Beverly Hills Peninsula Hotel gets Israeli flair


Like many good-looking newcomers to Los Angeles, Offer — with two F’s — Nissenbaum has a burning ambition.

It’s not to become a marquee idol, but rather, at age 50, to play goalie for one of the city’s amateur hockey teams.

That is, if he can break loose from his day (and frequently night) job as the new managing director of the Peninsula Hotel Beverly Hills, which is within shouting distance of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, owned by fellow Israeli army veteran Beny Alagem.

With 200 guest rooms, the Peninsula — one of an international group of five luxury hotels owned by Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels, Ltd. — is certainly not the largest hotel in the city, but it hosts more than its share of celebrities and A-list events.

“We are the only hotel in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills with a rating of five diamonds from Mobil and five stars from AAA,” said Nissenbaum, who came to the hotel nine months ago.

Like any other top executive in the hotel business — Nissenbaum prefers the term hospitality business — one of his key jobs is to sell the uniqueness of his enterprise to the community.

So his public relations consultant recently invited a reporter to drop in and meet both the managing director and his father; the latter was in town for a visit from Israel.

Joseph Nissenbaum is 80 years old, a survivor of the Holocaust and three Israeli wars, whose life and experiences have marked the outlook and careers of Offer and his two siblings.

“I think one aspect is that we were more driven and we matured earlier than most children,” the younger Nissenbaum observed.

Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Foundation videotaped Joseph Nissenbaum’s story some years ago in Israel, and one purpose of this visit was to take a look at the four-hour interview.

To condense his long and dramatic story, Joseph was born in the East German city of Leipzig, and when he was 10 years old, his life was upended by Kristallnacht.

His father, a native of Poland, was arrested and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, and the following month young Joseph was spirited out of the country via the Kindertransport to find shelter in a Belgian orphanage.

There he lived in relative safety, even after the German conquest, until 1943. But as the Nazi vise tightened, Joseph first worked in a factory and then lived underground with the help of the Belgian resistance movement.

Liberated in late 1944, the 17-year-old Joseph made it to Palestine, worked in a kibbutz, and in 1947 joined the underground Haganah. Fighting as a rifleman in the War of Independence, under the command of a young officer named Ariel Sharon, Joseph was shot in the leg.

The medic who bandaged his wound felt sorry for the family-less young soldier, invited Joseph to his home and introduced him to his sister, Judith. As in all good stories, Joseph and Judith were married shortly afterwards.

In 1956, Joseph was called up again, fought as a sharpshooter in the Sinai campaign, and picked up his rifle once more for the Six-Day War.

By that time, in 1967, Offer was 10 years old and he remembers vividly digging trenches and taping up windows in anticipation of the Arab onslaught.

Finally out of uniform, Joseph started to work for El Al Airlines, became a controller and was transferred to Toronto.

“The Holocaust shaped my character,” Joseph said. “I’m not completely sane; there’s a sense of guilt in surviving when so many others died. I find solace in being alone.”

In Canada, Offer picked up his accent-free English and passion for hockey, but knew nothing about his father’s experiences under Nazi rule. However, when his sister, Orna, now a television and movie producer, started questioning her father about his past, the story gradually came out and had a deep impact on young Offer.

“Being the son of a survivor, seeing your father’s struggles, affects you emotionally,” Offer said. “I once had to go to Germany on business, but to this day I will not buy anything German.”

In 1978, after studying hospitality management at an American college, it was Offer’s turn to join the Israeli army for three years with an elite intelligence unit.

After discharge, he left for New York to start his career. On arrival, a U.S. immigration official with an odd sense of humor made young Nissenbaum an offer he couldn’t refuse and added an “F” to the given name, “Ofer.”

In his first American hotel job, he worked for two years under the tyrannical Leona Helmsley, the “Queen of Mean,” notorious for terrorizing her employees. From that experience, Nissenbaum drew the lesson that “management by fear and intimidation doesn’t work.”

Nissenbaum, now a boss himself at the Peninsula, is a strong believer in a cooperative, counter-Helmsley management style.

“I think of myself more as a mentor than a boss,” he said. “I meet monthly with 25 different employees, from the managers to the dishwasher, to see how we can improve operations. Every employee has a special insight and I believe if you treat your staff right, they will treat the guests right.”

Last month, he personally barbecued all the steaks at an outing for his 420 employees.

In New York, Nissenbaum was active — and recognized by — the American Jewish Committee, Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces and American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

He intends to become equally involved in the Los Angeles community once he’s settled in and has organized his workaholic working hours. Nissenbaum, his wife and their three children, ranging in age from 3 to 12, live in the Benedict Canyon area and are members of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills.

Asked about the effect of the floundering economy on his business, Nissenbaum responded that while no one was immune to the downturn, the impact on the Peninsula has been minimal so far.

“Most of our guests are of high net worth,” he said. “They may be a little more careful about ordering a $1,000 bottle of wine, but they’re not going to fly coach or stay at a motel.”

Israelis Do the Riviera


Amid the celebrities and paparazzi crowding the Cannes Film Festival last week, Katriel Schory roamed the bustling boulevard Croisette like a proud parent.

“Israeli cinema has never had such a presence here,” Schory, director of the Israel Film Fund, said via the cell phone that seems attached to his ear.

Yes, Moshe Mizrahi was nominated for the top prize with his 1972 romantic drama, “I Love You, Rosa,” and Amos Gitai competed five times with his edgy, political films, winning a 2000 award for “Kippur.”

“But I’ve attended this festival for 30 years, and we have a higher profile now than ever,” Schory said. “We’re receiving unprecedented recognition in multiple sections of Cannes.”

The evidence may not appear earth-shattering by Hollywood or Cannes standards. By the time the 12-day extravaganza ends on May 28, almost 1,500 movies from more than 90 countries will have screened in the world’s largest international film festival and market. Yet, for the small but growing Israeli film industry, the progress is dramatic, Schory said. The festival will showcase 15 movies — up from nine in 2005 — some during the first-ever Israel film day, he added.

Two Israeli students, selected by a jury that includes American director Tim Burton, will vie against 15 peers in Cannes’ student competition, perhaps the most prestigious of its kind in the world.

Meanwhile, 40-something auteur Dover Kosashvili (“Late Marriage”), was bustling to meetings with more than 60 financiers — part of a 2006 festival program to help 18 promising directors complete new projects.

On the ground floor of the Palais des Festivals, visitors were streaming to Israel’s official booth, according to Schory: “People are asking, ‘What’s cooking?’ ‘What are the new titles?’ It’s completely different than even several years ago, when once in a while someone used to stop by.”

Schory said he is being wooed by leaders of other international film festivals, who previously ignored him.

“I used to have to beg them to take our movies,” he recalls. “But this year, the Locarno people insisted that I come to their party and that they want a closer relationship with us. And just a couple hours ago, the woman who schedules the Venice festival came up to me and said she wanted to talk as soon as possible about the latest crop of Israeli films.”

Schory’s Israel Film Fund finances up to 70 percent of all Israeli films with his annual budget of $7 million. He has theories about why Israeli cinema is generating interest at home and abroad.

Back in the 1980s, he said, homegrown cinema revolved around the Middle East conflict, a subject too specific to generate foreign sales. Even Israelis were sick of the topic from the news. In the 1990s, filmmakers focused on what Schory calls “navel-gazing” — movies so tediously personal they bored everyone. (Not to mention that the production values and storylines needed work, critics have said.)

In 1998, less than 1 percent of Israelis bothered to see Israeli films: “Our industry was practically dead,” Schory said.

Then came a new crop of artists armed with superior technical skills they had learned at Israel’s blossoming film schools or by working in the country’s bourgeoning TV industry.

“These directors are focusing on intimate dramas dealing with universal, day to day problems — family and social issues that are part of the life of every human being,” Schory said.

Kosashvili’s 2001 drama, “Late Marriage,” about a man torn between his lover and his immigrant family, was the first such film to “pull us out of our slump,” Schory recalls. It didn’t hurt, either, that the Los Angeles Times called “Marriage’s” hottest sex scene “the longest and most erotic, tender and passionate ever to occur in a serious film.”

The drama not only drew some 300,000 Israeli viewers, compared to around 15,000 for previous films; it also earned a slot in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard competition.

Also in 2001, France signed a co-production agreement with Israel that to date has generated 15 films, including Eran Riklis’ searing and highly acclaimed “The Syrian Bride.” Three years later, American distributors bought 9 of the 20 films produced in 2004, said Meir Fenigstein of the Israel Film Festival.

And Israeli movies sold 2.5 million tickets abroad — 1 million of them in France — the following year.

Many of the new directors depict unflinching critiques of Israeli society, a trend now reflected at Cannes. Yaniv Berman’s 30-minute student short, “Even Kids Started Small,” for example, dissects violence at public schools (see sidebar). Yuval Shafferman’s “Things Behind the Sun” depicts a family paralyzed by secrets.

Kosashvili’s new project, “Kishta,” is another kind of domestic drama, an erotic love triangle set in the third century. Cannes officials are providing invaluable help to the director and his producers as they hustle to raise the additional $3 million they’ll need to shoot the $4 million drama.

“The festival has set up meetings with bigwigs we would not have been able to get on our own,” producer Edgard Tenenbaum said by cell phone between appointments. “It’s also great because we don’t have to fly around the world to pitch.”

All this despite ongoing resentment toward Israel due to the Palestinian conflict — especially in European nations such as France. Schory believes this is one

case where art — and cash — transcend politics.

“No one invests in movies for philanthropic reasons or for any special affection for the Jewish state,” he said. “They invest because they’ve seen Israeli movies sell tickets, and they believe they can recoup their money.”

Not that politics are completely absent from the festival; they never are, he adds. Schory cites a panel discussion he just attended in which a Tunisian producer grilled him about the status of Israeli Arab directors.

Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman, of the controversial suicide bombing saga, “Paradise Now,” is a judge in the top competition this year.

“That won’t affect us, because Israeli films aren’t participating,” Schory said. “But I don’t think Suleiman could be objective about an Israeli film.”

Even so, he adds, Jewish and Arab filmmakers are at least talking to each other, if only to lament the obstacles to co-production.

“At the end of the day, film is a universal language,” Schory said.

And with that, he headed off to meetings at the end of his day.

 

N for No-Nonsense Natalie


Natalie Portman has probably populated more fanboy fantasies than anyone this side of Jessica Alba.

Besides presiding over the recent “Star Wars” films as Queen Amidala, she plays a bald, beautiful and badass revolutionary in “V For Vendetta,” opening March 17, the latest film from “Matrix” masterminds Andy and Larry Wachowski. As the missing link between the universes of George Lucas and the Wachowski Brothers, Portman holds a unique place in geek-movie history

“Yes, they’re all somehow linked now,” she says. “It’s sort of hard to put a genre label on ‘V For Vendetta,’ but it fits in the action category with ‘Star Wars,’ even though it’s a little bit more provocative. But I will leave it to all the people who love to write essays about this kind of stuff to make ‘Matrix’ and ‘V’ connections and ‘Star Wars’ and ‘V’ connections. There’s certainly plenty to discuss.”

Portman professes much love for Lucas and the “Star Wars” experience, but she also insinuates that the trilogy provided her with a handy way of staying in movies while she was off attending Harvard University.

“I was in school during the year, and then on summer break I would do a

‘Star Wars,'” says the Jerusalem-born actress. “But I’m done with school, done with ‘Star Wars.’ I’ve graduated.”

“V For Vendetta” is a whopper of a graduation present. Adapted by the Wachowskis from a graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, the movie is set in a future world squirming under the thumb of a totalitarian chancellor (John Hurt). Homosexuality is illegal; freedom of speech is a memory; and hope is in short supply.

One day, a mysterious figure appears, wearing a mask designed to look like Guy Fawkes, the 17th century Catholic revolutionary who tried to blow up British Parliament in 1605. Calling himself V (Hugo Weaving), the cape-wearing anti-hero is planning a series of terrorist attacks against the repressive British government. Portman plays Evey Hammond, a waif who becomes V’s protégé.

Making a $50 million movie with a terrorist as a hero is a bold movie in post-Sept. 11 America. Portman knew the film would spark controversy but found herself instantly drawn to its provocative, envelope-pushing subject matter.

“Being from Israel was one of the reasons that I wanted to do this movie, because terrorism and violence have been such a daily part of my thought process and conversation ever since I was young,” she says. “One of the books that I read to help me with this role was Menachim Begin’s book about his experiences in a Siberian prison. Eventually he came to lead Israel in the British occupation of Palestine. He was called a terrorist by many people. Israelis have been called terrorists all through history.”

“The movie asks important questions, like, ‘When, if ever, is violence justified?’ And ‘What is the threshold for how pressing a situation can be before we have to revolt?’ One of the great things about the movie is that it leaves those questions open for discussion,” she says.

Portman has always tried to pursue thought-provoking material. She played the title role in a Broadway production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in 1997, embodied an American stripper living in London for “Closer” (earning a best supporting actress nomination in the process) and starred in the Israeli film “Free Zone,” which premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Fest.

The actress accepted the vanity-destroying role of Evey knowing that one of the requirements was an on-camera trip to the barber.

“It wasn’t traumatic because I was trying to focus on what my character was going through,” says Portman about getting a buzzcut. “We only had one shot to do it. I don’t really have any personal memories of the experience.”

Since shooting the film, Portman’s hair has grown out a few inches. For today’s interview, she’s wearing it spiky and punked-up. Dressed in jeans, an open sweater and the world’s tiniest ballet slippers, Portman looks a good deal younger than her 24 years.

As a former child star who made her film debut in the bullet ballet “The Professional,” Portman is used to suffering for her art, but she drew the line when it came to doing her own stunts. Claiming to be “not in great shape,” she allowed her “Vendetta” double to do all of the tough stuff.

“I would do the end of the stunt,” she says. “Someone else would fall out of the window, and then I would end up there on the ground. That’s movie magic.”

Not everything about “V” has been so easy. In fact, the film has been surrounded by controversy since production got underway last year. Real-life terrorism, the firing of a leading man and the airing of a famous filmmaker’s dirty laundry all figured into the long, arduous process of bringing the graphic novel to the screen.

Originally published in 1981, “V For Vendetta” was written as an indictment of Margaret Thatcher’s conservative politics. A few years later, the rights were scooped up by producer Joel Silver (“Lethal Weapon,” “The Matrix”) who approached the Wachowskis about penning an adaptation. When “The Matrix” trilogy started winding down, the brothers finally decided to revisit the risky material.

Instead of directing the film themselves, the brothers and Silver hired “The Matrix” second unit director James McTiegue to call “action” and “cut.”

The Wachowskis were apparently on the set nearly every single day, which inspired rumors that McTiegue was a mere figurehead and that the brothers were calling the shots themselves.

McTiegue insists that gossip was unfounded.

“The Wachowskis were the producers and they wrote the script,” he notes. “They were a great sounding board but they were the first to tell me that I could take or leave their suggestions.”

The production encountered another problem when the graphic novel’s writer Alan Moore requested that his name be taken off the final film. Stung by the poor adaptation of “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” Moore apparently made his decision without ever seeing a frame of “V For Vendetta.”

“I did call Alan and ask him not to have his name removed,” notes David Lloyd, who illustrated the graphic novel. “I wish he hadn’t done it. But he isn’t happy until the movie is a perfect reproduction. Alan has a clear viewpoint of what he represents as a person and an artist. My viewpoint is completely different. I think they’ve done a great job with the film.”

Yet another potentially disastrous turn of events unfolded when the original actor cast as V — “Rome’s” James Purefoy — was fired midway through the film and replaced by “The Matrix’s” Hugo Weaving. Purefoy apparently wasn’t a dynamic enough presence for the filmmakers. Even though Silver confirms that some of Purefoy’s scenes remain in the film, Weaving receives the sole screen credit and also provides V’s voice.

Portman was surprised when the change was made. She enjoyed working with both actors but saves most of her praise for Weaving.

“With an actor like Hugo, your job is so much easier because he has this incredible, very specific character that he creates just through his vocal and physical expressiveness,” she says. “Even though he was wearing a mask, I felt he was there with me all of the time.”

Originally scheduled to be released in November 2005 — to coincide with Guy Fawkes Day — the film was delayed after a July 2005 bombing in a British subway claimed the lives of 52 civilians. Portman believes the intermingling of reel and real events is indicative of just how much “V For Vendetta” has its finger on the pulse of the times.

“Obviously, when you see any act of violence anywhere with casualties, you’re always horrified,” she says of the London tragedy. “I’m optimistic to hope that this movie doesn’t present an exact vision of our future, but obviously there are many elements that resonate with historical events and current events.”

With its depiction of a repressive government without checks and balances, “V For Vendetta” can be read as a commentary on Bush’s America. Does Portman see any parallels?

“I think that there are many people who will take it that way,” she says. “But there are other people I know who are pro-Bush and they’ve seen this as an anti-fascism movie.”

A few weeks before the release of “V For Vendetta,” Rolling Stone magazine published an unflattering story about Larry Wachowski’s increasingly unusual behavior. Apparently, Wachowski left his wife, took up with a dominatrix named Mistress Strix and began cross-dressing. Wachowski, who never consents to interviews, has yet to respond to the claims.

McTiegue also refuses to comment on the chit-chat surrounding the brothers.

“I pay about as much attention to those stories as they deserve, which isn’t much,” McTiegue says. “I don’t comment on people’s personal lives.”

To hear Portman tell it, “V For Vendetta” dovetails nicely with her burgeoning interest in world affairs. Recently, the actress helped promote the efforts of FINCA, an organization devoted to helping establish banks for women in developing nations.

Visiting Uganda, Ecuador and Guatemala with the group has opened Portman’s eyes to the amount of work that needs to be down to help end global poverty.

“I definitely think that maybe someday I’ll be doing other things besides acting,” she says. “But until I do them, I’ve learned not to talk about it. I’ve been interviewed since I was 12 years old and I feel as if I’ve left a trail of unfulfilled dreams behind me.”

After finishing “V For Vendetta,” Portman “took a breather” by contributing supporting performances to Milos Forman’s costume drama “Goya’s Ghost” with Javier Bardem and the kiddie flick “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” with Dustin Hoffman.

“I’m just trying to do different things because I feel like if I can keep myself interested then there’s the hope of keeping an audience interested, too.” l

Amy Longsdorf is a freelance writer who can be reached at movieamy@aol.com.

Italian Entry Locked Out of Oscar Race


Even the annual Oscar competition can’t stay clear of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This year, the brouhaha is about “Private,” a film centering on a Palestinian West Bank family whose home is temporarily taken over by a squad of Israeli soldiers.

“Private,” the work of Italian director Saverio Costanzo, was shot by an Italian crew and was selected as Italy’s official entry in the foreign language film Oscar category.

It was promptly rejected by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which accepted entries from 57 other countries, including Israel and the not-yet nation of Palestine.

The rejection, a news release from the Italian producers hints darkly, was due to the favorable treatment of the film’s Palestinian family.

Not so, Academy spokeswoman Teni Melidonian said. The problem lies in the fact that the languages spoken in “Private” are Arabic, Hebrew and English, but there isn’t a word of Italian.

“Our rules state clearly that an entry must be predominantly in the language of the country submitting the film” Melidonian said.

Italy quickly substituted another film, titled “La Bestia Nel Cuore” (“Don’t Tell” in English), but the controversy shouldn’t overshadow this intriguing movie, which includes some persuasive acting by a mixed Arab and Israeli cast.

Mohammad, his wife, Samia, and their five children live in an isolated two-story house, halfway between a Palestinian village and an Israeli settlement.

Suddenly one night (the film was shot in late 2003 with the intifada in full force), a squad of Israeli soldiers burst into the house to secure it as a lookout post facing Palestinian snipers.

At first, the family is ordered to evacuate the house, but Mohammad stands fast and refuses to leave.

The Israelis agree to a compromise, unthinkable in any other war, of allowing the family to stay in the downstairs living room and kitchen, while the soldiers take over the upstairs bedrooms.

Ofer, the leader of the squad, lays down one condition. On pain of severe punishment, none of the family members can go upstairs, and at night the door to the living room is locked from the outside.

Under the jampacked living conditions, the family’s nerves and tempers quickly fray. The wife wants to leave for the children’s safety. The older teenagers, fed steady TV images of heroic Palestinian martyrs, urge direct resistance.

But Mohammad, a teacher and Shakespeare fan, remains adamant that the most effective path is nonviolent resistance, expressed in the family insistence on staying put.

Mariam, the older daughter, plays a daring game by sneaking upstairs and observing the soldiers secretly through a crack in a closet door.

To her surprise, the young, clean-cut soldiers are quite human. One plays the flute, another does artwork; they miss home, and they complain about their officers.

The exception is Ofer, a disciplinarian and bit of a bully, who keeps the men in line and at one point threatens to shoot Mohammad, but even he eventually complains about constantly moving from one Arab house to another.

Despite the extreme stress, the Arab family is almost too good to be true, regardless of ethnicity. Mohammad is a deeply caring father and tender husband, the wife is scared but loyal, and the youngest kids are Hollywood cute.

The father is portrayed by Mohammad Bakri, a veteran Israeli Arab character actor, whose mixture of fortitude and sensitivity gives the film much of its strength. The wife’s role is skillfully acted by Areen Omari.

In shooting the film, director Costanzo favored hand-held cameras and barely visible interior settings, not always to the film’s or viewer’s advantage.

It is obvious that he intends to steer the audience’s sympathy toward the family. Nevertheless, as in earlier films by both Palestinian and Israeli directors (“Divine Intervention,” “Rana’s Wedding” and “The Syrian Bride”), with foreign audiences in mind, the Israelis are portrayed not as ruthless conquerors but as recognizable human characters.

“Private,” with English subtitles, opens Dec. 2 at the Laemmle Fairfax 3 in Los Angeles, One Colorado in Pasadena and University Town Center in Irvine. For more information, visit www.laemmle.com or www.typecastfilms.com for details.

 

‘Syrian Bride’ Weds Simple Tale, History


The guests at this Middle Eastern wedding were more mournful than joyous. But even more troubled was the Druze bride herself. All dressed up, she was stuck at a border crossing in the dusty demilitarized zone between Israel’s Golan Heights and Syria.

It wasn’t clear if she’d be allowed to cross for her wedding. And if she did, she might never see her family on the other side again.

Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis witnessed and filmed the incident, which became part of his 1999 documentary, “Borders.”

Now, the director has returned to this material in his searing, new feature film, “The Syrian Bride,” which is loosely based on that stressful 1998 day at the border. The film also confronts personal and psychological limits, especially those faced by women in traditional societies. And it’s generated controversy and won awards across many borders. The film will screen at this year’s Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles.

In the real-life episode, the bride from a village that became Israeli after the 1967 War was to marry a Druze from Damascus. The Druze religion is a medieval offshoot of Islam, and the Druze people have been divided among several countries in the region.

The bride’s listed nationality, like that of many former Syrians in the area, was listed as “undetermined.” This designation meant that once she crossed into Syria, she would never be allowed to return to her village; nor would her relatives be allowed to visit her.

Riklis lingered with his camera, hoping to shoot the nuptials. But the Syrian border official balked at the Israeli stamp on the bride’s passport, while his Israeli counterpart refused to erase the stamp. So the bride sweated for hours in the sun as her taffeta gown wilted.

“It was just a short sequence, but it obsessed me,” Riklis said. “It was the image of a bride in a white dress, in an almost Western setting, and having to deal with politics and bureaucracy, when all you want to do is get married.

“I quickly realized I had everything I needed to make a successful movie,” he added. “There was Israel, there was Syria and the people caught in the middle.

“What I’ve tried to do in all my films is to tell simple stories of simple people, set against the backdrop of local, regional and even world politics,” he said. “And this had all the ingredients to tell the story of the whole history of the Middle East.”

And that’s precisely what he attempts in his new, fictional work, “The Syrian Bride.” The title character is Mona (Clara Khoury) from the village of Majdal Shams, whose wedding day is the saddest of her life. Her arranged marriage to a Syrian actor, whom she has never met, will mean utter isolation in a strange city.

Her father, a recently released political prisoner, will be unable to see her off because he is prohibited from going near the border. Her brother, who was excommunicated after marrying a non-Druze, is also banned from the wedding.

Above all, Mona dreads losing her sister, the feisty Amal (Hiam Abbass), who is unhappy in an arranged marriage to a man who refuses to allow her to become a social worker. But while Mona silently broods throughout the film, Amal gradually speaks up, defying village convention, as well as bureaucrats threatening the wedding.

“Bride” joins the burgeoning trend of Israeli films — such as Amos Gitai’s “Free Zone” — that tackle Middle East strife through intimate human dramas. It won 16 awards on the festival circuit, making it perhaps the most honored film in Israeli history.

“It’s hard to imagine a recent film that presents a more nuanced portrait of Israelis and Arabs, of Jews and Druze, of their equal capacity for heartlessness and generosity,” The Forward said.

Riklis, who calls himself a “filmmaker without borders,” spoke to The Journal from the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba, where he was researching a movie on globalization. The easygoing director said he felt completely at home in the foreign milieu, having crossed borders all his life. The son of a scientist who worked internationally, Jerusalem-born Riklis spent his youth, respectively, in Montreal, New York, Beersheva, New Haven, Rio de Janeiro, London and Tel Aviv.

Attending an American high school in Brazil helped shape his world view in the late 1960s, he said in unaccented English. Israeli pride was high after the 1967 victory, but Riklis’ American classmates fiercely argued over their own Vietnam War.

“This opened my eyes to a more nuanced approach to world politics, and made me aware that there is always another way of looking at things,” he said. “That later shaped my approach as a democratic filmmaker who tries to show all points of view.”

To reflect his heroines’ viewpoints in “Bride,” Riklis said he sought “an open-minded woman with a traditional Arab background” to co-write the drama. Because the Druze do not have a tradition of theater or cinema, he was unable to find a suitable Druze partner.

Instead, he pursued Palestinian Israeli Suha Arraf, who grew up in a Christian village in the northern Galilee, worked as journalist for Haaretz newspaper and won kudos for her documentaries on Arab life. Thirty-six and unmarried, brash and outspoken, she refuses to make documentaries on subjects such as female suicide bombers because she perceives them as cliched — the kind of film critics might expect her to direct — and “I am not a puppet,” she said from her Haifa apartment.

Although Riklis had tactfully depicted Arabs in his 1991 soccer film, “Cup Final,” Arraf was initially cautious.

“I don’t agree to work with just any Jewish filmmaker,” she said, briskly. “A lot of Jews want to make movies about Arabs, and there are a lot of stereotypes.”

Actress Haim Abbass had an even stronger response: “I thought, ‘Who … is this guy who is so interested in such intimate stories of Arab culture,'” she said from New York.

Riklis won over both women by stating that he did not represent Syrians, Israelis or Druze, but rather the truth. He added that he wanted to tell the story because “everyone knows about the Palestinians, but few realize the Druze were also occupied in 1967.”

While Riklis researched the film by spending time in the real village of Majdal Shams, Abbass prepared in a more private manner.

“I found I identified with my character on almost every level — on both feminist and political fronts,” she said.

The actress had grown up in a traditional Muslim village near the Lebanese border. While her parents were modern, the villagers weren’t. Abbass was severely criticized for refusing to wed her cousin in an arranged marriage at 18, for smoking and for planning to attend university to study theater and photography, which was not perceived as a woman’s profession.

She also related to the fictional Amal because the border had separated her own family.

“I knew that my mother’s sister was in Syria, and that my mother and aunt could never see each other,” she said. “I grew up acutely aware of the exile and distance caused by war.”

Jewish-Palestinian hostilities eventually led Abbass to relocate to Paris, where she won roles in Arabic language films, such as 2002’s “Satin Rouge.” “The Syrian Bride” is her first made-in-Israel movie, although the dialogue is mostly in Arabic.

While Palestinians and Jews worked well together on the set, the movie initially drew ire from both Arabs and Israelis. Druze viewers resented the depiction of how their tradition treats women. A Palestinian director dismissed the movie as “an Israeli liberal token job” and all but one Arabic film festival refused it.

Meanwhile, Jews complained that the Israeli characters are villainous. (Riklis insists they’re well-rounded border types.) The film became a critical and commercial success in Israel only after it won accolades and audiences in Europe; even so, it did not win a single Israeli Oscar.

Riklis said he wasn’t upset about the Oscars, because “Bride” has proven its universal appeal. Although inspired by that 1998 Druze wedding, “the movie transcends geography, because its really about all people at a crossroads, living with physical and emotional borders.”

 

Actor of ‘Favor’


"I am not Menachem."

So says Israeli heartthrob Aki Avni, referring to his character in "Time of Favor," the Israeli psychological thriller opening in Los Angeles movie theaters Feb 1. The film, winner of six Israeli Oscars last year, including picture of the year, tells the story of a religious settler army unit in which one student, Pini, takes to heart his rabbi’s ideological rantings about the Temple Mount, and crazily decides to blow it up.

Avni plays the lead character, Menachem, a religious company commander who must weigh his loyalty to the rabbi and the unit with his own sense of personal responsibility and his love for the rabbi’s daughter, Michal, and in the end, save Pini from himself.

Even now, pounds thinner, hair choppier (he’s just growing it back after shaving it all off for his last film) than when he played the 23-year-old religious commander, it’s hard to separate the actor from the character. That quiet confidence, charismatic goodness and soft-spoken assurance with which Menachem carried the film (he won an Oscar for best actor) comes across in person.

Avni, 35, in a typically Tel Avivian formal outfit of sleek black — collarless blazer, untucked buttoned shirt, stylish pants — stands at attention to demonstrate how he got into the role of Menachem. Chin raised, shoulders back, heels clicked together, instantly, he becomes the character, the one on the screen who stole the heart of Michal and the audience with his sympathetic portrayal of a conflicted man: religious, idealistic, but learning to doubt.

Very different from the real Avni, who in the past few years has started becoming observant.The boy who grew up in Rehovot in what he calls an "atheist house" now keeps kosher and observes the Sabbath, and has an older brother who’s a Bretslover Chasid living in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim. "I became interested in the wisdom in Judaism. … It would be a shame to lose it," he says.

His film character goes in a different direction. Menachem slowly disconnects from the spirited singing of his soldiers, his rabbi’s orders to soldier on and forget Michal — though it’s never clear how far Menachem breaks from it.

Playing the part of Menachem was no problem — he’d already starred in the popular weekly drama series, "Basic Training"; but to absorb the religious settler aspect, Avni spent time in yeshivas in Hebron and elsewhere. "I wanted to know the [behavioral] code between the students and the rabbi," Avni told The Journal.

Avni acts his part as convincingly as fellow actor Assi Dayan acts the role of Rabbi Meltzer, a chillingly sane man with a belief in the Greater Land of Israel, who holds sway over many impressionable yeshiva bochers (students), indirectly influencing Pini, a diabetic genius, to try to bomb the mosque after being rejected by Michal.

But did they play their parts too well? In Israel, during the year since the film has come out, many religious people were outraged because they felt the film portrays settlers in a negative light.

"All in all, it’s not a biography, it’s a movie," Avni says. "Even though the story could be realistic, in a far-off possibility, but it could be realistic."

The possibility of fanatical words leading to acts of terror isn’t really far off; it’s the world we live in today, post-Sept. 11, the world the film is being released into, even though it was made long before. But Avni is not concerned that "Favor," depicting Israel now to the world at large, depicts the nation in a fanatical light. "The movie clearly says there are extremists everywhere, but we [in Israel] don’t accept them."

Avni believes American audiences will appreciate the film more now. "There is a great parallel between the story [of the film and that of] every extremist," he says. "Of course," he adds, "there’s a big difference between Pini and terrorists."

Like most Israelis, Avni has a lot to say about the situation — about Yasser Arafat not being a partner, about the failed Camp David talks, the need for a Palestinian state so that Israel can act freely, and the effect on Israelis and Israeli culture. "Whenever the security situation is bad, luxury is the first thing that hurts…. Today there are fewer people going out," Avni explains. "But people always want to be entertained, and we have a nation that’s very, very strong; people are very strong in the State of Israel … and no one will break us. Everybody understands that now more than ever."

His patriotism aside, Avni plans on spending more time in — where else? — Hollywood. Avni’s wife, Israeli model Sandy Bar, will join him in their Marina del Rey apartment next month, and he is hoping to land work here. He has already signed with the Don Buchwald agency.

After nearly a decade of fame in Israel — in theater, television and film as, say, the Israeli equivalent of Tom Cruise — can the big fish from the small sea handle it as small fry here in Tinseltown?

"I’m nobody here. No one knows me," he admits. "But I love challenges. You know what? I look at it as something very good that happened to me. Israel, it was like my laboratory. I learned what I should do and what I shouldn’t do," he says.

Avni started acting at age 12; his formal training began after his army service, studying at the Yoram Levinstein studio in Tel Aviv. For a few years Avni was pigeonholed as a TV show host ("The Price Is Right") before he got cast on the dramatic "Basic Training."

He doesn’t seem to care that he might have to start all over again. "To tell you the truth. I feel like I’ve done it already. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone," he says. "I know the feeling of going on the street when people want your autograph, I’ve done it already. I want to work in the biggest professional system that I can find, which is here, probably. That’s what interests me."

Israel’s Oscar Contender


“In the old Hollywood movies, the underdog always won. I’ve got to believe that can still happen,” says Joseph Cedar, sitting in the lobby of a cheap hotel in the mid-Wilshire area frequented by young Israelis and artistic types of various nationalities.

Edan Alterman and Tinkerbell star in “Time of Favor,” an Oscar hopeful for Israel this year.Photo by Yoni Hamenachem

Cedar, 32, lean, intense, with a kipah atop his close-shaved hair, is the director and writer of “Time of Favor,” Israel’s official contender in this year’s Academy Award race for best foreign film.

Forty-five other countries have entered their best films and five will be nominated, precisely at 5:30 a.m. on Feb. 13, as finalists for the top honor.

Cedar doesn’t have a budget for splashy ads in the Hollywood trade papers, like front-runner “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” from Taiwan. He has few influential contacts, and, as a first-time director, he has no track record.

What he does have is a burning conviction that “Time of Favor” is a gripping, timely movie with universal appeal whose sheer excellence will make it the first Israeli film in 16 years to win a spot among the five nominees. (Only four Israeli films have made it that far during the past 50 years, and none has ever won an Oscar.)

Of course, Sunset Boulevard is littered with the shattered dreams of hopeful young filmmakers, but in this case, Cedar’s fervent faith is buoyed by others.

Recently, the entire front page of The New York Times’ entertainment section was taken up by a detailed article with photos on “Time of Favor.” A few days later, the Los Angeles Times reported that at a screening of the movie at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the word-of-mouth buzz about “Time of Favor” was so intense that more than 100 fans were left outside clamoring to get into the sold-out screening. The headline of the Los Angeles Times story read, “Oscar Hopeful ‘Time of Favor’ Stirring Up a Storm in the Desert.”

“Time of Favor” (“Hahesder” — “The Arrangement” — in Hebrew) has a number of pluses going for it: fine performances by some of Israel’s top talent, a storyline that combines low-key romance with nerve-tingling action, an authentic portrayal by an insider of Israel’s national religious settlers and a plot that appears ripped from today’s headlines of the turbulent Middle East or, better said, the possible nightmare headlines of the future.

The film is set in an isolated West Bank settlement, surrounded by the stark Judean hills and desert. The leader and head of the settlement’s yeshiva is charismatic Rabbi Meltzer (Asi Dayan, son of Moshe Dayan and a fervent secular leftist, in a bravura performance), who foresees the time when Jerusalem’s Temple Mount will be cleared of Muslims and restored to Jewish hands.

The persuasive Meltzer has convinced the army to establish an all- Orthodox unit, attracting the finest yeshiva students, who will form the “spearhead” — for what purpose is unclear.

Commanding the unit is Menahem (played by hunky Aki Avni), who is both Orthodox and a professional soldier. Among his men is the frail Pini (Edan Alterman), who has the making of a brilliant Talmudist and is intended by Meltzer to marry his daughter, Michal (played by the talented Israeli actress who goes under the odd name of Tinkerbell).

Independent-minded Michal is instead attracted to Menahem, who is also drawn to her but, in loyalty to the rabbi and Pini, rebuffs her.

Pini, distraught over the rejection by Michal and convinced that the rabbi’s futuristic vision calls for direct action, plots to blow up the Dome of the Rock, the Muslim holy shrine on the Temple Mount.

Israel’s Shin Bet is tipped off and, fearful that Pini’s action will ignite the entire Muslim world, works feverishly to forestall the explosion. The secret service men believe Menahem to be one of the plotters but can’t foil the plot without his help.

The realization that such a deranged attempt is conceivable, and the unthinkable consequences if successful, gives the film’s climax its special edge.

Cedar was born in New York into a modern Orthodox family. In 1973, when he was 5, his father, a noted geneticist, and his mother, a drama-psychotherapist, made aliyah.

The family settled in the Bayit Vegan section of Jerusalem, dominated by the national religious adherents of Gush Emunim. Joseph served with an Israeli paratroop unit, where he was one of three kipah-wearing soldiers.

After his discharge, he earned a bachelor’s degree at Hebrew University and then graduated from New York University’s film school.

When he started writing “Time of Favor” in 1995, Cedar moved to a West Bank settlement north of Ramallah, and his friends in the settlement and the Orthodox community had high hopes for his project.”They told me that since I was the first observant Jew to make an Israeli feature film, here was a chance to show how great we really are,” Cedar recalled.

But as the screenplay evolved over the years, it was gradually transformed from the initial showcase picture for the national religious viewpoint.

“I came to believe that the central question of the film was how much an individual must sacrifice for the good of a group or to advance a cause,” Cedar said. “It’s a question now facing Israeli society, and I don’t know the answer. Like the film itself, I have more questions than answers.”

Cedar and his wife, journalist Vered Kelner, have been in Los Angeles since early December, trying, in best Hollywood fashion, to create a “network” from scratch.

“I’ve called everybody I know, and then the people they referred me to, anything to give the film some exposure,” he said.

“Time of Favor” has been screened in many “beautiful homes in Beverly Hills” and has circulated among people in “the industry,” and the reaction, Cedar said, has been that “finally here is an Israeli film that has a chance to be nominated for an Academy Award.”

The movie was even brought to the attention of Bill Clinton in the waning days of his presidency, though he didn’t get around to seeing it, according to Cedar.

So far, “Time of Favor,” like most foreign language films, hasn’t found an American distributor. Cedar hopes this will change if the film is nominated. However, it is due to be screened at the Israeli Film Festival in New York on Feb. 22 and in Los Angeles on March 27.

Meanwhile, Cedar has attracted enough attention so that American and foreign producers are inquiring about his next project.

It will be a comedy, mainly about Jewish fundraising. “After five years of getting this film off the ground, I’ve become an expert on fundraising,” he says.

While waiting for the results of the fateful Academy vote, Cedar’s mood fluctuates. “I’m afraid to be too optimistic — you know, provoking the Evil Eye,” he says, “but I will be deeply disappointed if I don’t make it.”

Cameo of a Playwright


Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai will direct a novice actor in his next movie.He is playwright Arthur Miller, better known as the author of “Death of a Salesman,” “The Crucible” and numerous other dramas.

The title of the movie is “Plain Jane” and Miller will be familiar with the plotline. “Plain Jane” is based on his own short story, “Homely Girl, a Life,” according to an article in The Hollywood Reporter.

In the $9 million English-language film, Samantha Morton will play the troubled daughter of Jewish immigrants, and the 85-year-old Miller will make his big screen debut as her father.

Miller’s story is set in the Jewish immigrant community of New York, but the film version has been transplanted to Palestine of the late 1930s, before the establishment of the state of Israel.

Gitai is known for his highly controversial Hebrew-language films, most recently “Kadosh” and “Kippur.”

Israeli Satire and Mystery


I first went wild over “Salah” in 1964. More than three decades later, I couldn’t help wondering whether the Israeli movie would still exert its charm and humor.

Not to worry. “Salah,” which launched a young Haim Topol on his international screen and stage career and was the first Israeli entry to be nominated for an Academy Award, has, if anything, improved with the passage of time.

Known as “Salah Shabbati” in Israel, the film chronicles the misadventures of a grizzled North African immigrant to austerity-ridden Israel, which houses him and his vast family in a decrepit transit camp.

Salah is determined to find decent housing, which is in desperately short supply, and in this mission-nearly-impossible, director-writer Ephraim Kishon manages to satirize just about every pillar of Israeli society: the Ashkenazi establishment, the pedantic bureaucracy, corrupt political parties, rigid kibbutz ideologues and, in one priceless scene, the Jewish National Fund’s tree-planting program.

Haim Topol, then a young man and of Ashkenazi heritage, plays the old Sephardic manipulator with such consummate skill that even aged immigrants from Morocco and Tunisia were convinced that he was one of them.

A short personal reminiscence: When “Salah” became a hit in Israel, a New York furrier acquired the American rights for pocket change. Nobody was more surprised than he when the picture was nominated for an Academy Award and he flew to Los Angeles with Kishon and Topol in tow.

Israeli playwright Dan Almagor, then living in Los Angeles, was a friend of Kishon, and he asked me to serve as the film’s publicist for the greater glory of the Jewish state and a total of $75 in payment.

Our PR campaign evolved into a kind of “Alice in Wonderland” effort, and while we didn’t win an Oscar, brother, we tried.

The Israel Film Festival has scheduled only one more screening of “Salah,” at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 18, at Laemmle’s Music Hall.

Forget about the job, forget about the family dinner, and hustle down to see “Salah.” Israel has never been such fun. And, yes, get your tickets early — last week’s showing was jam-packed with appreciative Israelis.

‘Song of Galilee’

Murder mysteries and detective yarns are a genre rarely tackled by Israeli filmmakers, but in “Song of Galilee,” Daniel Wachsmann proves that it can be done with satisfying tension and considerable style.

As a bonus, the hour-long TV film introduces viewers to a part of Israel well off the beaten track and reaches back 2,000 years to a tragic chapter in Jewish history.

Casting himself as the documentary director he is, Wachsmann turns detective when a reclusive young poet is found shot dead at the foot of Mount Meron in the Upper Galilee.

The police round up five suspects but releases them and closes the case as a suicide. As Wachsmann tracks down each of the close-mouthed suspects, he stumbles on a clan, descended from the last priestly guardians of the Second Temple, who have vowed to establish a secessionist Galilean state by force of arms, and may have hidden some of the temple’s treasures.

Those who know Israel mainly as a high-density coastal strip, will admire the rugged wilderness area that provides the setting for the film. Wachsmann populates this mountainous redoubt with as individualistic and ornery a bunch of characters as may be encountered in any American Western.

“Song of Galilee” will screen on Nov. 16 at 7:45 p.m., and on Nov. 19 at 9:30 p.m.

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