by Shani Litmann, "Ha'aretz", May 1997.
"This film is an invented biography", says Ziva Pstec, referring to her film on Israeli artist Moshe Gershuni. The enigmatic sides in the artist's personality are maintained in the film, as are the extreme authenticity and lack of falseness that so characterize Gershuni's life and personality.
As a youth, Moshe Gershuni lived in Herzlia. One fine morning he woke up and through his bedroom window saw a procession coming from a near-by residential institution for mentally retarded individuals. A group of mentally retarded residents, wearing wreathes of flowers on their heads, was going out of the institution for a walk in the woods. This scene became, to him, the metaphoric image of artistic creation in general; "Art", he says, "is all about elevating something that is supposed to be lowly to a superior moral condition". Ziva Postec decided to reconstruct this striking image of a procession in the woods in "M.G. Rehearsals for Departure", a documentary she wrote and directed on artist Moshe Gershuni. The film's Premiere is set for next Tuesday at the Tel Aviv museum (the film will participate in the Jerusalem Film Festival, and will also pass on TV, on Channel 8).
Convinced that, forty years later, the institution Gershuni told her about could not possibly still exist, Ziva Postec started to search for a similar institution she could use for the reconstruction. Amazingly, it turned out that the old institution not only exists, but also still serves as a home for mentally retarded residents. When she got there she felt an immediate bond with the place and with its residents, so much so that she set to write another script for another documentary, telling their story. And until the arrival of the new film, her current documentary on Moshe Gershuni contains an unexplained scene of a dreamlike and fantastic procession of mentally handicapped, echoing the film to come.
All this is highly characteristic of the way Ziva Postec conceives of the films she directs. "Documentaries should be films, not reportages; plus, they must originate from within", she says. "I wasn't interested in making a film on a home for mentally handicapped individuals; but once I had met, by pure chance, the residents of that home, I felt the urge to make a film that tells their story, and to understand them".
Ziva Postec returned to Israel some ten years ago, after a 25-year stay in Paris, where she worked as film editor with famous French directors such as Alain Resnais and Jacques Tati. At a certain point she decided that she wanted to start directing films, too, but then director Claude Lanzmann asked her to undertake the editing of his film "Shoah". The job lasted six years, in which 350 hours of rushes were transformed into a 9.5-hour long film. Postec then returned to Israel, where she chose to make her first film as filmmaker on Moshe Gershuni. Postec wrote the script for "M.G. Rehearsals for Departure" more than three years ago. She submitted it to The New Israeli Foundation for Cinema & Television and tried to interest private producers, too. "The responses I got were that a film on an artist would not interest the viewers", she says. After two years the script finally received the support of The New Israeli Foundation for Cinema & Television, and of the Plastic Arts Department at the Council of Culture. Postec started to shoot on film, and then, due to budgetary constraints, had to revert to video. She finally managed to complete the film with the help of the Ulpanei Ha Bira Studios, the Tel Aviv Municipality, and the Rabinowitch Foundation. "I wanted to make a film on Gershuni because we're friends and because I think he's a great artist", she says. "In his works, he touches upon things that touch me. I like to refer to him as a 'national' artist because he deals with national questions and issues, without trying to resolve them. He is one of those artists who are creating a new culture here, where it is most lacking – an Israeli culture in the process of becoming. He grapples with questions such as the spirit of pioneering, the Jewish Diaspora, Zionism, the Holocaust. In his paintings, the rents remain visible, but also merge into a single unified Jewish-Israeli culture. Gershuni's soul searching about life in Israel makes him all the more local; it is probably the same soul searching that led me, too, to eventually return to Israel after so many years. We are very different from one another but he is someone I can relate to and identify with. I can only make films on subjects that interest me; and since I could not have included in the film the entire spectrum of his work and topics of interest, I chose to only use those parts that I strongly identify with. Apart from being a Jewish-Israeli painter, he is also a universal artist, raising questions about the essence of life".
During the work on the film, Ziva Postec traveled to Germany and actually shared a flat with Gershuni. "Accompanying him is a fantastic experience. I love going to museums with him, because he always shows me things I did not notice. He's the one I learned listening to music from. I call him 'the listening man'. "Her friendship with Gershuni helped her in her work, she says, but also caused some complications. "It's easier to make a film on someone you don't know personally, that way you don't have preconceived ideas. When you make a film on someone, you actually cause that person to become exposed, and in Gershuni's case it was not simple, and not always easy, because he is an extremely enigmatic person. In the end I decided that I did not have to resolve the riddle, or to solve the mystery. I uncover a little but leave quite a bit covered, that's a lot like Gershuni does in real life".
The films shows only very few conversations with the artist. The camera follows him mainly during conversations with his sons, in his apartment, or as he listens to music. "I don't know how to conduct interviews, and I don't like much talk in films", says Postec. What I wanted to show was not so much the world of art but Gershuni's inner world. That's also why I don't comment on paintings in the film but only show them as flashbacks. I didn't want to separate art from life. That's how Gershuni lives his life. He's simply incapable of being false, unauthentic, and I believe the spectators should be able to feel this". In the film, just as in real life, Gershuni likes to sing. His works are full of texts taken from songs and poems. In an excerpt that was eventually not included in the film, Gershuni says that if he had to make choices all over again in his life, he would have wished to become a singer, or a cellist. In another scene in the film, Gershuni sings, together with singer David D'aor, the song "Avinu Malkenu" ("Our Father Our King"). This song has profound significance for Gershuni and its text appears in many of his works.
Postec tells us that here, too, the idea was to reconstruct a scene from Gershuni's past, from the time when he taught art at the Bezalel art school, and used to teach this song to his students. Postec and Gershuni returned to Bezalel and shot a reconstruction of the scene, but did not like the result. Gershuni suggested that instead of making a true reconstruction, he could sing the song with David D'aor. "I think he chose David D'aor because he himself could not sing very high, and he wanted, at least once, to hear the song being sung in a really high pitch", says Postec. "We finally met Da'or and the result was great. I preferred to use no special setting, but I still wanted them to feel as if it was, at least in a way, a show; I wanted them to feel that it was a special, maybe even solemn occasion. So I placed them on a small stage at my place, and used as background a white wall in my living room. After the shooting Gershuni was thrilled; he said: "At last I am a body".
Postec made another reconstruction, again as a variation on the original theme, of Gershuni's show at the Tel Hay festival in 1980. In the original show Gershuni performed the song "Sleep my son" together with Yossi Mar Haiim as percussionist, and sculptor Micha Ullman who played the the gong. In the film the same trio is back again, but instead of performing in front of an audience they sing to the pastoral landscapes of the Galilee, with nobody around them. "In the end", says Postec, the whole film takes place in the present, with projections into and onto the past".
To Postec, film directing is very similar to film editing. "I try to take a break between the shooting and the stage of editing, to introduce some distance, and then I try to look at everything afresh. I always find things I did not see before". Postec concludes with an anecdote from her work with Gershuni: "One day I felt really down and depressed, because it was my birthday and I was horrified to face the reality of my advancing age. Gershuni told me: 'Imagine that we were eighty but still looked as if we were 20. What a nightmare it would then be to leave this world!". I found these words rather encouraging. And this is what Gershuni does all the time, like in some big happening, in which he portrays himself in front of the camera; he keeps choosing what to show us, and through the process of choosing he makes a statement about reality".