Young Israeli Filmmaker Moves From Jovial Skits to Tragedy

Adam Sanderson’s first feature film had audiences in stitches. ‘Funeral at Noon,’ his newest work, is just the opposite.

It is hard to imagine two more distinct opposites than the two films that Adam Sanderson directed. His first feature film, “This Is Sodom,” was released to movie theaters four years ago and rocked the world of Israeli cinema. At last, a comedy that was not ashamed to be one reached local screens. Openly commercial (it was marketed as a film produced by the satirical television program “A Wonderful Country”), it put humor and jokes before cinematic values, based as it was on a successful television program and a popular group of comedians.

Although “This Is Sodom” got quite a few bad reviews, the audience read the reviews (or did not) and snorted in derision. The masses wanted to laugh, so they streamed to the movie theaters where they did just that, at the jokes that Assi Cohen, Tal Friedman, Eyal Kitzis and their friends lobbed at them from the screen. The result was reminiscent of the heyday of Israeli commercial cinema, the popular comedies that blossomed here in the 1960s and the 1970s, drawing hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of people to the movie houses. According to the distributors’ statistics, roughly 600,000 tickets to “This Is Sodom” were sold, making it the most-viewed film in Israel in the 25 years that preceded it.

Sanderson’s second film, “Funeral At Noon,” which reaches movie theaters this week, is the absolute opposite. Instead of skits where one joke follows on the heels of another, the film offers a slow, reflective, introspective plot. Instead of an unabashedly commercial celebration, “Funeral At Noon” emphasizes cinematic and artistic values and thumbs its nose at the demand to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.

Adam Sanderson, who was born in 1980 in Tel Aviv, never studied film formally. He says that he fell in love with the movies when he saw “Pinocchio” at three years of age, but over the years was content to study cinema on his own. It started with the short films he made with friends using an unwieldy video camera that his father, the musician Danny Sanderson, had bought for him when he was nine years old, and continued with the film editing club he joined at 12 and the cinema track he chose in high school.

During his army service, when he still served in the Air Force’s filming unit, he established the Baboon Project with several other friends – Tom Shoval (“Youth”), Joshua Simon, Daniel Hadar and Michael Hanegbi. This was an original art project that brought fresh, young blood into the local film industry. The year was 2000, and the members of the group made short films with no support from the establishment, arranged them in collections and showed them in the Tel Aviv Cinematheque for about two years. At the same time, Sanderson established a hip-hop group called Pizda Family.

Alongside a video clip he made for his group (for the song “Save As”), which won a video competition at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and was broadcast frequently afterward, Sanderson’s short films paved the way for the start of his directing career. He began directing short clips, commercials and promotional films, even as he fantasized deep down about his first feature film, which would be an adaptation of a literary work. His friendship with the journalist and writer Itamar Handelman Smith, which began in 2004, laid the cornerstone for the next stage of his career. “I asked him whether he knew of a book that would be right for a film adaptation, and he put a copy of [Yeshayahu Koren’s novel] “Funeral At Noon” in front of me and said it was the best book that had ever been written in Hebrew,” Sanderson says. (This is the first cinematic adaptation ever of a work by Yeshayahu Koren.

Sanderson began to read Koren’s novel. It drew him in, and he decided that its film adaptation would be his first feature film. “I really liked the character of Hagar [the book’s protagonist],” he said. “I had an image of her walking in an empty house. I was drawn to that image, even if I couldn’t explain why.”

Why you wake up

In the same breath, Sanderson says that Hagar’s search for meaning touched him deeply. “Something in that search connected me with the book,” he says. “People asked me what I saw in a housewife living in a village in the 1950s, and why I hadn’t chosen something closer to me, like a story about a 35-year-old man living in Tel Aviv. But I think that in the end, it’s not a story about a housewife. Instead, it’s about something human that wraps her around, and me too: this search for meaning, the desire to gain the world’s validation that you’re worth something, to get an answer to the question of why you wake up in the morning.”

Sanderson tried at first to create an original cinematic adaptation that would be a bit distant from Koren’s novel, which was written 30 years ago. “Every time I completed a draft, I felt that I was going farther away from what I had liked originally. I finally realized that it was only on my own that I would be able to bring myself the closest to the way I felt it ought to be.”

For almost everyone who adapts a book for film, the moment of meeting the author is an especially scary one. In this Sanderson was no exception. When he completed the first draft of the screenplay and arrived for the meeting with Koren, he was full of fears. He was afraid that Koren, whom he admired, would be critical of his screenplay, which was the first film adaptation of anything he had ever written.

“He is a very special man, and he said, ‘This is my book, and this is your film, and I am not looking for my book in your screenplay.’ That freed me. It lifted a big stone off my heart, because I was afraid of dialogue with an author who would want to protect his book,” Sanderson recalls. “But he has this patience that lets you in. I sent him lots of drafts later on, lots of attempts that went far – in terms of both the plot and the style – from his book, and somehow he accepted everything. Maybe he knew, with a kind of knowing smile, that I would go back to the source in the end, and that’s really what happened,” he says with a smile.

Koren asked Sanderson to keep only two things in the film. “He asked me to keep the place and the time,” Sanderson says. “The book is about his childhood, after all, in the village where he grew up and around which all his books revolve. It’s an important motif for him. At a certain point, in one of the drafts, I tried to break it anyway, to modernize the story, but then I felt I was missing it, that something was getting lost.”

Israel of the 1950s

The film’s plot indeed takes place somewhere in a rural Israeli village in the 1950s. Hagar is a young woman, a married housewife, who lives with her husband in a small home. An introverted woman, detached from her environment, she has not found her place in the small village. Her relationship with her husband also lacks closeness and intimacy. She finds a secret place where she goes to be on her own in the ruins of a village nearby, and watches a young and good-looking soldier training there with his unit. One day, when she is asked to watch her neighbor’s 10-year-old son, she lets the boy into her world.

Sanderson’s film moves slowly, revolving around its enigmatic protagonist, in a kind of reflective cinematic attempt to crack her character. The sparse dialogue adds to the rural calm and the quiet noises of nature that surround Hagar and add strength to the picture. The camera work of Nadav Hekselman (“Urban Tale”) takes advantage of this quiet to confront the view with the landscape and with the nature that peeks out from every direction, and succeeds in creating a powerful contradiction between the home’s dim, claustrophobic interior and the open spaces so full of light and beauty.

Sanderson completed work on “Funeral At Noon” about a year and a half ago, and since then he has shown it at the San Sebastian Film Festival and last year’s Haifa Film Festival. He has devoted the past few months to a new project that he created with Shahar Magen – the suspense series “Mermaids,” which premiered on the Hot cable network last week. He has also begun preparing the ground for his next film, which will also be an adaptation of a literary work, but not one that was written here. Sanderson and July August Productions have bought the film rights to Saul Bellow’s novel “The Victim.”

Sanderson dedicated “Funeral At Noon” to the memory of his mother, the editor and designer Naomi Sanderson, who died nine years ago at 52. “My mother was still alive when I started writing the film, and I picked up all kinds of stories from her about life in the 1950s. I remember she told me that on very hot days, they would sleep on the floor,” he says. “I was deep at work on the film when she died, but it was only when I was finished working on it that I suddenly noticed that something about Hagar’s character, something in her detachment, overlapped with her. My mother had a kind of social oddness. She was a very intimate person with a rich inner world, and even though she was very social, there was also something very introverted and closed about her, that I feel I found in Hagar. This resemblance existed in Koren’s book too, but I noticed it only after I had completed the film.”