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“Whatever you do, your history will catch up with you all the same”

Actress Neta Riskin on language, cinema, and time
19 September, 18:13
Photo from the website KINOAFISHA.UA

Neta Riskin is a TV and movie actress best known for her roles in Israeli serials, particularly The Gordin Cell which has been on Israel’s screens since 2012, where she plays a successful businesswoman and, at the same time, a Russian spy.

In 2014 Riskin took part in the main competition of the Berlin Festival as a star in the film Anywhere Else directed by Ester Amrami. Noa, Neta’s heroine, lives in Berlin, as the actress herself once did, and comes back to Israel, struggling between the two places that are equally dear to her. In the same year, this movie won the Grand Prix of the Molodist (“Youth”) festival in Kyiv.

Past year Riskin played in Natalie Portman’s directorial debut A Tale of Love and Darkness, a film adaptation of the best-known novel by the prominent Israeli author Amos Oz. Portman was born in Jerusalem but raised in the US. So, although she had command of Hebrew, she spoke with a heavy American accent. To play the main character Fania, Amos Oz’s mother, as convincingly as possible, Natalie requested Neta to teach her a good Jerusalem pronunciation. Those lessons lasted for three months.

The film describes the early years of the making of Israel as a state. A personal drama unfurls against the backdrop of large-scale historical events. The story is told in the person of the author, the old Amos, who recalls his childhood. Fania, who had moved to Jerusalem from Ukraine’s Rivne, was a romantic dreamer who imagined Israel as just the biblical Promised Land full of milk and honey and populated by extraordinary people. The reality dealt these dreams a severe blow which the heroine never managed to endure.

Although this film cannot be called outstanding, it happily avoided turning into an outright melodrama or ossifying in pseudo-historical histrionics. And, undoubtedly, Fania can be said to be one of the best roles in Portman’s career.

Recently, Riskin presented  A Tale of Love and Darkness in Kyiv at the request of Molodist. After the premiere, she answered the questions of The Day’s correspondent.


What did you do in the film?

“I mostly worked off camera. This project had four language layers. Fania, mother of the novel’s author, who is the main character’s prototype, spoke Russian. Her son, Amos Oz, wrote in Hebrew. Natalie Portman wrote the script in English. As a matter of fact, I was to translate the script into Hebrew, moreover, the Hebrew spoken in Jerusalem in the 1940s. Ironically enough, the film deals quite a lot with language and word origin. Another job was to help Natalie improve her Hebrew. She spoke with a thick American accent, whereas her heroine was a Jerusalem woman. So we honed every phrase for months. And only the third, the smallest, job was connected with acting – I played a bit part of Fania’s sister.”

What was it to work with Portman, for it is her directorial debut?

“Yes, it is her debut, but she has wide experience in cinema as actress, so it was not the first time she was on the filming spot, and she was very much relaxed. It’s all the more surprising because she was doing several jobs at the same time: she starred, supervised the shooting, and wrote the script. Each of these jobs was exhausting by itself. I don’t even know how she managed to cope with all this. She must have some super-strength.”


So what about your language classes?

“I acted like a doctor. I had to make a diagnosis and work on the problem. There are no problems with consonants – it’s very easy to pronounce them. The problem is with vowels, for there are only five of them in Hebrew and they are short. Americans speak all too differently: they drawl and use a lot of diphthongs. All this was to be cleared out. I was to teach her to feel the music of the language and knit the words together properly. So we went through the script, word by word, for three months. One more thing: Natalie was to sing a Russian lullaby in a scene. While she was looking for a song, I recalled that in my childhood I once heard my grandmother, who was born and raised in Russia, sing the lullaby ‘Sleep, my beautiful baby.’ I advised her to take this song.”

A far as I know, you advised Natalie to cover her mouth with the palm of her hand, when she was saying something in Hebrew. What’s that?

“It was rather a funny and interesting story. I played in the serial The Gordin Cell about a Russian-speaking family that lives in Israel. Working on dialogs, I noticed that all Russian sounds, especially vowels, were pronounced at the back of the palate. But in Hebrew, the air stops at the front, on the lips. So when I was learning Russian, I would cover the mouth with a palm, and when I felt the air, I knew that I was mispronouncing. And when I began to teach Natalie, I advised her to do this test: if you feel the exhalation on your palm, this means it’s all right with Hebrew.”

What is in general the beauty of Hebrew?

“Naturally, it is beautiful, above all, because it is my language. Secondly, I don’t know any other language with so many verbs. You can form a phrase that consists of verbs only. Besides, words have a very broad range of meaning. This tongue is not as precise as, for example, German, in which you say exactly what you mean. You may be speaking Hebrew, but no one will understand what exactly you are saying. Why is the Bible interpreted in so many ways? Because Hebrew is as it is. From this angle, it is very similar to poetry as such. And, finally, it is a very brief language. You can express a sentence by one word. It also pleases me that Hebrew is very ancient. It is sometimes a secret language, as in the case of children who invent a special argot to communicate with one another – so whenever I go abroad, I feel like this kind of a child.”


In which role did you exert yourself the most?

“I usually try to play roles that are emotionally far from me, for it’s not interesting to embody someone who resembles you. I was a Russian spy and an Orthodox Jew from Jerusalem, and, speaking of emotions, I continue doing the serial Shtisel, and I have really put so many emotions in it that I’ve come here feeling a bit unwell perhaps for this reason.”

Did you learn anything new from Portman’s film?

“I came to know that history is not the boring thing you learn from a schoolbook. Whenever I review the scene of the proclamation of Israel’s independence, it strikes a chord with me over and over again. But is it worthwhile to have your dreams fulfilled? Fear the fulfillment of your wishes! This also applies to me: I was eager to get into this film, but there was a great deal of hard and exhausting work there, and now I think sometimes: ‘Was it worth doing?’”


And, in conclusion, could you tell me a little about your Ukrainian roots?

“My grandmother was born here, in a village between Kyiv and Uman – I don’t know exactly where. I’d like to find this place. A day before her death she asked me to go and visit her dog buried under a tree. She had lost contact with reality by that time. ‘Where precisely?’ I asked. She said she would draw a map. I’ll show you now what she drew. Some paper, please [She makes a simple sketch of a tree. – Author]. She said: ‘Here.’ I still keep that drawing and dream of going to find the place. Grandmother fled during the revolution first to Romania, then to the US, and finally settled in Israel. All she managed to save was my ring [She shows a silver ring on her finger. – Author]. She hid it in the mouth. So it has come back home now. I still have relatives here. One of granny’s brothers lived here. He died long ago, but some of his descendants may have remained. Grandmother lived in Israel for almost 60 years, but she forgot Hebrew in her last days and spoke Ukrainian only. Neither I nor my mother knew the language, so we needed an interpreter.”

What you are saying sounds like a finished script.

“It is all not only about the language, but also about history, about the past. Even if you leave it behind and try to hide and forget it, your history is certain to catch up with you. You can’t hide from it. Fania, the film’s main character, is also unable to cope with her past. She remains the way she was when she left Rivne. The same occurred to my grandmother. All her lifetime was suddenly erased, and early reminiscences splashed out.”

The past haunts us even if we are sure of the contrary…

“Grandmother said that the good thing about Israel is that when you arrive there, you can rewrite the history of your life. But it is not so in reality. Whatever you do, your past always remains with you. And, sooner or later, it will overcome you.”

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