In a sense, it’s questionable to categorize filmmaker Nir Bergman within this weekly column, which highlights up-and-coming talent in the film world. The director’s first feature, 2002’s “Broken Wings,” was a considerable success story on the international film festival circuit, winning prizes in Berlin, Jerusalem and Tokyo. But the Israeli director remains an emerging voice in world cinema. His second feature, “Intimate Grammar,” just made its American debut at the Miami International Film Festival this week after debuting at the Jerusalem Film Festival last year. A poignant and effective sophomore effort, “Intimate Grammar” deserves a life outside the festival circuit.
Set in 1960s Israel, the film is based on David Grossman’s acclaimed 1991 novel “The Book of Intimate Grammar.” It follows Aharon, a 12-year-old growing up in a Jerusalem apartment complex, as he tries to figure out who he is amidst the fact that he literally cannot grow, as puberty refused to kick in. Miami audiences have certainly embraced the film, which is screening in the World Competition of the festival. indieWIRE caught up with the filmmaker at the fest, where he discussed his long journey in getting “Grammar” made and what’s next for both the film and his career.
How did you get into filmmaking?
I wasn’t supposed to be a filmmaker. I actually studied still photography in school, but I wasn’t one of these film buffs that goes to all the cinematheques and watches all the art films. I wasn’t thinking about people who make film at that period of my life. But I moved out on my own as a teenager, and at that point I had a VCR and three videos. One of them was “Ordinary People,” which I’ve seen at least 17 times. I know the dialogue by heart. People wouldn’t watch the film with me because I would say the dialogue out loud. And I guess this film kind of made me a filmmaker. But I didn’t know it yet.
When did you know?
I resisted going to university, but my parents made me go. And I decided to study cinema, and I quickly understood this was what I wanted to do. It was like falling in love. It was finding your mate for life. It was a feeling of learning a language and knowing I had stories to tell with that language. So I moved to the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem, which is one of the best schools in Israel for studying film. And there I made a graduate film called “Sea Horses,” which did the festival circuit and won some nice prizes, which helped me get my first feature film, which was “Broken Wings.” It came out in 2002 and it did very well. That same year, I became the father of twins. So I moved to television, because it’s very hard to make a film in Israel. It can take you like four years, and it doesn’t really provide very well. I had to provide for my family, so I did “In Treatment,” and a few other telelvision series. But the whole time I had this dream of adapting the book “Intimate Grammar.”
When did you first read the book?
I read the book when I was 20. It’s about a boy who doesn’t grow up, physically. He stops growing, and inside he wants to grow but he’s afraid to become like his parents, who are survivors of the Holocaust. He’s afraid to become a sort of survival machine like them… He has the soul of an artist. The author of the book, David Grossman, is one of the great speakers for peace in Israel, and one of our greatest authors.
Was it difficult to get the rights to the book?
No, he said “go for it.” It was no problem. It’s just that it was like a bible for me, this book. It took me a lot of time to have the courage to start changing things and making a film out of it. But the key to me was the relationship between the brother and the sister, which is very familiar to me. It’s similar to the way I write brothers and sisters, so I started with that. And from there, I gathered the plot and brought them to the foreground, because a lot of the book is internal dialogue of the boy.
Jumping ahead, what has it been like screening the film… and what was it like bringing it here to Miami and to audiences less familiar with the world you’re depicting?
Well, first we took it to Tokyo and Berlin, and then to here… And I think the experience of the film is better outside of Israel. Because in Israel, you’ve heard that cliche of “don’t make a film out of a great book.” That they will tell you that you’ve either changed it too much or you didn’t change it enough. But outside of Israel, no one knows the book. So they just see a film. People reacted very strongly to it here in Miami. They came up to me after to tell me know much they liked it. And I could see the influence the film had had on them.
What’s next for the film?
It’s a hard film. It’s an art house film. But I really hope some distribution here, even small distribution. Because you want your film to be seen.
And what about for you as a filmmaker? Where would you like to take your career after this film?
In Israel, when you have to provide for your family, it’s tough. I have three kids now. I’ll have to make a television project first, but I really hope I will not wait another eight years for my next feature film.