How an Acclaimed Israeli Director Ended Up on Death Row

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Hagar Ben-Asher, director of "The Slut" and "The Burglar."
Hagar Ben-Asher, director of "The Slut" and "The Burglar."Credit: Guy Nahum Levy
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

It is easy to spot Israeli writer-director-actor Hagar Ben-Asher when she enters the café for our interview. You just can’t miss that mass of endless red curls. On the one hand, it looks unkempt and defiant, with a provocative presence, reminding you of that lustful, sexual character Ben-Asher, 38, played in her debut feature “The Slut”. On the other, as soon as she starts talking, her quiet tone and minimal body language give the impression that the hair is acting as camouflage – a mane to hide behind rather than to attract attention.

It is also one of the main reasons for the constant comparisons between Ben-Asher and movie star Julia Roberts over the years. It even made an Israeli director cast her as the lead in the 2007 movie “Julia Mia,” about a movie director who falls for a woman who resembles Roberts, convincing her to star in a low budget version of “Pretty Woman.”

Six years after she released her debut feature – exciting audiences with her chutzpah to depict a woman having sexual relations with a series of men – Ben-Asher is poised to make two independent U.S. movies. In addition, her sophomore Israeli feature, “The Burglar”, is now out in Israeli cinemas.

This meant that Ben-Asher spent last summer in a Los Angeles prison of all places – shooting Academy Award and Emmy winners for a new online series called “Dead Woman Walking," about the last day on death row for a group of women.

Ben Asher. Each episode describes another step to the execution.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

“It is an anthology of 10 episodes, each lasting 10 minutes, with each consecutive one describing one more step on the way to the execution,” Ben-Asher says. “But each episode tells the story of a different woman, with only the ticking clock binding them together. They are all within 24 hours of their execution. The first episode deals with the last appeal to the courts; the second shows the final meeting with the prisoner’s family; the last shower, etc. In each episode, a different woman is going through a different drama on her final day. But the process they all go through is ultimately the same – it ends up as quite a dramatic tearjerker.”

The nature of the project required a particularly large cast, and even though she cannot divulge the names of any of the actors, by the end of the casting process she found herself working with some very well-known names. 

Julia Roberts. The resemblance is uncanny. Credit: MARIO ANZUONI/REUTERS

Wild and perilous impulses

For several years now, Ben-Asher has managed to combine acting and filmmaking. “Pathways” was her final project as a student at the Minshar School of Art in Tel Aviv. The short, which she wrote, directed and also starred in, was selected to compete in the Cinéfondation student film competition at Cannes. It earned her a writing grant in Paris and a most promising artist prize in the women’s film festival in Rehovot.

“The Slut” tells of a single mother who lives on a rural village with her two young daughters, while enjoying sexual relationships with several local men. She falls in love with a veterinarian, who may be able to extricate her from her lifestyle.

The movie divided audiences. Some saw it as original, poetic and courageous, while others saw it as pretentious and needlessly provocative. In any case, it established Ben-Asher as one of the most prominent, original and daring filmmakers at work in Israel. It premiered in the Critics’ Week section at the Cannes Film Festival, and her performance was nominated for the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Awards, as well as giving her a grant to write her follow-up movie in Berlin.

The manner in which you handle sex and sexuality in “The Slut” is rare in Israeli movies. There are a lot of sex scenes in which sex is presented directly, realistically and very revealingly, almost graphically, and yet it seems devoid of emotion, detached, unsexy. What made you present it this way?

“I was looking for exactly what you are describing. Non-sexual sexuality. I thought it better suited for a movie that depicts a woman whose sexuality is an elusive instrument; a movie in which she is the exploiter and the exploited, to be not erotic or arousing. I thought that if the movie was presented that way, the focus would be on the complexity, not the act itself. I have a lot of anger toward the inherent victimization of women.”

Lihi Kornowski in "The Burglar."Credit: Uriel Sinai

Ben-Asher’s intriguing new U.S. project dominated the start of our interview. But the formal pretext that successfully got her out of her home and convinced her to give an interview – something she is not especially keen on doing, it turns out – is her sophomore feature “The Burglar,” which is finally hitting Israeli screens. Though the movie premiered at last year’s Haifa Film Festival, its Israeli release was delayed partly due to her summer adventures in LA.

“The Burglar” tells of a 17-year-old girl, Yaeli (Lihi Kornowski), who lives with her mother in an apartment in a desert city close to the Dead Sea. One day, without warning, the mother disappears. And Yaeli starts breaking into apartments, stealing valuables. She continues to teeter on the edge, even after she starts seeing a much older man, German geologist Michael (Ronald Zehrfeld), as well as bonding with a cheetah in the local zoo.

As with “The Slut,” the beautiful scenery shot by Amit Yasur helps emotionally charge the character of a girl growing up in the blazing desert.

Filmmaker Hagar Ben-Asher. “When I was young, I really liked stealing things. I was very good at it, I developed some impressive techniques.”Credit: Guy Nahum Levy

The idea of turning the young woman into a burglar was not an obvious choice, but in conversation it quickly emerges it’s something from Ben-Asher’s own past. “When I was young I really liked stealing things, I really did,” she admits. “I was very good at it. I developed some impressive techniques.”

I can already see the Israeli Julia Roberts transforming into Winona Ryder.

“It’s funny,” she says, not looking at all amused. “This haunts me, it never ends.”

Do you still get that a lot – people saying how much you resemble Roberts?

“Countless times every day. Everywhere I go. Even if I’m not in Israel, it happens to the same extent.”

Even in LA?

“Yes, everywhere. It’s very weird.”

The protagonist in “The Burglar,” just like in “The Slut,” is on a road to self-destruction. Both characters could collapse at any moment into the abyss they’re precariously skirting around. They submit to the danger and draw some pleasure from the excitement it brings, surrendering to some wild and perilous impulse.

It seems the protagonists of “Dead Woman Walking” will also be part of this narrative – or at least the stage at which they pay a price for such behavior.

Ben-Asher had planned to cast another actor as the main role in “The Slut,” but at the last moment changed her mind and cast herself. In “The Burglar,” she decided in advance to avoid this challenge and cast Kornowski, whose impressive performance saw her receive an Israeli Oscar nomination.

Hagar Ben-Asher playing the title role in her 2011 feature debut, "The Slut."Credit: Vered Adir

There’s a chance another upcoming international venture will also be in English. This is “The War Has Ended,” a feature that takes place in Poland, starting on the day World War II ends. It’s about a marionette puppeteer who rescues a 13-year-old girl from the verge of death and teaches her the art of puppeteering.

The film is currently at the casting stage, and it had been expected that Polish actors would play the main roles and the film would be shot in Polish. However, Ben-Asher’s recent success Stateside means all that may be about to change.

Her partner on the project is Ben-Asher’s life partner, Shahar Segal, an advertisement director and partner to TV-chef Eyal Shani on his international gourmet-pita empire 'Miznon.'

“Due to the connections I made in the United States, we decided to look into making it as an English-speaking film,” Ben-Asher explains. “We’re still checking it out. Things are moving fast since we got some funds to develop it, and now we have to decide. I’m rewriting it in English and believe what kind of movie it becomes will be decided within two months.”

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