By Bob Bahr
Eran Riklis doesn’t look like a world-class director of some of Israel’s most important recent films.
Standing in late August in the glow of the big movie screen in a projection room at Emory University, where he’s a visiting lecturer until just before the High Holidays, he was easy to imagine as a character in one of his iconoclastic films about contemporary Israeli life.
This soft-spoken bear of a man only betrays his celebrity when he casts a critical eye on the relationships between Arabs and Jews in modern Israeli society.
“In the last 20 years, at some point, we put aside the Palestinians. We said, ‘It’s never going to work. Let’s put a wall between us.’ So I think I am there as a small reminder it is not going to work that way,” Riklis said in an interview. “Separation will not solve it. It will just d
elay it. It will cause more problems. It will cause more frustration.”
Israelis who have gotten used to a critical drumbeat from European governments, the Obama administration and many in the world’s press are not always eager to hear what one of their own has to tell them.
Riklis’ stay at Emory has the theme of “Forging Cinematic Identities.” But he said that creating a modern Israeli identity has been a difficult process, laden with Jewish guilt.
“Deep down in every Israeli there is this notion: We are the chosen ones. If we are, our society is supposed to be a perfect model for the world. Then when you realize it’s not, I think that’s the big tragedy,” he said. “We are like everybody else, and that’s what we’re trying to cope with and out of that to re-forge our identity.”
So while his films have been critically acclaimed around the world the past decade, they have gotten a mixed response at home.
That’s particularly true of three films.
The first, “The Lemon Tree,” released in 2008, faced rough going at the Israeli box office.
The film is about a Palestinian woman who takes on an Israeli defense minister who is building his home next to hers. The secret service demands that she cut down her grove of old lemon trees because they pose a risk to his security. She goes to court and wins a small victory.
Israelis didn’t buy it.
They were also not eager to see two more films about Palestinians: 2012’s “Zaytoun,” about a Palestinian boy in Lebanon who saves the life of a downed Israeli fighter pilot, and last year’s “Dancing Arabs,” which played to a standing-room audience in February at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.
“Dancing Arabs” had its first international showing to a crowd of 8,000 people at the Locarno Festival in Switzerland and was the talk of the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. But in Israel, despite a boost from the newspaper Haaretz, it got a lukewarm response.
It had to be yanked from its scheduled premiere at the Jerusalem International Film Festival in 2014 because of the start of Israel’s seven-week war in Gaza. Nobody wanted to see a provocative, coming-of-age film about Arabs and Jews during the fighting.
Nonetheless, Riklis said it’s a subject rarely dealt with honestly in Israel.
“The Palestinians, who are amongst us, are part of Israeli society. Not Palestinians who are the enemy, the West Bank or Gaza; these Arabs are Israeli citizens. They are 20 percent of the society, and you can’t just say they are good only for their nice food,” Riklis said. “Do you ever go beyond that? Do you ever go to somebody’s house? Do you ever try to explore what is going on in that village? Do you understand that those people don’t have running water? I think that is what it is about.”
“Dancing Arabs” has gotten rave reviews during its U.S. commercial rollout this summer. In New York’s Lincoln Plaza Cinema, it produced strong business during a seven-week run, and it has been acclaimed as one Riklis’ best in Washington and Los Angeles.
In Atlanta, the film, retitled “A Borrowed Identity” by its American distributor, opens Friday, Sept. 4, at the United Artists Tara Cinema 4 at LaVista and Cheshire Bridge roads. Riklis will introduce the film at an afternoon showing the next day.
His Atlanta visit is one of the highlights of Emory University’s fall artist series. Riklis’ three-week campus visit, featuring three screenings and three lectures, was put together by Matthew Bernstein, who chairs the Emory film department and is a popular figure at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. Bernstein is an enthusiastic Riklis fan.
“His films are an eloquent cinematic voice for common understanding among various peoples, cultures and traditions, a voice that has never been more relevant than in the past three decades,” the professor said.
Tuesday and Thursday, Sept. 8 and 10, Riklis will be giving his final two lectures at Emory about Israel film. If you’re going, go early. There will be a large crowd. The free lectures are at 7:30 both nights, in the Woodruff Library’s Jones Room on Tuesday and the Carlos Museum on Thursday.
Riklis’ international success has been fueled in part by generous financial support from French and German film funds and companies, and he was a pioneer in Israel in putting together international co-production film deals.
Last fall Riklis taught for a semester at the University of Pennsylvania. He spends half his time traveling around the world these days and is philosophical about his relationship with Israeli audiences.
“I am a little bit beyond that already,” he said. “I feel my audience is everywhere. It’s Atlanta, New York, London, Rio. I think it is very easy for audiences; even if they have never heard of Israel, they adapt the story to their own culture.”
Worldwide fame helps Riklis to soothe the sting he sometimes feels at home. After all, he doesn’t have to be reminded about the first Jewish critical voices more than 2,500 years ago. The prophetic voices of the Bible also didn’t get such hot reviews at first.
Bob Bahr is teaching “Movies and Music: The Southern Roots of an American Revolution 1945-1960” through Emory’s continuing education program this fall. He also leads High Holiday services at Shema Yisrael.