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The obsessed filmmaker

It’s been seven years since Tomer Heymann began filming Batsheva director Ohad Naharin, and now he’s close to the finish line

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Tomer Heymann worked closely with the Batsheva dancers for the last seven years, pictured here with Ohad Naharin's vintage posters (photo credit: Gadi Dagon)
Tomer Heymann worked closely with the Batsheva dancers for the last seven years, pictured here with Ohad Naharin's vintage posters (photo credit: Gadi Dagon)

Tomer Heymann is, admittedly, a man obsessed. It’s been seven years since the documentary filmmaker embarked on his latest project, “Mr. Gaga,” about Ohad Naharin, the iconic dancer and artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company. Now, with months to go until the end of the project, he needs $74,300 in order to finish the film.

Enter a Kickstarter campaign, one of the first of its scope in Israel, he said, particularly for a film.

“They said, ‘No more cash,'” said Heymann of his main backers, Israel’s Channel 8 and the New Foundation for Cinema and TV (Israel), as well as the Dutch broadcasting association AVRO, the Jewish Theater of Stockholm and Dutch TV. “So it was either make a lesser movie, just about Ohad Naharin the guru, or try something like this.”

For some creative types, a Kickstarter campaign represents the whole of their fundraising, the start of their project. But for Heymann, who also invested $100,000 of his own funds — “it’s my mortgage money” — in the making of the film, it’s the final piece of what he’s calling his life’s work. So now, like other filmmakers worldwide, such as Spike Lee, he’s selling perks, such as private Gaga classes and access to Ohad Naharin’s dance studio, signed vintage posters of Naharin, private Heymann Brothers screenings and other goodies. It’s all geared for film buffs and, of course, Naharin devotees, like Heymann.

Heymann was in his 20s when he first met Naharin, having been wildly impressed by what he saw of the choreographer’s work onstage while he, Heymann, was still in the army. But it took years to convince the iconic dancer to let him into the studio and his life, and in the last seven years, Heymann has spent an average of a day a week with Naharin and entire weeks when Naharin was in the middle of choreographing a new piece, plus numerous trips abroad.

Filmmaker Tomer Heymann has been obsessed with the filming of Batsheva artistic director Ohad Naharin, for the last seven years (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Filmmaker Tomer Heymann has been obsessed with the filming of Batsheva artistic director Ohad Naharin, for the last seven years (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“It’s been an obsessive seven years,” he admitted.

He has plenty of live footage — some 600 hours of filming with Naharin in the studio, working with his dancers, at rehearsals and auditions in Israel and abroad; personal conversations between Naharin and Heymann; and unique, thought-provoking looks at Naharin, his partner, dancer Eri Nakamura, and their toddler daughter, his first and only child born when he was 57 years old.

Heymann said he never intended to take so much time to complete the film. In fact, the award-winning filmmaker, who works with his brother Barak Heymann, thought he was done about four years ago, having spent hours filming Naharin and his dancers working on two seminal Batsheva works, “Hora” and “Sadeh 21.” That was where he encountered Naharin’s mix of “gentle and aggressive” work methods in the studio.

But what Heymann felt he lacked was a longer perspective — a look at Naharin before he was a dancer, his army service as part of the entertainment troupe in the IDF, and then his time in New York, after Martha Graham took him under her wing when he studied at the School of American Ballet and Juilliard. There was also his marriage to Mari Kajiwara, an Alvin Ailey dancer who died in 2001, and their troupe, the Ohad Naharin Dance Company.

And so he badgered Naharin to hand over all his old photos and vintage posters, ultimately knocking on his door one night at 11 p.m. At that point, Naharin gave him everything, saying, “Take my past and free me of it,” quoted Heymann.

“The movie couldn’t go on without it,” he said. “I can close it now, because I put a hand on his past; it’s more personal now, and it’s the right order of things.”

Heymann also feels emotional about the fact that Naharin’s parents, both 86 years old, will get to see the film about their living, breathing, successful son — something of a rarity in Israel where too many parents end up burying and mourning their children, he commented.

The Times of Israel got to see a 30-minute rough cut of the film, including clips of Naharin and Batsheva dancers with students in Sweden, bucolic views of Naharin and family swinging on hammocks in their kibbutz backyard, and iconic images of Naharin with his IDF unit, dancing in bell bottoms for troops during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

There’s a real sense of who Naharin is as a dancer, a partner, a father and an Israeli, thanks to some candid conversations between Naharin and Heymann over the last near-decade.

And after all this time, Heymann is amazed at his continued interest in encounters with Naharin and how energized he is after a day’s filming. He’s expended a tremendous amount of energy over the years, always wondering how much Naharin will give him on a given day or whether he’ll regret what was said during their conversations.

He thinks those moments have given him a unique perspective as a filmmaker, making him create tension from the abstract, taking the viewer to the drama that develops inside the dancer’s studio.

“People feel access to a certain secret, to be in on the nuances, the tension, the ping-pong of reactions,” he said. “We’ve gone through this together, and I got him to be natural, which he’s not used to doing in public.”

The Kickstarter crowdsourcing campaign — a “production of its own,” commented Vadim Dumesh, the Heymann Brothers staffer who’s running it for them, referring to the extensive list of rewards offered to the donors — was jump-started by the addition of actress Natalie Portman to the clip. A student of Naharin’s who became enamoured of his Gaga classes and then trained with him while working on her ballet film, “Black Swan,” Portman often slips into his Tel Aviv Gaga workshops unnoticed, while on one of her frequent trips to Israel, said Heymann. She’s become a fan of Gaga, Naharin’s movement language, and wants the rest of the world to know about Naharin, particularly the fact that he’s Israeli.

“She’d heard of our movies and she wanted to help,” said Heymann.

Filmmaker Tomer Heymann and dancer Ohad Naharin in their never-ending faceoff (Courtesy Heymann Brothers)
Filmmaker Tomer Heymann and dancer Ohad Naharin in their never-ending faceoff (Courtesy Heymann Brothers)

He also had an offer from Batsheva to partner in the film, but he didn’t want to end up doing it their way, and politely demurred.

“I wanted to do this my way,” emphasized Heymann.

Now with the end finally in sight, Heymann is thinking about life after “Mr. Gaga,” and what will be when he and his subject are free of each other.

“It’ll free us to be friends,” he pondered. “I’ll buy tickets like a regular person and go see Batsheva. But it’s like going 24 years back, without this need to do the movie. I’ve been obsessed and fanatical, and Ohad knew I wouldn’t be able to go on without this, without realizing this dream.”

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