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Life in Israel from an unholy perspective

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Special to The Times

Everyone associated with the just-opened “The Holy Land” insists that it’s not a political movie -- that, in the words of featured actor Saul Stein, “It’s about searching for right and wrong, religion, a journey into spirituality, finding who you are.”

It may be all of these things, but it’s also set against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and shows the Holy Land in a most unholy light. The story follows a yeshiva student, Mendy (Oren Rehany), who is encouraged by a rabbi to find a prostitute to rid himself of the urges distracting him from his studies. He ventures outside his Orthodox environment to Tel Aviv, where he visits a strip joint and falls in love with a young Russian prostitute, Sasha (Tchelet Semel).

He also befriends one of her customers, an American named Mike (Stein), who owns a bar in Jerusalem called Mike’s Place. There Mendy becomes a bartender, pouring drinks for riff-raff, including an easygoing Palestinian, Razi (Albert Illuz), and an M-16-toting American-born Jewish settler who calls himself “The Exterminator” (Arie Moskuna).

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The scenario and characters were adapted by American writer-director Eitan Gorlin from his own experiences as a bartender in Mike’s Place in Jerusalem in the early 1990s. Like Mendy, he had been a yeshiva student, attending schools in Washington and Israel. Then he drifted away from orthodoxy, serving as a congressional intern and enrolling at college.

He returned to Israel to attend his brother’s wedding and ended up at Mike’s Place, also serving in the Israeli military during the first Palestinian uprising. When he got back to the States, he studied filmmaking, wrote scripts and worked as a gaffer. He managed to assemble private financing for one of the scripts, based on his own novella (“Mike’s Place, A Jerusalem Diary”), and went back to Israel to shoot it. Once there, he found it a changed place because of the Oslo peace accords.

“The Arab-Israeli conflict had disappeared, but that allowed us to focus more on the sociological, the globalization of the ‘90s, with a million Russians coming into a country of 4 million in a span of 10 years and this huge prostitution industry sprouting up,” says Gorlin, who along with Stein, Rehany and Semel was in New York last month to talk about the film.

It also allowed him to focus on the kinds of people who live in Israel, a much more diverse group than many might think. At Mike’s Place he came across what he describes as “American messianic types who got kind of lost in Israel. There’s something called the Jerusalem Syndrome. These people come to Israel and within a week they think they’re a biblical character and they dress like King David, playing a harp in front of the Wailing Wall.”

Variety of visitors

Gorlin says he really did meet a guy who called himself “The Exterminator,” from Brooklyn. “I’m not saying this is everybody’s story,” he says, “but you have these Holocaust-surviving parents who are very nervous about you, you’re growing up in Queens and you’re getting beat up, and all of a sudden you come to this (Israel) and you’re like John Wayne.”

The character of Razi is patterned after a type he saw flourish during the Oslo period, the Palestinian collaborators who, he says, were power brokers, for example acting as middlemen between Palestinians who wanted to sell their land and Jewish settlers who wanted to buy it.

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“One thing I noticed about them is they drank heavily because there’s a lot of guilt,” Gorlin says. “They live in a cynical world. ‘Whoever passes through, the Turks, the Jews, I’m going to take care of my family.’ ” Every time you see Razi in the movie, somebody is humiliating him. Just because the guy is smiling doesn’t mean he likes you.”

Sasha is typical of the Russian women (most of them not Jewish) who were smuggled from Cairo across the Sinai Desert by Bedouin to prostitute themselves in Israel with the hope that they would return home someday with lots of money. Such women, in fact women in general, were held in contempt by the men who frequented Mike’s Place. According to Gorlin, some of this is a reflection of the conservative cultures these men come from -- both Muslim and ultra-Orthodox Jewish -- and their unresolved feelings about women. In fact, it’s one thing they have in common.

Some things change

Some of the world that Gorlin depicts in the film, which opened Friday in Los Angeles, is now gone; it’s been washed away by the second Palestinian uprising and the collapse of the Israeli economy. Mike’s Place changed hands, closed, was resurrected in Tel Aviv, then was bombed two months ago.

Despite this new situation, Rehany and Semel, both Israeli Jews from Tel Aviv, believe the film accurately reflects the complicated realities on the ground. “Someone asked me if people are really as extreme as in this film,” Rehany says. “I was going, ‘This guy (Gorlin) is being moderate.’ He was being easy on us. He was being politically correct. It’s much, much worse.”

“Israel is full of crazy people,” Semel says. “Everybody is over the top. I think the greatest difference is that here (in New York) you see a lot of crazy people on the streets but you don’t really have any connection to them. In Israel it’s your best friends who are crazy people.”

As if to illustrate the point, Gorlin, Rehany, Semel and Stein, argue vehemently about whether the current cease-fire will hold, even whether there will ever be peace. What they do agree about is that this film will cause some unease. Where it will run afoul with American Jews, Stein predicts, is its unholy depiction of the Holy Land. In fact, he believes this has impeded the film’s distribution here. It’s been sitting on the shelf for more than three years (it was filmed at the end of 1999) and was saved from oblivion only when it won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival. (The English-language film hasn’t played yet in Israel.)

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“I think American Jews will have more of a problem than Israeli Jews,” Semel says. “But I think Israelis might have a problem with the movie because Israelis have a tendency to own a situation, so they’re like, ‘Let me tell you how it really is. I was there, I fought in the ditch.’ ”

Then she adds, “I think Arabs should be offended by this movie because of the character of Razi. The way you usually see (radical) Muslims portrayed today is they go for something. They have their belief, and they go all the way with it. They’re suicide bombers (not double-dealers).”

“It does present a viewpoint that is American, not Israeli,” Rehany says. “I don’t think an Israeli would have made this kind of film. It’s too political. It causes too much of a stir.”

Gorlin smiles benignly when he hears such back and forth, like a bartender listening to his customers. He’s not bartending anymore, however. He’s teaching Hebrew in L.A. and hopes by next summer to be shooting his next movie.

“My next film is going to be an American story,” he says. “I have a lot to say on this country (U.S.). I think if you’re going to occupy an Arab country, you should look at the precedence. Israel won the ’67 war in six days. Here we are in 2003 and it’s still going on.”

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