Avi Nesher, The Secret
Avi Nesher seems to have had two careers as a filmmaker rather than just one. Nesher’s dual identity partly stems from the fact that the Israeli writer-director spent most of his childhood and teenage years in New York and only returned to the country of his birth after attending Columbia University. Once back, Nesher wasted little time in establishing himself as one of the brightest young figures in Israeli cinema with hits like The Troupe and Dizengoff 99 (both 1979). In 1985, Rage and Glory, Nesher’s film about the 1940s Israeli terrorist group the Stern Gang, caused massive controversy and the level of hysteria prompted him to leave for Hollywood. Feeling unconnected to American social issues, Nesher opted for a career as a director of old school B-movies and turned out titles like Timebomb (1991), starring Michael Biehn, and the Drew Barrymore vehicle Doppelganger (1993) throughout the 1990s. In 2003, he returned once again to Israel where he immediately reestablished himself as a critical favorite with the 60s-set crowdpleaser Turn Left at the End of the World (2004), one of the biggest Israeli box office hits of the past two decades, and the experimental political documentary Oriental (2004).
With his latest film, The Secrets, Nesher continues his current focus on Jewish identity, and once again shows a tendency to deal with provocative material. Co-written with polarizing female playwright and stand-up comedian Hadar Galron, the movie centers on a Jewish seminary in the sacred town of Safed where two students, bookish, headstrong Noemi (Ania Bukstein) and free-spirited French teen Michelle (Michal Shtamler), take it upon themselves to use kabbalistic rituals to help a dying woman, Anouk (Fanny Ardant), find forgiveness for the dark deeds in her past. Nesher’s film ably combines in-depth theological ideas with audience-friendly melodrama as he puts the spotlight on orthodox Jewish society’s designation of women as inferior creatures while also tackling themes of religious fanaticism and sapphic sexuality. Despite Nesher’s sometimes titillating treatment of the lesbian angle, to his credit he never sacrifices the integrity of the story and ultimately manages to create a film which is both an enjoyable adolescent drama and a thoughtful engagement with genuine social issues.
Filmmaker spoke to Nesher about the quiet revolution depicted in The Secrets, his “fluke” of a Hollywood career and the time he nearly gave up on the movies.
Filmmaker: What were the roots of this project?
Nesher: In my experience, a movie is formed by having many difference influences falling into place. I went to a yeshiva in New York, which was a very interesting thing for a secular young Israeli to do. When I was a student at Columbia University, I was very fascinated by the whole notion of Kabbalah – we’re talking many years ago, before Madonna ever heard about it. [laughs] My interest then was the more political aspect of Kabbalah that lead to the formation of the Messianic movements in the 17th Century and I wrote a Kabbalistic thriller about the second coming – or perhaps the third coming – of a new messiah. I must have been 22 at the time. For a couple of months, a Hollywood producer toyed with the idea of optioning it and it almost happened. And then I think he died in a plane crash. Quite dramatic. I went on to make other movies but the whole notion of Kabbalah always stuck with me: it has an incredibly attractive element that appealed to my secular side, which is called Tikkun. Tikkun literally means “to fix” and is basically facing up to the responsibility of anything you did wrong in your life. [Recently] it dawned on me that women’s rights are a huge part of the Middle East crisis that no one really talks about. I found out that the fundamentalist Muslim society and the fundamentalist Jewish society are very much alike in that regard and I discovered, much to my amazement, that there is this revolution going on within the Jewish orthodox world. And then I got to this particular Jewish seminary where my interest in Kabbalah and in the women’s liberation movement all kind of met, so it became the perfect storm.
Filmmaker: And when did Hadar Galron, your co-writer, get involved?
Nesher: When I started researching, I saw her play Mikveh, which is truly extraordinary, and I met her. She’s a wonderful woman, amazingly bright and funny, and I just thought she’d be the right person to write the screenplay with so we embarked on this year-long journey into that specific world. I really like to make movies about worlds that are at first unfamiliar to me, because it’s interesting to me to have a whole new experience as I do research, and she was a very good guide. She’s an orthodox woman, she went to a seminary similar to the one in the movie, she had a lifelong dream of being a rabbi, she strongly believes in the values that the young women in the movie believe in and, in many ways, she made the whole thing much more accessible.
Filmmaker: Did you both view this a platform to convey this revolution and its ideas to a wider audience?
Nesher: To some extent. I was very interested in political cinema as a critic, so I’m very careful to not make movies that make blatant political statements because they tend to become obsolete within a year or two at best. Besides, if I wanted to do a political essay, I’d just write one. I think cinema needs to be much more complex and interesting and it needs to respect the views within the movie that it does not share and be much more all-encompassing. And Hadar agreed with me. It was very important for us to make a movie that would not be a pamphlet; we really wanted to get into the mindset of very young, bright, ambitious women in the orthodox world and not just raise the flag and wave it.
Filmmaker: It seems like casting Fanny Ardant was also a statement of intent, to make the film reach a broad international audience.
Nesher: I have this approach to screenwriting where I completely mistrust my imagination because I’ve seen way too many movies; I think anything I “invent” is probably something I saw in some movie. When I write, I like to interview a lot of people and then for everything in the movie to be something that someone has told me. This specific character is based on a woman that we met and we wrote her as a foreigner. The night before we met Fanny Ardant, I was at a dinner party and a man told me this really strange story about her. He said she was sitting at a diner party, she didn’t say a word for an hour and then, just before coffee was served, she spoke up and said, “You know, I have a knife in my handbag?” People were just flabbergasted and said, “Why a knife?” and she said, “I have this phobia that a huge tent will fall on me and I have to cut my way out.” The moment I heard that story, I knew I was going to like that woman and I knew she had something to do with the character.
Filmmaker: It seems like in making this film you must have come up against a fair amount of resistance.
Nesher: At first we had much resistance, but I rarely make movies about people or worlds that I do not respect and have some affection for. I think they understood that I was going to be dealing with an explosive subject matter, but I have no intention of crucifying anybody or making and indictment of Orthodox society – God knows there are many things that they do better than we do. The fact that I went to a yeshiva was very helpful because every now and then we would wander by some holy site and some rabbi would have an objection. I would just talk turkey with him. At the end, they were very cooperative and the only thing they minded was that there would be some nudity in the movie. I said, “Well, we have a mikveh scene. If you tell me rabbinically that you can do a mikveh scene with clothes on, I’ll be happy. But, of course, you can’t.”
Filmmaker: You seem to very carefully balance the theological and theoretical aspects of the film with the story, making sure the movie is always accessible.
Nesher: We wanted people to see the movie. I really believe that if you’re going to take two years of your life and you’re going to make a movie, hopefully people are going to see it. I really never care about commercial aspects and I’d happier if people didn’t have to pay to go to see, but for me it’s really vital to make movies that become part of the cultural and social discussion of the society in which they exist. When you live in a small country and you make a successful movie, it has an amazing impact. I was 23 when I made my very first movie and knew nothing about movies and about real life, and I thought it was always going to be like this. I remember the first time I went on a bus and heard people using dialogue from my movie – there’s something bewitching about the political and social possibilities and, as Delmore Schwartz said, with dreams come responsibilities. You become addicted to it and you really strive to make movies that become part of the cultural dialogue within the given society. It sounds a bit pretentious, but I believe that without pretension nothing interesting gets made.
Filmmaker: When I watched the film, I was thinking about your time in Hollywood and wondering what effect that had on the way you approached this film. Your career in America seems very much at odds with the work you’ve done in Israel.
Nesher: My Hollywood career was one of the greatest flukes of all time. I was one of those people who never really wanted to have a Hollywood career because I grew up in New York and there’s nothing you dislike more than the West Coast. When I was a critic, my specialty was the B-movies of the 40s and 50s and I was the consummate Don Siegel and Sam Fuller scholar. For me, it was something that fascinated me and my first movies were more like these ones. Then I made Rage and Glory and it was an unbelievably controversial movie and got me into hot water. From being a guy that everybody loved, I became a marked man – I got bomb threats, the works. I remember I was sitting in my apartment and I got an offer from some Hollywood producer to come to America and do a movie. The only American movies I wanted to do were science fiction because I didn’t identify with the American experience but I loved American filmmaking, so I thought it would be really great to go to America for a year and to make this kind of funky B-movie and get away from serious movies for a while. Off I went, and things just sort of took off. I made this first movie called Timebomb for MGM; I don’t think it’s a great movie but it has some entertaining elements to it. Before I knew it, people were interested in me making more such movies and I wrote another one, called Doppelganger, and Drew Barrymore was in it. It was OK. I made movies with my head not my heart – it wasn’t something that I cared about socially or politically or personally, it was an intellectual experience. I did this for a while until I got tired of it, and then I made this one American movie that I did kind of like, called Taxman. Then I thought it was time to go back. I just missed Israel.
Filmmaker: You’re an Israeli who spent most of your early years in New York. Did that lead to you having something of an outsider’s perspective?
Nesher: When I came to Israel to do my army service, my Hebrew was very poor, I spoke mostly English and I had a really good American accent and a really bad American accent in my Hebrew. I was such an outsider that within weeks, I had an accent in every single language I spoke. I want to make the point that I’m not only an outsider her, I’m an outsider there. If I don’t get the result of the latest New York Giants game, I’m very upset. There’s something in me that really relates to American culture and yet I’m completely Israeli, I care very deeply about Israel.
Filmmaker: There’s been a really great run of Israeli films recently, like Beaufort, The Band’s Visit, Jellyfish and Waltz with Bashir. What do you think is the reason for this cinematic boom?
Nesher: Well, it’s been a long time coming. People forget how young this country is because it’s spent so much time in the headlines that you feel it’s been here forever, but it’s country is only 60 years old and so is the culture. People have not spoken Hebrew for 2000 years so it took a while to just master the art of having dialogue that sounds real, to understand the Israeli aesthetics (which are different from other aesthetics), to attain an Israeli identity, because the earlier movies tried to either American movies or French movies. [Joseph] Cedar, Ari Folman, Eran Kolirin are wonderful, wonderful filmmakers and they are the first generation that has really grown up on Israeli movies. It really just took the longest time [for Israelis] to make movies that were free of outside influences, for the culture to gel and for the people to grow up having their own identity and not having a borrowed identity.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you wished you had a different job?
Nesher: Never. No, that’s not totally true. After Rage and Glory, I thought that taking so much flak for a work of art was too much and for a whole 48 hours I considered leaving cinema. But then I realized there’s nothing else I know how to do.
Filmmaker: If you could travel back in time and be able to make movies in a time and place of your choice, where and when would it be?
Nesher: As an Israeli filmmaker, now is a really great time but I’m really intrigued by old Hollywood. I can’t really imagine a whole town devoted to cinema. When I was at Columbia, Samson Raphaelson – the guy who wrote for Lubitsch – was one of our teachers and he had the most amazing stories about him and Billy Wilder and Lubitsch all hanging out in the commissary. Because I’m very fond of filmmaking camaraderie, I would have loved to be a part of that.
Filmmaker: Finally, what’s the smartest decision you ever made?
Nesher: To come back to Israel to make Turn Left at the End of the World. I had this American career and my agent was talking to my wife about finding a mental institute to hospitalize me. He was going crazy because it made no sense to him at the time, because this was before Israeli cinema really took off and it didn’t seem like a good move. But I think you follow your heart, you do what feels right.