Secular Cinema in the Holy Land
Screenwriter Noah Stollman talks about how to make a movie about Jerusalem without taking on 2,000 years of tumult
Quick – name the most important legacy from the 5,000-year history of the Jewish people. If you said Mosaic law, circumcision, the Temple of Solomon, the Psalms of David, the movies, the Great American Songbook, Your Show of Shows, the land of Israel, or celebrity kabbalists, you're close but wrong. The most important legacy of the Jews is the idea that religious and cultural traditions can flourish in exile, that local beliefs can go global. This may not sound so remarkable in our age of satellite-enabled remote healing and cable televangelism, but at the time of the first Jewish diaspora in 722BC, it was a world-changing notion, one that would open the floodgates of monotheism and lay the foundation for Western society as we know and tolerate it.
Some of the fruits of that 3,000-year-old exile will be on display this week at the seventh annual Austin Jewish Film Festival – cinematic dispatches from sons and daughters of Abraham living in Belgium, Brazil, France, Mexico, Slovakia, Tunisia, and elsewhere.
The film opening this year's festival is Someone to Run With, the 2006 adaptation of Israeli author David Grossman's bestselling novel about a teenage boy in Jerusalem who finds himself in a Dickensian world of adolescent poverty, music, romance, and gangsterism after he decides to return a dog to a mysterious young transient girl. Winner of several awards from the Israeli Film Academy and Miami International Film Festival, Someone to Run With was adapted by Noah Stollman, an American-born Jew who grew up in Jerusalem before moving back to his native New York in 1995 to make his way as a filmmaker before going back to Israel to make his first feature film. Call it a double reverse diaspora with a self-exilic twist. "The U.S.," Stollman says, "was always the promised land to me, the place you had to go to become who you wanted to be." And now he's coming to Austin, where he'll be presenting his film at the Arbor this Saturday night.
The Chronicle recently spoke with Stollman about his experience writing Someone to Run With, his ambivalent relationship with his adopted homeland, and the role tradition plays in the mind of the modern artist.
Austin Chronicle: How did the opportunity to write Someone to Run With come up?
Noah Stollman: I had been back in the United States for a few years after finishing film school in Jerusalem, but I still had friends and colleagues back in Israel, and I was developing a few projects with them. One of the production companies I was in touch with had bought the rights to the novel. The author, David Grossman, is a very savvy businessman, and he had sold the film rights and the TV rights separately. The TV rights were in Israel, and the film rights he had sold to a European producer. The director, Oded Davidoff, and I had been hired to create a miniseries based on the novel. Meanwhile, the European producer, who worked out of Vienna, was starting to do preproduction on the feature-film version. So he already had a script and was starting to produce it while we were producing the miniseries.
To make a long story short, we had the luck to be first. And when the European producer came to Israel and saw our footage, he felt that what we had done was the definitive adaptation of the book. And David Grossman was very much behind us as well. And so the film rights reverted to us, and within the space of a month, we basically cut the film down to a two-hour version from a 3½-hour version, just in time for it to open the 2006 Jerusalem Film Festival. And it got released in theatres throughout Israel after that.
AC: How did the film do in Israel?
NS: It did very well. The only problem is that it seems like every time I go to release a movie in Israel, a war breaks out. [Laughs] A few weeks after Someone to Run With hit the theatres in 2006, the second Lebanon War broke out. It was a time when missiles were falling, and theatrical releases, obviously, took a back seat. And then a few weeks ago, I launched another Israeli TV series that went on the air about the same time the recent Gaza situation started. So it's been like a recurring theme for me.
AC: Did you feel a lot of pressure adapting a bestselling book? Did you worry about being true to its spirit?
NS: No, that's not something you take into consideration when you're adapting a novel. My only goal was to make it into a good movie. But it was difficult, because in the book a lot of the characters' backgrounds and history are communicated through flashbacks and memories. You learn a lot about their psychology through their backstories and internal monologues. And in film you have to translate that into action and dialogue.
Also, both Oded and I grew up in Jerusalem and were teenagers there. So for us it was a way to revisit Jerusalem and to portray a side of the city that hadn't been shown in popular culture, especially in feature films. We wanted to show that Jerusalem is just like any other town, with a darker, edgier, more sinister side that most people aren't familiar with. Jerusalem isn't just a city of religious and historical importance; it's a real, breathing city.
AC: As an artist writing about this seedier side of Jerusalem, do you feel like there's a fight between people's expectations of Israel – especially non-Israelis' expectations – and your interests? Do you feel that others view Israel as either an entirely symbolic, religious, holy place or a place that's in a state of constant conflict, that there's a one-dimensional view of what Israel and Jerusalem are?
NS: [Laughs] That's a multilayered question ... and I think it can be answered in one word: yes. Totally. Certainly when you're portraying Jerusalem – even to Israelis [and] definitely to people elsewhere – people tend to think of the Wailing Wall or the West Bank or other religious and politically volatile sites; they may not necessarily think of the drug trade or a Fagin-like impresario who imprisons teenage street musicians in a halfway home. And of course some of that is imagined, and some of it is based on truth. It's like any place. Once you've lived there and you know the ins and outs, you learn more than what people on the outside can perceive, especially in a place as symbolic as the holy city of Jerusalem, which we wanted to portray in the secular, civilian, quotidian way – a place with familial strife and romance and adventure. A place not necessarily weighed down by 2,000 years of history.
AC: There's an idea that one of the jobs of an artist is to free him- or herself from that weight you're talking about. Obviously tradition and history in a place like Jerusalem can be particularly heavy. Do you feel like that's something you deal with, or is that something you got away from when you came to the U.S.?
NS: Growing up in Jerusalem, you don't always feel the weight of those 2,000 years of history, but when you make a movie about Jerusalem, it's definitely there, and you're thinking about the fact that you're making a movie that may go against the expectations and preconceptions of viewers. But that's what we were aiming for: to show Jerusalem as a sort of multicultural city of Babel, where there's a mix of people and traditions and a thriving secular underground.
History is definitely something you're aware of growing up there, but I wouldn't say that it's oppressive. Wait, you know what: I strike my previous sentence; in certain ways it is oppressive. There is a certain weight that can suck you into political confrontations whether you like it or not. Whether it's the issue of suicide bombings or any other manifestation of religious fanaticism on either side that seem to come to a boiling point in that place, you're always in danger of being sucked into the conversation. But we couldn't take on all the aspects of the city in one film. And we weren't really interested in doing that anyway.
But on a personal level, yeah, there's definitely a lot going on there, maybe even too much. Which may be why I had to leave.
The seventh annual Austin Jewish Film Festival runs Jan. 24-30 at various locations in Austin and Georgetown. Opening-night film Someone to Run With screens Saturday, Jan. 24, at 7pm at the Regal Arbor Cinema, with screenwriter Noah Stollman in attendance. For full lineup and ticket information, see www.austinjff.org.