‘It was brave of her, as an Iranian, to work with me,” says Eran Riklis, director of the film Shelter, which opened throughout Israel on at the end of January, speaking about one of his lead actresses, Golshifteh Farahani.
“She said, ‘If we are afraid to work together, what does it say? We are the people who shouldn’t be afraid. We should be proud to work together, proud of the work we do.’”
Farahani, who was recently seen in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, now lives in Europe and is a rising star in the international movie scene.
“She’s enchanting,” says the director, speaking via Skype from Belgium, where he is at work on a new film. “It’s hard not to fall in love with her.”
Shelter, a suspenseful spy story and complex psychological drama, stars Farahani as Mona, a young Lebanese woman who has collaborated with the Israelis against the terrorist organization her lover works for. In return for her cooperation, the Israelis have arranged for her to have plastic surgery in Hamburg, Germany to conceal her identity and to be resettled in Canada. She just needs someone to babysit her until her face heals, and that task falls to Naomi (Neta Riskin), a Mossad agent who has gone into retirement after her husband, also an agent, was killed in the line of duty.
But this simple assignment turns out to be anything but, and the two women cope with real and perceived threats from the outside world, while they warily get to know each other. Eventually, in spite of their differences, they bond and transform each other in their quiet apartment.
Based on a short story by Shulamith Hareven, the movie is a showcase for the two wonderful actresses who appear in it. Riskin, who played Giti in the television series Shtisel and has had in key roles in such films as Joseph Cedar’s Norman and Nir Bergman’s Saving Neta, “has a very intense quality, a precision but also a need to be wild,” as the reserved Mossad agent who finds herself drawn to the much more sensuous and emotional Mona.
“This isn’t Angelina Jolie jumping onto a motorcycle. Neta made Naomi into a character you can believe in,” says Riklis, and Shelter brings to mind Ingmar Bergman’s Persona as much or more than any James Bond film.
“I didn’t want them to be too close in the beginning of the filming, I tried to keep them away from each other,” he says of the two actresses, to encourage them to make the suspicion the characters feel at first seem real. “It was about how you draw these two people together and make them trust each other, sharing intimate secrets. You’ve got this typical Israeli woman and the other woman is from Beirut high society, a lady with a red robe.”
Riklis, one of Israel’s veteran directors, who has made such acclaimed films as The Syrian Bride (2004), Dancing Arabs (aka A Borrowed Identity, 2014), Lemon Tree (2008), The Human Resources Manager (2010) and Zohar (1993), often examines issues of identity and belonging in his films. He says he worked hard on weaving the spy elements with the psychological drama.
“I was really attempting to blend the respect that I have for the thriller genre with the intimacy of a straightforward drama.... You put both of these women into a kind of lab, with external pressures, and their identity issues meet their trust issues.”
Riklis identified with his characters and their cautious dance around each other.
“I’ve always experienced this split between exploring your own people and your own background, yet being open and intrigued by others.”
In light of this tendency to look at the world through different points of view, even those of people he considers his enemies, it isn’t surprising that Riklis has recently taken a public stand about the government decision to deport asylum seekers, which he vehemently opposes. He wrote a Facebook post about the issue, which turned into a petition which has garnered over 800 signatures of people in the entertainment industry.
“It’s not bad when you think about the size of the industry,” he says. Among the signatories are Samuel Maoz (Foxtrot); his wife, filmmaker Dina Zvi Riklis; Talya Lavie (Zero Motivation); and actress Nelly Tagar. “At the end of the day, it’s all about acceptance and tolerance. The bottom line is, you should be a good person.”
Talking again about Shelter, although he could be talking about the asylum-seeker issue as well, he says, “I’m going to sound very Sixties here, but the only way to fight systems that don’t want your wellbeing is to fight back with love.”