Israeli Film Festival Goes Gaga Over ‘Gaga’

The Batsheva Dance Company, which is led by artistic director Ohad Naharin. Photo by Gadi Dagon
The Batsheva Dance Company, which is led by artistic director Ohad Naharin. Photo by Gadi Dagon

Before Lady Gaga’s hit “Just Dance,” there was a dance style created by Mr. Gaga himself.

Formally known as Ohad Naharin, the artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company has been called a genius for his creation of gaga dance, which emphasizes expression in parts of the body that tend to be ignored in other dance practices.

Naharin is the star of the documentary Mr. Gaga, a film made by brothers Barak and Tomer Heymann.

The film follows Naharin’s dance company, giving a behind-the-scenes look at the gaga phenomenon, as well as at Naharin’s own life story from his childhood on a kibbutz to serving in the Israel Defense Forces and joining the dance world later in life.

The organization behind the Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia (IFF) will screen the movie at a special event on Jan. 29 at 5 p.m. at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. (The festival proper starts in March.)

The film will be released theatrically in Philadelphia in February, as well as in New York Feb. 1 and Los Angeles Feb. 10 before being released across the country.

Mindy Chriqui, artistic director of the IFF, saw Mr. Gaga at the Jerusalem Film Festival about a year and a half ago. It had a deep impact on her.

“I walked out of the theater, and I immediately started to correspond with the Heymann brothers, who are the producer and director of the film,” she said.

She emailed them the minute she left the theater to let them know she was interested in screening it in Philadelphia.

She said the IFF has been showing Heymann films for at least 16 years — almost as long as the festival has existed.

“As documentary filmmakers, they’re probably unparalleled,” she said.

Chriqui found the film “compelling and riveting,” especially the fluid gaga movements that Naharin developed.

Ohad Naharin leading dancers in Mr. Gaga. Photo by Gadi Dagon
Ohad Naharin leading dancers in Mr. Gaga. Photo by Gadi Dagon

“I’ve been following the Batsheva dance troupe and Ohad Naharin as a choreographer for a very long time,” she added. “In fact, any time that the Batsheva dance troupe appears either here in Philadelphia, which is rare, or in New York, I go to see them.”

Dancers from all over the world have joined the company, which is based in Tel Aviv.

“Israel is a country — despite all of the obstacles that are always thrown in its way — it manages to not only overcome but excel at artistic and creative development,” she said.

Barak Heymann will attend the IFF event to discuss the film with the audience after the screening.

He said it took eight years to make the film — from 2007 to late 2015 — due to hesitation on Naharin’s part.

“It took quite a long time to convince him to agree to be filmed because Ohad, in many ways, part of the magic, part of the beauty, part of the uniqueness of the dance is based on the fact that it is vanishing,” he explained.

Each Batsheva performance is different; Naharin gives new instructions to dancers before they go onstage, and the dancers bring different energy each time.

“They feel different, they move different, they act different,” Heymann said. “Once we come with our cameras and freeze the moment, for Ohad, is a very brutal thing to do.”

Naharin finally consented to being part of a film that was “speaking the same language of something that is not obvious, not mainstream, is challenging and yet entertaining.”

The brothers who created Mr. Gaga, producer Barak Heymann (left) and director Tomer Heymann. Photo by Lorenzo Ferroni
The brothers who created Mr. Gaga, producer Barak Heymann (left) and director Tomer Heymann. Photo by Lorenzo Ferroni

Heymann wasn’t always keen on Naharin and his work.

He first learned about it in 1991, when a cousin invited his brother, Tomer Heymann, then 21, to see a sold-out performance of the Batsheva Dance Company.

“This stupid guy said, ‘No I don’t care about it,’” he laughed, but his brother went anyway. “He describes it as one of the most meaningful, amazing, strong, surprising, multifaceted, sensual experiences of his life. His mind was blown away.”

Tomer saw the company again and again, and when he became a filmmaker, he knew he wanted to make a film about Naharin and “give other people this present that he feels that he got.”

Barak Heymann, on the other hand, was wary.

“I came to this [film] suspicious,” he said. “I was not too crazy about them. But while making this film, I fell in love with what Ohad is doing with Batsheva and this art in general. The fact that people can move their bodies in a way that get so deep under your skin and makes you think and makes you wonder and becomes not only emotional but sexual and sensual and also political and social. So many different layers in Ohad’s pieces that it makes you feel many different feelings about life.”

Naharin danced with the Martha Graham Dance Company in New York before launching Batsheva in Tel Aviv.

For someone who was not famous at the time, Heymann said it was remarkable that Naharin gave up his job with the most famous dance company in the world “because he felt he needed to go and search inside himself for his own truth, his own talent.”

“When you see the film, you love and respect Ohad Naharin so much for the fact that not only he went all the way with himself, even when it was very risky … he is also letting other people all around the world building the tools to do it by themselves, and doing it with this amazing movement he created, gaga,” Heymann said.

In addition to footage the brothers shot of Naharin and other dancers, they found archived footage of Naharin from his childhood, the army and his time in New York, hidden away in his basement, which took extra time editing — and also convincing Naharin to let them use it.

Heymann never thought the film would take eight years to release. At one point, it was even finished, but his brother called him the night before it was supposed to hit the film festival circuit and said it wasn’t ready.

“Actually, he was right,” Heymann said. “The editing was good but not good enough. Something about the rhythm of the film, something about how it begins, something about how it ends — we went back to the editing room for two more months and changed maybe 30 percent of it.”

At the next big premiere, Tomer still didn’t feel it was good enough.

“He was like, ‘Barak, be honest with yourself. Listen to what Ohad [was] always talking about,’” Heymann recalled.

So they hit the editing room again, and it was finally ready.

It has since won awards from South by Southwest (SXSW), the Tirana International Film Festival and the CRONOGRAF International Documentary Film Festival. It won the Best Documentary Award at the Sofia International Film Festival and the International Documentary Award at the Tempo Documentary Festival.

Just as Naharin always told them, says Heymann: “[Do] not be satisfied with things that are just OK. You can always push yourself to making something much more beautiful and much more meaningful.”

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