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Israeli director turns to Peking Opera

DISTINGUISHED Israeli director Dan Wolman has turned his lens on China, and once again on the human psyche, in his latest film "New Voice" about Peking Opera singers.

Wolman told Shanghai Daily the full-length film, now in the final stages of editing, is a story within a story featuring a Chinese cast.

"A 50-year-old opera singer and his son are both going to perform in the opera 'Women Generals.' Something dramatic happens in the singer's life before the premiere, changing his and his son's life - and especially changing the lives of the women in their family who have to cope with a new reality, like the women generals in the opera," he said.

In Peking Opera, some roles of women are played by men, and the film gets complicated.

The film set in contemporary China is a three-year coproduction of the Israeli Embassy in Beijing and the China Beijing Opera Academy. It is to premiere at the academy on December 6. The all-Chinese cast is comprised of teachers and students. Wolman makes a cameo appearance. The film in Chinese has English subtitles.

The independent director famous for sensitive works, was in Shanghai late last month for the screening of his latest film "Gei Oni" ("The Valley of Strength," 2010), a historical drama set in 1880s Palestine involving the story of a young Russian immigrant who fled a pogrom with her baby and marries a native, Jewish widower. He spoke with Shanghai Daily and later answered questions in an e-mail interview.

Edgy pioneer

"Women Generals of the Yang Family" is a Peking classic depicting the 800-year-old story of the eight strong Chinese women who led an army to defend their kingdom, after a son, husband and brothers were killed in battle.

"The story of Chinese classical opera 'Women Generals of The Yang Family' really impressed me and was very touching," said the 71-year-old independent director known for making edgy films in Israel. Wolman, who wrote much of the screenplay, was introduced to the Peking Opera Academy through the Israeli Embassy in Beijing.

Lack of knowledge about Chinese culture isn't a problem, he says, adding that he is confident he can deliver a meaningful work with artistic appeal.

"A poet can sit on the shore of the big sea and write a poem of his impressions and his thoughts of the sea without knowing the names of all the fish and the secrets of the sea," Wolman said. "I hope the film will touch people."

He added that he wasn't concerned about broad appeal. "When a poet writes poetry he wants to touch people like himself. He doesn't care if only a few people will read his poetry," he said.

Born in Jerusalem in 1941, Wolman spent his early years in Ethiopia, where his father was a pioneering physician and young Wolman was exposed to hardship and suffering.

"When I was a child, I was different from other children," Wolman said. "Sometimes, in a class everybody laughs at one boy and singles him out, maybe because he comes from a poor family ... People are cruel and my heart goes out to that boy who is different."

"I feel that there's something in me that wants to take the person on the outskirts of society and give him more."

He served in the Israeli Defense Forces and studied film at the Film Institute of City College in New York at New York University. He taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York and at Tel Aviv University. He has been a judge in numerous international and Israeli film festivals.

Wolman is a second-generation Israeli director, often focusing on fragile human relationships and an individual's struggle with society.

"It doesn't have to do with an underprivileged person," Wolman said. "It could be the most intelligent, richest person, or the very lonely person."

Wolman's works have often generated controversy.

His first feature "The Dreamer" in 1970 was an official entry at the Cannes Film Festival. It portrayed a young man's struggles in his relationships with two women, involving his Oedipal attachment to his mother and his love for another woman.

"The film broke new ground in Israeli cinema," according to Wolman's website (wolmandan.com), "Not only was it a departure of courageous and defiant proportions from stereotypical local comedy and formula film, but it contravened the aura of the 1967 Six Days' War and its aftermath, when the country was preoccupied with its victory over the enemy."

It was considered the first "personal" feature Israeli Cinema exploring an individual's psyche.

Controversially aesthetic

Over the years, Wolman has explored thorny issues and controversial subjects with aesthetic appeal. "Floch" (1972) is about an elderly man who loses his only son and his son's family in a car accident. As a result of an overpowering drive to have a descendant, he decides to divorce his wife of many years and to search for a young woman to bear his child. It was entered in the Cannes Film Festival.

Subjects have included marginalized elderly people, migrant "underclass" workers and homosexuals.

Numerous films have been honored, though they don't have mass appeal.

Critics have said the contemplative filmmaker excels at revealing subtle facets of the Israeli experience that capture its essence.

Speaking of his 2010 film "Gei Oni" set in Palestine in the 1880s, he said: "I was touched by the Russian immigrant woman, who married a man with whom she won't have sex. What's the secret? How does the husband react? Those are the kinds of things that interest me."

Wolman faces the problem of many independent directors: financial backing for sensitive and controversial films that don't have mass appeal.

He says he arranged financing for "Gei Oni" "guerrilla style," after major distributors turned him down or imposed impossible conditions.

"Normally, there are distributors as middlemen between you and the cinema, taking 30 to 40 percent of revenue," Wolman told Shanghai Daily.

"So I decided not to give that amount of money but to distribute it myself without using ads for the first time in my life."

He sent chain letters to his friends, who passed them on to create buzz. He made it.

"I wrote 'Come see my film in the first two weeks of distribution, help me against the big giant distributors'," Wolman said in his online appeal. "A simple man fight against the big giant."

Lack of funding is a chronic problem. "I try to develop economically," Wolman said. "I make films with little money, with friends in a small group."

"The fact that it is a small, low-budget film doesn't matter. I'm trying to survive and make things that I think should be made.

"For me it's worth the pain."

Wittern by Xie Fangyuan

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