An Iraqi-born Melodrama Master Who Was Reviled by Israel's Snobs

Director George Obadiah fell victim to Ashkenazi Jews' prejudice against their countrymen with roots in Arab countries. He’s finally being celebrated.

Eliyahu Melnikov

It’s all clear in a student’s documentary film from 1994. A spiral staircase leads from an old house’s yard to the attic. The aging George Obadiah climbs the stairs slowly and opens the door with a flourish, moving out of the way for the camera of director Ran Tal, then a student.

In the attic sit piles of old films — dozens of cans are stacked on one another; after all, Obadiah directed more than 30 movies. The cans are rusted and the films badly damaged. On the floor, covered in pigeon droppings, are tattered movie posters of his works.

Obadiah, old and sick, defeated like an aging lion, seems ambivalent about the rotting assets in his attic.

For years his career as a director had been a source of pride and happiness. But a decade after he was ruined financially, with his last movies flopping and the critics ignoring him (instead of just pummeling him), Obadiah was in despair. Although from his hospital bed he promised to return to filmmaking, he neglected his archives.

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Twenty years after his death and on the centenary of his birth, a once-reviled chapter in Israel’s film history is being celebrated. At the upcoming Ophir Awards, the Israeli Oscars, Obadiah will receive a special tribute — the first recognition of the 13 films he made in Israel despite the years of contempt and condescension.

Yoni Hamenachem

Obadiah was born in 1915 in Baghdad to a well-off family of wood merchants. He studied at the American school and in his youth wrote school plays in which he starred. After finishing his studies he bought and distributed movies — in a 1974 interview he told Haaretz how that money let him buy two movie theaters. He was only 21.

When Israel was established in 1948, Jewish-owned assets were confiscated in Iraq, including Obadiah’s movie theaters. When his family immigrated to Israel, he moved to Iran. There was hardly a film industry there, so he produced movies with his friend Nuri Habib, who later became a producer in Israel.

His first film was a success; in 1974 he explained why. “This was a poor audience. The rich audience spoke English and looked for good or intelligent movies,” he said. “A poor audience spoke only Farsi and would only go to this kind of movie, getting what it needed.”

“What the audience needs” became Obadiah’s formula for many years: melodramas targeting women, whom he considered a loyal and lucrative segment. A melodrama must be constructed so that “the audience laughs a little and cries more,” Obadiah explained.

When Iran was a friend

United Films

He called this giving the audience the chance to cry with relief. Journalist Tamar Meroz once described how Obadiah burst into tears while telling her the plot of “Nurith.”

After directing 23 movies in Iran, Obadiah decided to come to Israel. He was experienced and well-off but couldn’t find work. So he hopped between Israel and Iran — then a friend of the West under the Shah — and in 1967 directed the Israeli-Iranian production “The Desired One.”

He finally settled in Israel in 1970 and worked with producer Michael Shvili. They made four movies together: “The Desired One” and “Ariana” (1971), both melodramas produced according to Obadiah’s formula. Then came “Fishka on Reserve Duty” (1971) and “Nahtche and the General” (1972).

In later years, in a taped interview for an Israeli film archive, Shvili said Obadiah ensured production costs didn’t escalate. He never did more than one or two takes for each scene because he knew exactly what he wanted. Actors who worked with him say he knew exactly what to ask of them and how to shoot so that the editing would be easy.

Shoval Film

His really big success came with the melodrama “Nurith” in 1972. The young stars were Yona Elian and Sassi Keshet; the telenovela plot drew a million viewers and was considered the film of the year. The movie was a financial success and made the actors celebrities, but it labeled Obadiah an enemy of culture, Elian notes.

“So many people saw it and loved it so much, but there were also a lot of swipes from critics and the movie industry. It was quite an event in my life; I was drawn into the eye of the storm,” says Elian, now a successful theater actress.

“When I got the script I thought it was a telenovela — not the style I was used to. Then I met a charming and unusual man, a true artist. He brought his own culture, but here people didn’t know, and still don’t, how to accept a different culture.”

Breaching good Israeli taste

Director Ron Kahlili agrees that Obadiah was unique.

“He operated counter to every possible trend, even counter to the popular genre depicting the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi clash, a genre he was supposed to join. In contrast to those movies produced by Ashkenazi filmmakers, he was a Mizrahi Jew who had had little exposure to European movies,” Kahili says.

“He came from an isolationist Mizrahi world, distant and not assimilative. We saw the original versions of his movies in neighborhood theaters in the 1950s — these were Egyptian, Persian, Indian and Turkish movies.”

Cash continued to roll in with the comedy “My name is Shmil” (1973), and with the melodramas “Sarit” (1973) and “Day of Justice” (1974). Critics frowned. One wrote in Haaretz that “Sarit” was “one of the most infantile movies ever produced, with its cheap and sentimental plot, amateur acting, uninspired photography and nonexistent directing. This is a ridiculous melodrama that breaches good taste in Israel and that will only stoke contempt and derision if it ever — God forbid — makes it abroad.”

But Obadiah kept making movies. People kept coming, so he could ignore the critics. Thus in 1976 he directed “Street Number 60” — in one scene singer Avi Toledano kicks his drug habit. A year later he made “An Entertainer at Midnight”, the first movie starring actress Tiki Dayan, alongside rock singer Zvika Pick. In 1979 he directed “West Side Girl,” in which Ofra Haza played a blind singer.

These two works were profitable, but gradually his audience dwindled. A few years later came “Nurith II” (1982) and “The Aunt from Argentina” (1983), which did very poorly at the box office. Obadiah was financially ruined; even worse, his spirit was broken.

But another aspect of his life changed for the better. In the early ‘80s, the confirmed bachelor married Esther. Hila, their eldest daughter, was born in 1982, when her father was already 70. A year later Ya’akov was born and a year later Sherry. Ya’akov is a severe critic of his father's detractors.

“For many people George Obadiah’s ‘Nurith’ means more than Efraim Kishon’s ‘Blaumilch Canal.’ Did anyone ever notice that several streets in Israel are named after Kishon but none after Obadiah?” Ya’akov Obadiah says.

“Even in Holon, where he lived his final years and where he died, not one little alley is named after him. We see our father as a pioneer who blazed the way for many others. Sometimes pioneers pay a price, and he paid a heavy one.”

The Ashkenazi-Mizrahi split may have been responsible, if not downright racism. “I felt like I was entering a movie theater in Kuwait,” wrote Shlomo Shamgar in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, referring to an Obadiah film.

Other critics are much more positive. “Much of the criticism revolved around ‘that guy from Iran who’s destroying our Western culture,’” says Haaretz film critic Uri Klein. “When I read reviews of his movies I detect intense racism .... They were considered dangerous for Israeli culture. There was a real fear of what the Levant was doing to Western culture.”

Klein thinks no other director was hit by so much racism. “The sad thing is that he accepted some of those claims and tried being a bit more sophisticated and more ‘cultural’ — less melodramatic and more realistic. But then he lost his audience,” Klein says. “Something in him touches my heart. He’s a tragic figure and the racist aspect shocked me.”

Obadiah’s oldest daughter, Hila Rubin-Obadiah, says her father viewed it not as racism but as close-mindedness.

“He recognized the racism — the gaps between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews were apparent in his movies — but I didn’t grow up with that as a child. His critics were ignorant and that’s what I grew up with. He didn’t try to be a sophisticated artist — he enjoyed appealing to the masses.”

In her view, Obadiah was an aristocrat. He spoke to simple people, and it was unfair to judge him for that.

“All sorts of people visited our house and my father could send a cable to Yitzhak Rabin one day and sit down with the man from the grocery the next,” she says. “The truth is, he’s forgotten.”