A hard look at life on the kibbutz

Times Staff Writer

DROR SHAUL was more than a little apprehensive last September when he ventured to the Israeli kibbutz where he grew up to show residents his newest film. This was no local-boy-makes-good homecoming.

Shaul's fictional movie, "Sweet Mud," based on his childhood in the village and memories of his mother's long battle with mental illness there, paints an unflattering picture of life on the kibbutz in the 1970s. More harshly put, it shows a bunch of petty and sometimes cruel eccentrics claiming allegiance to an egalitarian ideal while turning their backs on the suffering of a fellow member.

"We were sure we were going to get stoned," Shaul said. But residents of the Kissufim kibbutz, in southern Israel, surprised him. "They saw the film and broke down."

The warm reception there has not been the only happy surprise for Shaul and "Sweet Mud," his third film. The movie, whose Hebrew name is "Adama Meshugaat," or, literally, "crazy earth," tied this year for best feature in Israel's version of the Academy Awards and was picked to be the country's entry for Oscar consideration for foreign-language movies.

And "Sweet Mud" makes its U.S. premiere this month at the Sundance Film Festival. All this has been a heady ride for Shaul, 35, who started making films seven years ago with no formal training. He hopes to build on the success of a recent crop of Israeli films that have won acclaim at home and respectful notice, if not blockbuster status, overseas.

The movie does not have a U.S. distributor, though Shaul was in New York and Los Angeles recently for a series of limited screenings to generate attention.

"Sweet Mud" offers a warts-and-all portrayal of life on the Israeli kibbutz -- the rural collective that was a crucial foundation stone in the formation of the Jewish state and one of the country's most enduring institutions, despite hard times in the last two decades.

Shaul takes the socialist ideal behind the kibbutz -- from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs -- and explores through a child's eyes the conflicts between utopian dogma and the ways of real people. His observations are often not pretty.

"I'm not judging or accusing anyone," Shaul said in his compact Tel Aviv apartment. "I'm just trying to show how it looks to a 12-year-old kid who gets the message of total equality ... but on the other hand sees it's impossible."

The movie centers on Dvir. His father is long dead, and his mother, Miri, struggles with depression and an undefined longing that lends her the desperate look of a captive. Dvir wants dearly to ease her pain, and the two seem on the verge of relief when Miri's long-distance lover, Stephan, arrives from Switzerland. He declares the kibbutz "a paradise."

But things turn sour after Stephan has a run-in with one of the residents, a deviant dairyman named Avram. Stephan is evicted, sending Miri into a steeper tailspin that no other adult seems to care much about. By the end, Miri's worsening condition presents Dvir with a dreadful choice.

Besides blemished characters, Shaul portrays a kibbutz lifestyle that can seem cold in its collectivist bent. Miri must subject herself to the whims of the other residents when she needs to get their permission for Stephan's ill-fated visit. And Dvir and the other children sleep separately from their parents in a special "children's house" -- a real-life arrangement that some former kibbutz residents have said left them emotionally stunted by their upbringing.

Shaul said the movie tracks fairly closely his childhood experiences. His own father died while Shaul was an infant, and his mother, Tzipora, would battle depression for years as she raised him and two brothers, he said. She died of liver problemsin 1983, when Shaul was 12.

The director said he realized the depth of his mother's anguish when he unearthed a box of yellowed letters and diaries six years ago; her writings revealed someone confused, depressed and deeply bitter toward the kibbutz. Shaul, then with two films under his belt, began to develop ideas for "Sweet Mud."

"Making the film was not only closing a circle in my relationship with my mother," he said. "It was closing a circle in my relationship with the people in the kibbutz and finally understanding them."

It is not the first time Shaul has turned family experiences into a film project. His first movie, a 1999 comedy called "Operation Grandma," was inspired when he and his brothers were put in charge of their grandmother's funeral. The movie is a cult favorite here. His second film, "Sima Vaknin, Witch," a comedy released in 2003, offers a satirical look at Israeli society.

Shaul honed his skills and his approach to "Sweet Mud" at a Sundance training program for directors in 2003. Investors from Germany, France and Japan joined the public Israeli Film Fund and local broadcasters in backing the $1.8-million project.

"Sweet Mud" has drawn more than 130,000 moviegoers, modest by U.S. standards but enough to qualify as a hit in Israel.

The changing life

ALTHOUGH it is not the first Israeli movie to cast a critical eye on the kibbutz experience, "Sweet Mud" has made waves here for doing so.

Reviews have been generally favorable, but some Israeli critics accuse Shaul of employing too heavy a hand in portraying kibbutz life and a rough touch in marrying elements of satire, fantasy and social commentary. "There is not one kibbutz value that comes clean out of this film," declared one.

The 1970s-era kibbutz life depicted in the film is growing less familiar to today's Israelis as the collectives, saddled with economic troubles, have moved away from their socialist origins. Many of the communities have privatized to some degree and are increasingly home to residents who want flat-screen televisions and commute to jobs in the cities, just like other Israelis.

"The public in Israel does not look at the kibbutzniks in general as an ideal anymore, as a utopia," said Eliezer Ben-Rafael, a sociology professor at Tel Aviv University who has studied kibbutzim. "It may look strange even to the kibbutzniks of today when they look back at what their parents did."

For Shaul, who after his mother's death remained at Kissufim until he was old enough for army service, the kibbutz ideal of selflessness was bound to clash with the needs and frailties of ordinary people. In that sense, "Sweet Mud" peers into the intimacies of a tiny world, insular and flawed, that could stand in for small towns anywhere.

"They're just average people, doing the best they can," Shaul said.

Ellingwood@latimes.com

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