Interview'In Israeli cinema it's the crazy people running the asylum'

The perspective that helped Israeli director Avi Nesher create ‘The Other Story’

The latest release from one of the Holy Land’s most beloved filmmakers is already collecting accolades — partly, he tells ToI, because he chose Israel’s film scene over Hollywood

  • Director Avi Nesher, left, with Nathan Goshen on the set of 'The Other Story.' (Michal Fattal)
    Director Avi Nesher, left, with Nathan Goshen on the set of 'The Other Story.' (Michal Fattal)
  • Director Avi Nesher, left, on the set of 'The Other Story.' (Irish Nesher)
    Director Avi Nesher, left, on the set of 'The Other Story.' (Irish Nesher)
  • Director Avi Nesher, left, and cameraman Haim Asias on the set of 'The Other Side.' (Iris Nesher)
    Director Avi Nesher, left, and cameraman Haim Asias on the set of 'The Other Side.' (Iris Nesher)
  • Israeli director Avi Nesher at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan on the Upper West Side, June 2019. (Jordan Hoffman/ Times of Israel)
    Israeli director Avi Nesher at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan on the Upper West Side, June 2019. (Jordan Hoffman/ Times of Israel)

NEW YORK — Avi Nesher needs coffee. He’s got jet lag, he says. I ask if he’s just flown in from Los Angeles or from Israel and don’t get a definitive answer. The young woman who works for the company distributing his latest movie, “The Other Story,” has been dispatched to find coffee. Nesher is a former special forces officer, but his request is anything but an order, it is a plea.

He’s in New York for the seventh annual Israel Film Center Festival, held at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan on the Upper West Side. It’s a yearly check-in with what’s new in Israeli cinema and television, and this year, in addition to offering audiences a sneak peek at the character-rich “The Other Story,” it is saluting Nesher with a small retrospective.

Screening alongside “The Other Story,” which was already a great success in Israel, is Nesher’s 1984 action-drama “Rage and Glory,” a dark, bloody portrait of the pre-1948 Stern Gang, and the tremendously popular 2004 immigrant drama-comedy-coming-of-age story “Turn Left At The End of the World.” The trilogy shines an appropriate light on the diversity of Nesher’s resume.

His early film “Dizengoff 99” is something like a Tel Aviv “Saturday Night Fever.” His first Hollywood movie, “She,” is usually categorized as a female-led “Conan the Barbarian” knock-off. Nesher’s made other movies in English over his 40-year career with stars like Drew Barrymore and Tim Curry, but after the success of “Turn Left At The End Of The World” he’s stayed in Israel, writing and directing humorous dramas about real people in relatable situations.

“The Other Story” has a broad sweep, but its core narrative is of a young secular woman who finds herself drifting to Orthodoxy, and how her divorced parents (and grandfather, played by the ubiquitous and wonderful Sasson Gabai) scheme to prevent this. Similarly, a woman from a traditional background, now living a more lax religious life, finds herself drawn to quite alien “pagan” beliefs. The two women, and the loved ones caught in their wakes, intersect in an unexpected way.

Israeli director Avi Nesher at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan on the Upper West Side, June 2019. (Jordan Hoffman/ Times of Israel)

In a lovely conference room with big windows high inside the JCC, Nesher and I talk about “The Other Story,” making room for other stories, too. In late 2018, just as the movie was coming out in Israel, his son Ari was killed in a tragic and high profile traffic accident.

I told myself that if our conversation was to lend itself organically to mentioning this I would do so, but it didn’t.

Below is an edited transcript.

“The Other Story” is a terrific movie, very juicy, unpredictable, but at the end, I feel, it is an expression of a very simple philosophy. Either you can go through life convinced that you are always right, or you can once in a while step back and think “eh, maybe the other guy has a point.” Am I oversimplifying?

My philosophy is to be aware of my own limitations and prejudices. As a director, this keeps me open to my actors and crew members. When I cast actors, I don’t hire them to speak the lines as written. I find actors who seem close to the characters, then we rehearse for three months. We write every day, we improvise, we incorporate the personalities of the actor into the characters. This is why I get such great performances from my actors. By the time we are done, the character and the actor have become one.

The camera is the ultimate x-ray machine. It can pick up not just what people say, but what they think. And many times what the actor is saying is something they themselves actually thought up. I think that shows.

This is an example of something that could not happen in American moviemaking at this scale. For a lower budget movie like this, you do not get three months to rehearse. You get 21 days to make the whole thing, and your actor is parachuting in directly from another project – they do their scenes – and they go on to the next project, and you hope it all comes together.

This is why I am so enamored of Israeli cinema. I get offered American movies and I turn them down. I don’t think you get satisfactory results the way described. God knows, you don’t make much money making Israeli movies, but the thing about Israeli movies is that it’s the crazy people running the asylum. You get complete artistic freedom, and you can make the exact movie you want.

For years I’ve been taking great chances, mixing narrative lines and genres and not aiming to succeed, and they turn out to be successful both with critics and audiences. People underestimate audiences, and Israeli audiences are the most sophisticated of all.

When this movie opened at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it’s important to get good reviews for a foreign film, to make sure it sells, I saw a very famous critic – I will not mention his name – and when I went up for the Q&A he got up and left rather quickly.

Director Avi Nesher, left, with Nathan Goshen on the set of ‘The Other Story.’ (Michal Fattal)

And I’m thinking “Oh, no, how could he hate this so much?” He’d given me great reviews in the past, and the audience clearly loved it. So I was very distracted during the Q&A. Then I see him later and he says, “Great movie!” So I ask, “Why did you leave?”

He says, “It was your fault! I see so many movies that I always understand the structure of a given plot. I can always find a few minutes to run to the bathroom. But in this, I could not find a formula!”

This was a great compliment. It is a well-structured screenplay but it has no formula, because I used real life. Everything here springs from something I’ve seen or heard.

You have a wide array of characters and all of them have the right ending but, honestly, and I don’t want to give anything away, nobody’s really happy with how it winds up.

Well, life is just like this.

I mean, this is set in the Middle East, where we are striving for peace. But peace is unachievable when you have two conflicting narratives. But you can hope for non-belligerency. It’s called “The Other Story” because each character has their own agenda. No one is going to give up and neither are you. One has to find a way that works, but it won’t be what either side is hoping for.

I have a problem with movies that promise “justice.” This is a philosophical concept, like “truth.” My truth is different from your truth. My movies end where the characters have learned a little bit about themselves and hopefully do things a little bit better.

Joy Rieger, left, and Maya Dagan in ‘The Other Story,’ directed and co-written by Avi Nesher. (Iris Nesher)

None of the characters in your film mention “The Middle East Conflict,” which some American audiences expect to be front and center in every Israeli film. It’s literally background noise; it’s on the TV in the other room, or the car radio here. And I think this an important thing for people to remember – when you are living your life, it isn’t the top priority, you are worried about your daughter, about the more intimate things.

I have very little patience with movies that are only about “The Conflict.” It’s like how I hate movies that are love stories, but no one seems to have a job. Only one issue!

In life there is never one issue. Whether you are a Jew or a Palestinian, you live your life. Family, love, career, things you enjoy, things you dislike. Now, obviously, we have scenes by the separation wall or the Old City, and there is the moment where the father sees the young Arab boys and gets nervous for a moment. So it’s there, it’s part of life.

My next movie, however, is set in 1948 and tackles the very essence of the Arab-Israeli conflict and, believe me, neither side will be happy!

Director Avi Nesher, left, on the set of ‘The Other Story.’ (Irish Nesher)

Was shooting in the Old City difficult?

Difficult and dangerous. It’s not that common. And we shot at the height of what we now call the Knife Intifada. Just like I like to cast real people I like to shoot in real places.

Oh – thank you very much!!

It was at this point in our conversation that the young woman returned with cups of coffee. Let us now pause our conversation about art and politics to talk about coffee.

Do you like instant coffee? What’s the deal with Israelis and instant coffee?

I wish I knew. I never got that. My sister lives in Los Angeles and has me bring her instant coffee. The kind you drink in the army.

Elite Coffee?

Yes, Elite. And it is anything but “elite.”

Wow! You know, we’re on the record here.

Well, well, uh [laughing], let me say that I have great respect for Elite Coffee and all the values they stand for but, maybe, they should name their product differently.

You can find it in New York if you look hard enough. It’s funny, I recently bought some and sent pictures to a friend who lives in Israel – and he is a chef and a baker – and he wrote back “Why would you buy that?! I haven’t had that since I was in a tank in the army!”

I think they use it to fuel the tanks.

But I’ll tell you something. Years ago I was making one of my first movies in Los Angeles, produced by Dino De Laurentiis. He sent his personal chef to cook for us, very high end. “I am going to the market today, what kind of pasta would you like?” that sort of thing. At that time, in Israel, there were these cheap lemon wafers made by the same company as this coffee. The lemon wafers taste like cardboard. But I was used to it from the army! My wife came from Israel and I asked her to bring some, I liked to eat them while I worked.

Director Avi Nesher, left, and cameraman Haim Asias on the set of ‘The Other Side.’ (Iris Nesher)

Okay, so now, Dino’s daughter Raffaella De Laurentiis, a great producer in her own right [and, currently, a personality on Food TV with her niece Giada De Laurentiis] sees me eating these. She figures, “Well, if they were shipped all the way from Israel, they must be special.”

So she is itching to try them, but doesn’t want to impose. She tiptoed around it for days, with all this other catered food around, until finally she says, “Avi, do you mind, may I try?” So she bites into it, and, wow, I wished I had the camera rolling for that.

Talking about some of your early American movies, nowadays with “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” both apocalyptic dystopians and high fantasy are very popular, and you were 35 years ahead of the game with “She.”

You are a prophet! As we speak Kino Lorber is putting out a Blu-ray of “She,” which has become a cult movie! They subscribe to your theory. It was the first with a female protagonist in post-apocalypse “Mad Max”-like world.

We had a screening of “The Other Story” in Paris and it was a great success. A guy came up to me to say “Yes, this was great, but,” [with a French accent] “’She’ was a masterpiece!” This freaked me out because these guys really love Jerry Lewis!

Joy Rieger, left, and Sasson Gabai in a still from ‘The Other Story,’ directed and co-written by Avi Nesher. (Iris Nesher)

So was “She” a misunderstood masterpiece, or was it a movie made by a young man looking to have fun?

Yes. The second one. I mean, I love B movies, and when I was at Columbia I wrote a paper called “B Movies as a Subversive Art,” but these aren’t the type of movies I make now.

At this point we were joined by the hardest working Jew in show business, the great Isaac Zablocki, who runs film programming at the JCC. The three of us chatted for a bit about nothing special, and I’m only mentioning it because you should know that there definitely is a community at work here, rooted in a palpable kindness. Okay, back to the interview.

We were talking about shooting in dangerous locations.

Yes, the end of the movie, at the monastery, this is by the separation wall. We added burning tires there, the Arab kids are there, it is a Hamas neighborhood. So we had to pay off a few Hamas people to shoot, maybe they will honor it, maybe not. I meet a guy, he says “We’ll do our best, but things happen.” Then one of them realizes that I made “Rage and Glory.”

He tells me that “Rage and Glory” is one of his favorites. This is a movie about Jewish terrorists – the Stern Gang, in Palestine against the British in the 1940s. He says, “We see Hamas exactly like these people.” I say, “Well, I wouldn’t go quite so far, but the beauty of cinema is once I make the movie it is no longer mine, it is yours. I’m glad you liked it.”

He says he’s seen it multiple times, he’s shown it to many people, he goes off on a whole rant about “Rage and Glory.” Later in the day, his neighbors come out to bring us lemonade. Suddenly there is peace in the Middle East because a guy saw a movie! This goes back to my original point. The conflict isn’t about land, it isn’t about water, it’s about story. There’s one story where the Jews return to their ancestral homeland and there’s another story where foreigners came and kicked out the natives. One is our story and one is the other story, and both are legitimate.

Nathan Goshen and Joy Rieger in ‘The Other Story,’ directed and co-written by Avi Nesher. (Irish Nesher)

We don’t get many movies in America about religion, even though this is a very religious country. But it seems natural in an Israeli movie.

Don’t forget, Israel has no separation of church and state. We’re like 15th century Europe. And religion in politics is an oxymoron. In religion you can’t compromise, but the essence of politics is to compromise. This makes Israel very complicated. The secular and religious are the ultimate “us and them.”

You can remake “The Other Story” in America where the daughter is marrying an undesirable of some kind. In Israel it is much more extreme. If you are secular and your child has gone religious, your child is walking away from everything you believe in. Many would say “becoming part of the enemy.” It’s gotten to that point.

Israel no longer faces an existential threat. The Syrians don’t have an army anymore. The Egyptians are not interested in warfare. Iraq is devastated. Iran talks big, but they are very far away. The threat isn’t outside, it is from within. The religious parties have great political power and the moment they try to impose their will on secular society, there will be civil war.

This movie is trying to get a conversation going. I see their point as valid as my point, but I want them to get them to see my point, too. My theory is that people who talk to one another don’t shoot at each other. This movie was very successful in Israel, in Jerusalem, and there were religious and secular people sitting in the same row.

I see movies as a modern house of prayer, and I am a devout filmmaker.

“The Other Story” is out in select North American cinemas on June 28th.

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