Dror Shaul hadn’t planned on releasing his latest film, “Atomic Falafel,” right as Iran’s nuclear agreement was announced to the world.
He just got lucky.
In fact, the Israeli director, best known for his 1999 cult classic “Operation Grandma” and his Ophir prize-winning “Sweet Mud,” both of which deal with the trials of family and kibbutz life, never intended to make a comedy about life under the threat of a nuclear reactor.
Shaul, 42, had been working on a feature film that was to be shot in several locations in Europe, an English-language drama that had nothing to do with Israel. When the movie’s producer, South-African born New Zealander Lloyd Phillips, died suddenly of a heart attack in 2013, Shaul found himself unmoored, and sans financing.
“I thought, ‘Let’s do something completely opposite, a comedy in Hebrew about the place I know best,” said Shaul, speaking on the phone from his Tel Aviv home. “I was playing around at the time with a story about a nuclear reactor, and looking at Facebook and other social media.”
For Shaul, who grew up in Kissufim — a small southern kibbutz that plays a major role in “Sweet Mud,” a semi-autobiographical film about him and his mentally unstable mother — the storyline for “Atomic Falafel” first began with drawing viewers to an isolated place, similar to where he himself was raised.
Israel’s nuclear reactor — “the one that no one knows about,” deadpanned Shaul — is located in a similarly forlorn place, the southern development town of Dimona, familiar from headlines but known well only to those who live and work there.
The elements were all there, said Shaul: a nuclear reactor, the backwater town in which it’s based, and the added element of social media, where the younger generation’s prowess far outstrips that of their elders.
With Iran on his mind, he began thinking about the whereabouts of a similar kind of nuclear town in Iran, and whether it was plausible for the teens of the two towns to find each other and chat via social media.
“That led me to research, and boom, it was all there,’” he said.
What transpires on the screen is more or less what Shaul first conceived of five years ago. A teen in Israel, Nofar (Michelle Treves), lives with her sexy, indomitable widowed mother, Mimi (Mali Levi Gershon), who runs a falafel joint out of a van, catering to local troops on maneuvers in the barren desert. Mimi rails constantly against the nuclear reactor, believing her Iranian-born husband died of a nuclear-related disease after working in the reactor.
Meanwhile, in the local army base, a group of cartoonish politicians and generals, eye-patched, out of touch and with itchy trigger fingers, are trying to formulate Israel’s response to Iran’s nuclear capability and decide on a preemptive attack within 72 hours.
As Nofar and Meron (Idan Carmeli), a cute local hacker who has a crush on her, start figuring this out, they make contact through social media with Sharareh, an Iranian teenage rapper (Tara Melter) who’s angry at her father for moving to Natanz, a hick Iranian town next to a nuclear reactor. Nofar found Sharareh online as she was attempting to complete a family tree for a longstanding school assignment and was searching for answers about her dead father’s family.
Natanz, it turns out, is home to a nuclear facility the Israeli army wants to destroy. It’s also where another key character, Oliver Hann (Alexander Fehling), the good-looking German member of the International Atomic Energy Agency team currently in town, is due to visit next. The blonde Hann plays mother Mimi’s unlikely love interest, and the actor, who appeared in “Inglourious Basterds,” one of Lloyd Philips’ last films, plays a character who breaks out in hives when he comes anywhere near enriched uranium.
And so the humorous plotlines unfold in this Hebrew-English-Persian comedy, revealing bizarre relationships, budding teen romance and a supporting cast of characters — Israeli and Iranian grandmothers, a New Zealand immigrant soldier and falafel-hungry soldiers.
The three teens, who may be the most realistic characters, start to figure out what’s happening around them and devise a plan to interrupt the attack.
“I had talked to young teens from Israel, Iran and other countries, and it’s amazing to see what they know, and how this generation is more alike than different,” said Shaul. “A 15-year-old from Tehran, Tel Aviv or Paris wants the same things — H&M, the same shoes. So can’t they communicate?”
The film, which premiered to a packed house in Rishon Lezion before Rosh Hashanah and is now being screened in local theaters, is full of inside jokes and laughs for anyone familiar with the typical characters in Israeli society and the nuclear reactor headlines.
There’s the ongoing gag of Mimi’s falafel van chasing after the army unit across the desert, so great is their need for her spicy schug, the team of generals and politicians who bear an enormous resemblance to the current pack of leaders, and the deft use of text messaging and Facebook profiles.
Shaul said he wanted “Atomic Falafel” to be a comedy, never a stretch when this director writes about small town life, the army, or the travails of single mothers and their independent teen children.
But while he didn’t plan to send any political messages, he inadvertently got caught up in other global elements of the nuclear cat-and-mouse chase.
At the start of the project, he had been in touch with Iranian filmmaker and video artist Shirin Neshat, who had just won the Silver Lion for her film “Women Without Men” at the 2009 Venice Film Festival. The two had been at Sundance Labs together, and Neshat, an Iranian-born New Yorker — whose Silver Lion followed Israeli director Samuel Maoz’s Golden Lion for anti-war film “Lebanon” –commented at the time to Shaul that “maybe one day an Israeli and Iranian will make films together.”
The conversation resonated with Shaul, who kept thinking about his “Atomic Falafel” storyline and the possibility of making it into an Israeli-Iranian co-production.
He ended up working on “Atomic Falafel” with a series of producers, including a group of Canadians and then a team of Germans. But he kept on searching for Iranian producers.
The search proved fruitless. Each time he would sit with an Iranian producer and tell them he wanted to make an Israeli co-production and shoot part of the film in Iran, he would receive the same response.
“They’d say, ‘Guys, you’re very nice, thank you but if you don’t change the subject we’ll have to leave the table,'” he related.
Shaul was surprised. “We would say, “How come?’ A film producer really can’t make a film about this?’” said Shaul.
When they finally did find someone, he ended up backing out eight weeks before filming, vanishing completely. Shaul, who hasn’t given up hope on screening the film in Iran, finally produced the film with a team of German, Israeli and New Zealand producers, and several expat Iranians.
His final attempt at stirring the geopolitical pot came a week before the film’s screening, when the films’ public relations team hung a massive banner across from Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, announcing the opening of an Iranian embassy in Israel, and included a Tel Aviv phone number. During the first few days, callers were answered with a Hebrew message telling them to leave a message. Several days later that was changed to a message in heavily Persian-accented Hebrew, claiming to be the voice of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini and telling them to order tickets for the movie.
“I’m not political, I wasn’t trying to send a political message, but I was trying to demonstrate that we, the Israelis and Iranian people, not the leaders, are more alike than different and our problems revolve around our leaders and their crazy political and religious messages,” said Shaul.
For now, Shaul is speaking to an Iranian distributor and hopes the film will eventually be screened in Iran.
“The biggest compliment so far is that Iranian people expect to see the film,” he said. “The Iranian media assume that the Iranian people are going to love the film. You know why? It’s a film that Iranians and Israelis can laugh at at the same time.”
“Atomic Falafel” is currently playing in Israeli theaters around the country.