A hunt for the kernel of truth behind Etgar Keret’s stories
Dutch documentary about the beloved Israeli fiction writer, a cult favorite in Holland, opens at the 33rd Haifa Film Festival
It seems unlikely to have two Dutch filmmakers behind “Etgar Keret: Based on a True Story,” a documentary about the beloved Israeli writer and humorist, currently premiering at the 33rd Haifa Film Festival.
Yet it is their nationality that offers filmmakers Stephane Kaas and Rutger Lemm the ability to gaze lovingly and critically at Keret, known locally and internationally for his wry, humorous short stories and essays.
“The fact that they were not Israeli or Jewish and didn’t seem to know a lot about Israel before shooting made their perspective much more original,” said Keret. “It wasn’t as if they didn’t get things; they just sometimes got them in a different way, which would actually make me see them differently too.”
Kaas and Lemm had been thinking about Keret for years.
Kaas bought his first Keret book when he was a high school student in Amsterdam, and fell in love with Keret’s short stories. He passed the book on to his buddy, Rutger Lemm, who also got hooked.
Years passed. Kaas became a documentary filmmaker and Lemm, a writer who happened to interview Keret for a Dutch magazine.
The two friends had a vague plan to make a short film out of one of Keret’s stories (the early “Fatso” is a personal favorite of both Kaas and Lemm). But after the interview, they decided that Keret’s life was so interesting that a documentary about him and his method of telling stories would be a better idea.
“Etgar seemed to have a compulsive need to tell stories; he never stops telling stories,” said Kaas. “When he tells anecdotes, things that happened to him or if he talks about his friends or his family, it sounds like one of his fiction stories. We wanted to find out why he does that and what kind of an amazing life he should have.”
That’s what they have done in “Etgar Keret: Based on a True Story,” a gently teasing title for a 67-minute documentary that brings Keret’s family, friends and colleagues to the screen.
Among those making appearances are Keret’s wife, Shira Geffen; his childhood best friends; his agent; his colleagues, including Jonathan Safran Foer, Gary Shteyngart and Ira Glass; Keret and Geffen’s son, Lev; and his brother and mother. The filmmakers, Kaas and Lemm, appear too and bring their offbeat humor to the entire undertaking.
They unfold Keret, showing off his poignant, funny sense of humor, his love of gags, his intensely personal way of looking at his own life, and that of Israeli society around him. There’s the army, the Holocaust, the rough-and-tumble aspects of Israeli culture, and, through it all, Keret’s inimitable way of viewing humanity with a gently mocking but loving and quirky tone.
The film offers an amiable and easy look into his life — his simple Tel Aviv apartment, the cafe where he and Geffen drink coffee and juice, Keret and his son kicking a soccer ball around, Keret calling up to his brother in his nearby apartment or hanging out with his best friends. It also tries to answer why Keret writes the way he does, exaggerating the simple events in his own life, or, as his family and friends posit, stretching the truth for his fiction.
“The reason why he’s telling stories is a very human one: he wants to bring uplifting stories, light stories that give meaning to our lives,” said Kaas. “He thought a lot about this subject and he speaks wonderfully about it.”
When the film diverges into a Keret story or part of one, that element is animated, creating a separation from the talking heads and scenes of the rest of the documentary.
It was that mix of non-fiction, fiction, and animation that piqued Keret’s own interest when the filmmakers asked him if he would participate in the project.
“I usually say no to documentary filmakers’ requests,” he said. “It is a long process you need to commit to and you have very little control about the results. What made me go on this adventure with Stephane and Rutger was their great passion to make this film, which came from a very creative and pure thing. They really wanted to do their thing, and truly believed that what they wanted to express would move people.”
Their passion reminded Keret of himself. He said the initial, somewhat confusing meeting with the two in which they tried to explain what the film would be like, reminded him of trying — and usually failing — to pitch his ideas to film funds or producers.
“I remember how heartbreaking it was for me to accept the fact that there is only one person standing between me and a beautiful vision I’ve had in my mind and the person saying “No!” I didn’t want to be that person and believed that since they seemed to be both talented and smart that it would come out okay,” he said.
Interviewing Keret’s friends and family was an essential part of the film, said Kaas. Many of Keret’s stories are about them and if something happens to him in his real life, like meeting Shira and having to leave his best friend Uzi as a result, Keret has to write a story about it. (“Fatso” was the result of that particular turn of events in Keret’s life.)
“The film revolved around my family and friends so I got to hang out with people I really liked for all of it,” said Keret.
“We also wanted to show how some of his stories that sound crazy, actually are crazy,” said Kaas. “Kobi, for example, is a friend who is un-strangle-able — you cannot strangle him, you can punch him whatever you like, it doesn’t hurt him. This person actually exists!”
It was strange for Keret to see himself on film, said the writer.
“Seeing myself on the screen feels very much like hearing your voice on an answering machine,” he said. “You always ask yourself, who is this strange guy? I still feel weird when I watch it, but at least that strange guy seems to be smart and funny and seems to have amazing people as friends, so I guess this is as good as it gets.”
The film is Kaas’s first long documentary, and its style is something he’s enjoyed developing, despite the trouble he and Lemm had in finding funding and selling it to broadcasters.
He’s proud of the work they did, having shot it on three continents (Israel, the US and Europe), and found the humor necessary to balance the sometimes heavy, sad topics that come to bear in the film.
“A documentary on Etgar was a perfect match of all those things,” said Kaas. “He’s really funny, but in the meantime he doesn’t shy away from heavy subjects that people need to talk about.”
While it was initially a hard sell, the documentary was well received in the Netherlands, where it became something of a cult favorite over the last few months, despite the fact that Etgar Keret is not particularly famous in the Netherlands, remarked Kaas.
Keret, however, is well-received worldwide, writing regularly for The New York Times, collaborating with other artists such as Maira Kalman, and even having the narrowest house in the world designed and named for him.
Still, Kaas is curious to see how the film will be seen in Israel.
“It should be weird to see a documentary on your national celebrity made by two weird Dutch guys,” said Kaas.
“Etgar Keret — Based on a True Story,” was first screened October 9 at the Haifa Cinematheque as part of the 33rd Haifa Film Festival; October 11, 10 a.m. at the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, October 16, 8 p.m. at the Cameri Theater, and November 14 and 15 at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.