A commercial for the Bezeq phone company in which actor Gidi Gov flies to “Tehran” and faces off against the ayatollahs — which premiered on Israeli TV two weeks ago, just as world powers were finalizing their nuclear accord with Iran — appeared to be a case of art imitating life. Turns out it was actually a case of life imitating art imitating life.
While filming the ad, in and around a sports stadium in Kiev, the crew was confronted by three Iranians who said they were from the embassy, wanting to know why the stadium was decorated with huge posters of ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei and other Iranian signs. The Israelis responded by claiming they were working on a Polish production, rather than, heaven forbid, a production for the state commonly described by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as the “Zionist entity”.
The idea for the ad was suggested by Bezeq, which, for reasons not entirely clear, wanted to promote its new “smart home” high-tech system with a commercial based on “Argo”, the 2012 Oscar-winning Ben Affleck film that dramatized the rescue of six US diplomats held as hostages in Tehran from 1979 to 1981.
“Argo,” incidentally, was filmed in California. Which might have been more expensive for Bezeq, but would have ensured no Iranian embassy presence.
Bezeq approached Tel Aviv company Mulla Productions, which hired veteran Rani Carmeli to direct the 90-second ad. They settled on locations in Kiev that could be set up to resemble Tehran’s international airport, an Iranian street market and a nuclear facility.
Actor-singer Gov was cast as an asthmatic salesman flying into the airport, tensely clearing passport control, grabbing a taxi and stopping for a bite to eat, before arriving at an Iranian nuclear control center just as the ayatollahs are about to detonate a device.
“Stop the bomb!” Gov begs of Iran’s ayatollahs and top military leaders. “This is not the time to blow up the world. Not now, when Bezeq is offering its smart home service.”
The ad was filmed on a one-day shoot, with more than 80 extras playing customs officials, flight attendants for Iran Air, military officers, and ayatollahs. The production designers transformed Kiev’s Olympiyskiy National Sports Complex into the Imam Khomeini International Airport, complete with the leaders’ photos, Iranian flags and Farsi signage.
All was going smoothly until mid-afternoon, when the crew was close to finishing its filming at the stadium. That’s when the three men who identified themselves as staffers from the Iranian embassy approached one of the producers and asked why the bustling location was so extensively festooned with Iranian regalia.
The Iranian trio were pretty intimidating, Gil Boraks, a producer for Mulla Productions who was at the shoot, told The Times of Israel.
“They wanted to know, What’s going on? Who is filming? And what is this about?” added Aviram Cohen, a spokesperson for PR 360, which represents Bezeq. (Cohen wasn’t in Kiev, but was filled in on what had happened when the crew returned.)
The team thought it might not be prudent to acknowledge that they were Israeli nationals filming an ad satirizing Iran’s nuclear program.
“I suddenly felt like the film and reality were being mixed,” ad director Carmeli told Ynet. “Suddenly the local producer comes over, sweating and anxious, and whispers that policemen and people from the Iranian embassy have arrived. The Iranians asked for details about what we were doing there, and for everyone’s names.”
A Ukrainian co-producer was sent to defuse the potential conflict. He was instructed to tell the Iranians that they were working on a Polish production, and gave the trio the name and number of a Polish producer with whom Mulla had worked in the past.
This Polish colleague was then quickly contacted, and warned to expect a call.
The rest of the crew were told to finish up at the stadium pronto, and move on to their next location, a few hundred yards away.
“We knew someone who had worked with us before from a Polish production company,” Boraks said. “We gave the Iranian officials her number and she played along, which bought us the time to finish the shooting” at the fake airport.
The Iranians phoned the Polish production company from the stadium, while the Israelis wrapped up that part of the shoot and moved quickly on. “We went and filmed the other scenes — that was three more hours of very stressful work… We tried to wrap up quickly so that the Iranians wouldn’t find us. And then we went to the airport,” Boraks said. “This was a very savvy response, to avoid trouble.”
Carmeli and the rest of the producers chose not to tell Gov that anything was amiss. “Most of the crew knew what was going on, but it was kept from Gov, so as not to affect his performance and induce panic,” said Cohen.
It was only when they got back to Kiev’s Boryspil International Airport that the star of the fictional Iran ad heard about the real-life Iranian presence.
The ad has been broadcast frequently on TV in the past two weeks, including during Channel 2 and Channel 10 nightly news broadcasts — intermittent companion to Khamenei’s “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” rhetoric, and the efforts of officials from the P5+1 powers to assure Israelis that their nuclear deal will make Israel safer.