Eran Ricklis; A Film Odyssy

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If you were to make a film about Eran Riklis's life - well, that's ridiculous. You're not the filmmaker; he is.

But if you were going to do it anyway, you might want to plan a shot of his passport. Or film him passing through customs. Because crossing borders is a recurring motif in this leading Israeli director's life and filmography.

In his first big success, the 1991 film "Cup Final," the border is with Lebanon. The film tells the story of an Israeli soldier held captive there, who bonds with his captors over the world soccer competition.

More recently, in 2004, "The Syrian Bride," centers around a planned wedding in a Druze community in the Golan Heights that straddles the Israel-Syrian border. "The Human Resources Manager," released in 2010, traces the story of a foreign worker killed in a Jerusalem terror bombing back to her Eastern European homeland. And his most recently released film, "Dancing Arabs," is a fictionalized retelling of screenwriter Sayed Kashua's experience as an Israeli Arab crossing the unwritten border into an Israeli boarding school.

Mr. Riklis, 60, also left his home culture when he went to high school. When he was a teen, his father, a scientist, was stationed with the Israeli embassy in Brazil, and young Eran attended an American high school there during the height of the Vietnam war era.

"Coming from a small country, post-Six Day War, I was suddenly exposed to politics and internal turmoil and everything that surrounded those years, from a very American perspective, for three years," he said. "It gave me an exposure to political and social changes I was not really aware of before."

In the school itself, there was also an "amazing" literature teacher to help launch him on a creative path. "Mrs. Walter taught us, for example, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.' Suddenly my mind was almost blown away in this connection between reality and fiction and the way it's actually told in literature. I started feeling that what I wanted to do was tell stories," he said.

Around the same time, his father gave him his first Super 8mm film camera, and he realized that he loved images and wanted to tell stories and that he could "put it all together and become a filmmaker. At an early age I knew that's where I was headed," he said.

Few would disagree that the late 1960s and early ‘70s was a glorious time to be sitting in a movie theater. His favorite film from that time: "‘Five Easy Pieces.' With Jack Nicholson giving this very strong performance. I was 16. Part of being 16 is I felt this strong feeling that this story is my story. Which you feel when you're very young and you almost integrate yourself into the screen. "

Two other films stand out for him from this period. One was "If," a surrealistic film about a violent revolution in a British boarding school. The other: 2001: A Space Odyssey." "The imagination of these films really drew me in," he said.

Mr. Riklis returned to Israel with his family and then he entered the army. The day after he was released from service in 1975, he enrolled in the Tel Aviv University's film department. Then he decided to apply to perhaps the top film school in the world, Britain's National Film and Television School. "Surprisingly they accepted me."

He moved to London; nearly four more years being an Israeli abroad. This period "forged my career. I got all the tools I needed," he said.

He also emerged with a focus. He wanted to make what he calls "films of awareness."

It was the late 1970s and then the early ‘80s. It was the beginning of the conservative political era of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and the political backlash was the stuff of punk rock, comic books, and, not least, film.

"Films of awareness are not necessarily political, but they include politics," Mr. Riklis said. "They are films that do not ignore their surroundings, that are social, political, psychological, philosophical. Films that don't live in a bubble.

"Especially in Israel, where the news is so intense, there's a tendency for filmmakers to think that we need to give the audience an escape. I was always against that.

"I always try - with varying degrees of success - to integrate a film that has something to say with respecting the audience sitting there with popcorn and spending two enjoyable hours. Enjoying the film and walking out thinking about it - that's my aim."

He said he feels a responsibility for "telling good stories, complicated stories, from the Middle East that are not afraid to tell the truth, that give a wide and broad point of view of the forces at play, and yet maintain a level of entertainment.

"I'm looking for material almost everywhere. There's always a link to reality. Not that it's based on a true story, but it's inspired by true events I witnessed and became aware of," he said.

Of all his films, only "The Human Resources Manager" and "Dancing Arabs" are based on books. "The Human Resources Manager" was adapted from a novel by A. B. Yehoshua, "A Woman in Jerusalem," but "I made some changes," he said.

In the novel, the boss of the eponymous character is a man. "I made it a woman, because of the relationship. It needed to be a woman. Yehoshua actually loved it, and said ‘Why didn't I think of that.' Fortunately, he loved the film. I was glad about that."

Half of the film was shot in Romania.

"It was interesting," he said.

Was it difficult?

"It was and it wasn't. I'm always surprised: Film industries around the world, despite cultural differences - it wasn't the most advanced country, you might say - the rules and codes are similar. If you choose the right people to work with, which I did, it was enjoyable and quite easy.

"Emotionally it was easy. It was tough physically. The film itself was not easy: It was shot in the winter. It was a road movie across Romania."

"Dancing Arabs" is based on a novel by Mr. Kashua, creator of the hit Israeli television show "Arab Labor," a comedy about the difficulties of an Arab trying to assimilate into Jewish Israeli society.

The film and TV show are "totally different," Mr. Riklis said. "The only thing you can say that is kind of similar is that it uses humor as a way to neutralize whatever resistance an audience might have. ‘Dancing Arabs' is much more profound than ‘Arab Labor.' ‘Arab Labor' is a wonderful situation comedy, very observant of an Arab's situation in Israel. ‘Dancing Arabs' is more a coming-of-age story that deals with issues. A feature film is like a novel. A television show is something much lighter, even if it has serious undertones. That said, if a certain person is a fan of ‘Arab Labor,' you won't be disappointed."

The Israeli public and the Israeli film industry "has had a kind of love-hate relationship that's been going on for ages," he said. "In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Israeli films drew in huge audiences. The county was only four million people; you would have a million tickets sold. There was a big decline in the ‘80s, and then in the ‘90s when commercial television started. People had options. Israeli cinema was going through a crisis. I had an exception. In 1993 I made a film called ‘Zohar' that was a huge success.

"About 12 or 13 years ago, it started changing, due to two reasons. One, there was a kind of comeback in going to the cinema. Maybe because multiplexes started opening across the country, which you didn't have before. Generally speaking, the films became better. There are good examples of very big hits. Also, very big flops. But I still hear people say, ‘We're not interested in an Israeli film; it's too close to what we read in the papers.'"

Outside Israel, Mr. Riklis said, he has seen "a growing interest in Israeli film, especially in Europe. All my films in the last 20 years had worldwide release and did especially well in France and Germany, but also in the States.

"People looking for all these films can find them. These kinds of films, what we broadly call art house films, have a way of reaching a wide audience somehow. Slowly, but it works eventually.

"I met a Pakistani student last week at the University of Pennsylvania who is over here from Pakistan, who was sent by her parents and is planning to go back. I said, "I'm an Israeli film maker." She said, "Did you make ‘Lemon Tree'?" Indeed he had made the film, which won the Asia Pacific Screen Award for best screenplay.

"‘I took it out from the DVD library in Lahore in Pakistan,'" she told him. "Even if it was an illegal DVD, it gave me a real good feeling," Mr. Riklis said.