From Hollywood to the Holy Land and Back?

Hollywood screenwriter-turned Orthodox Jew aims high in Israel's 'Oscars' - but faces some serious challenges.

Baruch Gordon ,

"Stories of Rebbe Nachman"
"Stories of Rebbe Nachman"
Baruch Gordon

Former Arutz Sheva blogger Tzvi Fishman has entered the race for the Ophir Award, Israel’s version of the Oscars. Could his new feature film “Stories of Rebbe Nachman,” starring the famous Israeli actor Yehuda Barkan, win the top prize and subsequently represent Israel in the Best Foreign Film category of the annual Academy Awards? Will the diehard Zionist Fishman, who unnerved many Arutz Sheva readers with his “no-future” blogs about the Diaspora, be heading back to Hollywood?

(Click here to watch the movie trailer.)

He says no. “For a film to be considered for the Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, it can’t be in English, and our film is in English. So even if ‘Stories of Rebbe Nachman’ places first at the Israeli Ophir Awards – and there are obstacles on the way - the Number 2 film will be sent to Hollywood in its place.”

Among the obstacles, he says, is that the film, based on four, famous, fairy tale-like stories of the Hasidic master Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, was made on a shoestring budget, fifteen times less than the average Israeli feature productions which generally benefit from hefty grants from the Israel Film Fund. Fishman explains that the Fund gets its money from the government to foster Israeli filmmaking.

According to the Israel Film Law, passed by the Knesset, only films in Hebrew, Arabic, Yiddish, Amharic, Ladino, and Russian are considered Israeli films.

“To me, it’s absurd,” the former Hollywood screenwriter turned baal tshuva, maintains.

“Beyond the insanity of considering a film in Arabic as Israeli, English is the language all Israeli kids have to learn in school in addition to Hebrew – not Arabic or Yiddish or Russian. I am thinking of taking my complaint to the Israel Supreme Court as a clear case of prejudice. Why shouldn’t an Oleh from America be able to receive a grant to make a movie, just like an immigrant from Ethiopia or Russia?”   

Fishman says he made the film in English because the fables of Rebbe Nachman, with their messages of faith and joy, are universal in their meaning and appeal, for Jews and non-Jews alike, and that English is still the universal language of films – not Hebrew.

“Also,” he says, “There are millions of Jews in America who have lost contact will Judaism completely, and there is a magical power in these stories to bring them back. Rebbe Nachman said that while most people told stories to put children to sleep, he told his stories to wake people up.”

In addition, he says, he dreams of making a big-budget movie of the Hanukah story, and to attract investors, it was important that his first, showcase film be in English, so that people who didn’t speak Hebrew could identify with it more readily.

“It wasn’t easy making the film in English,” he confides. “Yehuda Barkan can hardly speak English at all, so I told him to watch an old Charles Laughton movie on Youtube and copy his accent and slow, slow delivery. That helped him immensely and he gives a dynamic performance in the film. Plus, the film’s other star, my old friend from Hollywood, Rabbi Daniel Dayan, who set me on my road to Torah, and who is now an avid Beslov Hasid living in Tzfat, he forgot most of the English that I taught him when we were roommates in Los Angeles in our Hollywood days. But Hashem performed a miracle and the movie has the sound of a professional Shakespearean production.”  

In the meantime, before Fishman sets out on his blockbuster effort of bringing the Hanukah saga to the big screen, naturally starring Yehuda Barkan as the evil Antiochus, and the long-bearded, Daniel Dayan, as Mattitiahu, Fishman is running a Jewcer crowdfunding campaign to pay off editing debts, and to have his movie subtitled into a handful of languages so that people the world over can enjoy the movie.  

The film is scheduled to be released this summer. Meanwhile, viewers are invited to enjoy the beautifully photographed trailer.