Israel's Etgar Keret on Writing and Film

Israeli writer Etgar Keret has a new short-story collection out (The Girl on the Fridge) as well as a film collaboration with his wife. The film, Jellyfish, won the Camera D'Or prize at Cannes in 2007. Keret talks about writing and moviemaking.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Not long into the Israeli movie "Jellyfish," the main character, Batya, enters a wedding reception from the kitchen. She's a waitress. Her boyfriend has left her. Her mother is preoccupied with the charity she raises money for. Her father is preoccupied with his bulimic young mistress.

Batya is soon to encounter a strange foundling, a five-year-old girl who emerges from the sea. And the wedding guests are dancing to a familiar tune; the verse is in Hebrew

(Soundbite of song, "La Vie En Rose")

Ms. EDITH PIAF (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

SIEGEL: It's the Edith Piaf song "La Vie En Rose." And it's ironic: no one's life is very rosy in "Jellyfish," which won the Camera D'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival for best debut feature.

"Jellyfish" was directed by the husband and wife team of Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret. She wrote it, and Etgar Keret joins us from New York.

Hi. Welcome to the program.

Mr. ETGAR KERET (Writer-Director): Hi.

SIEGEL: First, why is this movie called "Jellyfish"?

Mr. KERET: Because I think that all the characters in it are a little bit like jellyfish in the sense that the current of life takes them to places that they don't really try to go to, you know; they don't have much control over their lives.

SIEGEL: And you as a director, is this your first piece of directing anything, or do you have background on the stage or smaller films? What have you done?

Mr. KERET: I once co-directed a very short film but I've never studied film directing, and neither did my wife, who is a poet and playwright. But the thing is, when she finished writing this screenplay, we both loved it and we showed it to many directors, and nobody wanted to direct it. We basically did it because we wanted to see the movie and understood that everybody else was too lazy to help us with it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: So the only way that you could possibly do it would be if you - and I should say that you are a published short story writer and a very successful one. So in order to see the movie made, you just had to direct it.

Mr. KERET: Yes. Well, you know, the same is true for short stories, basically. It's just that all those stories that I would really like to read, and in the beginning I would try to convince other people to write them. And in the end, you know, if you don't - don't do things yourself, nothing gets done in this world. So I started writing them myself.

SIEGEL: I gather that you've been criticized by some of your elders in Israel for writing about - and living, for that matter, a fairly post-heroic existence and writing about people who are not larger than life and all of them enormously admirable in their accomplishment.

Mr. KERET: Yeah, you know (unintelligible) most of the people that I know aren't very heroic. And the thing that I had with my story is that when I wrote them, some people kind of resented that and said, you know, Israelis are not like that. I think that there is something about living in a country that is in a constant state of war, that sometimes there are kind of those strong images that are being imposed that you, you know, basically that say every war casualty or every citizen that got killed in a terrorist attack automatically turns into this symbol, you know, like nobody will say this soldier died in the war and he was a real coward.

He won't say that - and in a sense there's something that kind of dehumanizes you when you become part of this - of this machine, you know, that kind manufactures the needed images.

SIEGEL: Is it a project for you not to write about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Is that a principle of your writing, that you want to not be observed by the elephant in the room?

Mr. KERET: Well, the truth is that in all of my stories collections there are always stories that deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I think that many of them don't deal with it kind of overtly. You know, the stories are somewhere in the background, you know, people get late to meetings because there was a bombing, you know, people finding a bombing a good excuse to call their ex-girlfriend to ask if she's okay. You know, it's like it's not a bad conflict as much as the conflict is a part of it, you know, very much, I don't know, like the weather.

SIEGEL: Part of the wallpaper pattern of existence; there's war going on, it's affecting people all the time.

Mr. KERET: Yes, because, you know, let's say when you wake up - it doesn't matter if it's in Israel or in Palestine - you really don't think about the conflict, but you really think about the fact that you may lose you work. You will lose your work because of the conflict, you may think about the fact that your girlfriend doesn't like you anymore and your girlfriend doesn't like you anymore because you're stressed because you lose your work and then, you know, (unintelligible) many things in your life, but the - I don't think that kind of people wake up and just think about political reality. They think about the same things that people all over the world think about.

SIEGEL: You we're born in 1967, a landmark year, for Israel and for the conflict, the year of the Six Day War, when Israel took over in the West Bank and in Gaza. Do you think of yourself as a spokesman for a generation that was born into that Israel, the post-Six Day War Israel?

Mr. KERET: Well, I think it's very difficult to speak about a generation in Israel because, you know, people of the same age group could be settlers or Israeli Arabs or secular left-wing liberals. I think that we're a very fragmented society. But I tried to talk about the outsiders or the people who don't completely belong, and in that sense I think that many people identify with it, young people and even older people, because it's like this image that, you know, that he's imposing on all of us, but in the end none of us really feel comfortable with it.

SIEGEL: All the stories, I assume, that I'm reading are translations. You write always first in Hebrew and then it's translated to English, or have you tried writing in English first?

Mr. KERET: No, the truth is that I don't know English well enough to write in it, but I'm lucky enough to work with very good translators.

SIEGEL: Are there aspects of Hebrew that just don't translate well into other languages?

Mr. KERET: Yes, because, you know, Hebrew is a very unique language. It wasn't spoken for 2,000 years, and then they kind of immediately defrosted it.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KERET: So basically, what happened was when people started using the language, they needed many words fast because, you know, they were missing 2,000 years' worth of words. So it's a little bit like a rollercoaster. You started sentencing the biblical speech and you end it in something that sounds like a rap song. I can give you the simplest example. You know, when two Israelis want to part, they said (Hebrew spoken) is in Hebrew, like it's a word that Abraham would understand. (Hebrew) is in Arabic and (Hebrew spoken) is in English.

So I think the easiest thing that kind of - the language, it reflects the chaotic nature of the Israeli; it's like kind of those fusion kitchen stuff that we have both in our identity and in our language, and this stuff doesn't translate to other languages.

SIEGEL: Etgar Keret, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. KERET: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Israeli writer Etgar Keret, who directed the film "Jellyfish." Keret is also the author of a short story collection that's now out in English translation. It's called "The Girl on the Fridge."

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