Home in Exile: An Interview With Eran Riklis

Having grown up around the world, it's not surprising that Tel Aviv-based director Eran Riklis refuses to settle on a genre, even within the same movie.

His films have covered everything from music (Zohar, Volcano Junction) to Israeli-Palestinian relations (Cup Final, Lemon Tree), espionage (On
a Clear Day You Can See Damascus
) to sports (his upcoming Playoff). Some of these categories even overlap. In Cup Final, a captured Israeli soldier (Moshe Igvy) attempts to share his fascination with soccer along with his PLO captors. Lemon Tree is also a courtroom drama in which a Palestinian woman (Hiam Abbass, The Visitor) fights to keep her lemon
grove when the Israeli Defense Minister (Daron Tavory) moves next door and consents to its destruction. The story also explores how his wife (Rona Lipaz-Michael) finds common ground with her embattled neighbor.

The Human Resources Manager, Riklis' latest, is equally tricky to define. It follows a seemingly cold and aloof Jerusalem bakery manager (Ukrainian-born actor Mark Ivanir, Schindler's List, The Terminal). When an immigrant janitor he's never met dies in a suicide bombing, he winds up going to great lengths including traveling to her home country to bury her. If that weren't challenging enough, he's hounded by a tabloid reporter (Guri Alfi) who has been writing defamatory stories about him. The movie abruptly shifts from melancholy to explosive laughter without losing its equilibrium. It also demonstrates that topical films don't have to be didactic or dull.

The Human Resources Manager is currently playing in the United States after winning multiple awards at home. Contacted by e-mail, Riklis explains how he can make movies about his homeland that resonate around the globe.

A. B. Jehoshua's novel The Jerusalem Woman didn't name any of the characters. Why did you and screenwriter Noah Stollman choose to do the same?

We thought this is a great concept and that indeed only the dead woman should have a name as she "earned" it while the others have quite a way to go to "deserve" a name beyond their title.

The film shifts radically in tone. It can be melancholy at one moment and funny the next. Was it difficult to keep the shifts from jarring the viewer?

I think it's part of a style I developed over the years-starting with Cup Final back in 1991 and very noticeable also in The Syrian Bride and Lemon Tree. For me these radical shifts are a reflection of life as I see and feel it-we find ourselves shifting from event to event, mood to mood and yet we survive and move on. So I think most of the viewers can "cope" with this-they recognize it in their own lives.

Immigrant labor has been a major issue in the United States. How is this subject debated, if it is debated, in Israel?

It is a huge debate in Israel and raises huge legal, emotional, moral and practical issues and questions-especially for Israelis and the link to Jewish tradition. There are many second generation immigrants in Israel which make the questions even harder to deal with on every level.

One thing that has been noticeable in your more recent films is that your characters never seem to be completely good or evil. For example, in Lemon Tree, the Defense Minister does contemptible things-the film implies he cheats on his wife, but you also show that he has an impossible job dealing with conflicting factions in his own government. Would this be a fair statement, and why or why not?

More than fair...it is a constant statement for me. People are not painted black or white. They have many shades of grey, many colors, i.e. nothing is ever obvious, there is always another layer, another story, another reason behind what people do and how they think.

Similarly, I notice the Son of Yulia in The Human Resources Manager becomes more likable as the movie progresses. Was that your intention?

The son is a reflection of the HR Manager. He has to change in order for the Manager to change-they become tied to each other on many levels for a short but dramatic period.

It struck me that you'd have to have a good leading man for this film because the Manager in the film is initially cold and unlikable. Is it difficult to make a compelling film about a character like that?

Very difficult and demanding, but I think I was lucky to hit it right with my casting of Mark Ivanir who was perfect and managed to lift the character and make him compelling.

Was it difficult to find someone to play the role adequately?

Finding and deciding on Mark was a long process. I felt that casting the HRM is my most important decision in this film-so I took my time... but it paid off.

What was it like to work in Romania, and how did it differ from what you've done in Israel and the UK?

I loved Romania. The film community is very committed and professional and the people on a whole are warm, interesting and at a very interesting crossroads between their past and the future.

You don't name the country where Yulia comes from or even her village. Was that a conscious decision?

Yes, this is a story about everyman and everywhere.

Both Lemon Tree and The Human Resources Manager had financing from Europe. Do most Israeli films need outside financial support?

All my recent films-including The Syrian Bride and Playoff-were made with German and French money in addition to local finance. For me, it's a wonderful process. It allows bigger budgets, which means a bit more comfort, and it means opening up your mind to working with people from other traditions and backgrounds who are happy to share their experience with you and your project. It's a fascinating process.

You're from Tel Aviv, but you've been educated in the U.K. Do you think that would give you a different perspective than other Israeli filmmakers?

In fact I grew up in Canada, USA and Brazil... and in the UK I had my film education. So yes, I guess I have a slightly different perspective on things and yet that has nothing to do with being a good film maker.

Your last three films-The Syrian Bride, Lemon Tree and The Human Resources Manager-all deal with delicate subjects. Do you think you've been drawn to controversial subjects, or are there other reasons you decided to make these movies?

I don't think it's about being controversial; it's about being alert and attentive to what's going on around me. I believe Israeli film makers must reflect local issues which in turn become universal-there is so much going on here that I don't see why one would want to ignore the social, political and human fabric around him.

All three of these movies have been well received abroad, but Lemon Tree didn't initially do that well in Israel. Why do you think that is, and how was The Human Resources Manager received?

Lemon Tree had a hard time here as I think it was probably a bit too "close to home" for most Israelis and touched on a sensitive issue which many Israelis feel uncomfortable with. The HRM swept the Israeli Academy with five awards and did well with the audience as I think it's less controversial than Lemon Tree and even than The Syrian Bride.

You've been making commercials, TV shows and movies for several years. For example, I was surprised that you made a film about a legendary Israeli musician. Are there any of your commercials or other earlier work that you are especially proud of and why?

I love music and myths and the combination of these two was that film (Zohar) which was a huge hit here back in 1993.

I also made a rock and roll film called Vulcan Junction back in 2000. But all my films are a part of who I am and reflect different aspects and interests I have.

Commercials? They were fun. Some were a nice challenge; some were educating in terms of developing my visual sense and learning how to tell a story in 30 seconds... but I don't miss them.

Did working in commercials teach you anything useful about making movies or television?

Yes, the art of being precise...

I understand your next film Playoff stars Danny Huston and concerns basketball. How did you become involved in that project and how much did you know about basketball before you became involved?

I played basketball in my youth (although I mainly played soccer) and I'm a basketball fan (the Knicks are my team so I'm having a good year at last...)-but Playoff is not really about basketball. It's about a man who goes back to the country (Germany) he was forced to leave as a kid and where he lost his father during the Holocaust-and thinks nothing of it until he realizes the past is always with you and you have to come to terms with it.

I noticed that the name "Riklis" also shows up a lot in your credits. If these people are related to you, what is it like working with your family on your films?

My wife Dina, my daughter Tammy and my son Yonatan are always in the credits as I always thank them for their support and understanding.