Laughter in the face of grief


Thirty-something, US-born, Israeli-raised writer-director, Asaph Polonsky admits that a film about parental grief is, "not a usual go-to matter that someone of my age does, but I was drawn to it. I was always intrigued about what happens when the shivah ends - that moment where you are really kind of forced to go back [to your day to day life]."

Polonsky's debut feature, One Week and a Day is about the different ways in which a husband and wife cope with the death of their only child, their 25-year-old son, Ronnie. The film opens at the end of the shivah, just as the last guests are leaving, and spans an entire day. For Vicky (Evgenia Dodina), it means an immediate return to her routine, which Eyal (Shai Avivi) avoids by smoking his dead son's medical marijuana and hanging out with his young, doofus neighbour, Zooler (Tomer Kaplan). But as they each try and gain a sense of control over their lives, they find the world around them stops for no one.

Speaking on the phone from Israel last month, shortly before the film's Israeli theatrical release, Polonsky laughs when he says that his life has been "amazing" since the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, earning a five-minute standing ovation and a Critics' Week prize. "Before you make a film, there's this theory that no one is going to see it. You hope for Cannes, but I never even said it out loud," he admits. One Week and a Day went on to receive several awards at the Jerusalem Film Festival, where the jury praised Polonsky for his, "constant and impressive command of tone and his fine work with a small cast. [This] young director displays a surprising maturity." The film had also been nominated for many Ophir Awards (the Israeli Film Academy Award), including best film and best screenplay, but lost out to Elite Zexer's debut, Sand Storm. It will continue screening on the international festival circuit, including showing here later this autumn at the London Film Festival and the UK Jewish Film Festival.

The film is an acutely observed, finely nuanced and unsentimental portrait of bereavement. But it's also funny. Polonsky's use of light comedy highlights some of the absurdities that the couple find themselves in, be it blocking out the sound of nymphomaniac neighbours, dealing with the supply teacher who refuses to leave or solving the issue of a burial plot.

"I love comedy," Polonsky explains. "Even in the heaviest of films, I appreciate that one [instant] when you laugh. For me, that's a graceful moment." Accordingly, he decided to add humour wherever he could, believing that the drama would be stronger for it. "I feel it breaks the tension but it also creates tension because you don't know if you're allowed to laugh."

It was one such "breaking the tension moment" from Polonsky's own life that led him to write the film script. Some years ago, the girlfriend of one of his good friends died after being ill for two years. "When we went over to the house, there was really nothing to say and then someone asked if he still had some of the weed she'd had," he says. "It was both funny and awkward. It really stuck with me."

The death of his aunt was another influential factor. "It was interesting how everyone, in a subtle way, reacted differently," he says. Although Polonsky's characters are fictional, the eulogy spoken towards the end of the film is an edited version of the words his father wrote about his sister.

The film is set and shot in Ramat HaSharon, the central Israeli city where Polonsky grew up - he currently lives in the US. Although One Week and a Day is telling a universal story, Polonsky says that its characterisation distinguishes it as a particularly Israeli film and was one of the reasons why he wanted to make it in Israel.

Polonsky chose to make Eyal the film's main focus. "It made sense to me that he was the one who regresses back to this place. Vicky may not have the screen time that he does but she is almost like the antagonist to him, with her very clear objectives." Polonsky also wanted to show that Eyal is prone to unpredictable mood swings, and has a destructive streak.

Shai Avivi is a well-known comedian and some critics have likened his character to that of Larry David. The comment is not unwelcome, Polonsky says, as he is a huge David fan. Both characters say what they think and do what they want -"things that are usually not acceptable in society." In one such scene, Eyal shamelessly uses his son's death to persuade a store owner to reopen so that he can purchase some cigarette papers and sweets. The exchange would not have been out of place in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Polonsky, together with his production designer, made the deliberate decision to provide very little information about Ronnie. There are no flashbacks and although his presence, or absence, underpins the narrative, nothing is ever spelt out for the audience - even the cause of his death. The purpose, Polonsky says, is to encourage viewers to use their imagination, "much like when you're reading a book." Apart from one photograph, pointers are given in the form of objects, such as a cello in his bedroom, or gleaned from conversations about him.

"If we showed any more of him, the film would collapse," says Polonsky. "The less you know about him, the more intrigued you are. If you want to know more, that's a good thing."

Amid its gentle humour and Eyal's antics with Zooler and a girl whose mother is terminally ill, One Week and a Day is also punctuated by achingly poignant moments: Vicky and Eyal lying either side of Zooler, who has passed out on their son's bed or Vicky's visit to the dentist.

Polonsky acknowledges that the subject of his film is going to touch people for many different reasons, depending on their own experience of grief. He has found that the audience reaction has been interesting. "People expecting a drama are always surprised about the amount of humour. And people expecting a comedy are surprised when they come out crying."

Polonsky shows that the grieving process is anything but logical, that there are no shortcuts to coming to terms with profound loss, but, for Eyal and Vicky, there is some hope. "For me," he says, "it's not a film about death, it's about life."

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