An interview with Sigalit Liphshitz on Cock Figh

Richard Raskin

Do you remember how the idea for telling this story first came to you? Did it remain very much in its original form or did the idea evolve in some unexpected directions as you developed the script?

In my country you hear daily reports on the news about incidents that take place at the many IDF roadblocks. A woman gave birth at a roadblock because she was detained, a man died of his wounds because the ambulance was not allowed to get through, and then of course there are the terrorist bombings. In 1997 (?) peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians initiated the Autonomy Plan in parts of the Territories, including Jericho. I thought to myself: what would happen if the roles were reversed in favor of the Palestinians, and an Israeli were the one needing a gate pass from a Palestinian soldier?

And so I started with Marciano, an Israeli chicken farmer, facing off an officer at a Palestinian roadblock that had been ordered closed. But that was not enough. The personal angle, the human connection which adds depth to the story, was missing. And then a school colleague of mine suggested, "What if the officer were Marciano's former employee?" That's exactly what was missing! This idea not only provided a twist in the personal relationship between the two key characters, it also added a historical angle which they both shared and which stems from the old dispute. In order to complete the picture I added a character to each of the key players, who would reflect his thoughts and help us better to understand him. Marciano got a new worker - a Romanian (Marciano personally imported him because Israelis stopped employing Palestinians during the first Intifada for security reasons. And since Jews loathe this kind of work, they were forced to recruit foreign help from poor countries such as Romania and the Far East). Nabil also got a helper, a simple soldier who aged during the casting process and symbolized the older, war-weary Palestinian.

Now that I had a past and present, all I needed was an ending for the film. I felt that a happy ending was out of the question. After all, you are dealing with two people, neither of whom is willing to accept the change in the other, not to mention the fact that the change in one is due to the change in the other.

The ending I finally planned to shoot was that neither side gives in: Marciano's chickens die. He tosses them on the road and leaves. But with only three days of shooting, we ran out of time and didn't shoot this ending. When we prepared to complete the shoot, the question came up again. - How will the story end? Some of the people I consulted wanted a happy ending. Renee Shore, the School's principal was one of them. I decided to write two endings, one happy, and the other - not. I felt the happy ending was fake. I couldn't imagine any situation where these two characters would play out a happy ending; whereas a pessimistic ending was natural and called for in view of both sides' utter imperviousness, which only increased as the story developed.

I decided to put the ending up for discussion among the actors and so on the eve of the final scene to be shot, the four actors, the production team and I sat down to discuss this. It didn't take long for the discussion to turn political and the amazing thing was that each actor spoke in the name of his character - Marciano could not "give in" to a happy ending and consequently neither could Nabil. On the opposite side were Ceaucescu and Abu Maher who were actually in favor of a positive turn of events at the end but every time they tried to voice their opinion, Marciano and Nabil "came at them" and forced them to see their side, that of the employer. We ended up going for my initial inclination and shooting a pessimistic ending, much to the relief of everyone.

Neither I nor our readers know very much about actors in the Israeli setting. Can you tell a little about the actors you cast in the various roles?

Uri Gavriel who plays Marciano is a famous Israeli actor and one of the best in Israel. He plays a gangster or a criminal in most of his movie roles. Gavriel was typecast - he is forceful and hot tempered, representing the stubborn Israeli who always has the last word. This image of Gavriel was important to me because it is a short film where the character has to be pegged very quickly, even more so when the character is about to take radical actions.

From the moment I imagined Gavriel as Marciano in the writing stage, I was able to sharpen the character. When casting began, the first thing I did was to send him a script although I did not believe he would accept acting in a student film, made by a first-time director and for free! Surprisingly enough it took him only three days to come back with a positive answer.

Now that I had Marciano, I set out to cast the Arab officer to play opposite him. On the one hand, I was looking for someone who would be tough, proud and looked respectable. But on the other hand, I also wanted to see the pain in his eyes.

The Arab actors I approached were a bit suspicious of the script which they turned inside out, searching. There are a number of extremely talented and well-known Arab actors in Israel. The problem is most of them are no longer interested in playing "the Arab", regardless of whether he is good, bad or ugly.

I met up with Dirar after several rejections of that kind. Actually, it turned out for the best. Dirar is an Arab Israeli, a secular Muslim. His dress, lifestyle and interests are very much "Israeli" oriented and as such he truly represents the young generation, striving to be powerful and influential.

Ahmad Abu Salum who plays Abu Maher was introduced to me by Dirar Sulliman one week before shooting began. A theatre director in East Jerusalem by profession and an actor by right, Ahmad is a cultured man and a gentle soul. His casting formed the character he played, blowing mane and all.

Haim Barbalat as Ceaucescu, was a third year student in the Acting School located one floor above the Film School. Haim is a veteran Russian immigrant so the East European attitude is in his nature. In addition he was coached by a native Romanian in the use of 20 key words, 80% of which were swear words. The Romanian song he sang at the end of the film was added only in the editing.

The term "cock fight" underlines the rivalry between two masculinities - in this case the Jewish chicken farmer and the Palestinian commander. Could I ask you to comment on rivalries of this kind as barriers to peaceful relations between the two peoples?

In a cock fight, fights are decided by one rooster dying. The winner is the one left standing, feathers torn off, comb threatening to come undone, but with the bird still alive. In order to come out alive from this fight, you must kill. So far the battle waging in the Middle East is a cock fight and both sides have suffered losses. The fear is that if we keep this up, we will destroy one another. The imperviousness of both sides turns us into roosters who are only motivated by instinct. Obviously one can't avoid making the masculine comparison. The rivalry between Marciano and Nabil is based on "who's the Man", who's the toughest, where every concession equals weakness. That's the rooster's way. (I'm not sure how women play into this but the fact is hen fights do not exist. What is certain is that every cock fight leaves a mourning widow behind.)

As the conflict within the film develops, the Jewish Israeli becomes less likeable to the viewer - spiteful, racist, too proud to accept the Palestinian's offer of free passage. And the Palestinian commander becomes more likeable - at the start rather vain, almost narcissistically admiring himself in the mirror, but ultimately turning out to be a generous person. Is this the way you see the characters as well?

I think the relationship between Marciano and Nabil represents the essence of the conflict. The personal conflict stems from the history of both peoples. Only "thanks" to the occupation was the situation created, where Nabil was Marciano's employee (and all that that entails) and only "thanks" to the Accords, is Nabil now Marciano's commander (political moves find actual expression in the lives of simple people). Marciano cannot stomach the fact that his former employee is now giving him orders, and despite his position and rank, Marciano attempts to boss him around as he did in the past, whereas Nabil the officer becomes blind to Marciano's plight when he remembers his own suffering in the chicken coop. Both are unable to break free from the past and move on, so much so that that in the end, each succeeds in turning his nemesis back to his former self. The officer is once again a simple worker who does what he is told whereas Marciano resumes his role as a boss who takes orders from no one, even if it's for his own good.

Unless I am mistaken, this film is rather critical of what might be called a "right wing" view of the conflict. Would you agree? Has the film's political dimension been an important factor in the ways Israeli audiences have related to the film?

Because I was born into the Israeli side of the conflict I am critical of the nationalistic outcries in my society, voices which are dictated by History. They look back in anger and do not look away even when they are facing forward, much like what happens in Marciano's personal story - a man who will not look forward and straight ahead - beyond the roadblock. A historical mandate should not be taken lightly but not at so high and bloody a price either, and so far, the stubbornness and imperviousness have only led to war, see History for reference. The movie depicts this sad situation, as it is.

Surprisingly enough, right-wing viewers think the movie is supportive of their views whereas left-wing viewers feel the movie reflects theirs. The right-wingers are pleased that the Israeli is strong, uncompromising and successful in breaking the Palestinian whereas the left-wingers regret the behavior of the unrelenting Israeli and perceive the Palestinian's move as humane, trust-building.

Is there any advice you would give to student filmmakers about to make their own first short films?

I was taught that a short film is like a good proverb, sharp and to the point. It's enough to say it and enough said. One important thing to keep in mind - Do not be afraid to realize your dream, fully.

Is there anything else you would like to tell about "Cock Fight" or storytelling or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

A story which happened while preparing for the film, at Deres Freid Bethlehem:

In researching the Palestinian army, my contact person was Natasha, a new immigrant from Czechoslovakia who climbed over barricades during the Student Rebellion in Prague and here in Israel. She is a pro-Palestinian activist who has ties with a General in the Palestinian army now being formed. He agreed to help and supply us with Palestinian army uniforms which he sneaked across the Bethlehem checkpoint, which is the closest one to Jerusalem. Natasha and Maya, my assistant director drove to this checkpoint, located about a ten-minute drive from our school in order to collect the uniforms. Upon arrival, they received a parcel as planned containing two uniforms. When they opened the parcel they discovered to their disappointment that the General had not included any rank insignias. They decided that since they were already at the checkpoint, they might as well ask the Palestinian soldiers how they can get their hands on some stripes. The soldiers replied that the answer can only be obtained in the military Command Headquarters in Bethlehem and that if they are interested, there happened to be a military jeep going there right at the moment. Not one minute later, Natasha and Maya found themselves driving through the narrow alleys of Bethlehem, with a Palestinian army jeep in front of them and an IDF army jeep behind. When they arrived at the gates of the Command Headquarters, a big grey building, the IDF jeep deserted them and left them in the hands of the Palestinian army. The soldiers stepped out of the jeep and one of them instructed the girls to follow him. They did so, with shaking knees, following him through a long and dark hallway while they cursed my name and searched for escape routes. Finally the soldier stopped in front of an office door, half way opened, knocked and walked in. One moment later, the door opened wide and he signaled to the girls to come. They obeyed and came in. The soldier remained near the door, standing stiffly at attention. Inside, behind a big table sat an officer, with the rank of Colonel. At the side of the table sat someone who looked like a clerk. The officer signaled to the soldier who then left the room, shutting the door behind him. The room was silent. The officer asked in Arabic, "What to you want?" And although they did not speak Arabic, Natasha started explaining in English why they came. It was difficult to disregard the excitement in her voice and it was difficult for the officer to get a word in and ask "Franšais? Parlez vous franšais?" and so in broken French the girls sat down and told the Colonel the story of Cock Fight. The officer asked sharp questions, laying out his own reservations and interpretations to the story and he did so in a French befitting summit meetings. The soldier who left the room returned with a tray and steaming hot tea which was served in the customary fashion. They drank the sweet tea and when they were done, the officer asked "So what is it that you want?" The girls looked at him pleadingly, "rank insignia?" The officer broke out in loud laughter, raised both his hands to his shoulders and pulled off one of his insignias - indicating the rank of a Colonel in the Palestinian army.

A few facts:

  • After the roadblock, the road continues for some hundred meters, followed by an abyss.

  • When we went scouting for locations, we used to stop in Jericho and eat some hummus.

  • At the same year the film came out, the Al Aqsa Intifada broke out.

  • The dead chickens were collected for us in one of the local kibbutzim. They were a little bit smaller than live chickens and their combs faded. The producer had a smashing idea when she suggested coloring the combs bright red and so we did.

  • At the end of filming, we donated all the chickens to Farez, a bedouin who lives in the area with his family.

  • The road where the film was shot is located in the Territories.

  • The filming took placed during the final rounds of the 1998 World Cup Soccer matches, the Mondiale. The production team lived in a small hostel in Maaley Efraim but Uri Gavriel demanded that a TV be placed in his room. He got the TV, compliments of the assistant director who dragged her personal TV from her house in Jerusalem. And so every night, at the end of the shooting day, all the actors sat in Uri's room, snacked on some nuts, watched international soccer matches and listened to Ahmad playing the oudh.
15 February 2004

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