What’s in a name? Poignant documentary plumbs identity of complex Israeli young man
Screening in Boston on March 21, Tomer Heymann’s award-winning film ‘I am Not’ follows Oren, an adopted Guatemala-born Israeli, on a journey beyond his multiple diagnoses
It’s been over a decade, but Israeli director Tomer Heymann vividly remembers his first encounter with one of his most rewarding students.
Heymann was teaching a class for disadvantaged teenagers interested in film. Its purpose was to help the teens overcome their difficulties and become the next generation of filmmakers. One latecomer introduced himself as having two names: “One name is Oren. I won’t share with you my other name.”
“It was very surreal,” Heymann recalled.
From that inauspicious start, Heymann and Oren Levy eventually got to know each other very well. Heymann learned that Levy was adopted from his native Guatemala by his Israeli parents, Ehud and Dvora Levy, who also separately adopted his sister, Michal, from the Central American country.
Heymann also learned that Levy had received multiple and disputed mental health diagnoses, from bulimia to Asperger’s, and that he had become frustrated by previous schooling and mental health professionals before finally finding a supportive environment at the Bnei Arazim boarding school.
Film was an outlet for Levy, who since age 13 had rarely been spotted without a camera.
Heymann ended up accompanying the Levys on a journey to Guatemala, where Oren and Michal met their birth families before going back to Israel. The result of this decade-plus relationship is Heymann’s new documentary, “I Am Not,” which was screened in-person at the Boston Israeli Film Festival on March 21.
Oren Levy filming his birth mother Henriqueta in a still from ‘I am Not.’ (Courtesy/ Itai Raziel)Heymann remembers introducing himself to Ehud and Dvora and saying he wanted to do a film project involving their son: “He can be very problematic and annoy me,” the director said, yet “I really like him, I see the potential, he’s a cool guy.”
“In the same moment,” the director said, “they turned their backs to me and started to cry. I said that I was sorry that what I said brought them to tears. There was one moment of silence and tears. His mother asked me, ‘Did you really mean what you said about our son? Can you repeat it?’” When he did, she replied, “No one has told me something positive about my son. Is it true? Are you being honest?”
“I didn’t exaggerate or try to please,” Heymann said. “They were shocked that someone opened their heart to Oren. That was the beginning.”
Under the film’s original name, “All the Trees are Blowing in the Wind,” it won critical acclaim at DocAviv in 2021. (Last year, it also won best feature film at the Israel Documentary Forum Awards.) Heymann won best director, and Levy earned best cinematography.
The following day, the cast and crew went out to celebrate. Before joining the rest of the team in the restaurant, Levy requested a one-on-one chat with the director and asked to change the title.
Heymann recalled Levy’s words: “Let’s call it ‘I Am Not’… ‘I Am Not,’ this is who I am. I’m not Asperger’s, I’m not autistic, I’m not bulimic, I’m not multi-personality. I am a strange guy. There are different types of people in the universe. I can be melancholy, I can be happy.”
The film shows the challenges of the Levys’ daily life, including arguments between Levy and his parents during a Passover celebration, and between Levy and his father in a parking garage.
Gradually, the viewer learns Levy’s backstory: He, like his sister, was adopted as a baby in Guatemala, in part because his biological parents separated, with his father Mario leaving his mother Henriqueta.
As the film project progressed and Levy got to know Heymann, Levy made key decisions about its scope — including that when the family would go to Guatemala, they would be accompanied by the director.
“Oren was very sure about it, that I needed to be there with them,” Heymann recalled. “There are different views to the movie, a half side in Israel and a half side in Guatemala. Only with both sides can you understand the complexity of this kind of story.”
After Levy arrives in Central America, per his request, Ehud and Dvora do not accompany him when he travels along dirt roads to meet his biological mother and father. The film shows him reconnecting first with Henriqueta and her children, then with Mario, and then with his parents together, all in bittersweet scenes.
We also see Michal’s own tearful reunion with her birth parents, in her case accompanied by Ehud and Dvora. On camera, Michal poignantly discusses encountering racism in Israel because of her dark skin.
The film spotlights the challenges Oren faces in Guatemala, including not knowing much Spanish. Yet it also shows his emerging ability to navigate obstacles.
“He did not have the language,” Heymann said. “His biological family did not have English or Hebrew. Yet something started between them, especially the ability to communicate not through words.”
Reluctant to display affection in Israel, including with his adoptive parents, Oren showed a different side to himself in Guatemala, bonding with youngsters such as his baby half-brother Jorge. He was also up for a second reunion with Henriqueta, this time joined by his Israeli family, and his two mothers shared a hug.
“I discovered that I can be normal, without any problems,” Oren subsequently reflects. He adds, using the Hebrew words for “I am not”: “I feel like I don’t have Asperger’s, I’m a normal person, I’m not all the labels you have put on me. I am not. Ani lo.”
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