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Letters from Jewish Australia - No.40

THE MAKING OF 'SHINE' - Azoi Shein G'macht

By Rabbi Ronnie Figdor
Principal of Massada College, Adelaide, South Australia.

Few people would know how much effort goes into the making of a movie and to what extent the Director goes to ensure the authenticity of the events that are portrayed.

The latest hit movie, Shine, had an impact on the Jewish community of Adelaide but the extent of the community's input has not been documented; neither was the extent to which Jewish input was required.

Looking back on the film, I still wonder will people notice that the parashah of the bar Mitzvah was said at the right time of year and do practising Jews really feel the authenticity of the bar mitzvah scene?

It all began on 24th January last year, when Liz Mullinar Casting Consultants contacted Massada College. She wanted to know if the school could assist in the casting of David Helfgott as a 7-9 year old, Suzie Helfgott as a 6 year old, Margaret Helfgott as a 12 year old and Louise Helgott as an 8 year old. In a fax to the school, the characters' physical appearance were described as well as some of the musical talents that would be an added bonus. The school's first issue of its newsletter Massada Musings for the year carried an article headed "Movie Stars Needed". It didn't take long for a response. Every Jewish mother knows the natural talent of her child. In this case it meant that even bar mitzvah boys were applying for David's 7 year old role. The colour of the hair, also announced in the Musings, was clearly no deterent to people who were obviously prepared to dye their hair! Fortunately, no one was prepared to change the sex of their child for a role!

In the meantime Momentum Films Production Manager, Elizabeth Symes, contacted me to advise her on some of the more subtle Jewish aspects of particular scenes. "It was only a few pages to look at" as she dropped off the 111 page script on February 3rd. She was right. There were only a few pages that made a direct reference to something Jewish but from the moment I picked up the script I could not put it down until I finished reading the lot. A few pages, true, but there were a number of other scenes that required some Jewish input as well.

I have often been troubled by what appear to me to be obvious inaccuracies in films that portray some Jewish character. I suppose the inaccuracies in films such as The Chosen and more recently, in NYPD Blues, where a chassid (looking like a Vishnitzer) described himself as a Lubavitcher but even then mispronounced his own brand of Chassidism, troubled me that there would always be someone looking at Shine with the same critical eye and saying Couldn't their Jewish advisor get that right?

And so, with a yekische bent, I set about making a list of all the little subtleties that only other yekkes would notice.

* Would they be saying Mashiv Haruach in which case the service would end two seconds later than usual?

* What time of year was the bar mitzvah? In which case, what would be the parashah?

* How far would the Torah be scrolled for that parashah?

* How far should everyone open their Chumashim in the bar mitzvah scene so that they appeared to be on the correct Parashah?

* What sort of Yiddish was required for the few times the father speaks in Yiddish?

* What sort of Jewish character was the father Peter Helfgott and if so, how did he wear his yarmulka? his tallit?

* What sort of Jewish character was the father of Peter Helfgott and how should he look in a photo?

* What sort of Jewish character was Mr. Rosen and if so, how did he wear his yarmulka? his tallit?

* How would you identify Mr. Rosen's home as a Jewish home?

* How do you create an authentic bar mitzvah scene?

* How did a Rabbi in Perth dress in the '60s?

* What did the Perth Hebrew Congregation look like in the '60s?

My expertise has never been in Yiddish. This aspect of the film, although small, was promptly passed onto another member of the community, Sal Alba. I set about finalising arrangements for actors and within a week of the Musings article, I faxed off a list of 20 candidates for the 4 roles! I had timed the auditions 5 minutes apart and had dutifully listed the gender, date of birth, age at next birthday and even the role they were auditioning for. After two hours of auditioning and twenty tearful children later (not to mention tearful parents, bubbas and zeidas) not one of the twenty made it into any of the 4 leading roles, but they all had their chance at the big screen!

Now before I explain the intricacies of the shooting of the bar mitzvah scene, if you have seen the film you may be wondering how it came to be in the film at all? The Helfgotts in need of money to send David to the U.S. are advised by Mr. Rosen that a Bar Mitzvah can be a goldmine, and so a bar mitzvah is held although at no stage do you see David even get a present let alone a goldmine! The answer lies in the original script which calls for David to file past the community and the Rabbi who have lined up at the end of the Barmitzvah ceremony to congratulate David on his accession to adulthood while he clutches "a tefillin bag which people put money in". After a brief discussion with the Director Scott Hicks that this does not occur, the link was dropped but the bar mitzvah scene was retained.

Next the art department turned up. They were in need of instructions on how to build a mock synagogue, where they could borrow a Torah scroll and all the associated trinkets, where they could get photos of rabbis from for the scene in the rabbi's office and where they could get a photo of a distinguished yet stern father for Peter Helfgott. A sample tomb stone was needed for Peter Helfgott and quickly done on the computer. I found most of what was required in the archives or the Board room of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation even a special issue of the Australian Jewish Historical Society's journal covering the Perth Hebrew Congregation. Unfortunately, Halachah does not permit the use of a Torah or its accessories for anything but shule service and so the art department were guided in how to make a Torah, including some selected columns from a Tikun. For the late February bar mitzvah, I chose Tetzaveh and prepared a cassette for the boy, Noah Taylor. Noah came for a single bar mitzvah lesson having practised from the cassette I had prepared and the page of the Tikun. I had instructed him on the tape to follow the words from right to left although after the first [and only] lesson more practice was still required. The results can be seen on Shine.

Then it came to decking out a mock shule. The Art Department came around with photos of a hall and asked whether it could make the backdrop for a shule. With some advice on the furnishings, a shule was born. In preparation for the shule, photos were taken of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation and measurements were taken of the Aron Hakodesh (Holy Ark) and the Bimah (platform on which the Torah scroll is read).

The school began a call for extras for the shooting of the bar mitzvah scene and they came by the dozens on the day, tallit and siddur in hand. The rabbi (actor and lecturer Beverly Vaughan) was dressed for the occasion and after some alterations passed my Hashgachah (rabbinical supervision). A final touch was added to the scene outside the rabbi's office - I decided it would look more genuine if Peter Helfgott, who had been portrayed to have been against religion, promptly took off his yarmulke as he left the rabbi's office. It added just that little feeling of his uneasiness during the scene.

I suppose after years of shule attendance you take things for granted and don't pay attention to the shule atmosphere. It struck me most as we set up for the Bar mitzvah scene. The extras dutifully took their place in the pews of the 'synagogue' but something was wrong. It didn't look right and it didn't feel right. People who clearly looked like three-times a year shule goers were wearing tallitot (prayer shawls) that sat too correctly and looked too religious. Tallitot had to be switched around. Even kippot and hats had to be changed to better reflect the sort of person who was wearing them. Then the extras were asked to open the book in front of them about a third of the way in. Of course the non-Jewish extras opened the book from the wrong end but that was quickly remedied.

It was still not quite right. It was too staid. People just didn't sit like that in shule. After instructions to the extras that the shule was more social and that minor chatter occurred (although is not allowed) and the arrival of some late congregants on the scene it began to have the feel of a shule.

There were still some inaccuracies. A poorly placed mezuzah was the result of my absence on the set at the time and the Bar Mitzvah boy required considerably more training but as they say, That's show biz.

© Ronnie Figdor 1996

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Copyright © 1996 J.O.I.N.