The world of cinema – and indeed the Unsung Auteurs column in general – is populated by way too many female directors who opened strong with a couple (or sometimes even more depressingly, just one) of excellent films, and then almost inexplicably disappeared from view, either dropping out of cinema completely, or moving into television or other creative pursuits. While many male filmmakers are afforded a second (and third, and fourth, and fifth) chance, way too many female filmmakers are relegated if their films don’t perform well at the box office or connect with critics and audiences in a major way. Enter Ayelat Menahemi.
Back in the early nineties, Israeli filmmaker Ayelat Menahemi was a young writer/director with one short (1988’s daring Crows, about a group of gay homeless teens) and two solid feature films (the 1991 family flick Abba Ganuv 3; 1992’s female-driven triple narrative comedy Tel Aviv Stories) behind her and a bright career ahead of her. She decided to travel through Asia to broaden her horizons, and came into contact with a Buddhist meditation technique called Vipassana, which she started practicing. “I had a change in my views, and I wanted to be more connected to reality,” Menahemi told FilmInk in 2007. She returned to documentary filmmaking, which she’d initially practiced in Israel, but her approach was not simply about recording reality. “I didn’t care much about showing things as they are,” Menahemi says. “I was more interested in the emotional impact.”
The result was 1997’s Doing Time Vipassana, a powerful documentary which not only details the history and practices of Vipassana, but also the effect it had on one of India’s most notorious prisons when Kiran Bedi, the former Inspector General of Prisons in New Delhi, introduced it to the inmates, bringing about major change in the lives of these troubled and dangerous men.
Ayelat eventually returned to fiction ten years later with 2007’s Noodle, an award winning drama about Miri (Mili Avital), a twice-widowed flight attendant living in Tel Aviv, whose Chinese cleaning lady suddenly takes off, leaving behind her young son. Miri doesn’t speak Chinese, and Noodle (as the boy becomes affectionately known) doesn’t speak Hebrew; Miri is still in mourning, and Noodle is helplessly crying out for his mum; Miri’s sister is going through a separation from a man who is obsessed with Miri, and a former flame appears to muddy the waters, but at least he speaks Chinese. This group of likeable survivors must then find a way to get Noodle back to his mum.
“The time was right,” Ayelat replied when asked by FilmInk why she returned to fiction. “It was sitting there and waiting. All through my thirties, I was doing a lot of meditation, and the mind gets really creative. That’s how Noodle came up; during a meditation course, the whole story came to me”
The various pieces, however, came from reality. “There was a chat show that had me on talking about meditation,” Menahemi explains. “Afterwards, I got this call from a woman who was interested. She was a senior flight attendant, and she had an amazing life story. She lost two husbands in two Israeli wars, and her strength, vitality and force of life was so inspiring. Miri is a much more introverted character than this woman, but it’s just that Miri is much earlier in the process of getting over the grief, and finding a new way to love and live.”
The other aspect of the story – the illegal immigrant theme – was ripped straight from the headlines. “Around 2000, the Israeli government formed the immigration police, which was, at first, dedicated to deporting as many illegal foreign workers as possible. Later, it became more humane, but in the beginning there was all this news about people jumping out of windows and things like that. I came into contact with a woman, who was in charge of human rights for illegal foreign workers, and I presented the scenario to her. She just went over it with me, and told me how something like that could happen. It does sound far fetched, but it could happen. Reality is the best screenwriter, and it’s always stranger than whatever our mind can come up with.”
At the time of FilmInk’s interview with Ayelat in 2007, the talented director had a project in the works. “I’m working on a new feature film, and it’s going to be shot in China,” Ayelat explained. “It’s going to be totally different from Noodle. I don’t know if a genre like it exists, but I would call it a poetic thriller with supernatural elements. When I was travelling, I started in China, and it’s remained in my mind. I always want to go back there to visit, and to shoot of course. That’s what I like to do.”
Sadly, the film never eventuated, and Ayelat Menahemi’s last credit was as a director of installments of the 2017 TV series Landing On Their Feet, which starred her Noodle leading lady Mili Avital. On the strength of her early films, documentary work, and especially Noodle, Ayelat Menahemi is one of way too many female directors who deserve a far richer and busier filmmaking career.
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