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Eyes Wide Open: Interview with Haim Tabakman

The tent protests that have swept Israel this summer have made unlikely bedfellows out of secular and ultra-religious activists confronting similar social issues. Gay rights are no such matchmaker, however, as seen in last month's Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem and the sizeable counter-protest it spawned in that city's ultra-Orthodox Mea Sharim neighborhood. (Last year the black-frocked Deputy Mayor brandished cardboard donkeys to condemn the “bestial” nature of the paraders.)

What underlies such peeve and proscription comes under scrutiny in the Israeli film Eyes Wide Open. Widely opened eyes are advised to catch the symbolic code that director Haim Tabakman lays down in scene one for the film’s unfolding emotional and spiritual terrain.

Enter rain-soaked Aaron (Zohar Strauss), an ultra-Orthodox man who smashes the chains of a Jerusalem butcher shop he has recently inherited from his dead father. So much for inherited traditions. Inside this tomb of a store it’s all animal flesh and blades. Aaron starts in on his food preps when carnality in the form of a young man (Ran Danker) materializes, seeking dry shelter and work. Aaron shows Ezri the door, but later softens when he sees the supposed yeshiva student sleeping in the synagogue.

The devoted husband, father of four and respected community member invites Ezri to apprentice at the shop and stay upstairs while seeking a place of his own. Manly meat and water rituals will soon test Aaron's religious devotion. Sensuality does not keep kosher.

In defense of self-gratification, Aaron utters, "I was dead before. Now I'm alive.” However, such a betrayal promises banishment or worse. What of our natures should we sacrifice and suppress? What are the costs of being authentic? Where do we draw the line between judgment and understanding, repression and respect?

Tabakman's powerful yet restrained drama, based on a script by Merav Doster, raises questions that are as essential to secular viewers as to the devout souls portrayed onscreen. Film Festival Traveler reached Tabakman in Tel Aviv to parse meanings and shoptalk about his debut feature that was nominated for an award by the Un Certain Regard section of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.

Q: Passion threatens to wreck everything Aaron has built. Is it a positive force to be nurtured or negative force to be overcome?

A: It's both. Passion is destructive, but it also builds and gives force. I recently came across something by (German author) Thomas Mann, that there's the trivial truth -- the opposite of which is a lie or an untruth -- and the deep truth, whose opposite is also true. So 2 + 2 = 4 is a simple truth. But religion is both the most meaningful way to live your life and the first thing that inhibits you from achieving your inner self that's also true."

Q: A complex truth...

A: Yeah. One of the puzzles that Aaron cracks is, Why did God make me like this? Every creation of God is special. When you battle for your belief you come alive. I'm heterosexual, so it's very easy for me not to be attracted to other men. But Aaron comes to the conclusion that being gay is what makes him special. It's a tool for him to fulfill his special identity. For that he needs temptation to be close to him. If your refrigerator has only milk and no meat, there's no challenge. But if you have this delicious cheese near your hamburger, you have to work on it a bit. Aaron understands that to make his passion grow and to overcome it, he has to keep sin -- Ezri -- close to him. Just as there are commands written for Kohanim (priests), he understands that the biblical command against homosexuality is written for people like him. Only people who have that are working God. Aaron fails, of course. but this is the hypothesis that he's working on.

Q: Aaron has a sense that he has missed his life. Does he ever expect to become who he is?

A: The deep truth is very paradoxical. The truth is that he wants to live with Ezri, but the truth is also that he wants to be a religious man. What's the bigger truth? He doesn't know.

Q: Is homosexuality more accepted in the ultra-Orthodox community today than when you shot the film?

A: One of the definitions of ultra-Orthodox society is not letting the new come inside. But nothing can be so rigid. Today I was at the public library to research a new script I´m writing, and there was an ultra-Orthodox guy with Robert McKee's book on screenwriting, together with screenwriting notes. So evolution is very slow but it happens. On the other end, there are certain things that cannot be changed, and one of these things is the text of the Scriptures. In the Bible it's written very clearly that if you prefer the same sex, you should be sentenced to death.

Q: What recourse can a homosexual religious person have if they want to be a part of the community?

A: When I researched the film, I talked to ultra-Orthodox people who were gay and who were meeting their lovers in Tel Aviv. Sometimes these were not really relationships but just encounters. They would not have an orgasm, and this would be their interpretation of not having sex. Others would perform everything but penetration. This may sound very crooked and very wierd, but people are trying to make an accommodation.

Q: Would this pass muster with the moral minders?

A: Sin happens. Homosexuality is not accepted as a tendency in nature but rather as an urge. If you feel you are attracted to another man, you can fight it. The rabbis and all the top religious establishment don't recognize that it's something natural that you are. They will send you to a psychiatrist. Sin is very acceptable in Judaism. There's something in the Scriptures and the G'marra that says if sin overcomes you and you feel your urges are overwhelming, go to a city where nobody knows you and wear black and repent. "Hazara be-tshuva" (return to faith) or reconciling your sins is very big in Judaism. King David was a big sinner. Judaism doesn't want to eliminate you; it's just that you have to overcome your sins. You should take a big breath, come back home and concentrate on coming back to your home and your wife.

Q: And if that doesn't do the trick?

A: Homosexuality is one of the few sins that are punishable by death as written in the Torah. If Israel were a religious state like Iran, maybe someone would enforce this. We are not a religious state and we don't follow the laws of the Torah like that, so nobody is getting executed.

Q: The Orthodox-themed film Ushpizin was made with the support of the community. Did you collaborate with any local residents?

A: Ushpizin is another kind of film and in the end it's not so subversive. My film is more problematic. The only peope who collaborated with me were those who left the community or those who were living a fake life from within the community and wanted to their keep family together. They would give me their stories and talk with me about their lives and how they felt.

Q: What was it like to shoot on location in Mea Shearim?

A: Guerrilla style and not so easy...we got chased out. We got some stones on our car and other people coming to us saying, Get out of here. We also built a location in Jaffa that looked like Mea Shearim, just to have the air of the neighborhood.

Q: How was the film received by ultra-Orthodox Israelis?

A: The religious community doesn't go to see films, but they get the Internet and they can download. Some were very positive and some were very angry. I tried to be fair and gentle about all the subjects. It's not really about finger pointing and it's not so sensational. So it wasn't about exploring religious life, but rather about exploring myself. In the end it was a very personal story.

Q: In what way did you draw on your own experience?

A: My psychological compass for dealing with this story was very personal. I wanted to portray things that I knew from my life. Passion, loneliness, not living the life you want to; I'm afraid of living my true self. In any kind of relationship with your work or your spouse, the rules are sometimes killing your passion, but they are also what define us and what we are dependent on. Sometimes you have to betray the rules to find yourself.

Q: Israel is both a very open and very closed society. What are the roots of this polarity, and how do they affect gender identity?

A: We came from all kinds of places in the world -- for some it's 10 years ago and for others it's 30 years ago and still others have been living here for hundreds of years -- but it's a young country. The consequences are that it's very interesting to live here. We have a lot of stories but the future is very uncertain and there are a lot of questions about how Israel will live in the future. No one really can give an answer about what will be. It's not only us against the Arabs but us against ourselves.

Q: What responses have audiences had to the decisions of Rivka, Aaron's wife?

A: I relate to responses that are close to what I have in mind: that they admire her way of not reacting hysterically or violently or other clichés of the betrayed party to a love triangle who an is angry and vindictive woman. She is not saying all kinds of harsh things, but rather responds in a mature, tentative and thoughtful way.

Q: How risky was it for teen idol/singer Ran Danker and popular actor Zohar Strauss to take on this taboo subject?

A: Basically the only thing Ran Danker was more afraid of than portraying a gay ultra-Orthodox was being stuck in a teenage idol rut. He wanted to grow. I don't know that it was any risk at all for Zohar Strauss, who saw it as an acting challenge.

Q: What films were you inspired by in telling this story?

A: There are a lot of influences. I cannot really say one thing, but I really like a lot of genres. I like minimalism and also maximalism. I like quiet films like (Robert) Bresson's and the complex, ironic films of the Coen Brothers. I like Asian cinema, old and new cinema. I'm a product of all kinds of films.

Q: In Eyes Wide Open, a stranger comes to town and rattles everything. Is it a Middle Eastern Western?

A: I was thinking about Westerns, but not exclusively.

Q: What can you tell us about that script you're writing?

A: One tiny hint: it's very similar but very different.

A Jewish Girl in Shanghai: Interview with Lu Win

 

A Jewish Girl In ShanghaiA Jewish Girl in Shanghai is both the title of China's first homespun Jewish film and a quick history lesson.

Who knew Jews of any gender existed in Shanghai? Apparently not many Chinese citizens. At least not until the animated film based on Wu Lin's graphic novel opened in theaters across China in May 2009.

Now Lin is making a sequel to extend the course. More about The Secrets of the Necklace (working title) in a bit. Meanwhile...

A Jewish Girl in Shanghai tells the story of Shanghai’s Hongkou district, where more than 30,000 Jews sought refuge from Nazi-occupied Europe. In particular it tracks the saga of Rina, who fled there from Poland with her younger brother Mishalli. Their wartime adventures with a Chinese pancake seller named Zhou A-Gen set the scenario for exploring friendship between Chinese and Jewish children.

Read more: A Jewish Girl in Shanghai:...

Kevin's July '11 Digital Week I

BlackBlu-rays of the Week

Black Moon and Zazie dans le metro
(Criterion)

Two of Louis Malle’s more experimental films are given typically excellent Criterion releases. 1975’s Black Moon, his surrealist take on Alice in Wonderland, is enlivened by Sven Nykvist’s usual sumptuous photography, while Zazie dans le metro, a 1960 adaptation of Raymond Queneau’s supposedly unfilmable novel, has Zaziea freeform style that fit in well with the then-emerging New Wave.

Malle, whose eclectic career was cut short by cancer at age 63, took on any project and made it his own. Both movies have a sumptuous “sparkle” on Blu-ray; extras include vintage Malle interviews on both releases and additional interviews and a video piece on Zazie.

Ceremony (Magnolia)
Writer-director Max Winkler’s young protagonist, still in love with his Ceremonyolder ex, decides to crash her upcoming wedding to see if there‘s anything still there between them. Although the attractive, talented cast (Michael Angarano, Uma Thurman, Lee Pace, Reece Thompson) make the characters believably confused, Winkler is unable to make Ceremony more than intermittently clever and charming. The movie looks good on Blu-ray; extras include deleted scenes, outtakes, extended scene, making-of featurettes and behind-the-scenes footage.

Read more: Kevin's July '11 Digital Week I

Theater Review: The Motherf**ker with the Hat

The Motherf**ker with the HatLK-MotherfWritten by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by Anna D. Shapiro
Music by Terence Blanchard
Lyrics by Anna D. Shapiro
Starring Bobby Cannavale, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Chris Rock, Annabella Sciorra, Yul Vázquez

Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play is a very funny, ironic, grungy and cautionary tale where four-letter words, sex and betrayal are mixed in equal parts in the down and dirty milieu of New York City drug addicts and their relatives and friends.

It starts at a residential hotel in Times Square. Jackie (Bobby Cannavale), just out of jail and on parole, is ready to take up again with his sweetheart Veronica (Elizabeth Rodriguez), but then he notices a man’s hat on a bedroom table.

He accuses her. And the language she ripostes with is the rich idiom of the play:

"You have got this wrong, Jackie. You’re so far out of line you’re like in Zimbabwe or some shit…. I’m willing to put the ghetto on hold and eat some fuckin’ pie with you, if you’re willing to entertain the notion that you’re a fuckin’ retard ex-con who almost blew it cuz you got an imagination like -- I dunno -- Dr. fuckin’ Seuss an shit. Okay?"

Pause. He searches her eyes.

Jackie: "But you’re lying."

From there, with fast-paced direction by Anna D. Shapiro, Jackie proceeds on his own picaresque itinerary. It is a wild ride.

The first stop is his parole sponsor, Ralph (Chris Rock), who runs a health food business out of an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. Ralph is full of good advice, what any middle-class self-improvement guru might give (he is learning French and showed up for jury duty).

But he has his own difficulties with Victoria (Annabella Sciorra), the cursing recovering addict he lives with. And he is not quite without blame.

Then on to Jackie’s cousin Julio (Yul Vázquez) in Washington Heights. Julio offers him empañadas, remarks that he was in a sex addiction fellowship, and agrees to hide the gun Jackie has obtained for revenge against the man with the hat.

The story is both real and surreal, connecting to experiences we know, but rooting them in the underclass. Ralph and Julio exchange cards about nutritional beverages and massage (Rolfing is Julio’s specialty). Various members of the couples denounce their partners and also cheat on them with their supposed friends.

The play gets a lot of its spice from Guirgis’s peppering the dialogue with obscenities, and from the in-your-face acting by Cannavale as the hoarse-voiced, dysfunctional Jackie. Cannavale is backed up with class (if that is the right word) by the rest of the ensemble. It’s a play and production one won’t soon forget.

Schoenfeld Theatre
36 W 45th Street
New York, NY
212-239-6200.
Opened April 11, 2011; closes July 17, 2011

For more by Lucy Komisar, go to thekomisarscoop.com

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