The Israeli Cult Classic That's Banned From the Screen

Uri Zohar's 1970 movie, 'Hiromamut' has not been shown on screens big or small for years due to a battle over ownership rights.

"Ladies and gentlemen, good evening and good night," Uri Zohar says with a big smile. He looks straight into the camera and launches into a monologue which is a mixture of Italian and English, at a fast clip and with thundering pathos. "I am the director of a new Israeli film, 'Take Off,' the actor-director declares.

Zohar is dressed in a suit; dark sunglasses conceal his eyes and a thick beard covers his chin. "It is an international film, a provincial film. A film, ladies and gentlemen, of the great revolution sans revolutionaries. It is a film with a big problem, the eternal problem - the sexual problem," he declares, and then takes off his sunglasses, and continues excitedly: "It is a barbaric and brutal film, but also sentimental. It is a science film, science fiction, 2001 odyssey, 2,000,002 Oedipal complex. Obviously it is in Cinemascope and has all the rest of the nonsense. And also: This film is in color! In two colors: black and white. In short, it is a barbaric film, an Afro-Asian film, an Afro-sexual film. Forward! Avanti!"

That is a rough translation of the opening scene of "Take Off" - more popularly known as "Hitromamut," in Hebrew - a 1970 film by Zohar that presumably none of you has seen in recent years - nor will any time soon, apparently - at a local movie theater or on television. The film may have been made during one of Israeli cinema's most exciting eras, and by one of the greatest filmmakers ever to work here, but those who hold the rights to the work are convinced it is a flawed and superfluous piece, and have banned its screening.

In mid-October, the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris featured a 10-day retrospective of Uri Zohar's films, marking the first time this prestigious institution had offered such a tribute to an Israeli director. Most of Zohar's movies were shown - among them "Hole in the Moon," "Shlosha Yamim Veyeled," "Every Bastard a King," "Peeping Toms," "Einayim G'dolot," and "Hatzilu et Hamatzil," along with others related to his work - and there were discussions and lectures about his movies.

The curator of the retrospective, Dr. Ariel Schweitzer, a film historian and critic for the French magazine Cahiers du Cinema, recommended to the Cinematheque management that they also screen "Hitromamut." In that film, which stars the iconic Israeli comedy trio Hagashash Hahiver, it is possible to discern the influences the French New Wave movement had on Zohar's work, and Schweitzer believed this would be of interest to local viewers. The cinematheque concurred and decided to obtain permission to screen it.

Unlike most of Zohar's films - the rights to which are held by United King Films - it turned out that in this case, following the death of the producer Avraham Deshe (aka Pashanel ), the rights went to Hagashash Hahiver. The management of the Cinematheque Francaise approached Shaike Levi of Hagashash with a request to permit a one-time screening of the film. He refused.

"We, the producers and owners of the rights to the film 'Hitromamut,' are the only ones who can grant permission to do anything whatsoever under the sun with the film, and we do not permit anyone to make any use of it, for any purpose," Levi wrote.

The plot of the movie, conceived by Pashanel and with a screenplay by Talila Ben-Zakai, revolves around a beautiful young woman who walks into the office of a psychiatrist (Gavri Banai ) and announces that she is a bit abnormal. The psychiatrist ascertains that she is open to sexual experiences, and quickly summons his two best friends - a boutique owner (the late Yisrael Poliakov ) and a hairdresser (Levi ) - to a shared encounter with her, in the hope that it will evolve into a merry orgy, or what they call hitromamut.

The three friends tell their wives (played by Tsippi Shavit, Josie Katz and Tikva Mor ) all sorts of lies about where they are going, but after the designated beauty fails to show up, they decide on an alternative plan: to summon their wives to a wild evening of partner swapping. Instead of being horrified by the idea, the wives gladly accept it - and it is the men who get cold feet. Tensions erupt when it turns out that the wives are not as innocent as their spouses thought. Indeed, the women had long since enjoyed sexual encounters with the men's best buddies.

"We are ashamed of this film," Shaike Levi says now, explaining his refusal to allow its screening abroad, speaking also for Gavri Banai. "It was made during the era of the hippies. It is a film of which we are not proud, nor do we like the fact of our participation in it, and therefore we do not allow it to be broadcast or screened. From our standpoint, this film is nothing but offensive. Poli, of blessed memory, also said this ... We oppose screening this film. As far as we are concerned, let them dig a deep hole and bury it. We do not want it to enjoy any kind of revival or to give it a stage."

Levi recalls that the comic trio originally agreed to star in the movie "because we were very young and did everything Pashanel told us. But ultimately he didn't like the film either. It was bad and wasn't successful at the box office. It's just a movie that was influenced by the French cinema of that era, which wasn't necessarily a good thing."

"It was a nice idea that went bust, that turned into something wacky in the spirit of those times - flowers, drugs and so on," Levi continues. "Uri Zohar was a very talented director, who was trying to be very innovative, but it didn't turn out well. Pashanel was also very unhappy with this movie, and in retrospect agreed that it was an unnecessary financial expenditure. It was ... also artistically speaking. It was a whim of Uri Zohar, who was fooling around with Pashanel's money ... This film is not the [good old] Land-of-Israel idea that Hagashash Hahiver has always represented, but rather an exception that tried to show people outside that there was some kind of avant-garde here. But it's nonsense. We were the most successful [comedy] group in the country for nearly 50 years, and that is because we understood what's good and what isn't."

Stylized format

"Hitromamut" was shot on 16mm film in a highly stylized black and white format. The lighting was especially bright - some frames even seem to be overexposed.

"This movie is a real treat for a cinematographer," the film's cinematographer, David Gurfinkel, told Nili Friedlander of the Maariv daily in 1970. "Uri and I decided to cut loose, not to think about where the lighting was, or whether the shot would be precise. But at the same time, there is nothing random here."

The experimental and wild spirit of "Hitromamut" was also reflected in Zohar's loose handling of the plot. Instead of presenting a precise, linear sequence of events, he incorporated various stylized cinematic elements including hallucinations (about sexual encounters ) and flashbacks (of the three heroes' first sexual encounters ). Occasionally, he suspended the action by using narrative segments starring himself in the satiric role of an Italian film director, an arrogant and ambitious character who is out to impress the world. Zohar was also relating here to the European cinema of the '60s, expressing both his esteem for and also his reservations about it.

Ben-Zakai, the scriptwriter, recalls now that the film was very bold for its time. "You began to hear then that in the wider world there were swinging couples' evenings, but here nobody spoke about such things. Pasha began to toss around the idea of a nice comedy about that, and from there it evolved into a script that was pleasant but a little daring. But in the end the [characters of the] Gashashim back down from their original plan, and all the daring remains in the realm of the imagination, and is not put into practice.

"The atmosphere during the shoot was so merry - and I don't want to go into details about what led to that merriment - that nobody thought about the continuity [of the plot] per se," Ben-Zakai explains. "The film was not made in an exemplary fashion, because on the set everyone brought his own ideas. Zohar was very cheerful and high. Mainly, he was an improviser. He wasn't really interested in the script. He used it merely as something to lean on. He blossomed during filming, with all of his imagination and humor and wildness, and nobody had any intention of stopping him."

After filming, according to Ben-Zakai, when Zohar realized that the material he had shot was insufficient to carry the film, he sought a solution: "Some glue had to be found to hold everything together, and it was then suggested that Uri would be the narrator. When they went to shoot those segments, the wildness reached a climax. To my mind, what he did with these bits is a masterpiece, extraordinary stand-up, with the humor and the accent and the gleam in his eyes."

'Slightly outlandish'

For his part, Gurfinkel says he has a different view of the film today. "I was a young cinematographer back then. [The movie] was a reaction by Pashanel, who didn't like what we had done with 'Perah Bamanoa' ['Flower in the Engine,' a film that Gurfinkel and Zohar shot but which was never finished] and really wanted Uri to make this movie. It was sort of a slightly outlandish statement, very youthful, that was meant to be an alternative to everything we had done before. Uri and I were very young, and when we got the chance to break all the rules one more time, after 'Hole in the Moon' [an avant-garde work made in 1964], we didn't want to pass it up."

Noting that "Hitromamut" was a low-budget film shot in 12 days, Gurfinkel adds, laughing: "I remember something Poli said at the time: 'It was the most expensive party I ever went to.' Every movie Uri directed was, for the cast and crew, a sort of party ... We enjoyed going wild then, but I was too young at the time to understand how wrong I was. Today I do not feel there is room for the camera to be so present, aggressive and wild; in my eyes, as someone who 'serves' the film, it is an incorrect approach for the camera. So that even if the freedom we were given at the time was pleasurable in a certain way, I take back the things I said in that [Maariv] interview."

The renewed interest of late in "Hitromamut" is, he feels, an attempt "to awaken a movie that fell deeply asleep long ago, but should maybe have stayed that way." Nevertheless, and despite his current reservations about the film and its cinematography, Gurfinkel opposes movies being locked away: "I am not happy that films are banned, and it makes no difference whether or not it's a film I shot. I don't think there is scope for this, even if the movies are considered a failure. After all, there is something to be learned from failure, too. I learned from films on which I failed in my job no less than from those on which I succeeded."

"Hitromamut" is one of the works produced in Israel as part of the New Sensitivity movement that developed locally in the 1960s and '70s, in reaction to the Zionist cinema that had previously dominated; as mentioned, this local movementwas influenced by French New Wave cinema.

"Aesthetically speaking, this is one of Zohar's most radical films, and in terms of its aesthetic audacity, it ought to be cataloged alongside 'Hole in the Moon,'" cinema scholar Schweitzer explains. "But in this case Zohar incorporated actors from the world of popular entertainment, apparently as a way to persuade Pashanel to invest in the project. So this film is a hybrid: It is radical from an aesthetic standpoint, but Zohar also sold it to Pashanel as a project with sex scenes and with the biggest stars of that period. It's basically the first time Hagashash appears in a role that is contrary to their image until then.

"Already in 1970 this film takes an ironic view of the values of the sexual revolution, Israeli machismo and the problems with male-female relations in Israeli life. It is a satire that also relates both to the values of Israeli society and the values of the sexual revolution," he adds

In "Hitromamut," Schweitzer continues, "there are fascinating contrasts that mirror the evolution of Uri Zohar's cinema, which moves between popular cinema and bold and radical cinema. Zohar went from commercial films that he made to order ... to auteur films, such as 'Shlosha Yamim Veyeled.' His cinema constitutes an interface between many elements, it depicts all of the contrasts, and that is the reason for his overall success. He knew how to read the Israeli film 'map' correctly."

Schweitzer admits he was bitterly disappointed when Shaike Levi refused to allow "Hitromamut" to be shown at the recent retrospective.

"If I thought this film demeaned any of those who are in it, I would not have asked [them] to screen it," he said a few weeks ago. "But I think it is a fascinating film and the Cinematheque Francaise people also think so. It is an important film in Uri Zohar's career, and as such it should have been in the retrospective in Paris, thanks to the dialogue in which it engages with the French cinema of that period. It pains me greatly that we cannot screen it, because I know there will not be another retrospective like this one, and I really wanted Zohar's most important films to be shown there."

"The big question is who owns the film," Schweitzer says now. "The rights fell into the hands of the Hagashash Hahiver, true, but on the other hand this film belongs to the Israeli cinematic heritage. So, does Hagashash Hahiver have the right to bury this film? Not to mention the fact that it was shown at movie theaters in the past, and was also broadcast on television a number of times. And there are pirated copies of it in circulation."