Life & Culture

‘I’m trying to do something different … I don’t want to bore my audience’

Israeli film director Nir Bergman's latest movie opened in the UK this week - it features a father and son on the run


It’s the morning after the European Championship final and love for Gareth Southgate’s young lions is coming over Zoom from Tel Aviv, courtesy of the multi-award-winning Israeli filmmaker, Nir Bergman. “I’m sorry for your team,” he says warmly. “But it’s a beautiful team. An amazing team. We wish we had a team like yours.”

“We’re very proud of them,” I say, telling him we’re hoping for big things in the 2022 World Cup. “Yeah, next year,” he replies, with an indulgent smile.

Bergman, 51, is in good spirits, despite Covid delaying the domestic release of his beautiful new film, and reason why we’re talking, Here We Are, until September. The pandemic has meant he’s only been able to have small test screenings, and he cannot wait for his and the New York-born screenwriter Dana Idisis’s heart-warming father-son story to reach the public.

The film has already deservedly won four Ophir Awards, Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars, for Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor (Shai Avivi) and Best Supporting Actor (Noam Imber), and contains all the right ingredients to establish itself as an audience favourite for a long time to come.

Happily, we don’t have to wait any longer to see it; the film is out in UK cinemas from today.

For Bergman, who is one of Israel’s most respected film and television practitioners, Here We Are has been a kind of homecoming that has rekindled his love of filmmaking. “I think I lost it a little bit after my last film [Saving Neta (2016)],” he candidly admits.

He began on a high, when his first feature, Broken Wings, made soon after he graduated from the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem, became a “major success”. Hatched from painful memories of being the child of divorced parents, the film was a hit with critics, the public and awards juries, and should have quickly led to his next feature. However, it was almost eight years before Bergman followed it up with a critically-acclaimed adaptation of David Grossman’s novel, Intimate Grammar. “I think it was, maybe, too big of a success too soon,” he muses.

That isn’t to say he wasn’t being productive in the meantime or that he’d suddenly lost his touch. Working in television, Bergman co-created the hit drama series BeTipul, which was remade in America as In Treatment, as well as being adapted for numerous other territories.

He has often returned to the themes of broken families and people in mental distress, and this has led him to try out alternative, if not always popular, ways of presenting them on the big screen. “My two last films were not a big success, not in festivals or with audiences,” he recently acknowledged during an online interview. “I was trying to go to different places,” he says now, “not just telling the simple story of a hero going through an arc. But, actually, these are the films that I love to watch.”

Idisis’s long-gestating script for Here We Are brought him back to the place that he “loves to see on screen”, he says enthusiastically. “It’s about relationships, it’s based on characters, and it’s driven by them.” By way of qualification, he adds: “It’s not that I don’t like the films that I’ve done between Broken Wings and this one, but there’s something about sharing the responsibility with a screenplay writer [Here We Are is the first time he has worked with a writer on a feature] that can make you watch your work with less criticism. And so I really am happy with this film.”

Idisis co-created the smash TV comedy show On the Spectrum (currently being given a US makeover by Amazon), which drew on her experience of growing up with her brother, Guy who has autism. It depicts the daily challenges of three roommates living with the condition. In Here We Are, a father, Aharon (Avivi), doesn’t want to let go of his autistic son, Uri (Imber), when his ex wife wins a court order to force him to move the young man into a hostel (as they’re called in Israel) where he can be around people his own age. Instead, he takes flight with his offspring, bringing him into contact with people from his past. The film starts off feeling like a quirky odd-couple comedy, but deepens the more we learn about Aharon in particular.

Idisis made a documentary, Turning Thirteen, about Guy preparing for his barmitzvah. The film, says Bergman, is about him and her father. In her writer’s statement, she talks about the pair having a “funny and symbiotic relationship; the two of them against the world, living within a protective bubble, sometimes too protective”, and says the film reflects a question that loomed over all their lives: “What will happen when the inevitable moment comes when they will be forced to separate?”

Aharon’s resistance to letting Uri go is in part coloured by his own experiences. Like Bergman, the character tasted success early, only to be disappointed afterwards. I ask the filmmaker if he saw himself in Aharon. “I think there’s a lot about Aharon that I identify with,” he affirms. Such as? “Although his son is on the autistic spectrum and my kid isn’t, there’s still this wish to protect our kids and this feeling that they are too vulnerable for the world, but actually you’re identifying too much with them.

“Sometimes we hide behind their back from our career, from our failures, from our own life, and I can identify deeply with Aharon in both manners.”

However close he felt to Aharon, it was Idisis’s story, and, having made a film derived from his own life, Bergman was conscious of the responsibility that came with the screenplay. He didn’t want to let down his co-creator or her family and was “totally scared” he’d ruin the script. “Also, I didn’t know how I would direct the autistic spectrum without people thinking, ‘Okay, that’s amazing the way that this actor did an autistic character.’ I wanted them to suspend their disbelief altogether and I was afraid that I would not be able to do that.”

Casting someone on the spectrum as Uri would possibly have been the easiest way, and Bergman agrees it “would have been amazing” if he could have done that. But, as Idisis had discovered when On the Spectrum was cast less than a year earlier, “and they’d really tried to find actors that could really do these performances, in Israel it’s not that common, yet, to have people on the autistic spectrum learning how to act.” To play Uri, it wasn’t enough for someone just to be autistic; they needed to be able to become him in all his complexity.

Imber was a godsend. He was virtually unknown in Israel, which removed one obstacle. But he also came with an understanding of autism as his father had managed a home for autistic children and he’d befriended some of them.

Since leaving the army, he had worked with autistic people alongside acting.

Bergman and Imber also visited hostels in order to explore the differences between people on the spectrum, and in Eilat met a single mother whose autistic son became an influence on the development of Imber’s astonishing performance.

In addition, Bergman researched how parents relate to autistic children and incorporated into the film his discovery that one of them often dominates the child’s attention, almost to the exclusion of the other parent.

The result is one of the most authentic fictional screen portrayals of autism, a welcome corrective to misconceptions about the condition created by popular culture’s focus on characters with savant skills.

“Dana didn’t want Uri to be like a genius in any way,” says Bergman. “She wanted to show the routine. And of course the love.”

He hopes that the film will help more people to understand the complexities of living as and living with someone with autism, and therefore be more empathetic, less “judgemental”.

Meanwhile, he is working on the fruits of his time spent at home during Covid, which he likens to a “shmita” every seventh year in the Jewish calendar, when land was traditionally left fallow.

“In this time I have developed, and I’m not exaggerating, three feature film screenplays and three TV series. So this was Covid for me: it was sowing a lot of seeds and a lot of things came up.”

He has talked about an adaptation of Michael Greenberg’s memoir, Hurry Down Sunshine: A Father’s Story of Love and Madness, which will be set during Trump’s visit to Jerusalem, and a story in which an Orthodox couple’s relationship is rocked when the man comes out as gay, written by a religious woman who found herself in the same situation.

“Right now, I’m trying to be less of an auteur, and I’m actually enjoying this very much,” he says. “I’m still able to put my themes inside but, then again, not to be so connected to them, because I don’t want to bore myself or the audience.”

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