An Interview With Avi Nesher, Acclaimed Director Of Past Life

Since the 1970’s Avi Nesher has been a well-known name in Israeli film.  He has written, directed, and produced award winning movies in both Hebrew and English.  His newest film, Past Life, is a nuanced tale about how events that happened in the Holocaust have the ability to ripple through to the next generation.  I had the opportunity to talk to Mr. Nesher about the movie and how its themes are reflected throughout Jewish and Israeli culture.

 As the daughter of a Sephardic Israeli, I grew up hearing about Israel as this place of “happily ever after.” It feels sometimes like Israelis don’t want to talk about the stories that brought them to settle in Israel.  Do you find that to be the case?

The generation that survived the Holocaust didn’t really want to talk about it. But in many ways, my generation, we don’t want to hear about it. When Israel was created, it tried to invent a new kind of Jew… the Jew that does not go like a lamb to the slaughter. The reaction to the Holocaust was trying to create this rebirth. Part of the rebirth was trying not to connect to what happened before. And it’s a horrible thing really, you know, because people like myself and my generation, we just never asked our parents what really happened there.

My own mother was a Holocaust survivor. The first time she spoke about her life there was to my kids. It was just devastating how much they didn’t know about her.

This woman you love so much, and yet you know so little about her past. In Israel, the past is very much in the present. It’s still a country haunted by the Holocaust. I keep telling people that World War II has been over for 70 years everywhere except Israel. The Holocaust is still very much alive here.

Was that something that influenced you in making the movie?

Well, you know, Israel is a country born out of much pain, out of much suffering and with a very, very painful collective memory of what happened to 6 million Jews. And I will never know exactly what happened to my parents during the Holocaust, you know? They will never tell me the whole story. But in many ways, their pain was transferred through their DNA to my DNA. And actually, studies have shown that trauma can be transferred from parent to children. And trauma is very much part of Israeli psyche. Sometimes it manifests itself through very harsh behavior.

Other people misunderstand Israeli politics and people say Israel overreacts to things. But people do not understand the extraordinary fear, which still exists within the Israeli psyche. When the Iranian president says he wants to annihilate Israel, we take it face value. We don’t see it as just words. People don’t quite understand how traumatized this country still is. And, as we all know, the first rule of psychoanalysis, if you have experienced trauma you must talk about it.

So, for me, making this movie was the first step toward having this discussion about what happened, and how it affected my generation.

I read that the movie was largely based on a true story. How did you choose this particular story to tell?

I made a movie called The Matchmaker a few years ago, which was also a Holocaust themed movie. It was very, very successful in Israel, and worldwide. I don’t like going back to the well. I don’t like making more than one movie about a specific subject, because every time I make a movie I would like it to be a personal journey for me as well.

I was approached by many, many, many people with Holocaust projects because of the success of that movie. And I always turned them down. But then, I was approached by this composer. This great Israeli woman composer called Ella Milch-Sheriff.

I’ve been a great admirer of her work. She’s a great feminist, and she’s fought against all odds to have her music performed during the seventies in Israel, when Israel was a very macho kind of country. Very chauvinistic. I really admire her and she tried to interest me in her father’s diary. And I said no, I don’t want to do it. Said it would break my mother’s heart. I don’t want to make a Holocaust movie.

Then she told me the story about her and her sister… which is a true story, that this movie is based on. All the events described are true events. And when she told me about her sister and herself I could really identify with it in many ways, you know. It’s the story of my generation. The story of the children of the Holocaust survivors, who grew up in this new exciting country, with this great trauma of their parents. We all grew in houses where secrets were very much in evidence.  I very much identified with it and I thought in many ways it would be dealing with my own trauma, as well as dealing with the character’s trauma.

Even though it’s a true story, is there anything of your own personal narrative in it?

Everything I write about other people, in a way, I’m really writing about myself. The only truth we know is our own experience. That is the only thing that we know for certain. Everything else is speculative. I really identified with the sisters, and in many ways, I think I worked out my own issues, and my generation’s issues through this story. It was extraordinary. And I had Ella, who is an extraordinary woman because she didn’t mince any words and she didn’t try to sugar coat it. She really told the story the way it truly was. It is an astonishing thing. How her sister got sick and how they were both consumed with this obsessive guilt of what the father may have done, or may have not done. People tell me that the story plays with mystery, which is interesting because it really is a true story. It’s the way it actually happened.

Do you feel like it’s our responsibility, as Jewish artists, to keep telling those Holocaust stories?

I feel it’s our responsibility to deal with the traumas. America has been traumatized by slavery, and it’s been the great American trauma for many, many decades. Then came along the 60’s when American cinema started addressing the problem through movies like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Into the Night. Traumas can only be dealt with culturally. You need to bleed them out, and you need to discuss them, and you need to be out in the open, and the only way to get rid of them is by accepting them, or by forgiving them or by dealing with them. And I think that’s something really valuable about the part art plays in society. It helps you in a way a psychologist would help you work out your own problem.

Art helps the surviving work out their problems through drama. The Holocaust is still so much a part of Israeli life, and sometimes people use it as triggers to get Israeli voters to vote one way or another. The Holocaust is used, and abused in so many ways that one really needs to deal with it so the next generation grows up, not free of the trauma, but well aware of the views.

Do you feel like film making is a political act?

In Israel, shopping for vegetables is a political act. It’s a country where survival is a question every day, you know? That is something that is so difficult for people around the world to understand about Israel.

It’s extraordinary! People don’t take it seriously enough. Can you imagine if Canada were to just completely destroy America? And every day you get up knowing that this dangerous someone exists right next door. In Israel, politics is directly connected to survival.

America has a luxury of having no natural enemies. There isn’t a nation … going back to the Cold War, even the Soviet Union wasn’t a nation devoted to the death of the United States.

In Israel, it’s a whole different situation. We are dealing with the traumas of the past and we are dealing with the fears of the present. And we have no choice but to be political because our very survival is dependent on wise political decisions.

How do you find it different working as a director in Israel versus America?

Well, in Israel, a successful movie is very significant, politically and socially. When Past Life opened, it became a conversation topic in almost every household in Israel. And again, Israel is like a small town. People share issues, people share struggles, people share joy, and when a work of art is successful, success doesn’t just mean commercial success. It means that it becomes part of the collective thinking, and part of the collective discussion. When you make a movie in Israel, you make a lot less money, believe me. But in many, many ways, you feel that you have done something more significant.

 Can you talk to me a little bit about the music in the movie?

I used to be a jazz musician myself. Not very talented, not fantastic… but a musician.  Every movie I do, before I start writing the screenplay, I always have to understand the music. Because for me, music is emotion. If you understand the music, it allows you not to spell things out. There are many ways music can say things that the characters cannot say. Or you do not want them to say. And I worked with a very talented Israeli musical director on the music of this movie for maybe a year before we shot it. There are some original pieces and some classical pieces. Again, it’s all based on real life experiences. But for me, the soundtrack is truly the heartbeat of the movie. Music plays a tremendous part in almost every movie I make, especially in this one. I was glad to learn that the soundtrack is being sold around the world. It is a wonderful soundtrack.

What were you looking for when you were looking for an actress to play the main role of Sephi?

Well, for me, casting is a little bit like falling in love. You never know exactly what you are looking for, but when you see it, you feel it. I never know what my characters look like, I just know what their souls feel like, and it takes me forever to cast, because I see a lot of people and I do a lot of auditions. I only know what I want when I see it. I never imagine … when I write, I never imagine what the characters look like.

This actress, a very young actress, this was her first movie. She has this incredible face that just makes you feel what’s going through her. I’m about to start a new movie, and she is in it and she is just a great, great actress.

Was she a singer before the movie?

Well, no, that’s also the amazing thing. I hate cheating in movies. I hate when people use playbacks and like in My Fair Lady when someone else is singing and all the actors move their lips.

I try to deal with truth in my movies, so I try to keep that lying to a minimum. And for me, using someone else’s voice is cheating. So when I wanted to cast Joy Rieger, the actress, the problem was that she was not a singer. Our musical director told me something that seemed really impossible. He said, “Give me ten months, and I will turn her into a classically trained singer.”

And I thought this is bullshit, you know? Somebody will turn me into an Olympic swimmer?! It’s impossible! But he pulled it off! He worked her day and night for ten months. And, after ten months, he called me up and I showed up at his studio and she opened her mouth and she started singing and my heart skipped a beat.

Past Life is the beginning of a trilogy.  Where will the series go from here?

Well, as I said before, this country is completely overrun by the past and there’s a great sense that the past is not nearly done, the past is not even past. Because it’s still so much a part of the present, I think that we need to deal with the way the past and the present sort of merge. Socially, politically, psychologically. The trilogy deals with the way the past interacts with the present. Past Life is the first one, and the second one is called Past Imperfect. I am just about to start shooting it.

Past Life is now playing in select theaters across the USA.