‘Holy Land’ Not So Holy


The interviews were going on back-to-back and side-by-side. In one closet-size office at a public relations firm on Seventh Avenue, the Israeli actor Oren Rehany talked about his film debut in “The Holy Land,” which opens Friday at the Angelika Film Center in Manhattan. Next door, Rehany’s co-star Tchelet Semel described the challenges of portraying a Russian prostitute when she is neither. One office over it was Saul Stein, slimmed down from his role as the burly American bar owner, Mike, but still exhibiting the character’s gravely voice and toothy grin.

A few doors down, first-time director Eitan Gorlin was telling The Jewish Week that his unconventional love story between Rehany’s frustrated yeshiva student and Semel’s sweet-and-sour hooker is fiction — not a documentary.

“I wish people would understand [that] this is art, it’s a movie,” the 34-year-old Washington-area native and former frustrated yeshiva student said. “If you don’t like it, don’t buy the ticket. It’s a story.”

Gorlin had just confirmed reports that the 2000 film had been rejected from several Jewish film festivals, including one in Jerusalem.

Maybe the organizers’ queasiness had to do with opening scenes that show frontal, albeit maternal, nudity followed by a strong suggestion of spilled seed. Or perhaps, the festivals balked at broadcasting Israel’s blemishes: prostitution, pornography, drug use, or Arab collaborators, zany zealots and even a nice Orthodox boy yearning for forbidden fruits.

“People are so used to propaganda and talking points, they waste so much time denying the obvious” rather than dealing with it, Gorlin said.

Despite cold shoulders and mixed reviews, “Holy Land,” which Gorlin made on a shoestring, won top honors at the 2002 Slamdance Film Festival and at the Avignon/New York Film Festival in April. Gorlin himself was one of three nominees for the Independent Features Project’s 2003 Someone to Watch Award.

While fictionalized, “Holy Land” and its variegated view of Israeli society are drawn from Gorlin’s experiences working at Mike’s Place, a bar in Jerusalem, where the University of Pennsylvania graduate and IDF veteran lived for six years. In April the bar was hit with a terror attack that killed three people. It reopened a week later.

Typical clientele included “the Irish construction crew who was doing renovation on the Dome of the Rock, sitting next to the eastern European professor who had to flee when the Russians came in, sitting next to the local Jerusalem Arab, sitting next to the street musician, you know, selling drugs perhaps,” plus American expats with messianic delusions.

“Mike’s Place was this sort of ingathering of the exiles,” Gorlin said. Now based in Los Angeles, he is pursuing new film projects and teaching Hebrew school.