A short film goes a long way for actress Sarah Adler


French-Israeli actress Sarah Adler has walked the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival and at the Ophir Awards (the Israeli Oscars) for starring turns in noted dramas such as Jean-Luc Godard’s “Notre Musique” and Etgar Keret’s “Jellyfish.” So she was startled to learn that her first sojourn to the Academy Awards will be not for a feature film but for her performance in a 40-minute Israeli short, “Aya,” nominated in the best live action short category, even though it previously had not been widely seen outside Israel. 

“I had done the film without any expectations,” the actress, 36, said in a telephone conversation from her home in Paris, where she has lived on and off between years in Israel. “It wasn’t even a full-length feature, where you knew it would be released and have all kinds of different opportunities. So to see a small film like this that has grown and made it to one of the biggest exposures in the world has been incredibly rewarding.”

In the short, Adler portrays Aya, a 29-year-old woman who, on a whim, meets a Danish musician (Ulrich Thomsen) at an airport and pretends to be his designated driver; en route to his destination, she brashly pressures the complete stranger to forge what turns out to be an unexpectedly strong emotional bond.

“Sex isn’t her objective,” Adler said. “She’s just lonely, and in a way she lives a life of habit. And suddenly, when there is this opportunity for something new, she allows herself to be drawn in without really being conscious of what she is doing. She desperately wants to communicate with someone who has a completely different energy and culture, and to be looked at with new eyes.  And I think he ultimately also wants to feel awakened, to open up to emotions he hadn’t previously allowed himself.”

To tackle the film, most of which takes place in a car and interweaves awkward silences with scenes of growing intimacy, Adler worked closely with filmmakers Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnun to meticulously break down the characters’ emotional nuances from moment to moment. “The major challenge was to find the right behavior to make Aya’s outrageous actions credible,” Adler said. “It was, ‘When do the characters search for each other, and when do they ignore each other? When do they go inside or open up?’ All these beats had to be very precise.

“I also tried to build a performance in which Aya almost looks different as the film evolves,” Adler added.  “We see her seem to appear more radiant and open, almost as if you can see her through his eyes.”

Filmmakers Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnun chose Adler for the role “because … it was important for us to cast someone who we can believe is capable of doing such an unusual act, and at the same time, does not appear crazy,” Brezis wrote in an email. “Sarah has something exceptionally intriguing about her, some kind of mystery which raises one's curiosity. … At the same time, she balances it with amazing charms, and together it is the perfect cocktail for our Aya.”

Adler is a citizen of both Israel and France, and merging her dual identities has been a complex journey for the actress. She grew up in a bohemian family in Paris until she was 10, when her mother made the decision to relocate with Sarah to Israel. “She thought that my heritage would remain very abstract if we remained in France,” Adler said. “She wanted me to speak Hebrew and know more about my origins. But it was for me an incredible culture shock. Everything was different — from the language, which I didn’t speak, to the light, the temperature and the way that people would interact. I felt like a foreigner.”

At 17, finding Israel to be a “closed and narrow place,” Adler dropped out of her Tel Aviv arts high school and eventually moved to New York, where she studied at the Lee Strasberg Institute and earned a small role in the 1999 independent film “Afraid of Everything,” among other projects.

Seven years later, however, she returned to Israel “with fresh eyes,” she said. “I could appreciate the warmth and the closeness of the people.” Even so, most of her family was in France as were creative opportunities, so over the years, she moved back and forth between Paris and Tel Aviv, starring in Yossi Madmoni’s Israeli melodrama “Restoration,” for example, as well as Godard’s “Notre Musique,” in which she portrays an Israeli journalist who seeks to learn more about her own besieged country while on assignment in war-torn Sarajevo.

Godard, an admitted anti-Zionist, was criticized in some circles for the movie’s comparison of the Palestinian plight to the Holocaust. “For me, it was important to find the right balance in my performance to protect what I was conveying and not do anything too radical — but at the same time, to collaborate with someone who may have been criticizing where I come from,” Adler said of how she tackled the inflammatory material. “I think the only way to evolve within the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict is to continue to have dialogue with people who think differently than you do.”

While Adler said she has never personally experienced anti-Semitism in France, she’s all too familiar with “the people who are very judgmental about how Israel handles its political situation, so it can be very tough.” She is married to the French-Jewish director Raphael Nadjari. 

Like almost everyone, she was, of course, stunned by the recent terrorist attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher market in Paris. “But in the end, that only reinforced things that I’ve already felt, which is that France is both a great place on a human level and yet it has major problems of racism and hatred,” she said. “It does feel a bit oppressive to be a citizen of both France and Israel these days; I don’t belong to the most peaceful places on earth,” she added. I wonder, where in the world can I just be myself without [being] defined as a Jew or anything else?”

Yet Adler said she will proudly represent Israel when she attends the Academy Awards Feb. 22: “I no longer consider myself more French than Israeli; I’ve stopped asking myself that question,” she said. “Something in me has now resolved: I’m very connected to Israel and I’m also French. I’m a combination, and, in a way, a citizen of the world.”

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