Say what?! Palestinian actor plays a Holocaust survivor in "Magic Men"
Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor, the directors of Magic Men, which opened throughout Israel a few days ago, are the kind of old friends who can finish each other’s sentences.
“We talk every day, even when I’m in America,” says Nattiv, at an interview with both directors at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.
In a little over a decade, these two highschool buddies have gone from being Camera Obscura film students with some good ideas to two of the most accomplished and successful directors in Israel, who go back and forth between working here and in Hollywood with dazzling ease. Working both separately and together, they assembled an impressive list of credits.
Their 2004 short film, Strangers, about an Israeli and a Palestinian who meet by chance in Europe, won the online shorts competition at Sundance. They then reworked and expanded it into a feature in 2007, Strangers, about a romance between an Israeli man and a Palestinian woman.
In 2009, Tadmor, along with Sharon Maymon, made A Matter of Size, about a group of overweight Israelis who become sumo wrestlers, which has been sold to Paramount for a US remake to be directed by Jon Turtletaub, who directed National Treasure starring Nicolas Cage.
Nattiv won prizes and critical acclaim with his second feature, The Flood (Mabul), about a dysfunctional family that has to cope when their teenage autistic son returns home after being institutionalized most of his life.
All through these other projects, they had the idea for Magic Men in mind.
“We’d had this idea for years, to make a movie about someone who goes back to Poland to search for a man who helped him during the war,” says Tadmor, about the idea that eventually became Magic Men, the story of a Greek-born Holocaust survivor who returns to the land of his birth to find a magician who kept his family alive.
“Both our grandfathers are from Poland,” explains Nattiv, and both had had experiences trying to find people who had helped them survive. “So we took this amazing road trip to Poland.”
They decided to recreate their grandfathers’ experiences by searching for a made-up name.
“We went to the Red Cross. We went on a show called, Who Heard, Who Saw?, where people try to find people. It was like Sideways, where you take a trip and find all these amazing people on the way,” says Tadmor.
“The entire script was written in two weeks after that,” says Nattiv.
“It was easy,” adds Tadmor.
But getting financing for the film was another matter.
“Poland is so heavy and depressing,” says Nattiv. “It brings you down.”
“So a producer said to us, why don’t you set it in Greece?” added Tadmor. “We realized the Jews of Saloniki were deported toward the end of the war. And we realized this story hadn’t been told in a feature film. We thought if we set it in Greece, it can be more open, more magical and poetic.”
Besides using the beauty and charm of Greece, the directors realized they could add another element: the survivor father would have a son who is newly Orthodox – and a rapper.
“We thought of having this young hassidic rapper and his old dad – in Greece,” says Nattiv.
“And of course, we thought of Matisyahu” as the model for the rapper, Tadmor says.
When they cast Zohar Shtrauss in the role, they had him spend time with hassidic rappers in Israel, to get a feel not just for the music, but also for the lifestyle.
“We didn’t want a cliché character, we didn’t want it to be black and white,” says Nattiv, and so Shtrauss, one of Israel’s finest actors, delved into the role, getting to know Chabad hassidim who were very engaged with the world outside their own community.
“Zohar started to become a Chabadnik himself,” he added.
But they still needed an actor to play Avraham, the central character.
“We were looking at a lot of different actors and then [agent] Peri Kafri suggested Makram Khoury.”
The distinguished, Jerusalem-born Palestinian actor was a recipient of the Israel Prize and has starred in dozens of Israeli films, including The Syrian Bride, and international productions, among them "The West Wing" and Steven Spielberg’s Munich.
Khoury, who is part of the Habima Theater Company, met with the young directors and they came away feeling that they had found their star.
“He’s so Greek,” says Nattiv. “He really has this Greek look. When we were filming there, everyone would come up and speak Greek to him.”
But although they were absolutely convinced he was the right actor for the part, convincing others was harder.
“People said, ‘It’s a daring thing to do, to have an Arab play a Holocaust survivor,” says Tadmor.
For some, it was more than daring – it was outrageous.
“A lot of producers didn’t want Makram,” says Tadmor, although he declines to name any of them. “It was a serious problem. People said he doesn’t know about the Holocaust and about Judaism. They said no one will come to the movie. They shut the door in our faces.”
But Khoury was their choice and the actor was equally enthusiastic.
Nattiv recalls, “Makram said, ‘If you give me this part, it will be the part of my life.’ He was crying after he read the script and said, ‘I just read something I want to die for. If you give me this role, I will do everything for it.’”
Tadmor and Nattiv finally found producers who shared their vision and were able to cast Khoury. But it had taken so long to find a producer who would accept Khoury that there wasn’t much time for the actor to prepare.
“He went to Acre to learn Greek, and learned the Ladino accent,” says Nattiv. “He really got it down.”
Their belief in Khoury was confirmed last fall when he won the Best Actor Prize at the Ophir Awards for the role.
“Once you see him, you can’t imagine anyone else in the part,” says Tadmor.
The two friends are busy promoting this film, but another entire article could be devoted to the projects they have in the works.
Nattiv is now based in Los Angeles and is married to the actress Jaime Ray Newman.
After a long-distance relationship, he proposed to her by making a romantic film and putting it online, which he is working on making into a reality series about long-distance couples. He is also working on a screenplay about a neo-Nazi who leaves the fold.
Tadmor also has several projects in the works, including a movie called Wounded Land about a terrorist attack in Haifa, also starring Makram Khoury, and a film about conflict among the workers at the Ashdod Port.
Together they have sold the rights to a television series, President X, to the US network TNT. The series will be a drama about an American president who has been in a coma and then awakens.
Although I sense there are more projects in the works they could tell me about, it’s time to go, and the two of them head off into the Tel Aviv traffic.
By Hannah Brown