An In­de­pen­dence Day clas­sic – ‘The Troupe’ at 40

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - • HAN­NAH BROWN

The quin­tes­sen­tial Is­raeli movie clas­sic, Avi Nesher’s The Troupe (Hala­haka), turns 40 this year. This an­niver­sary will be cel­e­brated at a fes­tive screen­ing on Is­rael’s 70th In­de­pen­dence Day, April 19, at the Tel Aviv Cine­math­eque. This com­edy/drama/mu­si­cal about an army en­ter­tain­ment troupe that stages a re­bel­lion against its com­man­der has the catchi­est songs ever – there are few Is­raelis who don’t know songs such as “Shir Lashalom,” “Car­ni­val b’Na­hal” or “Shir Hala­haka” by heart – and it fea­tures a cast of ap­peal­ing un­knowns, such as Gidi Gov and Gali Atari, who went on to dom­i­nate the Is­raeli en­ter­tain­ment scene.

Watch­ing it on tele­vi­sion is an In­de­pen­dence Day rit­ual for many house­holds.

Nesher, who was just 23 when he made The Troupe, has gone on to a ca­reer as one of Is­rael’s pre­em­i­nent di­rec­tors, whose films re­ceive both pop­u­lar sup­port and crit­i­cal ac­claim. Out of all the film­mak­ers who were his col­leagues back in 1978, he is one of the few still mak­ing movies and the only one whose films are still at the cen­ter of the Is­raeli cin­ema scene.

Nesher is the son of a mother who is a Holo­caust sur­vivor and a Ro­ma­nian fa­ther who was a diplo­mat. When he was 11, his fam­ily moved from Is­rael to New York. At 18, he re­turned to Is­rael and served in the IDF Gen­eral Staff Re­con­nais­sance Unit (Say­eret Matkal).

Not long af­ter he fin­ished his mil­i­tary ser­vice, he turned to di­rect­ing. Fol­low­ing the suc­cess of Hala­haka, he went on to make sev­eral more movies in quick suc­ces­sion, in­clud­ing Dizen­goff 99 (1979) and Rage and Glory (1984), which was re-re­leased in a dig­i­tally re­stored ver­sion in 2017.

Af­ter the suc­cess of th­ese films, he spent about 15 years in Hol­ly­wood, mak­ing genre films. Few thought he would return, but in 2004 he re­leased a new Is­raeli movie, Turn Left at the End of the World, about In­dian and Moroc­can teenage girls com­ing of age in the Negev.

In the years since, he has made four more Is­raeli feature films: The Se­crets (2007), about ul­tra-Ortho­dox young women delv­ing into Kab­bala; The Match­maker (2010), the story of a boy who be­friends a mys­te­ri­ous Holo­caust sur­vivor; The Won­ders (2013), a look at an artist and a kid­napped rabbi in Jerusalem; and Past Life (2016), a fact-based drama about two young women look­ing into se­crets in their fa­ther’s past.

Later this year, his new film, The Other Story, will be re­leased. It’s about a fa­ther (Yu­val Se­gal) who re­turns to Is­rael af­ter years abroad to try to con­vince his newly ul­tra-Ortho­dox daugh­ter (Joy Rieger) not to marry.

But no mat­ter how many movies he makes, Hala­haka will al­ways have a spe­cial place in his heart – and the hearts of so many Is­raelis.

He sat down with the Mag­a­zine to talk about it re­cently at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem, where he was teach­ing par­tic­i­pants in the Sam Spiegel In­ter­na­tional Film Lab.

When was the last time you saw ‘Hala­haka’?

I kind of make it my busi­ness not to see my old movies, but ev­ery now and then I be­come a cap­tive au­di­ence. The last time was on In­de­pen­dence Day a few years ago. I went to some friends, and they in­sisted on watch­ing it on tele­vi­sion; and I thought, just to be po­lite, I’ll be there for 10 min­utes and then I’ll find an ex­cuse to leave. But then, as I hadn’t seen it for a long time, it was re­ally in­ter­est­ing be­cause they had like 20 peo­ple there, and half of them had not been born when the movie was made, and they to­tally were into it.

Movies that have longevity re­late to the very DNA of the cul­ture in which they were made. I guess It’s A Won­der­ful Life is such a movie in Amer­ica.

Watch­ing Hala­haka was in­ter­est­ing to see be­cause... the out­stand­ing char­ac­ter in the movie is a woman, and this is Is­rael in the ’70s – this was just not done. Most of my movies have to do with re­bel­lious peo­ple, and the most re­bel­lious one there is that woman [the char­ac­ter Miki, played by Liron Nir­gad, who leads the other sol­diers in the troupe in a walk­out to protest their cruel treat­ment at the hands of their com­man­der]. She’s so un­pre­dictable. She is the moral com­pass. She is the one who does the right thing. And I just thought it was so in­ter­est­ing to tell that story through a woman in Is­rael in the late ’70s, which was so ma­cho and there were no women in Is­raeli cin­ema at the time who did any­thing that did not have to do with fam­ily or ro­mance, and she is like the Che Gue­vara of the movie .... You sort of see your own movie through the eyes of per­haps your daugh­ter or per­haps what is hap­pen­ing in so­ci­ety to­day, and it was some­thing to see how ev­ery­one found it so rel­e­vant still.

When you first start mak­ing films, you do it one at a time, and you are un­aware of time and per­spec­tive and what will they look like years later. I found out that the great­est fear that one has is not fail­ure but ir­rel­e­vance. Most art be­comes ir­rel­e­vant pretty quickly, and it’s re­ally in­ter­est­ing when art stays rel­e­vant through­out the years.

You go to Hala­haka or Dizen­goff 99 or Rage and Glory – Rage and Glory is a movie that was made 30 years ago that a whole new gen­er­a­tion is sud­denly em­brac­ing... it’s an in­ter­est­ing phe­nom­e­non. You try to ex­plain it to your­self: What is it about th­ese movies that make them tri­umph over time? And I’m not sure I know the an­swer.

Did you re­al­ize, while you were mak­ing ‘Hala­haka,’ that it was a ground­break­ing film?

The film was con­sid­ered – how shall I say it? – it was such a de­par­ture from con­ven­tional Is­raeli cin­ema of the day. It did not have a love story, it didn’t have any tribal con­flict, it didn’t have any big story per se. It was about 12 peo­ple liv­ing life while hav­ing am­bi­tions and

fears and loves, [a film] that tried to de­ci­pher this Is­raeli ten­dency that while we hate each other, we stay to­gether.

The pro­ducer tried to put an end to film­ing twice be­cause, he said, this movie doesn’t play by con­ven­tional cin­ema rules, and there will be no au­di­ence, and no one will come, and it’s a waste of time. And he ac­tu­ally told the in­vestors that it was stupid to throw good money af­ter bad, and prin­ci­pal pho­tog­ra­phy was halted af­ter three weeks, and we al­most didn’t come back.

He kept say­ing that he re­ally wanted the Meir Suissa char­ac­ter [who is Sephardi] to go back to the Hatikva neigh­bor­hood and light can­dles on a Friday night. And I re­mem­ber he told me that I am too clever for my own good but I have no soul. He just said, “But where is the Jewish stuff? Where is the light­ing of the can­dles? Where are the tears? When is the au­di­ence go­ing to cry?” And I said, “It’s not a movie like this, it’s not a melo­drama; it’s a slice of life that I think peo­ple will find in­ter­est­ing, and I think they will want to spend time with th­ese char­ac­ters.” And he said, “Movies don’t work that way,” and I said, “Maybe they will now.”

What was the first screen­ing like in 1978? When did you know it would be a hit?

For the first test screen­ing we had – the pro­ducer thought it would be a waste of time even to test it – he brought in 100 peo­ple from a fac­tory in Her­zliya. I think on pur­pose he brought in peo­ple who were not, you know, hip. He thought the movie was too hip for its own good. So he brought reg­u­lar peo­ple. And they loved the movie. Af­ter two min­utes they were to­tally into it. And they were laugh­ing and they were clap­ping and they loved the movie. It was just in­stant.

Now again, when you are 23, you can­not ap­pre­ci­ate the sheer mirac­u­lous­ness of the mo­ment, be­cause you have never done any­thing else, so you don’t know it can be any dif­fer­ent, and it was mag­i­cal how they to­tally got into the movie, and it’s re­ally in­ter­est­ing to see the wis­dom of the crowd, the wis­dom of the au­di­ence.

The movie opened big, even though I was a com­plete un­known and the cast were all un­knowns. It was the first movie for ev­ery­body. Gidi Gov was the lead man in a band, Kaveret, but he was not known in­di­vid­u­ally; Meir Suissa and Gali Atari – most of them were com­plete un­knowns. And maybe it was the vibe, maybe it was from the trailer, but peo­ple were into it right away. And it’s an in­ter­est­ing phe­nom­e­non. A lot of peo­ple don’t trust the au­di­ence, but I do.

The “Oh my God” mo­ment was the open­ing night at the Hod Cin­ema in Tel Aviv, and I went with my then-girl­friend to see the first show. It was a big the­ater with 1,000 seats, and peo­ple were sit­ting in the first row, at the very end of the row. And you just want to go and hug ev­ery­one, you just want to say “Thank you for com­ing,” and it’s in­cred­i­bly mov­ing. You don’t think of suc­cess in fi­nan­cial terms. Mak­ing movies is such a chore. It’s so dif­fi­cult phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally that you just re­ally want to show peo­ple what you did.

The coun­try em­braced the movie, and still does to this very day.

What was it like be­ing such a young di­rec­tor?

When you are as young as I was, 23, the great­est thing you have go­ing for your­self at that age is ig­no­rance. You are too ig­no­rant to fear fail­ure .... I was the youngest one on the set. Maybe there was one ac­tress who was younger than me. There’s no one who works on my sets now who is as young as I was when I was di­rect­ing Hala­haka.

But we all were very young... there were four or five of us who were very close. My ed­i­tor, who is also the line pro­ducer, Isaac Se­hayek – I still work with him. It’s in­cred­i­ble.

My girl­friend at the time, Sharon Harel – she was in­volved in the writ­ing of Hala­haka, she was heav­ily in­volved in pro­duc­ing. In many ways, I al­ways felt she should have got­ten a pro­ducer credit. She didn’t get it, much to my em­bar­rass­ment, be­cause at that time, I thought that the pro­duc­ers were the bad guys, so I thought peo­ple like us should not be in that cat­e­gory. She was to­tally de­serv­ing of a pro­ducer credit. She is still pro­duc­ing, she has a com­pany in Lon­don, she is a very smart and very tal­ented woman. Her com­pany pro­duced Gos­ford Park, a movie by Robert Alt­man that won an Academy Award. She was a force to be reck­oned with dur­ing the shoot­ing of Hala­haka and she had my back.

The most prom­i­nent Is­raeli di­rec­tor of the 1970s, the ir­rev­er­ent co­me­dian Uri Zo­har, who left moviemak­ing at the end of the decade to be­come an ul­tra-Ortho­dox rabbi, has a cameo in the movie as him­self, wear­ing a kippa. How did that come about?

I in­ter­viewed Uri Zo­har when I was a young film critic. He saw two shorts I made and he re­ally liked them, and he said that when I made my first feature, he would act in it. Nei­ther of us ex­pected that, one, it would hap­pen so quickly and, two, that he would be­come ba’al tshuva [newly re­li­gious] by then. I re­leased him from his com­mit­ment once I heard he found re­li­gion, but he in­sisted on keep­ing his prom­ise, if only for a day’s shoot. Years later, he told me he felt he was hand­ing over the ba­ton, so to speak, and when he saw Hala­haka, he felt good about his de­ci­sion.

Why did you choose to make a movie about an army en­ter­tain­ment troupe for your first film?

When I was 18, I was at Columbia [Univer­sity in New York], and I went back to Is­rael to join the army. And I wanted to join the

army be­cause there was a very spe­cific unit in the Is­raeli army I wanted to serve in. In many ways, it was like [Ernest] Hem­ing­way go­ing off to the Span­ish Civil War.

For me, it was as much of an artis­tic de­ci­sion as a pa­tri­otic one. I wanted to ex­pe­ri­ence .... My great­est fear was to wind up as one of those peo­ple Woody Allen likes to make fun of, New York in­tel­lec­tu­als who are very good with the turn­ing of a phrase and yet know noth­ing about real life. And when I was 16 and 17, I was al­ready pub­lish­ing es­says in film quar­ter­lies about cin­ema and this and that, and I was heav­ily in­volved with the the­o­ret­i­cal el­e­ment of cin­ema .... I went to a Jewish high school and I grew up in a very pro­tected en­vi­ron­ment, and I knew noth­ing about life, and I was afraid if I wanted to make movies and write movies, my knowl­edge of life was very, very lim­ited.

So when I went to get my Is­raeli pass­port at age 18, the guard at the Is­raeli con­sulate told me about this unit, Say­eret Matkal, and it sounded great, it sounded re­ally in­ter­est­ing and ex­cit­ing, and so I just thought I wanted to ex­pe­ri­ence it. It was ex­actly like Hem­ing­way go­ing off to the Span­ish Civil War.

So I went back to Is­rael, much to my par­ents’ cha­grin – my par­ents, who live in New York – and I tried to join this unit, and the guard at the con­sulate for­got to tell me that they take in like 25 kids out of about 10,000 who try to get in. And some­how I made it to the fi­nal 50 – God knows how, be­cause there were kids who were much bet­ter than me in just about ev­ery­thing.

[For­mer prime min­is­ter] Ehud Barak, who was called Brog then and who was the com­man­der of the unit, asked me, “Where would you go if we didn’t take you in?” And me, be­ing a nice kid from New York, you know, I can take a hint, I thought he was telling me I wasn’t be­ing ac­cepted, and I said, “Oh, I’m go­ing to go to an army en­ter­tain­ment unit,” and he started laugh­ing and he said, “Not the air force? Not the naval com­man­dos?” and I said, “No, no, no, I have no in­ter­est in the army. I have an in­ter­est in your unit specif­i­cally, but if you don’t want me, I’m not a bad gui­tarist, I would go and play gui­tar.” And I just think they ac­cepted me be­cause it was such a quirky an­swer.

I served there, but only for one year. I was no great mil­i­tary hero or any­thing like that, then got in­jured af­ter a year, and I went to Mil­i­tary In­tel­li­gence, which is much more what you would have pre­dicted for a guy who went to Columbia.

But it was al­ways in my mind that I could have been a gui­tarist in one of those troupes, and I al­ways found those places fas­ci­nat­ing be­cause it’s the essence of Is­raeli so­ci­ety, you know, it’s a bunch of bril­liant, am­bi­tious peo­ple who have to work to­gether on stage.

So af­ter the army I went back to Columbia and I wrote a screen­play that was op­tioned by Fox, and ac­tu­ally a kind of mes­sianic screen­play, sort of a sci-fi kind of thing; it never got made, ob­vi­ously.

While I was wait­ing for it to go into pro­duc­tion, I wrote Hala­haka. Be­cause, again, I was a mu­si­cian, I al­ways had a great in­ter­est in any­thing that has a music el­e­ment. And to this day, I am still fas­ci­nated by music. I just came back from Paris [where a com­poser was writ­ing the score for The Other Story], and there are very few di­rec­tors who sit down to work with a com­poser on the music; but for me, the music is like a screen­play.

The whole spirit be­hind the screen­play came from music be­cause there was one song that I liked, “Shalva,” [that was orig­i­nally planned to be] sung by a lead singer with backup, and it was sung in har­mony. And I thought it should be sung in coun­ter­point, and the very essence of coun­ter­point is two voices clash­ing and, at some point, meet­ing in har­mony. And I thought that, mu­si­cally, that would de­fine the mech­a­nism of the nar­ra­tive, where there is a con­stant clash and then a sense of har­mony, only to go to a re­newed coun­ter­point .... When you are very young, you have many the­o­ries, and some of them ac­tu­ally work.

The film fea­tures a very early sym­pa­thetic de­pic­tion of a gay char­ac­ter.

This is the first ho­mo­sex­ual in Is­raeli cin­ema, and he is seen in a pos­i­tive light, and he is to­tally em­braced by the group. The whole no­tion of the film is that the Is­raeli ex­pe­ri­ence can em­brace peo­ple who are to­tally dif­fer­ent than you. In the his­tory of queer cin­ema in Is­rael, this is a first; and not only is it a first, it’s pre­sented as some­thing com­pletely nor­mal.

In Is­rael in 1977, that was a very bold thing to do. It was one of the things that re­ally made the pro­ducer un­happy, but Is­raeli so­ci­ety em­braced it.

Why has this be­come the most beloved Is­raeli movie?

It was the first Is­raeli movie that spoke Is­raeli, where the cin­e­matic means and style were Is­raeli. Ba­si­cally, if you look at Zero Mo­ti­va­tion, you can see the di­rect as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween th­ese two movies. And it’s al­most the essence of Is­raeli cin­ema, which is based on a group, not the in­di­vid­ual.

For me, in a way, it was a movie about the essence of the way Is­rael is put to­gether, this im­pos­si­ble com­bi­na­tion of peo­ple who don’t fit in to­gether but have to make it work; about con­stant fric­tion and con­stant col­li­sion and con­stant cri­sis – and yet, when the chips are down, some­how it works, but only for a while.

This is the ex­act op­po­site [of the noble, self-sac­ri­fic­ing soldier image in Is­raeli cin­ema]. In the movie, there is a re­bel­lion against the army, and in Is­rael in the ’70s, it was a big deal. There was an Is­raeli gen­eral, Re­havam Ze’evi, “Gandhi,” who did ev­ery­thing he could to make this movie not hap­pen. It’s re­ally ironic. The quin­tes­sen­tial Is­raeli movie, and he re­ally thought it was an amaz­ingly sub­ver­sive movie. Many years ago I met him, and he said, “I fi­nally saw Hala­haka – not too bad.” That’s Is­rael for you. It was rea­son­ably sub­ver­sive. Peo­ple mis­take Is­rael for be­ing a mil­i­taris­tic state. God knows, there could never be a dic­ta­tor­ship here, be­cause Is­raelis don’t take or­ders from any­one. And the quin­tes­sen­tial come­back here is, “Who are you to tell me what to do?”

I guess ev­ery sin­gle movie I’ve ever done has to do with re­bel­lion. If you look at ev­ery movie – whether The Se­crets or Turn Left at the End of the World or Past Life – they are sto­ries about two women re­belling .... All the peo­ple who built this coun­try were rebels, and there’s a strong rebel tra­di­tion here.

It’s the way Amer­i­cans like that Western men­tal­ity: Self-reliance, “Go west, young man.” So West­erns have the essence of what Amer­i­cans like about be­ing Amer­i­can. Hala­haka cap­tures the essence of what Is­raelis like about Is­raelis.

Do younger au­di­ences need to know any­thing spe­cial about that era be­fore they see ‘Hala­haka’?

No, they don’t. The amaz­ing thing is they don’t. They just see it and are into it. There’s some­thing about th­ese char­ac­ters that does not be­long to a time. It’s this Is­raeli en­ergy that has not re­ally changed with the ad­vent of hi-tech or what have you. It’s some­thing that my daugh­ter has in com­mon with some­one who was her age 40 years ago. ■

(Screen­shot)

(FROM LEFT): Gali Atari, Meir Suissa, Gidi Gov, Sassi Keshet.

(Screen­shot)

A SCENE fea­tur­ing Gidi Gov.

(Yoni Ha­me­n­achem)

NESHER (in the Co­lum­bia T-shirt) was just 23 when he started di­rect­ing the ‘The Troupe.’

(Yoni Ha­me­n­achem)

AVI NESHER (cen­ter) di­rects ‘The Troupe,’ a com­edy film about an army en­ter­tain­ment group that stages a re­bel­lion against its com­man­der.

(Michal Fat­tal)

NESHER with Natan Goshen on the set of ‘The Other Story,’ a film about a fa­ther who tries to con­vince his ul­tra-Ortho­dox daugh­ter (Joy Rieger) not to marry.

(Michal Fat­tal)

(FROM LEFT): Nesher, Joy Rieger and Natan Goshen.

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