The Israeli diva who got ugly
Ronit Elkabetz is Israel’s top actress. She tells Nick Johnstone about boycotts, neglecting herself for a role and that sex scene
RONIT ELKABETZ is the face of Israeli cinema. The 43-year-old actress/director has starred in some of the country’s most acclaimed films over the past 10 years — including Late Marriage in 2001 and 2007’s The Band’s Visit. She has also co-written and directed two films with her brother, Shlomi. Born in a suburb of Haifa to parents of Moroccan descent, she now lives in Paris and Tel Aviv. Her latest performances, in Jaffa and The Girl On The Train, can be seen at the UK Jewish Film Festival, along with a screening of Late Marriage.
JEWISH CHRONICLE: With Jaffa, you again worked with director, Keren Yedaya. What is the secret of this relationship?
RONIT ELKABETZ: The first minute I met Keren, I agreed to participate in her first feature film, Or, without even reading the script. The same happened with Jaffa. I felt that our tastes and sensitivities meet exactly. The cinema that I’m drawn to, that Keren’s drawn to, speaks for those who have to fight for their basic human rights — what is often called social cinema.
JC: In Yedaya’s debut, Or, you took on the harrowing part of Rutie, a despairing mother trapped in a cycle of prostitution. How difficult was it to play the character?
RE: At the beginning I had to meet Rutie through the body because the body never lies. I wanted to bring myself to a situation of having a graceless, worn, tired body. I started a process of self-neglect which lasted about a year. It’s mainly a mental process, but it had a strong physical expression. I gained 9kg, stopped all beauty care and avoided sports or any kind of physical activity. I got connected to this barren soul. It was hard and difficult.
JC: People talk of the sex scene in Late Marriage as being one of the most truthful ever filmed. What was it like shooting that scene?
RE: When I was reading the script, the first thing came to my mind was to talk to the director, Dover Koshashvili, about that scene. The condition for me to agree to do a 15-minute sex scene, with its full nudity, was if we could experience it in the most realistic way. I remember telling him that it couldn’t be a “romantic” scene with soft lighting, the accepted aesthetic. He promptly said that he agreed and that his intention was to shoot it as realistic as it can be. The scene was filmed over 14 hours and it was not easy, but we were very focused and precise in our intentions, which helped isolate us from the embarrassment.
JC: How do you feel about the move to boycott Israeli film interests at the Edinburgh Film Festival by Ken Loach, and the further attempted boycott at the Toronto Film Festival?
RE: A cultural boycott is a bad thing in any respect. I ask myself: Is it really the standpoint of the honorable director Ken Loach? When you consider the fact that he agrees to participate in the Cannes Festival, beside Israeli films, and to distribute his films in Israel through the years and earn his living from the Israeli cinema-goers, who accept him, then it’s hard to follow his position. However you look at it, there’s something hypocritical and sad about it. I cannot see the point of this extreme, tactless move.
I really do think that this is a very complicated and delicate issue. It doesn’t matter how much I believe that Israeli policy has darkened our soul and extracted our serenity, and that it must change immediately. I believe that no one whose living space is not between Israel and Palestine can really understand the intensity of existence in this area. I admit that, personally, “foreign” opinions, whether they serve my interest or not, always make me uncomfortable. We all have opinions and it’s a good thing, but if we find ourselves shutting other peoples’ mouths for their beliefs, it will be the end of the enlightened era.
A cultural boycott means death. It’s identical in any form, to any dictatorship regime. I hope that this tendency does not become radicalised and that we can do what really needs to be done, which is to talk to each other like humans, to listen out of mutual respect. To talk, because that’s the only way to make progress. We don’t have to agree, we don’t have to love, but it’s possible to have a civilised discussion between people, between filmmakers, between countries. We have to.
Ronit Elkabetz says she is drawn to films that feature people fighting for basic rights