Remembering the Only Israeli Director to Ever Win an Oscar

The films of the Egypt-born director Moshé Mizrahi, who died Friday, sparked a cinematic revolution in Israel. His sensitive work was in sharp contrast to the ‘bourekas films’ he loathed

Moshé Mizrahi in 2015. “I think the fact that I won the Oscar wasn’t good for me in Israel."
David Bachar

“Since my films tackled relations between Ashkenazim and Sephardim differently [referring to European Jews and those of Spanish, Middle Eastern or North African origin, respectively], I suffered throughout my career from a lack of understanding on the part of both the Israeli establishment and the critics.

“For years, I wasn’t included in the narrative of Israeli cinema – and I really have no idea why. I have no idea how one can speak about the history of Israeli cinema without including my films. It’s possible that because of my biography, which led me from Alexandria to Jerusalem to Paris, I appear to be a foreigner. But, unless I’m mistaken, the films I make aren’t foreign.”

These were the words of director Moshé Mizrahi when I interviewed him in 2009. He passed away on Friday at age 86.

No, Mizrahi was not mistaken. The films he directed in Israel – of which there are many, but especially “I Love You Rosa” (1972), and “The House on Chelouche Street” and “Daughters, Daughters” (both 1973) – are milestones in the history of Israeli cinema. Their quality even heralded the revolution in Israeli cinema in the present century.

They were created in the midst of a wave of comedies dubbed “bourekas films” – comedies that flooded Israeli movie theaters at the time and were mostly concerned with relations between Ashkenazim and Sephardim.

‘Disgusting film’

But there was a huge difference between Mizrahi’s films and those movies. In the same interview, he told me that the manner in which Sephardim – now more commonly known as Mizrahim – were presented during that period actually deterred him. He said it was “a disgrace” that they became cult films.

Reserve soldiers waiting to be collected to serve in the Israeli army during the Yom Kippur war in front of a poster of Mizrahi's 1973 film "Daughters, Daughters."
HERMAN CHANANIA / GPO

“What does [Budapest-born filmmaker Ephraim] Kishon know about Mizrahim?” he asked, adding that “Sallah Shabati” – about a Yemenite Jewish family immigrating to Israel – was “a disgusting film in the way it presented Jews from Arab countries.”

Mizrahi directed his three most prominent Israeli films upon his return from France, where he had gone to study film.

He directed his first film in 1970 – an Israeli-French coproduction called “The Customer of the Off Season” (“Ore’ach B’onah Meta”). The film was never distributed in Israel, but was accepted to the Berlin International Film Festival and received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It was about the commander of a concentration camp near Lyon, who after the war pretends to be Jewish, immigrates to Israel and settles in Eilat. The film was based on several similar stories that were circulating in Israel at the time.

The following year, Mizrahi directed his first French film, “Sophie’s Ways,” based on the novel by Christiane Rochefort. The film, which wasn’t seen in Israel until a copy was later screened in cinematheques, told the story of a liberated and opinionated young woman whose bourgeois husband tries to get her to accept his patriarchal worldview.

Mizrahi was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1931. He, his widowed mother and his brother (who was killed in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence) immigrated to Israel in 1946 and the family settled in Jaffa. His mother was the family’s sole breadwinner, and the depiction of strong and independent women was a key component in his films.

He was then sent to a kibbutz belonging to the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement; he remembered his time there as a positive experience, quitting school at age 14. He later recounted that, in 1950, he went to France for the first time as an emissary of the Jewish Agency and Hashomer Hatzair. He also had a “short story,” as he put it, with the Mossad, which wanted to send him to Egypt. While waiting for the call from the espionage agency, Mizrahi spent most of his time in the Cinémathèque Française. He had always loved films, but it was here he discovered the importance of the director in creating a film and the fact that cinema was art.

Upon his return to Israel – after another stay in Paris while he studied film there – Mizrahi didn’t consciously think of creating an alternative to the bourekas comedies.

A scene from the Oscar-winning "Madame Rosa."
Lira Films / Warner Bros.

“I wasn’t aware that the Mizrahim in my films were, finally, not being portrayed as caricatures. I was so far removed from the ‘bourekas’ genre. My family was never the way Mizrahi families were portrayed in those films. I didn’t want to prove anything,” he explained. “I wanted to make personal films. Films that moved me.

“Although I’m a very political person in my private life, I never thought of using cinema as a political tool – although I believe that every film is political,” he added.

“I Love You Rosa” tells the story of a young widow (Michal Bat-Adam, who became Mizrahi’s second wife and was married to him until his death), who, according to halakha (Jewish religious law), had to marry the brother of her dead husband – even though the brother (Gabi Otterman) was only 11.

“The House on Chelouche Street” is about a teenager (Ofer Shalhin) during the British Mandate period. As in Mizrahi’s own life, the protagonist’s mother (Gila Almagor) is a widow from Egypt who supports her family by herself and lives in the Neveh Tzedek neighborhood of Tel Aviv.

“Daughters, Daughters,” meanwhile, focuses on a father (Shaike Ophir) with nine daughters, who longs for a boy so there will be someone to say the Kaddish prayer at his funeral.

His finest hour

“I Love You Rosa” was selected for the Cannes Film Festival and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. “The House on Chelouche Street” was also an Academy Award nominee, while “Daughters, Daughters” also competed at Cannes. These are achievements that haven’t been matched since by any other Israeli director.

These were delicate and beautiful films that, even when describing traumatic events, never veered toward the sensational. And even if they included comic elements, they always avoided edging into vulgarity.

Mizrahi’s next film, the 1975 biblical drama “Rachel’s Man,” was a failure. The eclectic cast included Bat-Adam, Hollywood legend Mickey Rooney, Avner Hizkiyahu, and British actors Rita Tushingham (“A Taste of Honey”) and Leonard Whiting (Romeo in Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet”), who played Jacob in the film.

Afterward, Mizrahi returned to France and in 1977 directed his most famous and successful film, “Madame Rosa” (“The Life Before Us”) – based on a novel by Émile Ajar (the pen name of Romain Gary).

The film is about Madame Rosa (Simone Signoret), a former prostitute and Holocaust survivor who looks after the children of prostitutes. The film was a worldwide success and even won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. To date, Mizrahi is the only Israeli director with an Oscar to his name (even if it was for a French film).

Mizrahi later became ambivalent about his Academy Award success. “I think the fact that I won the Oscar wasn’t good for me in Israel,” he told me. “Because I won with a non-Israeli film, it turned me into ‘Not one of ours.’ The win did help me outside of Israel, but of course that wanes with the years.”

In 1980, Mizrahi directed another successful French film with Signoret, “I Sent a Letter to My Love.” In 1986, after a couple of flops, he directed “Every Time We Say Goodbye” in Israel. This saw Tom Hanks – whose career was then at rock bottom – play an American pilot who volunteers for the British army during World War II and falls for a Jewish girl of Spanish descent (Cristina Marsillach) in Jerusalem. This film wasn’t a success, either, despite the presence of Israeli actors like Hizkiyahu, Gila Almagor and Anat Atzmon.

The rest of Mizrahi’s career was beset with problems. He had difficulty finding funding for his films and his 1996 film “Women” – which was based on the novel by Israeli writer Yehuda Burla and took place in 19th-century Jerusalem – was not screened in Israeli movie theaters, if I remember correctly. A dozen years passed before he directed his final film, 2008’s “A Weekend in the Galilee” (inspired by Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”). At the end of our interview, Mizrahi told me with his characteristic restraint: “If you’ve already directed quite a few films, if you don’t direct another one that’s no tragedy.”

Moshé Mizrahi was denied his rightful place in the annals of Israeli cinema – to which he added a perspective and voice all his own. Even if his voice has now been stilled, his films will continue to resonate.