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January 28, 2021 5:42 pm

Work by Israel’s Most Acclaimed Playwright to Be Adapted Into English-Language Feature Film

avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

A still image from “Hefetz” the play. Photo: Screenshot.

A play by the best-known playwright in Israel’s history, Hanoch Levin, offers a darkly hilarious “mirror” for viewers to examine their own behavior, said the producer now adapting it into an English-language feature film.

Levin — the late dramatist, author and poet who won Israel’s prestigious Bialik Prize for literature — premiered the play “Hefetz” at the Haifa Theatre in 1972. The Hebrew-language work is a social commentary about an aging bachelor by the same name, who lives in a rented room in the home of his distant relatives.

It tells a “universal tale about human nature and the nature of happiness and unhappiness,” the Israeli-American filmmaker and producer Ayelet Emma Regev Junger told The Algemeiner on Tuesday.

The protagonist Hefetz — Hebrew for “object” or “thing” — is weak, hapless, and penniless, and is humiliated by his landlords and their 24-year-old daughter, who flaunt their superiority to remind him of his lowly place in the world. When Levin first put it on stage, his critique of social and economic hierarchies took aim at the same kind of people laughing in the audience, blissfully unaware.

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Regev Junger described the play as a “dark comedy” and said, “It’s also a story about bullying and man’s worst urges. Hefetz is the brunt of everyone’s anger and pity. And it’s revealed through this tale that Hefetz is a necessary object to maintain this world order, hierarchy, and social order. Recently, with increasing polarization and increasing economic inequality, I felt like those themes are incredibly ripe to be explored again.”

The producer secured the rights to transform “Hefetz” into a full-length film in 2019. She is working on the project, which will go by the same title as the play, with writer/director Joe Smith and a team of producers, while scouting for production partners. The written adaptation is nearly complete and casting is now taking place, with potential filming locations including Israel and Eastern Europe.

“You can look at ‘Hefetz’ and say ‘Well, my family is kind of like that or my nation [or] my neighbor.’ In a weird way, it’s medicine that you don’t notice you’ve taken because it’s delivered with so much sugar on the comedic side. But in the end, you’re haunted by it for days to come.”

Levin was born in Tel Aviv in 1943, and composed 63 plays over his career, directing at least 22 of them. His works included sharp social and political commentary and sometimes drew controversy, but he died in 1999 at the age of 56 as one of Israel’s most acclaimed and widely-translated playwrights.

When Levin first staged “Hefetz” in Israel, most of the cast members were Ashkenazi Jews except for the title character, who was played by a Mizrahi actor, Regev Junger told The Algemeiner. In his staging, Levin aimed to emphasis the discrimination Hefetz faced as a non-Ashkenazi Jew, but Regev Junger ultimately decided to remove that angle from her film adaptation to make its themes more universal.

“There was the thought ‘Do we make it really culturally Jewish, or do we do it to where they can be anyone and anything?’,” she told The Algemeiner.  “And eventually we leaned into the latter. I do want it to be accessible, not just to American Jews and Israeli Jews. I want it to be accessible globally in a way that brings Levin to the US and to the world.”

She said the film would “put a mirror in front of society and ask if we see ourselves, are we any of the other characters; because the answer is yes. We’re both the object of someone else’s superiority — the reason they wake up every morning and they feel ‘Well, I’m not doing so great, but at least I’m doing better than this guy’ — and we’re also the oppressors. We’re all Hefetz, his oppressors, his friends and family.”

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