Love Is a Battlefield

With 'The Holy Land,' indie auteur Eitan Gorlin feels at home as an interloper in a world of religion, romance, and war

Oren Rehany and Tchelet Semel in <i>The Holy Land</i>
Oren Rehany and Tchelet Semel in The Holy Land

It's not every day you come across a first-time filmmaker who's also a former Orthodox Jew who spent his formative years studying at a Jerusalem yeshiva when he wasn't sweating it out in a Merkava tank during his year of state-mandated military enlistment. But then, Eitan Gorlin isn't your average indie auteur.

His new film, The Holy Land, is that rarest of films, a sorrowful black comedy that manages to humanize a bitter conflict most of the world has seen only on CNN broadcasts and in the pages of The New York Times.

Set in and around embattled Jerusalem, Gorlin's remarkable film follows the wayward path of a young Orthodox Jew by the name of Mendy (Oren Rehany), who, on the advice of his rabbi, seeks out a prostitute to help get his mind off his hormones and back onto the Talmud. Don't laugh -- Nathan Englander's 1999 short-story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, chronicled a similar adventure, and this sort of Talmudic special dispensation is not unheard of. For Mendy, the dalliance only leads him further astray when he falls in love with Sasha (Tchelet Semel), the Russian prostitute and émigré who's not sure what to make of this serious, intellectual suitor.

Much of the film takes place in and around Mike's Bar, a fictional watering hole that Gorlin drew from the real Mike's Place, where he worked as a bartender during his years in Israel. That the fictional bar has a real-world counterpart is odd enough -- it's a bit like the Mos Eisley Cantina from Star Wars, with Arabs, Palestinians, Jews, and rugged expats of all nations checking their sidearms at the door in favor of whiskey and hookers -- but Gorlin's film, by turns melancholy, hopeful, and bleakly humorous, manages to encapsulate the fractured and factionalized human condition in all of its dreadful anti-glory.

We spoke with Gorlin on the phone from his home in Los Angeles on the eve of the film's Austin premiere and tried to separate the real from the unreal. It's harder than you'd think.

Austin Chronicle: Do you still live in Jerusalem?

Eitan Gorlin: I'm American-born, and I lived in Israel for six years, but I'm in Los Angeles now. I have Israeli citizenship and spent a year in the military in a tank there, but I grew up Orthodox in America, so I very much have that yeshiva experience. I spent a year in a messianic Zionist yeshiva, where I was exposed to the settler movement and the religious Zionist ideologues. I was living there up until about a year ago.

AC: Does Mike's Bar have a real-life counterpart?

EG: Yeah, there was a bar called Mike's Place in Israel. It was founded by a Canadian war photographer who was also a very close friend of mine. He lives in Canada now, but he came to Israel to shoot the first intifada and the first Gulf War and ended up running the bar from 1992 to 1995, and I worked as his bartender for about a year in '94-'95.

AC: How similar was that to the bar as you portray it in the film?

EG: I think the characters that I wrote maybe began as people who sat at the bar, like, for example the Razi character -- there was somebody called Razi who sat at the bar, but he was a very different character from the film version. I've actually written that character into three different scripts. In one, he's Indian, in another, he's Greek, and so on, but specific to this film I actually based the character on a collaborationist I knew from the Mike's Place days, one of these businessmen who works with both sides. The film was definitely inspired by my time at Mike's Place, with the notion of the hobo priest, which was also very much a part of Mike's Place.

AC: Are you still a practicing Orthodox Jew?

EG: No.

AC: How did that impact your desire to get into filmmaking? Was the filmmaking something that came along after you spent time in yeshiva, or was it in your plans all along?

EG: I think it went hand in hand. One of my favorite books when I was in yeshiva was Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, which was very much the same story as mine, if you replace Catholic with Jewish and seminary with yeshiva and rabbi for priest. It was an identical story. I'm 34 now, and I pretty much left Orthodoxy at 18. While I was in the Orthodox world I was kind of experiencing my rebellious youth, bouncing around the Orthodox map, and I became even more extreme and had access to the ultra-Orthodox school and the Zionist school I mentioned. There was this notion that when you leave religion you look for a replacement, and art became my replacement. You find that notion not only in James Joyce but also in Hesse, Mann; you find it in a lot of writers.

AC: So would it be fair to say that the character of Mendy is somewhat autobiographical?

EG: Yes and no. It is in the sense that I grew up Orthodox, and that whole world is very familiar to me. And at some point I did have to wrestle with staying or leaving. But I like to feel that with every character I write, if I can't feel him at least for a moment, then it's not working. Even the character of the Exterminator in the film has a counterpart to my life in that I, too, spent a year getting all wrapped up in that whole nationalist pride and the notion of becoming this larger-than-life character where you're almost modeling yourself after some biblical warrior-priest, and the notion of getting to play John Wayne on the Israeli frontier. Each of these characters has something in them that I've felt or experienced.

AC: How's the independent filmmaking community in Jerusalem? Does it compare in any way to the community in, say, New York City?

EG: There is a film community in Israel, although every movie that comes out of Israel needs to be approved and funded by the state. There is this notion of completely independent filmmaking in Israel, certainly, but you have to have the script approved by a committee, and then the committee gives you the money. I came with private investors from America, so I didn't have to deal with that.

AC: The film has some remarkable actors in it. Did you cast in Israel, and how many of the actors did you know before you began casting?

EG: The only actor I knew before we began the casting process was Saul Stein, who played Mike. He was somebody I kept bumping into in America. Originally, I had thought of him for the Exterminator, but then he did a reading for Mike, and I was just so blown away I went with him. Even though I'd lived in Israel for many years, I'd never been involved in the film community there, and all my film experience had been in New York. For four or five years I was living that kind of low-budget, independent-film lifestyle here in America. In Israel, even though I spoke the language and knew the culture and was very comfortable, I really had no exposure to the film community. Your talent pool in Israel is quite limited, too. I think I saw every person who is an actor or calls himself an actor. The film deals with the phenomenon of Russian prostitution -- in the last 13 years over a million people have emigrated to Israel, which is a country of 4 million people to begin with -- but the prostitutes don't generally come from the immigrant population, they're brought in specifically to work as prostitutes, and they're not usually Jewish. It's very much a result of globalization and the fall of the Soviet Union, but also because you now have this criminal network of former Soviets operating in Russia and Israel ... where there are very relaxed prostitution laws. The flip side of that is that now you have all these unbelievable actors and artists who are now living in Israel and unable to find work.

AC: How have Israeli audiences reacted to the film?

EG: It hasn't opened there yet, actually. It's playing at the Angelika in New York, though, and what's really exciting to me is that the Russian community there is just so supportive of the film. We've been covered by Russian radio, Russian television -- if I had to point to one group that seems most moved and most supportive of The Holy Land, it's the Russian community in New York.

AC: What about the reaction from the Orthodoxy?

EG: We've had a lot of support from them, too. There have been some very moving times for me where young yeshiva students have come to me and said how moved they were by the film.

AC: So having spent a significant part of your life in what's now basically a combat zone, can you see any end to the region's troubles? Or is that just wishful thinking?

EG: I think Mike's Place offered a certain sort of hope. It was a place where people could come and sort of forget their tribal differences and bond over a beer. I think that, now, there's been so much blood spilled, and problems with the leaders involved that ... perhaps there will be peace, but not tomorrow. It's going to take a very long time. end story

The Holy Land opens in Austin on Friday, Aug. 8. See Film listings for review and Showtimes.

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The Holy Land, Eitan Gorlin, Saul Stein, Oren Rehany, Tchelet Semel

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