Israeli film ‘Sweet Mud’ to compete at Sundance Festival

Dror Shaul grew up looking forward to the weekly ‘film night’ on his kibbutz in southern Israel. “There was so much commotion around it – it was the highlight of the week, with everyone buzzing ‘ Is the film going …

Dror Shaul grew up looking forward to the weekly ‘film night’ on his kibbutz in southern Israel.

“There was so much commotion around it – it was the highlight of the week, with everyone buzzing ‘ Is the film going to come?’, ‘Did it arrive?’. Then a box would fall off the once-daily bus with the reels,” said the 36-year-old acclaimed filmmaker. However, on many occasions, due to the young country’s emphasis on security issues rather than cultural issues, the reels were sometimes mixed.

Shaul was sipping coffee on a late December afternoon nestled in a corner table of an elegant but empty Tel Aviv bistro near trendy Sheinkin St., where he appeared to be a regular patron.

“You’d get Ben Hur on the first reel, the middle of Mary Poppins on the second reel and the end of The French Connection on the last reel. For half of my life, I really didn’t know that a movie should have a beginning, middle and end,” Shaul told ISRAEL21c.

Somewhere along the line though, Shaul learned the lesson and took it to heart – so much so that today he’s considered one of the top filmmakers in Israel. His current movie Sweet Mud is the first Israeli film to be selected to participate in the prestigious world cinema competition in the Sundance Film Festival (Jan. 18-28) where it will have its US debut. It’s also been selected as Israel’s entry for Oscar consideration in the Foreign Film category, and this week in Los Angeles will be screened to the American Academy Members at the foreign film Oscar competition.

Sweet Mud is a powerful coming-of-age drama about Dvir, a 12-year-old boy on a kibbutz in the 1970s with a psychologically unstable mother, and how the seemingly progressive kibbutz lifestyle is unable to deal with her illness and Dvir’s dedication to her. The film addresses the conflict between individual freedom and collective constraints as defined by the kibbutz ethics, a conflict which Shaul understands well from his days at Kibbutz Kissufim in the Negev.

“There is a fallacy that kibbutzniks are very independent. When they’re in the constraints of the kibbutz, they’re fine – because everything is done for you. We weren’t raised to take care of ourselves in the outside world. The kibbutz is a very secluded place,” said Shaul.

In the early ’90s following his army service, Shaul decided to bolt the kibbutz and seek his own path in Tel Aviv. Despite being rejected from film school, he was intent on learning the film business – and as a kibbutznik, he had one advantage over city deweller – he had a truck driver’s license.

“All kibbutzniks had what are called ‘rishayon gimmel’ – driver’s licenses to operate heavy vehicles, because we would need to transport kibbutz members back and forth to the nearest junction all the time to get busses.

“So it became a routine process – kibbutzniks would come to the city and follow the path of those that left the year or two before, and get jobs in the film business as drivers. My interview was ‘what did you do in the army’ and ‘do you have a rishayon gimmel’?”

The result was a job as a production assistant to a film company, where Shaul would work on over 10 feature films eventually climbing his way up from driver to first assistant director on films including Not Without My Children, an American release filmed in Israel starring Sally Field. But the journey wasn’t without its learning curve. “One time, I accidentally locked Tony Curtis in a room for four hours,” Shaul said with a laugh.

In 1993, Shaul became a line producer at the popular TV series Chamber Quintet – Five at Cameri, a skit-driven satirical show patterned after Saturday Night Live. It gave him valuable experience, but his main goal was to direct. Slowly between 1995 and 1998, he began directing small commercials, music video clips and promotional pieces.

“I was doing well, but my career was not really going anywhere,” Shaul recalled. That is, until in 1998, when a friend snapped him out of his complacency “when he didn’t want to hear for the 50th time the true story of the funeral of my grandmother and told me to write a script.”

Shaul did just that, which resulted in his first film Operation Grandma, a good-natured satirical comedy that skewers many Israeli institutions.

“I bought a book on how to write a screenplay – ‘this is the exterior, this is a night shot, put the name of the character here…’ and I wrote the script in two and a half weeks,” he said. “Very surprisingly, a few weeks after I sent it around, the cable company ICP said they wanted to invest and have me direct. I went to my film mentor Ruth Deiches and said ‘what am I going to do now? Everyone is going to see that I don’t know how to direct.’”

His anxiety was unwarranted as Operation Grandma received rave reviews, became a cult classic and won the Israel Oscar in 1999 for Best Short Film. Shaul said the achievement gave him the confidence to push further and paved the way for his first feature film – 2003′s Sima Vaknin, Witch, another satire that pokes fun at the social gaps between Israel’s Ashkenazi and Sephardic populations.

“Then came the miracle,” said Shaul, referring to his being chosen to participate in the Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Labs in 2003 with his script for another new film Sweet Mud. In the labs, the young talent chosen are given intensive workshops by some of Hollywood’s top professionals including writers, directors Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), Stephen Gaghan (Traffic), ands actors Ed Harris (Pollock) and once again in Shaul’s career, Sally Field.

“It was really an experience that opened my mind and way of thinking… I came back and rewrote the whole script from scratch. It really helped me set the tone of the film,” he said.

Connecting with producer Sharon Shamir, Shaul worked on gaining financing for the project, eventually securing funding from a multi-national mixture of backers including Sirocco Production (Israel), Cinephil Production Philippa Kowarsky (Israel) Heimatfilm (Germany), Tu Vas Voir (France), NHK Asian Film Festival (Japan), with additional backing from The Israeli Film Fund, Filmstiftung NRW, local broadcasting company Keshet, local satellite company YES and Cinema Investments.

“This could be the first – and probably the last – Israeli German, French, Japanese co-production,” laughed Shaul.

Sweet Mud had its world premiere in September at the Toronto Film Festival, debuted in Israel at the Jerusalem Film Festival, and has been appearing in cinemas throughout the country. From there it reached critical mass resulting in the Sundance selection and this week’s Oscar consideration.

According to Jerusalem Post film critic Hannah Brown, the film stands on its own as an excellent piece of movie-making, not just for an ‘Israeli’ film.

“Dror is at the top of Israeli filmmakers – he’s able to take his own experiences and use them in a way to create good stories. It’s a great irony that he was rejected from film school. But it didn’t stop him and he learned what he needed to learn,” Brown told ISRAEL21c.

Sweet Mud is fantastic – it was one of the good surprises at the Jerusalem Film Festival last summer,” Brown said. However, she raised questions whether the American Academy would find its subject matter universal enough for an Oscar nod.

“There’s a mindset in the international film establishment that doesn’t realize that even through war and terror, there are other things going on in Israel that can be focused on in film. The whole issue with the kibbutz, and how it’s not the loving parents of people that it used to be is a very relevant subject in Israel, but American viewers may not be able to relate as much,” she said.

According to Shaul, however, Israeli films have made a big leap away from stories about the conflict towards more personal stories, and he’s hopeful that an Oscar nomination could be forthcoming. He and his production team recently spent time in Los Angeles and New York campaigning for the film among press and industry insiders, and he’ll also be in Utah for the Sundance Film Festival screening.

“The Israeli film industry is in a process that’s developing now. I think the reason Sweet Mud was able to attract backers from around the world is because of the success of Israeli filmmakers like Dover Kosashvily, Eytan Fox and Gal Ochovsky, Nir Bergman, Eran Richlis, Joseph Cedar and many others – they opened up the international market for Israeli films,” Shaul said.

“The films they create… are ambassadors to the world which exposes Israel. These new voices emerged throughout the ’90s – very individual voices. You don’t need to make films anymore about an Arab who falls in love with an Israeli woman – or the opposite. People are bringing their own stories, and audiences are realizing that Israel is producing quality films rather than the Intifada or just high tech.”

If they don’t already know that, the members of the ‘Academy’ will realize it when they view Sweet Mud in Los Angeles this week.