Jan Chats
Shemi Zarhin

Shemi Zarhin, the director of BONJOUR MONSIEUR SHLOMI, came to Chicago in October, 2006, to show his new film AVIVA MY LOVE at the Chicago International Film Festival. Jan sat down with him for a Sunday morning chat right before Shemi picked up a plaque from the CIFF jury, which commended Shemi for his “fine screenplay reflecting the richness and irony of a creative woman’s life.”

The title of your last film, BONJOUR MONSIEUR SHLOMI, reflected the fact that the main character’s family came from French-speaking North Africa. Similarly, the title of your new film comes from the fact that the main character’s mother typically greets her as “Aviva Mon Amour.” Where is your family from, Shemi?

My family, they came originally from Algeria to live in the north of Israel, in Safed. My great, great grandfather, he lived in Algeria. I was born and grew up in Tiberias.

There’s a perception in the world, certainly here in the United States, not to mention this crazy person in Iran [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad], there’s a perception that the people who live in Israel today are primarily Ashkenazi, and the children of Holocaust survivors to boot, making Israel somehow a European intrusion in the Middle East. But your films show the Mizrachi story.

I think it’s important because maybe this way people will understand that Israel is part of the Middle East. I feel closer, I’m sorry to say, to Arabs than to Europeans and Americans.

Why are you sorry to say that?

Because you’re American; I don’t want to be rude.

Oh, OK; not to worry! So you grew up in Tiberias, and that location is very specific in AVIVA MY LOVE. You go behind the tourist stop and you show a place where real people live. Talk about the city and how you feel about it. What makes Tiberias unique for you?

It’s for me going back home. My parents still live in Tiberias and also my big brother and big sister. It’s my home town. But I had to find a cinematic reason to come there because you can’t say to the photographer, for example: “I want to shoot the family in Tiberias because this is my home town.” It’s not a reason for him.

I think that it’s a very special place because in each place you put the camera you can see in the same frame the reality or the present, and in the background you can see how things could be. The Kinneret [Sea of Galilee], so beautiful; it’s just like a dream. But the characters live a very hard life economically, and they even can’t see the background in metaphoric way.

Then, when they get on the bus, the characters are going to Tel Aviv?

Yeah, Tel Aviv is only 2 hours away, maybe even less… I met yesterday a very good friend of mine. He lives here in Chicago and it took him more than an hour to get here. An hour [in Israel] is Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, or Tel Aviv to Haifa. But it’s considered there very far away. It’s like another land. It’s really a different side of Israeli we are looking at in AVIVA. Maybe Tiberias is the “real Israel,” because Tel Aviv [where most Israeli films are set] is like New York.

So let’s talk about AVIVA; AVIVA is so much darker than SHLOMI. We’re going along, getting involved in the life of this family; we’re seeing these people, and then it takes this twist we’re really not expecting. Without giving too much away, how do you see Aviva’s choice? Describe what Aviva’s moral issues are.

I think that Aviva’s biggest problem is the fact that she doesn’t believe in herself. To be a writer? It’s not her dream; it’s her family’s dream. For Aviva, to write is a way of life. She’s writing all the time. She doesn’t need to be well-known or to publish or to become rich. It’s not a “career dream.” She has to write. She has to write.

When people they’re telling her, ‘You’re a writer,” she’s immediately saying, “No, I’m not.” But all the family, especially her sister, want her to go and to be, in a way, a different person.

But you give her so many things to juggle; the practical problems Aviva needs to surmount in order to write are huge.

For Aviva to choose not herself, not choose her dreams, is the most easy thing to do. She doesn’t believe in herself. It’s a part of one of her stories, calling her character Yona “a colorless woman,” because it’s common to be nothing. It’s common to be nothing. I think this is what Aviva thinks about herself: “I keep on being nothing and things will be relaxed.”

Even with the opening scene with the doctor she feels humiliated, of course, and sad, but she can’t move. She can’t move, maybe because she thinks that this is what I deserve? And I think it’s a problem that women experience a lot of times, maybe every day: “If the world relates to us in this way, what does it say; what does it mean? This is what we deserve.”

Aviva, she’s finding herself. She has to decide what she wants, not what her sister wants, but what she wants. And this is what her daughter is telling her at the end. Her daughter comes to her and says: “It’s your business. It’s your decision. It’s not our decision.”

So by owning her writing as an artist, who does Aviva become that she wasn’t at the beginning?

A person who can look in the mirror and see herself. Aviva looks in the mirror in the beginning of this film and she sees, I don’t know what; but in the end of the film she’s starting to use the words “mine” and “myself.” “This is my story,” she says. I think that Israel didn’t find yet its real identity. We are part of the Middle East. We are part of Galilee and the Arabs, and we are part of the people that live there: Jews and Palestinians.

And in the case of Safed, have lived there for centuries?

Yes, and also in Tiberias, for thousands of years. So we have to recognize this, in fact, in order to solve the other problems.

So can I say that there’s a metaphor in Aviva’s mirror, that the mirror serves a function in AVIVA?

Only if you say I didn’t think about it. But when you are asking this, I can say, “Yes, it’s interesting.” Because, really, when I’m making a film, I’m thinking just about the characters.

I didn’t think about Aviva as a representative of Israel, but when people ask me about my last film BONJOUR MONSIEUR SHLOMI, well, the name “Shlomi” means “my peace.” I didn’t think about it, but it was very reasonable to hear it because Shlomi, the character, was trying to make peace everywhere.

Let me tell you: We were supposed to premier AVIVA in Tiberias and we planned it very good. We had a huge hall there. Now, in Israel, of course, a huge hall is 800 or 900 seats. All of the Tiberians had to come and we planned a big celebration with all the actors and press and then we couldn’t do it because of the war, because the war [with Hezbollah] started while we were releasing the film. So we did the premier of AVIVA in a bomb shelter in one of the neighborhoods there! And a lot of people came and a lot of press, of course, because it was really exciting. I believe that this is maybe the only movie premiere in a bomb shelter.

So what did that mean for you? What were your feelings? Defiance?

I was worried, especially for my family. My parents, they’re so stubborn. They have this room, their “safe room,” but they didn’t want to close the door because they had to move the refrigerator from the door and they were: “Ah, come on, it’s okay to be there in a safe room without closing the door.”

So I was worried about them, and about friends and family. I didn’t think about the movie or my plans, and then it became a huge hit in Israel, and it won two prizes at the Jerusalem Film Festival and six Israeli Film Academy awards. The editor by the way is my wife, so she’s feeling very happy now!

© Jan Lisa Huttner (October 15, 2006)