Iranian Partners Backed Out, but Israeli Comedy 'Atomic Falafel' Still Got Made

Film about nuclear tensions, opening Wednesday, almost became first-ever coproduction between the Jewish state and the Islamic Republic.

Merav Maroody

Nuclear bombs, Benjamin Netanyahu’s fear campaign, ballistic missiles, the Revolutionary Guard: None of these could deter filmmaker Dror Shaul. Three years ago he decided to make history, and to bring in an Iranian producer for his next film, come hell or high water. Armed with the screenplay he wrote – a comedy that makes light of the tense relations between Israel and Iran and pokes fun at the nuclear panic that has driven both sides around the bend – Shaul was determined to make the first-ever Israeli-Iranian coproduction. Using his connections in the international film world from his prizewinning movie “Adama Meshuga’at” (“Sweet Mud”), he set out to find Iranian producers courageous enough, or crazy enough, to sign on to his vision.

“Every Iranian I talked to about helping me enlist an Iranian producer for the film – after two minutes they never got back to me,” Shaul relates. “One in London, for example, told me, ‘Listen, it won’t happen, and I can’t talk to you anymore. My father lives in Iran, I got beat up like you wouldn’t believe the last time I went there, don’t call here again.’ So I moved on, I spoke with a few more Iranians and eventually some woman introduced me to an Iranian who lives in Europe and wasn’t afraid, even though he visits Iran occasionally. I met him when I was at a writing workshop in Berlin, I told him about the movie and he said, ‘Listen, my friend is a producer whose films have been shown at quite a number of international festivals, she’ll be here at such-and-such a date, come meet her.’”

Shaul calls this Iranian friend Rahim, explaining that it’s not his real name. Rahim and the rest of the producers of the movie, “Atomic Falafel,” learned very quickly that in their conversations with or about Iranians it was better not to mention any names, out of fear that news of Iranian citizens’ enthusiastic cooperation with Israelis would reach official Iranian organizations, which would not be thrilled. Shaul was also careful not to mention the name of the Iranian producer, Rahim’s friend, so as not to place her in jeopardy. He simply called her by the nickname the production team gave her: “the friend,” saying it in English.

Shaul was still in Berlin when the date of their scheduled meeting approached. He called Rahim, prepared for a last-minute cancellation. But instead of disappointment, there was a happy surprise: “I call him and he tells me, ‘I’m here, with her,’ and he gave me the name of some restaurant near Alexanderplatz. I went, and the meeting was really moving. We spoke a little in English, Rahim translated some, and it was amazing. Rahim read her the script and ‘the friend’ said, ‘Listen, you’re nuts. I’m with you, we’re going to do it. I have a cousin who’s a photographer, we’ll shoot in Iran and I’ll send you the shots. You know how it is with us, every photographer always has an extra cassette, an empty one. Why? So that if the Revolutionary Guards come and tell you, ‘Give us the film,’ he can give them the empty one. In any event, we’ll shoot shots for you and upload them to a secret Internet server. That way you can say that part of the movie was shot in Iran. With regard to the money, we’ll try to raise between 50,000 and 100,000 euros for the film. On me. I’ll ask all sorts of businessmen, and if we succeed we’ll be able to say that it’s the first Israeli-Iranian coproduction in history.’”

When the meeting was over, Shaul left the restaurant and when he got outside, as he tells it, he looked very carefully in every direction. “I wanted to see if someone was doing a ‘Candid Camera’” prank,” he recalls. “I didn’t believe it was happening. Besides, I was stressed out. Is it allowed? Is is considered a bad thing?” 

Around a month later, “the friend” sent a letter to a German film fund, in which she made it clear that Shaul was an integral part of the production. The letter, which was given to Haaretz, looks at first glance like a cliche from a cheap spy thriller: The Israeli producers used a black marker to obliterate every word that could hint at the letter-writer’s identity and potentially put her in danger. But setting aside the cliche, it’s clear that the letter not only proves how close the Israeli-Iranian coproduction came to being realized, but also suggests just how risky and improbable the idea was.

The games surrounding the sham identity and coded communications of “the friend” and her Israeli partners went on for around two years. And then, just two months before filming began, the Iranian producer disappeared. “The friend” stopped responding to emails, she could not be reached by telephone and the first-ever Israeli-Iranian coproduction fell into a dark pit of silence. Rahim, who was supposed to come to Israel last June to take part in the filming, backed out at the last minute. 

“He told me, ‘Listen, I love you but I received an invitation to speak with the Revolutionary Guard, they want to ask me about something or other, and I have to go [to Iran] in July,’” Shaul recounts. 

“I told him, ‘What’s the problem? We’re shooting in June, you can go afterward.’ But he said, ‘I’m not sure that I want to talk with them a month after appearing in such a movie and visiting Tel Aviv,’” Shaul said. To finish off the sudden, painful end to the thaw in Israeli-Iranian relations, the young German woman of Iranian descent who was supposed to play the Iranian female lead in the movie announced, one week before filming began, that she wouldn’t be coming. Her parents became anxious and made her cancel, Shaul said. 

But while the coproduction fell through, the movie itself, which stars Shai Avivi, Mali Levi Gershon, Michelle Treves and Alexander Fehling and will be in theaters starting September 9, actually tries to remain optimistic and offer hope to both nations, while skipping over the heads of the politicians and the generals. In it, two teenage girls from towns that are near nuclear reactors, one in Israel, the other in Iran, become friends over the Internet right before the implementation of an Israeli plan to bomb the Iranian reactor. The girls, who devise a plan of action of their own, are joined by the mother of the Israeli girl, who falls in love with a German nuclear inspector, to the chagrin of the Israeli military commanders who are dying to push the red button already.

Viewers of “Adama Meshuga’at” know more than a little about Shaul’s own childhood, on Kibbutz Kissufim in the 1970s. His father, who was born in New York to immigrants from Russia and Poland, was one of the founding members of the community in the 1950s, and after retiring from the Israel Defense Forces he became the kibbutz’s security coordinator. Shaul’s mother was born in Tel Aviv’s Hatikva Quarter, to parents who immigrated from Yemen, and at Kissufim she worked in education. Dror was the youngest of three children. His father committed suicide when Dror was less than a year old. 

“Up until a certain age I was told that it was an accident, that the gun went off by mistake while he was cleaning it,” Shaul said. “I was 12 when a classmate told me that he had killed himself, and my mother confirmed it. My mother never recovered. She dragged on for another 15 years and then she, too, killed herself. After both of your parents commit suicide, you have to make comedies!” Shaul says with a smile, in an effort to steer the conversation back onto a more cheerful track.

After working as a director of movie trailers and video clips, and a long period as a songwriter, Shaul made “Mivtza Savta” (“Operation Grandma”). He wrote and directed this very funny, 50-minute comedy for Israeli television in 1999. It follows three brothers as they try to smuggle the body of their grandmother out of the city to bury her on kibbutz and is based on the true story of his grandmother’s burial. Over the years, “Mivtza Savta” has gathered more and more fans, who have made it one of Israel’s top cult movies.

Shaul’s first theater release, the comedy “Sima Vaknin Machshefa” (“Sima Vaknin is a witch”), came out in 2003. It was followed three years later by “Adama Meshuga’at,” which is based on his experiences growing up on kibbutz and the tragedies of his family. The movie had its world premiere at the Sundance Festival, where it won the World Cinema Jury Prize – Dramatic. It was awarded a Crystal Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival before returning to Israel to pick up four awards from the Israeli Academy of Film and Television, including the one for Best Picture. After proving himself as a director of comedy, Shaul had now received official recognition as a promising director of drama.

After accepting that the longed-for Israeli-Iranian coproduction was not going to happen, the producers of “Atomic Falafel” are now hoping they will at least be able to get the movie distributed in Iran. Shaul says that at this year’s Cannes Film Festival he met an Iranian distributor who is interested in showing it in his country. 

“It’s all arranged, there’s a distributor and it looks like the movie is going to be screened in Iran,” Shaul says, before adding a cautionary note: “After all we’ve been through, I don’t know whether it will really happen or whether he’ll chicken out on us at the last minute, too.”