Stars glimmered above the resplendent lawn of the US Ambassador’s home as aspiring filmmakers mingled and hoped for a tête à tête with Darren Star, creator of “Sex and the City” or Nina Tassler, President of CBS at the reception in honor of the 11th Tel-Aviv Los Angeles Partnership Master Class. A man in glasses approached me saying, “I have a story to tell you.” Listening politely as I sipped my chardonnay, little did I suspect that soon I would be drawn into a cult.
A month later I found myself standing in the square outside the Tel-Aviv Cinematheque on a sweltering summer night close to midnight amidst a throng of people crowded around a strangely familiar man in an ill-fitting wig who stood behind a table stocked with an odd assortment of juice, milk and cola. Intrepid volunteers approached the table and requested the bizarre combination of their choice, which the host, Alon Gur Arye, served up with non-stop magnificently foolish banter. As people walked out of the cinematheque, he called out to them, “You’re probably wondering why all these weird creative people are standing here?” The participants in this zany ritual were the young (and not so young) fans of “Israeli Intelligence” a 40 minute film that took 4 years and 200 people to make, which might just be the first Israeli-made cult comedy.
Unabashedly foolish, spontaneous and uninhibited in his pre-show performance, Gur Arye sang, made balloon creatures and donned a false mustache saying, “If anyone has been injured at this event, we are not responsible and you will never find us because we are in disguise.” Inviting everyone in to see the movie, he entered the cinematheque followed by a respectably large procession. Once in the theatre, he took the stage and instructed everyone to stand up, asking, “Who is seeing the movie for the first time?” As he began the ritual discovery of which audience member has seen the movie the most times (that night’s record was 29), a group of people in costume entered the room. Not missing a beat, he called out to them, “Hey, Rocky is playing in the other theatre.”
Taking cult-filmdom into a new age of social networking and technology, there is also facebook group for the movie. That night Gur Arye tracked down internet etiquette offenders, projecting images of those who clicked “attending” for the event, and checking to see if they were indeed in the audience. This was followed by a rousing group sing-along of “telephone songs”. Using the various tones of “busy signals,” “call waiting,” and the beloved “FAX” as the different melodies, Gur Arye got the entire audience singing the accompanying descriptive lyrics. Crazy competitions, sing-alongs, story-telling, skits and video clips from the “Hipopotam” comedy series (where the makers of the movie first flexed their comedic muscles) are a traditional part of the pre-show routine. That night, however, even Gur Arye was in for a surprise as the group in costumes got up onstage to dance with the Hipopotam clip à la “Rocky.”
Yet Gur Arye is serious about comedy and devoted to developing Israeli comedy as a genre. “When I was in second grade I saw “Airplane” – I was amazed,” he says, smiling, “It’s probably a movie I’ve seen too many times. Israeli audiences watch American movies, we love the Simpsons, and we know how to read this genre culturally. Somehow, Israeli movies are always either about the army or families in crisis. We don’t have wild parodies.”
In that spirit, Gur Arye set out to create an Israeli movie in the “Naked Gun” genre: Israeli Intelligence (the Hebrew title, HaMossad HaSagur is a double entendre, referring both to the intelligence agency and the term for closed psychiatric ward). It is truly an organic Israeli creation, growing out of the creative “Hipopotam” group, which in turn, Gur Arye tells me is composed of the alumni of his scout troop cultural committee from Rishon LeZion.
Movie clip 2
“Hipopotam” was a radio comedy show that aired during 1999 – 2001, and then was reborn on the internet as a video program. The radio scripts were filmed and broadcast on Nana10, becoming so popular that two new seasons were created. This creative group is at the core of “Israeli Intelligence.” Everyone working on the film volunteered their services, including popular Israeli actors such as Ilan Dar. Gur Arye cold-called Dar, saying, “Hi, my name is Alon and you don’t know who I am but…” Not too surprisingly, Dar was not interested at first. But Gur Arye’s wife urged him to call again. This time Dar said, “I’ve read the screenplay. It’s completely foolish. Let’s do it.”
The movie took part in the 2007 Jerusalem Film Festival and more recently in the Toronto World of Comedy Festival in April 2009, where it received the “Audience Choice” Award. It has been screened monthly at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque for the past two years. After the first year, the cinematheque considered taking it off the schedule, but fans protested in Rabin Square, creating their own tributes to the film in the form of a Sugerian (the fictional country in the film) dictionary and a carrot and basil cake made according to the script. Needless to say, the popular screenings are currently scheduled to continue indefinitely.
In writing the screenplay Gur Arye explains that he tried to look at Israeli culture from the outside, saying, “Whoever loves Israel will enjoy the movie and whoever wants to criticize Israel will find plenty to enjoy as well.” Based on the movie’s success, he has received a grant from the Israeli Film Fund for the writing of a screenplay for a full-length feature under the working title of “Israeli Intellligence 2,” based on the characters and setting creating in the original movie.
He is not quite ready to reveal the plot of the new movie, but discloses that as in “Israeli Intelligence” it will contain an element of underlying critique of contemporary issues, commenting, “A good comedy contains truth and a bit of pain.”