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Israeli filmmakers use light touch on heavy topic in 'Farewell Party'

Sharon Maymon and Tal Granit raise the issue of euthanasia among the elderly in comedy 'Farewell Party'

Israeli filmmaker Sharon Maymon was present when his ex-boyfriend's grandmother Helga died in her home after suffering from cancer for five years.

"We saw how the death released her from pain and suffering," he noted. "Then the paramedics came into the home, and for half an hour they tried to resuscitate her in front of our eyes."

Maymon still can't shake off the horrific image of their futile attempts to bring her back to life. "It was so surreal," he said.

Helga's death was the inspiration for the award-winning Israeli comedy "The Farewell Party," which opens Friday in Los Angeles.

Written and directed by Maymon and fellow Israeli filmmaker Tal Granit, "Farewell Party" revolves around a group of friends at a Jerusalem retirement home who decide to play Dr. Kevorkian by building a self-euthanasia machine in order to help a friend of theirs who is dying a slow, agonizing death.

Though the friends vow to keep the existence of their machine a secret, word begins to spread, and the group finds itself inundated with requests.

The problems of the elderly and their caregivers, said Granit, are rarely depicted in Israeli films. "It was very important to raise [the issue]. A lot of people came to us after the movie and told us it was very difficult to take care of their parents. But seeing it in a movie was good for them."

"These days we are prolonging life because of medicine and are dying at a very old age, 90 and even older," added Maymon. "The body is healthy, but the mind — there is a problem. We have to live with this situation."

The duo visited many retirement homes while writing the script. "We talked to a lot of old people," said Granit. "A lot of them said if there was a machine like where they would die when they are ready, they would love to have it. They want to live as long as there is quality of living. A lot of people expressed concerns — 'When my health won't be good, we ought to be able to say goodbye.'"

Granit, a graduate of Jerusalem's Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, and Maymon, who received his degree from the Camera Obscura film school in Tel Aviv, have been a filmmaking team for a dozen years.

It seemed natural to them to look at this often tragic subject through the lens of comedy.

"In all of our films, we are dealing with a social issue in a comic way," said Maymon. "In the writing stage, when we have a heavy moment, we know where to break it with a joke or humor. It's easier to get to more people with this subject by humor."

Maymon and Granit also cast actors known for their comedic skills such as veteran Ze'ev Revach, who they had worked with before in a short film, and Levana Finkelstein. In the film, Revach's character is a creator of the death machine, and Finkelstein plays his dementia-afflicted wife.

Not your standard source of laughter — but the filmmakers didn't see it that way.

"I must tell you when we were writing the script, we didn't see the film as a heavy film," said Granit. "To us, it's all about life and the choices you make in life. I think these old people are very alive. For me, it is an optimistic film."

susan.king@latimes.com

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