In residence at the San Francisco Film Society, Israeli director Ido Haar visits with Milos Forman via a Pamela Gentile pic (background).

Ido Haar Seeks Justice, Searches Soul

Judy Stone February 26, 2011

After serving in the army, many veterans opt to visit foreign locales, but Israeli filmmaker Ido Haar preferred to “discover all the places in the human soul.” Haar, director of the autobiographical feature documentary, Melting Siberia, is being honored in the San Francisco Film Society's first Artist-in Residence program now through March 5. “I believe if I wasn't a filmmaker,” Haar said here recently, “I would go and study psychology or something in that area. I wanted to discover new limits of aggression, of excitement, of anxiety.”

So while studying at the Jerusalem Film School, he located a hospital with mentally disturbed patients and worked with teenagers who couldn't go into the army because of behavioral problems, but they were trying to re-build their lives. “For me,” Haar says, “it was like learning about different areas in the human soul.”

Yet, perhaps oddly enough, he believes he learned “a lot about life, about the relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters,” through the films of Woody Allen. In addition to the fact that Allen is also Jewish, he liked the characters and humor and a style very distinct from the big Hollywood productions. “When I discovered Woody Allen, he was like a god for me. I was very young and it was like discovering the world.” He discovered another part of the world altogether when he was older and went to Tel Aviv where he saw Pier Paolo Pasolini's Accattone! the sordid description of a pimp's life in a squalid section of Rome. “I was very interested finding more of his films which were so different from the American movies I saw.”

Now 37 and about to become a father for the first time, he got used to being called grandpa when he was in the Israeli army. “That was like my spirit and still they're calling me out on the street, 'Hey, grandpa!'”

His long-time girlfriend was scheduled to be with him in San Francisco, but she went back to Israel to give birth. The new baby is supposed to be a boy, but, Haar says with an almost embarrassed laugh, he wanted a girl, “because I heard that girls have fewer problems and treat their parents nicer; but it's a boy and he's fine with me.”

The son of a Polish father and Latvian mother, he lived in Jerusalem until he was three when the family moved to a village where there “was a lot of nature and beautiful landscapes. But growing up there was too peaceful for me.” He would run away to the cities “for music or movies or whatever.” He tells the family story in Melting Siberia. His grandmother was a nurse in the Red Army and she lost all her family in the Holocaust. When she came back to Riga, Latvia, in 1944, no relatives were there. She fell in love with a Red Army officer, became pregnant and wanted to get married, but he was called to the front. She was pregnant with Ido's mother and she was sure that her beloved officer had died in the war. She wrote a letter to his parents in Siberia and told them that they had a granddaughter and she got letters back saying, “Leave us alone. We don't want to hear from you. He's alive, here in Siberia and doesn't want any relationship with you.”

Ido sums it up. “So my grandmother found herself alone after the war with a small daughter in Riga and this is how everything happened in Melting Siberia.” It will be shown at 7:00 pm Wednesday, March 2 at Viz Cinema, 1746 Post Street. With Haar visible in the background of many scenes, it might as well be called “The Grandson's Revenge.”

Although Haar lives in Tel Aviv, he has spent the last four months in New York working as an editor with Jonathan Demme on his documentary, I Am Carolyn Parker about a woman in New Orleans trying to get back into her house after Hurricane Katrina. Demme went back there a couple of times to shoot every year for five years and it will be broadcast on PBS next year. “I learned a lot from Jonathan about how he cared for his characters and how to build big dramatic moments, “ Haar says, “He was very inspiring and very generous.”

Haar's 2006 documentary, 9 Star Hotel, is a devastating portrait of nomadic Palestinians who illegally cross into Israel seeking work as day laborers. In it, Haar wanted to do something different from the usual Israeli films dealing with Palestinians. He grew up in a village where he saw a lot of illegal Palestinian workers traveling across a highway to work on construction in Israel. He found it a very strange policy on the part of Israeli authorities to “keep one eye open and one eye shut.” That is, he explained, on the one hand, we need those people to build our houses, but on the other hand, we try to catch them and send them back into Palestine. “It's very hard for Palestinians to get permission to work in Israel. It's almost impossible. That's why they have to sneak in and work without permission.”

He was disturbed by what he saw as a lot of injustice on the part of the Israelis because the Palestinians worked for years illegally building houses in Israel but they had to hide and live in terrible conditions. He went with his camera for almost a year trying to talk with the Palestinians.

“At the beginning, they were very suspicious of this Jewish guy making a film, but when they saw that the police were not coming and that I'm working and hiding with them, and I'm really interested in their story, which is also my story in a different way because I'm very much responsible for the circumstances of their lives, then they didn't care about the camera, they wanted this film to be released. So in the end, they were very very proud when they saw this film for the first time in the Jerusalem Film Festival. They needed to sneak into Jerusalem because they're Palestinian and don't have the necessary permission. It was very stressful for me because I didn't know if they would come or not. So in the end, it was the first time in their lives that they saw themselves on the big screen, but when the film was over the main characters were proud to be there.”

SFFS Screens Melting Siberia Wednesday March 2 at 7:00 pm at Viz's New People. Ido Haar teaches a Master Class Saturday, February 26 at 11 a.m. at Ninth Street Independent Film Center.

Judy Stone, former critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and a writer on film for more than 40 years, is the author of Not Quite a Memoir, Eye on the World: Conversations with International Filmmakers, and The Mystery of B. Traven. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Ramparts, among other publications. She is a regular contributor to SF360.org.