“It freed me to become a father,” the young Israeli writer-director Nir Bergman said of his first feature, “Broken Wings,” during a recent interview in Dallas. He meant that making the film allowed him finally to come to terms with the realities of his own life experience and, having done so, made him ready to have children himself. The picture, a powerful domestic drama about a Haifa family–a hard-pressed widow and her four children–struggling to come to terms with her husband’s sudden death, won nine of the Israeli equivalent of the academy awards and is now being released by Sony Pictures Classics in the United States.
Bergman readily identified an autobiographical element to the story. “I don’t think there was an idea that started the writing,” he said. “It was characters–characters that had this inner pain that I knew from my life, in a way. In my case, in my family, it was dealing with a divorce. Back then, in 1979, I was ten and my sister was fifteen. We came back from San Diego–we’d spent a year there, a post-doctoral position for my dad. For my parents it was like Disneyland; it opened their minds to so many options that really weren’t available in Israel…About three months later, three months after we came home in ’79, that was it for my family. No one really knew how to divorce in Israel back then. We were, like, the first kids [from a divorced family] in our neighborhood–I was the only one in class. It was something you couldn’t speak about. It was like this big secret.”
After the breakup, Bergman’s father moved to Tel Aviv and his sister to a kibbutz; Bergman remained with his mother in Haifa until he was fifteen, when he left her and his stepfather and began living on his own.
Eventually Bergman graduated from the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem in 1993. “I actually spent a year at Tel Aviv University,” he recalled, “because the first time I tried to be accepted to the Sam Spiegel Film School, they didn’t accept me. It’s very hard to get in, just twenty-five people can go there each year. Now [the director of the school] likes to tell the story about this guy that wasn’t accepted the first time–he likes to tell it to the students who have just come in…He doesn’t like the part where I say I went to Tel-Aviv University for one year–he doesn’t like to tell that! But then eventually the next year they accepted me.” Bergman studied at Sam Spiegel for five additional years, and while there he made a short film about a boy who spends his time waiting for his absent father by walking around a dangerous courtyard at his residence, in what Bergman called near-suicidal risk-taking.
“It was about a [broken] family from the point of view of the boy,” he said. “It was the same theme [as in ‘Broken Wings’], but it was in a way childish.” But the film was well received at European festivals. “Then I came back to Israel, thinking the film industry was just waiting for me. Of course it wasn’t. The first year was really hard.” Through a friend Bergman got a job doing color pieces on soccer players for the Israeli sports channel, and, he added, “I started to write ‘Broken Wings’ in late ’98. I knew that if I wanted to do something, I would have to write it myself.”
He continued: “That’s how it started–with characters whose inner pain I knew. I had to understand what it was like for them to lose one permanently, because I hadn’t lost one permanently. While I was writing the script, they were telling me their story, so it became a story different from my life but connected emotionally to my life. Then the process for me was to understand the way that I am, in a way, grieving about my childhood, what it was for me. It’s not a documentary about my life. Your life doesn’t give you ready-made scripts. It just gives you materials, and you have to build your characters and…dramatic events” from them.
One of the most significant advances from his student film in “Broken Wings,” Bergman said, lay in coming to grips with the character of the mother. “When I was a student, I couldn’t see the mother from an objective point of view,” he said. “That was really growing up for me, looking at this forty-three year old woman as a writer, and seeing how orphaned she really is.” So in writing the script, Bergman had actually come to terms with his relationship to his mother. In the process he was able to treat his created family with an empathy that led to a positive closure for them. “At the end of the film,” he said, “you know that this family, they’re back together.”
Bergman showed the first draft of “Broken Wings,” then titled “Reaching for Heaven,” to producer Assaf Amir. “That actually changed things,” he recalled. “He read it, said it was going to be a feature film, and put it in the [government-financed] film fund. They have eighty to a hundred scripts every six months and approve about six a year [for financing]” with monies derived from charges to the television networks. The panelists, chosen from the industry, eventually selected it for production; in the meantime Bergman worked with Amir on a mini-series, which was completed under the original title for “Broken Wings.”
Bergman’s film is connected to his own life in another way: it was shot in his home town of Haifa. “It was written for the locations,” he said. “The locations that are in the film, I saw them when I was writing the script. It’s set in the neighborhood I grew up in. The story is a cosmopolitan story. It could happen anywhere. But I think that the way it’s told is very Israeli…You always feel that something could go wrong. That’s so Israeli. I know it’s universal, but in Israel it’s just a little bit more there. In our life it’s a little more intense. We’re surrounded by life and death, all of us. But in Israel we just feel a little closer [to them].”
And “Broken Wings” may give you a taste of that special Israeli perspective within the context of a universal story about a family’s struggle to survive.