Interview: Eran Riklis
We talk to a leading Israeli filmmaker who wants to make movies that are not just about the conflict.
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Eran Riklis: “a duty to observe”
Eran Riklis bristles when he is described as "political". But the Israeli filmmaker says it is a label he has had to accept, albeit with trepidation. "The word political is complicated. I used to say my films were not political, and people would smile and say 'Oh OK'."
Riklis, 56, first received worldwide attention for his 2008 film Lemon Tree, about a Palestinian widow whose lemon grove is set to be demolished to make way for the house of an Israeli security minister. Surely Israeli films do not get more political than that?
Riklis agrees. "So OK, if they are political, then I think they are democratic and I hope that I don't preach. I have my points of view, but I try to show the whole picture. Honesty is what it's all about. Show the good and the bad and let the audience decide. I'm happy if they just reflect on the issue."
His latest film The Human Resources Manager, which won five "Ophrirs" (the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars) examines the attitudes of Israelis to "invisible" foreign workers. An adaption of an AB Yehoshua novel, it tells the story of an unhappy HR man at Jerusalem's largest bakery who discovers a Romanian employee has been killed in a suicide bombing. His office sends him to Romania with the woman's body to make amends with her family.
An Israeli HR man visits Romania in The Human Resource Manager
Riklis explains: "I needed a break after Lemon Tree, but I will return to the kind of subjects that film raised. I don't feel like I always want to make films about the conflict. That surprises a lot of people. When I released The Human Resources Manager in France, there was high expectation because Lemon Tree had been a huge hit there. And the reaction was that they liked it, but they felt 'it's not Lemon Tree'. I felt they were almost putting pressure on me, asking me why I hadn't stuck to the same formula.
"I find that problematic because I want to be free to do whatever I want. As long as I don't betray certain principles, I am free to tell any good stories. As a filmmaker, what interests me is being relevant, being the conscience for what's going on around me, whether it's political issues, social issues or even private issues if they have a wider significance."
But Riklis says he worries about young filmmakers in Israel who try to escape any connection with their country's politics. "They say: 'Enough with the conflict, enough with the Palestinians already, let's just make films that any Hollywood directors would make.' And I have a problem with that. We are here; we have a duty to observe what's going on around us, because it's critical, it's difficult. "
Riklis was born in the US and spent his childhood there, with stints in Brazil and Israel. He first camera, which he picked up aged 13, was a gift from his father who was a keen amateur filmmaker. "It's a very boring, classic story. I guess after fiddling around with the equipment for a while, I knew I wanted to make films. I was drawn to telling things in a visual way. I absorbed so much American television that I had a very visual upbringing. It was a culture shock when I first came to Israel when I was seven years old and there was no television at all."
Despite his cosmopolitan childhood, Riklis accepts he is now defined as an "Israeli" filmmaker. His film, Playoff, told the true story of Ralph Klein, an Israeli national hero who died two years ago. "He was a Holocaust survivor and basketball coach who won the European Championships with Maccabi Tel Aviv. Three years later he was offered the job of coaching the German national team. So he had an almost impossible dilemma. But he did it, despite the wishes of his family and almost the whole country.
"There was a sense of betrayal when he went to Germany. And today, even though we have a good relationship with Germany, there are so many Holocaust survivors here. The relationship is still complicated."
Riklis is happy to admit that he is a "product of Israel". He says: "Israel is where I live and where I work. I'm from Tel Aviv. I work with people from all over the world but I choose to live here not Hollywood. But I do want to be understood in Israel, Japan and the UK."
And the trick he uses, in order to be universal, is to "make 'em laugh." He says: "I always use comedy. In real life you can go to a funeral in the morning and then come home, watch a comedy on TV and be laughing in the afternoon. For me there's no problem laughing in a morgue. The story of The Human Resources Manager is essentially tragic but it's also a proper road trip movie, and it's funny. Some people are happy to sit through a film which is so dark that it has no relief for three hours but they're probably people who never smile. Laughter opens people up."
Riklis, who trained at the National Film School in Beaconsfield in 1975, feels London is a "tough nut" to crack. But he is looking forward to the film' London premiere at the Tricycle in Kilburn. "British audiences have a strange sense of humour but I think they are used to this kind of dark comedy. I lived for almost five years in London, and I have a soft spot for it. Four of those years I was in West Hampstead and the Tricycle is just round the corner, so for me it's a bit like going back to where I used to watch movies."
The 'Human Resources Manager' is at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn with a Q&A with Eran Riklis tomorrow at 8.30pm, as part of the Tricycle's International Oscar season. There is another showing on February 24 at 2.30pm.