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Israeli Filmmaker Shemi Zarhin On Philadelphia and Writing Books

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Zoë Kirsch

Award-winning Israeli filmmaker Shemi Zarhin is in Philadelphia today to talk about his new love: writing novels. His first one, Some Day, was released in Israel two years ago and in English translation just last week. Israeli readers and media outlets have been singing the book’s praises since its debut, calling it a work that “forcefully touches on life…with a mixture of steamy vulgarity and intellectual audacity” (Maariv). It’s the story of a family living in the town of Tiberias, “a painfully delicious vision of individual lives behind Israel’s larger national story” (New Vessel Press).

Don’t miss Zarhin’s free talk this evening from 5 to 7 at Penn’s McNeil Center for Early American Studies; wine, cheese and schmoozing will follow.

Filament met up with Zarhin and Some Day translator Yardenne Greenspan to talk about Philadelphia, why writing novels beats writing screenplays, and the lesser-known side of Israel.

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Filament: You mentioned that you’ve been to Philadelphia before for film festivals. What do you think of this city?

Shemi Zarhin: I have a few friends here, and they’re so nice. I also meet them when they come to Israel, so I love to come back here again and again. And the audience that comes to the Israeli Film Festival is amazing; they’re very enthusiastic, and they know each one of my films, so I feel at home here.

F: Your book was very well received in Israel – everybody seemed to love it. Why do you think that is?

SZ: I think maybe because people feel like it’s true. I really wanted the book to be the kind that makes your body work while you read it, makes you smell, taste, laugh, cry, makes you feel the air and makes you horny and desperate. Maybe it worked this way, and maybe this is why it was so successful.

F: What’s the difference between writing a screenplay and writing a novel?

SZ: Writing the book was so powerful in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. I had written many scripts, and a theater play, and some short stories for newspapers, but I had never felt such powerful emotion about writing. Writing the book was a catharsis for me. I realized when I wrote it that I was having a catharsis for the first time in my life – a real one as an artist, as a creator.

There are so many steps in making a movie, and each one is very temporary and partial. When you make a movie you need actions and behaviors and pictures and sound, and then there’s casting, operations, and shooting. Sometimes you direct a take and feel the real emotion you wanted – but you only ever really get small pieces of catharsis.

I actually hate writing scripts. I started writing them because I wanted to direct my stories. And I love words. When I write a screenplay I write it very fast, in less than two weeks, because I don’t like it.

F: Would you like to write more novels?

SZ: Yes.

F: The book is set in the town where you’re from – where you grew up.

SZ: In a way. I mean it’s the same name of the town, but it’s actually a very fictional one.

F: How is the town in the book different than the town where you’re from?

SZ: I grew up there, and part of my family is still there. But I haven’t lived there for the last thirty-two years. So it’s part of my memories – it’s part of my dreams. When I have a dream that takes place in a certain location, most of the time it looks like Tiberias. But there’s no documentary in the novel about the town. My friends grew up there too, and some read the book and say they recognize parts of the characters in themselves.

F: I read that, like many of the characters in your novel, you like to cook.

SZ: That’s not the right way to say it. I like to cook, but really it’s part of my life, and in a way, it’s part of my language. You can see that in my films. I’ve been cooking almost every day since I was seven years old.

F: The same age as Shlomi [the protagonist of Some Day].

SZ: Yes. The way that Shlomi uses food to define his thoughts and feelings – I’m like that.

F: You were talking before about how you want the book to make people feel. I couldn’t help but notice there’s a lot going on with sexuality in this book. A lot of the characters have traumatic sexual experiences. Can you talk about that a little?

SZ: For me, it’s a bit strange to speak only about sexuality. In the book, it’s mixed up with the food and the way people think and relate to one another. I think we have become near-slaves to psychology’s way of explaining people – in books and movies, but also in life. It has become the main way to explain people and humanity, and I don’t like it. Part of the time this theory is helpful and right, but it’s not the whole thing. So I think that you can explain most of the characters by trying to feel their urges. There’s a word in Hebrew for this that doesn’t translate exactly into English – it means your emotional inside and your body and your fillings and your instinct and desire and passion and fear and things that come from DNA, all together. You can only explain part of that using psychology. Besides, sex is a very important part of life.

F: It’s how we all got here! What do you hope American audiences take away from this book, especially given that some people will come to it with background knowledge about Israel and its politics and others won’t? I can see it moving readers regardless because the characters are so vivid.

SZ: The first thing I want them to know is that, for me, this book is the other side of Israel, the unknown way of looking at Israeli life. For me, the imagination is a part of life and reality. I talk about fantasies and surreal places because they’re part of my reality. Another thing that I think is important about the book is that it touches on the issue of yearning. Usually yearning is a good thing, like with nostalgia, when you remember the good parts of your childhood. But we usually don’t relate to yearning as if it were a curse, an illness, a disease. So, addressing that second kind of yearning was important to me, and I think it’s very Israeli.

Yardenne Greenspan: I agree that people will take away their own message. People interested in Israeli society will pay a lot of attention to those details in the book, and people who aren’t will just enjoy the human story. And quite frankly, once a book is out there you really can’t control what people take away from it; everyone takes away what they need. But I agree that it is a sort of anonymous Israel – an Israel that is unheroic, that you don’t hear about very often, and that not enough people care about. I think that makes the setting of the book very unique because, in a way, it’s much more real than the larger, glitzier Tel Aviv and Jerusalem stories.

SZ: I hope readers enjoy it. I think it’s a nice story.

Zoe KirschIsraeli Filmmaker Shemi Zarhin On Philadelphia and Writing Books

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