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A conversation with Matthew Kalman, filmmaker

by simone August 03 2008
InterviewFilmPop culture

Matthew Kalman, Director

Israeli humor is hot these days, and Matthew Kalman, co-director (with David Blumenfeld) of Circumcise Me, a comic documentary starring Yisrael Campbell, is at the forefront of this trend. The film, which traces the life of Campbell, a Catholic boy turned Jewish comedian, is currently doing the film festival circuit, and in the near future, the directors hope to hold weekly showings at Jerusalem's Lev Smadar Cinema, which hosted the film's Israeli premier on July 3.

Can I get a brief genesis on the history of this movie ands how you got involved? I'm a reporter, and David [Blumenfeld] is a photographer, and we've been working together here in Israel for the last 10 years. A few years ago, we started doing a lot of documentary work. It was all about suicide bombers, the intifada, guys with masks, and it got grueling after a while. One day, we'd just finished interviewing a 16-year-old who wanted to blow himself up but was caught at a checkpoint before he made it to his destination. We went to interview him in jail, and on the way back, David said to me, "We've got to do something fun, something for ourselves." That night, I went to the opening of the Off the Wall Comedy Empire. I heard Yisrael Campbell perform his act, and I said to myself, "We've got our subject."

How did your past experiences in journalism influence this project? How did you find the transition from print journalist to documentary filmmaker? The thing about print journalism is that you have very little control over what actually appears in print. You don't choose the headline; you don't make the final editing decisions. There are many times where I'll focus on one thing and something else entirely will appear in the published version. Here, with this documentary, we have complete control over what actually appears on the screen. So it's much more creative. But it's also a much greater responsibility. When I write for a paper, I get up, do my work and then come home and turn on Seinfeld and it's no longer my responsibility. Here, David and I are completely responsible for how Yisrael is perceived by the world.

Yisrael Campbell's comedy is a major selling point, but his back story is also key to what you did with the movie. What kind of balance between profile and concert document were you trying to strikYisrael Campbell, Circumcise Me e? This was a really easy film to make, because Yisrael is really funny, he's really talented, he already has a show, so all we really had to do was film him. What we wanted to do with this project is take his show, which has been performed to numerous audiences here in Israel, and make it accessible to people elsewhere, and not just to Jewish audiences but to a wide range of people. We had to explain the contexts in Campbell's show and take out the parts that had too much Hebrew (which meant removing some of the funniest parts of the show). We also wanted to tell as much as possible of Campbell's back-story using very elementary documentary techniques. For example, Yisrael's father only has a few lines but they are all about very transitional points in Yisrael's life and they help move the story along.

Finally, we want to show people who don't live here what this place is like, so we filmed Yisrael driving along the security wall and visiting the Hebrew University, so that people can visualize the places he refers to. At one point, you see him at the café where his friends were blown up. For me, that's the emotional highlight of the film. It's a very powerful image that you can't do in print. You can describe, but to actually see it, to see Yisrael sitting on the memorial, is very powerful.

How would you describe the role and presence of the city of Jerusalem in the movie? Jerusalem is definitely one of the characters in the movie. In that way, I think we were very influenced by shows like NYPD Blue. We consciously modeled some shots from NYPD Blue and Seinfeld - the scenes of Yisrael in the comedy club and in various Jerusalem locales. We stole nakedly from all of our favorite programs. There's a very fine comedy called Just Shoot Me, and we used that as inspiration too. In that show they zoom in on all these different magazine covers shots, and we did the same thing with tourist t-shirts. It was brazen thievery.

What sort of audience have you found is attracted to this film? Who needs it the most and how do you plan on getting them to see it? This is a feel-good film about Israel and therefore Jewish audiences love it, English-speaking Israeli audiences love it and we think Jewish audiences abroad will have the same response. They're fed up of seeing Israel only through images of violence. This provides an alternative. It's about the intifada but it's also about how life is lived here. As journalists here, we always have to cover death, but there's also a gallows humor and we wanted to capture that absurdist, Life of Brian-type humor with this film.

For example, the day after the cease fire began in Gaza about a month ago, I was doing an interview with some Hamas guys there – it was this heavy interview about Israel and the intifada and they were all dressed up with masks and machine guns. As soon as we shut the camera off, they took of their masks and one of them says to my cameraman, "Are you Indian?" He said "Yes," and all of a sudden this Hamas fighter, who's holding an M-16 and packed with grenades, starts singing this song to him, an Indian song that he wanted translated. The cameraman said he wasn't able to translate, so he called his mother in England and here is this Hamas guy in full fighting gear singing on the phone to my cameraman's mother. It's this sort of humor that we wanted to show with the movie.

We're billing it as the first – and possibly last – real intifada comedy.

What was it like doing production in Jerusalem? Is it a case of dealing with logistical nightmares in order to capture peoples and places that you could never capture elsewhere, or was it a more nuanced experience? Can you share an anecdote that sums it up for you in your memories? Jerusalem is a great place to be a reporter, it's a great place to film because people here are so used to having cameras and television crews around them at all times. It was almost like having a professional cast of extras to work with. We saw the guitarist who plays the theme song playing on Ben Yehuda St., and we asked him if he wanted to be in the movie. He said yes right away and it took him all of about five minutes to learn the theme song.

Meah Shearim was the only place where filming was a little dicey. They're more wary of cameras there. In fact, we had an alternate beginning to the film which showed Yisrael emerging from a group of charedim, but the other charedim in the crowd were none too happy about it, so we decided to cut that part.

Photo of Matthew Kalman courtesy of David Blumenfeld; photo of the Circumcise Me cast and crew courtesy of Melissa Blumenfeld.

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