Michal Vinik, like many first-time screen writers and directors, decided to tell a story she knew well.
That’s the ring of truth behind her “Barash,” a poignant coming-of-age film about teenage love in small-town Israel that puts a hefty emphasis on lesbian sex and a lot of pot-smoking, with some harder drugs thrown in as well.
“I wanted to make a movie that I’d want to see,” said Vinik. “There weren’t enough images of girls who were like me and my friends. The films were always about guys. I didn’t find myself on the screen.”
The teenagers in “Barash,” named for the main character, Naama Barash (Sivan Noam Shimon), are pretty much like teenagers everywhere. They’re young and beautiful, even if they don’t think they are, eager to try new things — mostly sex or drugs in this story — and achingly dismissive of those who love them — their parents, who are apparently clueless as to what they’re really up to.
The lean and beautiful Barash, who cuts a boyish figure despite the swing of her long, brunette hair, drives the storyline, which is about her search for what passes as truth for a 17-year-old, whether with her friends and her love interests, or her family, which is undergoing a parallel crisis throughout the 85-minute film.
She falls in love with the sexy, skinny Hershko (Jade Sakori, another unknown), and happily takes on a new persona, that of a cool lesbian who tries Ecstasy — much to the dismay of her old friends, who can’t believe she didn’t share with them — and hops the local Egged bus to troll cool Tel Aviv lesbian clubs.
The film’s secondary storyline involves Barash’s older sister, Liora, who has gone AWOL from her army base and appears to be living with her Arab boyfriend.
Their father, Gidon (Dvir Benedek), an overbearing bear of a man, and mother Michal (Irit Pashtan), a timid, tightly wound but loving figure, are anxiously trying to find Liora, and Naama shows an angry, brash side of her personality as she accompanies her parents on their journey to locate her sister.
That part of the story offers both actress Shimon and filmmaker Vinik a chance to show off their comic chops, bringing some levity to the film in the form of black humor.
In fact, said Vinik, she thought of the Liora plotline as a way to show another layer of Naama’s character and tell another story of people who don’t fit into the mainstream.
The film, said Vinik, is part of a new generation of lesbian movies that are more about sexuality and maturation and less about falling in love with another female.
“Lesbianism is old news,” she said. “It was very important to me that there wouldn’t be confusion about what ‘Barash’ is or isn’t.”
Vinik herself is a lesbian and now the mother of a toddler she parents with a man who is not her romantic partner. She grew up in the comfortable suburban surroundings of Mazkeret Batya, a small town in central Israel, with “great parents” and two siblings, unlike the Naama Barash character.
Yet her teen years bore a strong similarity to the experiences shown in “Barash,” with personal discoveries and that sense of not quite fitting into the world around her, much like the Barash sisters, who don’t think of themselves as a seamless part of the society around them.
“You bring your world and what you know and how you see things to your first film,” she said. “So I brought what I know.”
It was more difficult to find the right people to play the roles. Vinik first laid eyes on Sakori, Barash’s love interest, when Vinik was riding a bicycle down Ibn Gvirol Street in Tel Aviv and spotted Sakori with her partner.
“I followed them for half an hour and they didn’t understand why I was following them,” laughed Vinik. But once her casting director saw Sakori, it became clear that she was perfect for the role.
Shimon, who plays Naama Barash, was also similarly unknown as an actress but fit right into the role when she read lines for Vinik and her team.
As two non-actors, the two women were nervous about their central lovemaking scene, which involved nudity but not a tremendous amount of graphic sex. Vinik said they did many rehearsals of the scene with a very small staff, and then ended up recording the scene in several long takes.
“It’s a sex scene, but its focus is on first-time sex,” said Vinik.
And like many films about teenage times and experiences, every audience has had similar reactions to “Barash,” whether in Korea, in Germany, or at home in Israel, said Vinik.
“It’s a small world, and everyone gets what I’m doing,” she said. “They all laugh at the same things.”
“Barash” is playing at movie theaters throughout Israel.