Once I Was (2010)

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“Once I  was” (פעם הייתי) a film by Avi Nesher inspired by “Flying Heroes” a novel by Amir Gutfreund

Set in 1968, an Israeli born teenage boy gets a summer job with a Holocaust survivor who makes ends meet by brokering marriages and smuggled goods.

The matchmaker’s office is located in the back of a rundown movie theater, run by seven Romanian dwarfs (true story!!!) who were saved from the gas chambers by the infamous Doctor Mengale. The dwarfs run nothing but romantic Indian movies in the theater, and may or may not be aware of the illegal goings on in the back.

Throughout the summer, the mysterious matchmaker takes the boy on a dangerous coming of age ride into the deepest and darkest urban underbelly of  Six Day War Haifa – where love assumes surprising shapes and forms and history is transformed into mythology  (source: praxisfilms.co.il).

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Once I Was is a coming-of-age drama about a boy,  Arik (Tuval Shafir), growing up in a middle-class household in Haifa in 1968.

It’s about the encounter of Israel with the summer of love,” says Nesher. “After the victory in ’67, there was a sigh of relief. And there was a shift from a focus on survival to an interest in life.

Arik becomes interested in his best friend’s beautiful cousin Tamara (Neta Porat), who has grown up in America but is spending the summer here. “She talks about rock’n’roll, free love – even though she doesn’t really understand it – and women’s rights.” In an era when the Beatles were refused entry by the Interior Ministry, which did not want to encourage young people to listen to rock music, “this is fascinating for a boy like Arik.

Arik’s father is a Holocaust survivor, although he never discusses his experiences. “I know this kid intimately,” says Nesher of his hero, although he insists the film is not autobiographical in any strict sense. Arik goes to work for Yankele (Adir Miller), a Holocaust survivor and matchmaker who describes himself as “someone who specializes in special cases.” Yankele works in what the movie calls “the Lower City,” the downtown area around the port at the bottom of the hill, where Yankele and others dealt in contraband goods, prostitutes solicited openly and gambling went on in otherwise quiet buildings.

There, Arik meets Yankele’s clients and friends, including Sylvia (Bat-El Papura), a dwarf from a group of seven dwarves who were experimented on by Josef Mengele at Auschwitz and who moved to Haifa and started a movie theater that only showed love stories. This strange plot thread is based on a true story that Nesher had long been fascinated by. As Arik spends time in the Lower City, he begins to think more and also to understand more about the Holocaust.

I knew nothing about my father as a young man, or my mother as a young woman. My mother only spoke about her experiences last year, and not to me, but to my children, on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Back then, as the new generation of Israelis, we were the ones put in charge of making sure this never happens again. The Holocaust was very fresh in people’s minds and it was a very difficult subject for me, and really for almost all Israelis, to deal with. It was something so terrifying and we were filled up with those slogans, ‘Never Again,’ ‘Like Sheep to the Slaughter,’” he recalls (read more in Jerusalem Post).

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