BERLIN — Usher, who heads a Jewish welfare foundation in Buenos Aires, is an unlikely movie star. But the middle-aged Argentinean Jew, whose real name is Oscar Barilka, is the central figure in Jewish-Argentinian director Daniel Burman’s new feature film, “El Rey del Once” (The Tenth Man).
Usher, playing himself, is almost always off-camera, but he is often heard as he works to bring his son Ariel (played by actor Alan Sabbagh) back to his roots.
“Usher is a real tzadik [righteous person] who doesn’t even know he is one,” says award-winning writer-director Burman, who won the Grand Jury Prize in 2004 for his film “El Abrazo Partido” (Lost Embrace), a comedy-drama about the grandson of Polish Holocaust refugees.
Born to Polish-Jewish immigrants, Burman’s films are largely autobiographical, exploring the complex relationship between father and son, and his Jewish upbringing.
“El Rey del Once” – literally translated from Spanish as “The King of Once” – takes place in the Buenos Aires’ Jewish neighborhood of Once where Burman grew up. The Times of Israel caught up with Burman last month at the Berlin film festival to find out more about his movie.
What made you decide to make a film in the old Jewish quarter of Buenos Aires?
The idea of the film came to me when I met Usher as I was preparing for another film about Jews making pilgrimages to the graves of famous rabbis in Russia, Ukraine and Poland. Usher organized the Argentinean-Jewish travel group and I knew that I could join it only if he approved. During that time I got to know more about him and his foundation and all the wonderful volunteers who give to the local community.
The foundation in the film really exists. Its employees and those who benefit from Usher’s charity work — underprivileged Jews — are also part of the film. I think Usher is one of the one the most impressive people who I’ve met. I think he is one of the 36 hidden tzadikim referred to in the Talmud.
Do you see parallels between yourself and film’s main character Ariel who returns home after many years as a successful banker in New York?
Just like the main character, I spent my childhood in Once. Another similarity is the fact that I spent 20 years making films until I reached a point where I grew tired.
And just like my protagonist (who returns to his origins), I began to search for the necessary “tools” that I had left in my childhood, which would help me to carry on.
Did you also have an unresolved conflict with your Jewish parents similar to Ariel’s?
I have great parents who would not be suitable as film material.
Your film begins with an unusual story about buying shoes for a Jewish patient. Is it based on a true story?
The story about the shoes is true. Sometime after my pilgrimage to the graves of the rabbis in Eastern Europe, Usher called me. I was on my way to New York and he asked me to bring him size 46 shoes with a velcro fastener for someone from the Jewish community who was in the hospital. I could not find any, so I brought shoes with laces, which I thought were much better. I brought them myself to the hospital for Marcelito Cohen, who was waiting for an operation (he was suffering from a neuromotor disability and therefore couldn’t tie his shoe laces). This is when I realized how much you think about yourself when giving presents to others; you think more about what you like and less about what the other person needs.
‘In the film, Ariel takes off his costume in order to reveal himself to his father and his own identity’
Why did you choose your film to end on the eve of Purim?
I wanted a big, happy celebration because, for my protagonist Ariel to see his father Usher again was the biggest celebration of all. Purim also is the celebration when Jews dress up. In the film, Ariel takes off his costume in order to reveal himself to his father and his own identity.
The movie is full of Jewish rituals – Ariel putting on tefillin, a man wanting to celebrate his bar mitzvah, lighting candles on Shabbat. Did you choose Jewish actors for the leading roles?
Yes. Alan Sabbagh, is Jewish just like me, and knows a lot about Judaism. Julieta Zylberberg (who plays Eva), however, had to learn and took a course for Orthodox women in Once. Usher, is, observant (and does not give interviews on the Sabbath).
In one scene, Ariel is on his way to the Jewish community center and walks past an inscription with the words: “Justica 18 July 1994.” How important is the terror attack on the AMIA in which 85 people were killed and 300 injured?
This was a traumatic event for the Jewish community in Buenos Aires and the city. When one looks at the building now, one can still see the inscriptions on it. It seems as if a sudden silence fills the atmosphere and one can almost feel what happened here before. I do not think we will ever find out how this terror attack was planned and carried out, but we will find out who tried to cover up the story.
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