Israeli filmmaker Shlomi Elkabetz is not accustomed to being in the spotlight — but it's something he's having to get used to.
Until recently, he could mainly been found either backstage, behind the camera or behind his late sister, acclaimed filmmaker and actress Ronit Elkabetz.
Now, though, the 46-year-old hyphenate is starring in the high-profile HBO series “Our Boys,” an Israeli show that, controversially, focuses on the murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir in the summer of 2014.
The show has won many rave reviews but driven Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his eldest son Yair to distraction, along with the entire Israeli right.
Elkabetz says he doesn’t understand why the creators of the show — Hagai Levi, Joseph Cedar and Tawfik Abu Wael — chose him for the lead role of Simon. He, personally, says he would not have cast himself as the Shin Bet service service officer — one of the few fictitious characters in this otherwise hyperrealistic show.
From the outset, Simon, who works in the division investigating crimes perpetrated by the Jewish community, feels that Abu Khdeir was murdered by Jews. The establishment does not want to hear it. When Simon discovers the identity of the murderers, he is horrified to discover that they come from a background identical to his own – a habitat in which his family is still living as ultra-Orthodox Mizrahim from Jerusalem.
It is hard to ignore the resemblances between Elkabetz and his character. More than the beard or the bald pate, the most prominent physical characteristic they share is a kind of tortured facial expression, as though a huge burden is resting on their shoulders. “We have a lot of things in common, but Simon’s present is very far from my own at the level of our work. What is close, however, is that both Shlomi and Shlomi as Simon are people who watch and observe.”
As a tool for work?
“Yes, it’s a tool for both of us. For investigating, identifying, locating, noting, in order to create a new perception within the reality. In this respect it’s similar. The past, of course, is shared.”
“Shared at a number of levels. My extended family is very religious, or at least one side of it is. What Simon and I have in common is resistance. Even as an adolescent I didn’t want to be religious. I didn’t need to make a dramatic break from religion because I grew up in a home that allowed for this at a young age.”
Elkabetz defines himself as a Jew, “but not a practicing one.” He keeps volumes of the Talmud, Shulhan Arukh and Bible handy, and reads them “as literature.” He says he has no problem reciting the blessing over the wine on Shabbat, but mainly as an act of defiance.
Did you have any connection with the Shin Bet before playing the role?
“I met a number of former agents who recently left. It didn’t interest me to learn how an investigator behaves, but I wanted to prove to myself that anyone can be a Shin Bet agent. That’s the first thing I was looking for.”
What surprised you most in your meetings with them?
“Their openness. I interpreted this as a childish characteristic – a youngster who has succeeded at something and has to brag about it.”
In the environment where you live and work, I assume that Shin Bet operatives are perceived as bad people.
“Of course. The Shin Betniks, their loyalty, in an immediate and inevitable way, negate the rights of an entire population I would like to see getting better rights than mine. That Simon is in the Jewish Division wasn’t any comfort to me on a personal level, and I wasn’t looking for comfort or forgiveness in this series. I wasn’t looking to play out my beliefs in the series.”
Asked if working on the series altered his opinion about the organization, Elkabetz stares back at me, clearly surprised by the question. He answers almost scornfully in the negative, and then grows serious. “Every secret organization terrifies me as a human being. They ask me a question at an airport – I’m terrified. I don’t think I could ever withstand an interrogation: I’d give them everything I have. I don’t think I have that strength. Any invasion of privacy or denial of privacy terrifies me.”
But their intentions are good.
For everyone who wants to live safely in Tel Aviv.
Elkabetz smiles. He looks at me as though I’ve just said I believe in the tooth fairy. “That’s a serious accusation,” he says. “You know, I understand my privilege as an Israeli very, very clearly. No TV series that I do, no film that I make or opinion I express will soothe me or silence my conscience. It’s totally clear to me what privilege I enjoy as a person, as an Israeli, as an actor, as a director, as someone who grew up in Tel Aviv. All these things accompany and also have accompanied me during the making of the series.”
Was this also part of your motivation to appear in the show?
“Of course. I protest deeply against all violence. However, I do understand – sadly and almost depressingly – that there is strength in violence. It’s necessary to live inside this thing. My suffering and torments are open and insignificant compared to those of the people who are really suffering. And it doesn’t matter from what – be they the Palestinians or the [downtrodden]. Next to them, my private drama is not interesting. I live a comfortable life between Tel Aviv and Paris; I am funded from every direction and cushioned against all troubles. I have the privilege of repeatedly saying these things. Even if tomorrow they cut off my funding, I will go to some other country and do it there.”
That’s what happened with “Our Boys.” No Israeli broadcast organization would have dared initiate a series about a case in which Jews murder a Palestinian.
“I assume you are right, nearly 100 percent. Today, in the atmosphere we’re existing in, you wouldn’t find an organization that would take the risk and produce a thing like this of its own volition.”
Or they might simply have moved the plot back a month and turned it into a series about the three Jewish boys who were murdered.
“Yes, I suppose so.”
Can you understand people who say there are enough instances in which Palestinians murder Jews, so why go asking for money from abroad to tell a story about Jews who murder an Arab?
“First, the series was initiated by HBO – it’s not that Israelis applied to them for money. This doesn’t detract from the fact that they agreed to take the work upon themselves: it’s the same thing. At the emotional level, it’s legitimate to protest against the series from every direction, as long as there’s the legitimacy to make it. There’s no legitimacy for protesting if there’s no legitimacy for making the series, and vice versa. Clearly, it’s the right of every individual, from every background, to watch the series and criticize it as long as he fully understands why it’s important that the series be made.”
What is the show aiming to do?
“When I watched it, I asked myself how it’s possible to exist without such a series. It doesn’t matter who you are, how you think, where you’ve come from – how is it possible to lead a full life without there being such a series? Without the confrontation?
So the makers of the show are fulfilling a moral and civic obligation?
“That’s part of it. You have a responsibility. You want to make [things] that make people feel good? OK, that’s also important. Important – I’m not saying it’s not. What, am I not also an average consumer of culture?”
I don’t know.
“Don’t I like to watch a romantic comedy and cry and fall in love? I like to. So what? Art doesn’t have just a single role; art doesn’t need to be only for amusing us. Heaven forbid! If you want to live in a world of fools, no problem. There is a right and a duty to make this show. There’s a right and a duty to watch it, in my opinion. There’s a right and duty to agree with it or object to it and hold this debate.”
And a right to boycott it?
“I’m not telling people what to do. Anyone who wants to bury his head in the sand can bury his head in the sand.”
Do you really think there will be openness in Israeli society to watching this story?
“The show deals with a stage in Israeli and Jewish history that is very, very violent. We are used to dealing with our own vicitimhood, but this deals with our aggression. It’s a miracle that this series happened. It’s a miracle. It’s worthwhile for us to watch this miracle: Miracles are something that should be looked at; they don’t happen a lot. An artistic, social, political miracle happened here.”
You’ve said you were concerned about political aspects of the show. How pleased are you with the end result?
Elkabetz pauses before replying. Indeed, it seems as if enough time is elapsing to run the entire Jewish-Palestinian conflict through one’s mind.
“It’s a complex question,” he says, still considering his response. Finally, after working through and formulating the reply in his mind, he answers slowly and in a measured manner: “I am fine with everything you see in the series. I am comfortable with the things I can stand fully behind and also the things I can’t stand behind, because the honesty of the show is so extensive that it reveals the strength and weakness of the situation, the characters and this place, in a way that really makes it possible for you to look inward into the heart of the situation and the heart of the characters. With these things I am very, very comfortable. These things comforted me.”
You’ve said you are comfortable with what appears in the show. But are you also comfortable with what doesn’t appear?
“Look, we’re limited. Even the Bible doesn’t tell the whole history. It’s just a television show, not the Book of Books.”
Why did it take so long?
“To do what?”
To answer that question.
“The question of whether I am comfortable? Because I am a person who is torn apart.”
You said you’re completely comfortable. How is that being torn apart?
“Because first of all, it’s not an absolute. Are you asking if I’m totally responsible for everything that happens [in the show]? No, because I didn’t create the series. But I am there and I can’t flee my responsibility for the things that happen there. I didn’t make the film like some clueless person. I didn’t accept a role and then turn around and say ‘Yo, I have a part!’ That’s really not the case. I was tremendously tormented about whether to play this role. Tremendously. I was afraid that things I am interested in representing wouldn’t be depicted fully in this work. It’s not that I was looking for balance: I wanted a focus on the pain of this place. And I got it.”
What is so tormenting about this role?
“My character is a person who spots something and knows it will devastate him. Because when Simon identifies the murderer, the terrible thing that happens to him is that he identifies the murderer within himself. He realizes he is the murderer. This is one of the things that most attracted me. If you’re asking about my responsibility in this role, that’s where it is. That was my war, my good war with the creators. I said hundreds of times that if we don’t succeed during the series in creating a situation in which Simon identifies himself as a murderer, then this role is meaningless.”
Netanyahu has labeled the series anti-Semitic. People are slamming the creators, saying their heads should be chopped off.
“Listen, that didn’t surprise me. I’ve always thought the series would arouse insane emotions. The story isn’t a simple one and dealing with it isn’t simple. Period. But this dealing with it – people are drawn to it. I think people do want to grapple with it, and yes they are interested in having another look.”
A deep, deep hole
Elkabetz was born in Be’er Sheva and grew up in Kiryat Yam, near Haifa. He hates the sun. He spends about five months every year in Paris. He has been with his male partner for about 15 years.
What do you want to say about him?
“This is a person I love very, very much and I am connected to him. When I will make a film about a couple’s relationship, I’m certain I will find so many things to say about him. When I make a film about parenthood, I will be able to talk about Renée in a deeper way.”
Renée is his 1-year-old daughter, jointly parented with the singer Dikla. Elkabetz says that fatherhood has made him more fearful. When I ask what brings him joy, in an attempt to understand whether there is indeed joy in his life, he firstly says Renée.
He says that ever since she was born, he has been spending shorter periods in Paris but still flies back and forth and spends nearly half his time there. At age 21 he went to Paris and New York, and lived there for seven years without visiting Israel.
Didn’t you miss the city, your family, your friends?
“I never missed Tel Aviv even for a single day in my life. Look, I’ve chosen to tell Israeli stories, not French stories. So it’s clear I need this place for my creative work, but I don’t have a feeling here of belonging or home. It’s not that there is something I smell when I am in Paris and all of a sudden it reminds me terribly of Tel Aviv and fills me with longing.”
Where does this lack of belonging come from?
“I don’t recognize myself on the Tel Aviv street. When I walked around Madrid, I saw a lot of Shlomis. Here, none, so I feel disconnected. In Paris, I feel like I have a place, a good place. I feel like I’m a part of French culture no less than I have my role in Israeli culture. I feel like they were waiting for me in France. I have an audience in France that wants to hear me.”
In the past he defined his sister Ronit as his “mate.” Beyond the love between siblings and their artistic partnership over many years, she also deflected the fire from him, the exposure and attention. Now, more than three years after her death at age 51 following a prolonged battle with cancer, it seems he is seeking this attention, albeit fearfully.
Could it be that you took the role because she isn’t here?
“Yes, I suppose that did enter into my thoughts. I think she provided me exactly with all those things, and through her I fulfilled all the things that have to do with being an actor. I felt I was represented in the sharpest way possible, and it could be that some kind of lacking developed here and life gave me an opportunity. It could be that I also felt I was representing her on the screen. For a moment I am filling a pit that has gaped open in my personal life and is very, very deep.
“It was my way to continue some kind of discussion that existed between me and Ronit, which is connected to the way our profession is holistic and also our life, and to creating it between me and her in a metaphysical way. The dialogue with her hasn’t ended. It isn’t manifested in talks into the night or in consultations, it doesn’t exist of course, but the things that are assimilated at the personal level speak for themselves within your innermost thoughts. It’s doesn’t get lost.
“What’s clear is that there used to be two directors here, Shlomi and Ronit, and they created something here that is the sum of the entire dialogue of ideas and emotions that passed between them regarding a given topic or event. That used to exist. It exists. It’s a box. And it won’t be any more. There’s nothing to be done. That, the way it was, will not be.
But it interests me to see the next film I will make and maybe I’ll have an awakening and I will understand that no — it hasn’t gotten completely lost. Maybe the dialogue exists in some other way. I know there are things it will be impossible to do, and my decision to accept the role of the actor has to do in part with my desire to keep this dialogue alive.”
Elkabetz relates that when people in Israel read the script of “To Take a Wife” for the first time, one of the recurring reactions was “there aren’t really any women like that.” And truly, before the Elkabetz trilogy there really were hardly any credible and respectful depictions of Mizrahi people, and especially Mizrahi women, on the screen. There’s still an active struggle to change that but Elkabetz doesn’t identify with all the manifestations of this struggle.
“Today there is a new generation of creative people dealing with Mizrahiness from totally different perspectives that are more historical, more connected to the periphery (outlying parts of Israel with largely Mizrahi populations). Personally, I won’t lie to myself. I’m not from the periphery, I don’t live that reality. They’ve come out now, they are freshly baked, I am not there. I observe from the sidelines. Am I less angry? Still not. Are things burning less inside me? No, it’s just that it’s other things that are burning inside me as well.”
What is burning?
“Do we have to talk about it?”
Elkabetz thinks for a while before he replies: “I don’t know what to do with this anger but it does make me very angry to rediscover again and again that in fact no real progress has been made. It’s not that some kind of artistic, political or social movement has managed ultimately to create a change so fundamental that it’s also permissible to be mediocre.”
What do you mean by mediocre?
“As I see it, when there is total equality — which is of course utopian — you see the mediocre, the ordinary, that arises from every direction. I had to be brilliant a millions of times over in order to get to where I am today. I see that there is a lot of mediocrity but I am not seeing an awful lot of mediocre Mizrahi directors, or mediocre Palestinian cinema. I am seeing that anyone who doesn’t come from the ruling cultural hegemony still has to shine.”
Elkabetz goes on. For the first time since we’ve been talking I see him start to stop being so calm. “It’s hard for me to be in a place where there is little Palestinian creativity. It’s hard for me to exist in such a cultural landscape. I don’t want to be a part of it. It’s like two decades ago I didn’t even see myself on the movie screen and today without seeing consistent Palestinian cinema presented on a regular basis, I don’t feel like I can be a part of this place. I need to see this diversity in order to exist as a creative Israeli.”