against anyone and declares repeatedly that he is still an ardent Zionist and loves Israel. "I was never angry at anyone. I even went to Israel a few times to see if I could start afresh, but I saw that I couldn't, because everything there is expensive now. So I just stayed here. I dream about making a movie in Israel one day. It would be about an Israeli hero - for example, I would very much like to make a movie about Yosef Trumpeldor [who died defending the settlement of Tel Hai in 1920]. If it were possible, you would see me at the airport tomorrow. Even if I was called bad names in Israel, I have already forgotten them. But do you know what? The government of Israel still owes me money," he laughs. W