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Interview. Tomer Heymann tells in his film the story of the Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin

Mr. Gaga and the obsession for dancing

In 1998 celebrations were being held in Jerusalem for the 50th anniversary of Israel’s birth as a State. Among the shows in program there was Anaphasa by dancer and choreographer Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company. At the last moment, Naharin withdrew his creation as he had been pressured by the President Ezer Weizman into censoring a passage where the dancers remained in their underwear and into making them wear something more “appropriate” that wouldn’t offend the Orthodox Community’s sensitivity.

A clamorous decision, that in the very year of the jubilee underlined heavy contradictions within the secular State of Israel and caused an uproar of the civil society supporting freedom of expression. Back then, Naharin was already a star, returned home 8 years before to direct the National dance company after having achieved fame and success in New York.

His story is told by Israeli director Tomer Heymann‘s Mr. Gaga, screened at the BFI’s London Festival, IDFA and as a Special Event at Florence’s Festival dei Popoli.

Mr Gaga switches from sequences recorded at Naharin’s shows to the stories told by his American and Israeli colleagues and especially to the private footage coming from the artist’s collection, who throughout time recorded hours of episodes of his private and professional life.

A habit that links him to the film’s director, whose previous work – The Queen Has No Crown – was entirely made out of footage of his family laying bare his most intimate and painful experiences, from the tormented relationship with his beloved mother to the one with his just as much cherished homeland, where his homosexuality has brought on him harsh discrimination. Like the 63 years old Naharin, Heymann (born in 1970) grew up “in a small place, far away from the center of Tel Aviv”. And just like him – who as an adolescent “had no idea that he would become a dancer” – he only late found out about his vocation for cinema.

Born in a Kibbutz, Naharin went through the Yom Kippur war as an entertainer for the troops – “singing stupid songs to traumatized soldiers was like a theater of the absurd”, he recalls – but then his mother enrolled him in a dance school, and shortly after he got picked by Martha Graham’s dance company. That’s how Naharin found himself in New York in his early twenties, and his inclination for freedom led him to leave the most important dance school of the time merely ten months later to start his own company and dance “language” (the Gaga). But to really be able to express himself, he says, he had to return home, a thing that New York never felt to him.

His last work documented by Heymann debuted in 2015 and is called Last Show, “Because – explains the dancer – it could really be my last work. This government puts in danger not only my work but the existence of all of us in this country that I love so much”. A country now ” Infested with racists, fanatics, bullies and abuse of power”.

How did you decide to make a film about Mr. Gaga?

I think that the very reason why I became a filmmaker was my obsession for the idea of one day being able to make a film on Ohad. Twenty-five years ago my dad invited me to see a performance of the Batsheva Dance Company, telling me that they had a new director whom he thought I would like. I answered that i found dance a boring thing for old and gay people… At the time I wasn’t aware of being homosexual. He told me ” You are incredibly stupid”, and I finally went. I will never forget the emotional impact – almost physical – that it had on me. For a whole week I attended the show every night, and since then I have not missed a single show by Naharin.

How and when did your obsession come true?

Some time later I have started to attend a film school in Tel Aviv. But for a long time Ohad refused to let me in his studio with my camera. He was ideologically against the idea of documenting his work, of “freezing” the moment: he always says that dance is based on the fact that it’s vanishing. Then I finally convinced him to let me and my crew in his studio: many times he would kick us out after half an hour, but I was enthusiastic, passionate and obsessive enough that he eventually allowed us to make the film and also gave us the archive footage that he kept in his basement and never allowed anyone to see: hundreds of hours worth of tape. It surprised me that so many beautiful, complicated and fragile moment of his private and artistic life had been recorded.

And this is a link between you two.

I think that maybe Ohad has decided to trust me after having seen what I did with the very private footage of my life and family in The Queen Has No Crown. I am strongly convinced that if you want to tell someone’s story you have to dig in that person’s past. For many years Ohad kept telling me “I am not going to talk to you about the past. We can talk about the present, and in a few moments it will become past. And that will have to be enough for you”. But obviously it wasn’t enough for me.

You also share a conflicted love relationship with your country.

I identify with what Ohad says by the end of the film: that there is no contradiction between mourning the loss of someone that you love and dancing. The same applies to Israel: you can criticize it in terms of politics but at the same time love it deeply.