Unfortunately, the reason many in the international film world first heard of writer-director Tali Shamon Ezer’s “Surrogate” was not because of the film itself, but because of its place at the center of a bit of a storm between director Ken Loach and the Edinburgh International Film Festival. A few days after the film festival slated “Surrogate”‘s international premiere, Loach urged for a boycott of the fest because organizers had accepted money from the Israeli government to pay for Shalom-Ezer’s travel costs.
“The massacres and state terrorism in Gaza make this money unacceptable,” Loach had said. “With regret, I must urge all who might consider visiting the festival to show their support for the Palestinian nation and stay away.”
As a result, Edinburgh made a compromise: They’d give back the money, but keep “Surrogate” in the lineup, funding Shalom Ezer’s travel from their own budget. “Clearly we didn’t appreciate enough that our festival cannot keep itself entirely detached from very serious geopolitical issues and I am instituting a review of our procedures to enusre there can be no repeat incidient,” EIFF Chair Iain Smith said in a statement.
A month or so later, the film screened in Scotland with no controversy and glowing responses, and Shalom Ezer breathed a sign of relief.
“I don’t like to talk about it too much because now I’m here and I feel good about being here,” Shalom Ezer told indieWIRE at the fest. “This is not a political film. That’s why its strange for me. I’m not a politician. Before when a journalist talked to me – not from Israel but a foreigner journalist – they wanted to talk to me only about politics. They asked me what I think about the war in Gaza and if I’m an activist. And of course I care about these things but that’s not why i was there. I’m a filmmaker.”
Indeed she is. 31-year old Shalom Ezer is coming off of two award-winning films: 2005 documentary “One Summer at Abarbanel,” which follows three people in a psychiatric hospital, won a prize at the 2005 DocAviv Festival, while her 2006 short “Living Room,” about a 40 year old woman who lives with her mother, screened at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. “Surrogate,” her first narrative feature (though it straddles the curious line between short and feature at its 56 minute length), is a sensitive and inspired look inside the world of a “surrogate relationship,” in which a person seeks out sex therapy through a professional sex partner.
“When I heard about surrogate treatment I was really fascinated by it,” Shalom Ezer said. “And I knew that I had to make a film about it. Because for me it’s very interesting to try and explore two people in such an isolated situation.”
The practice, quite popular in Shalom Ezer’s home Tel Aviv, and gaining significant popularity in the United States, is explored in the film narratively through Eli (Amir Wolf), a troubled thirtysomething essentially incapable of intimacy after suffering sexual abuse as a child. Eli is referred to Hagar (Lana Etinger) by his regular therapist, and the two begin a hired relationship that challenges them both.
“For me, this film about authenticity in relationships,” Shalom Ezer explained. “The relationship that occurs in surrogate treatment is very compelling. On one hand, you pay for the treatment – and it costs a lot of money, and then on the other hand, it’s often true feelings that are coming up in the process. The patients are always falling in love with the surrogate. It happens almost 100% of the time. But also, the opposite occurs, where the surrogate falls in love with the patient. So on it becomes both a commerical service and a true relationship.”
Making the film brought upon a unique relationship itself through Shalmom Ezer and her Polish cinematographer, Radek Ladczuk. He agreed to do it after reading the script, and the two worked together despite a complete language barrier. He only spoke Polish, and she did. The two had a Hebrew-Polish translator, but only for the first two weeks, when the two went over the script. After that, they found ways of communicating outside of spoken language.
“For me it was great,” she said. “He didn’t understand the language of the dialogue, so he would only focus on what we wanted to express through body language and the image itself.”
Ladczuk’s presence also helped the film get some funding from Polish sources to help supplement their primary support care of the Rabinovich Foundation in Tel Aviv
“Funding was really smooth,” she said. “That’s the truth. Because they know me at Rabinovich. They supported my other films. In general, though, it’s not easy at all. We don’t have a lot of money in Israel for art and culture. So I feel very lucky, because I really feel I had everything I needed for this film. I mean, we didn’t get a lot of money, but it was enough. Just look at the professionals I got to work with. I got to choose Radick, and he’s not even from Israel. And all the other artists I got to work with, to me at that time felt like the best artists in the world.”
The film has already been screening in Israeli theaters for a month. After winning Best Feature Film at the 2008 International Festival for Women’s Films in Israel, Tali Shalom Ezer and producer Elad Gavish managed to find distribution through Israel’s Cinematheque – an art house cinema chain – despite the film’s distribution-challenged length.
“We faced a lot of negotiations with cinemas,” she said, “because they didn’t want to show ‘Surrogate’ by itself. They wanted to screen it with a short. And we couldn’t find the right short film. But we ended up getting distributed through Cinematheque – an art house cinema chain in Israel – where it’s been screening every day, twice a day, for one month now. And its still screening.”
As for Edinburgh, Shalom Ezer is heading into this weekend’s final screening of the film in high spirits. “The audience has been so receptive here,” she said. “In Israel, they would come up and talk to me, but I didn’t expect it to be the same here. But people have come up to me after screenings to tell me what they thought of the film… and even hug me! It’s been great.”