Etgar Keret thinks I’d make a good mother; we’ve just met, but he claims to have a sense for these things. Backing that up is the Israeli writer’s examination—in his fiction and now his directorial debut, Jellyfish—of parenthood, the stultifying shadow of legacy, and the paradox of personal history in a political hotbed. Set in present-day Tel Aviv, Jellyfish follows several female characters whose relationships (with a lost child, a daughter, a distant son) lead to confrontation with an abiding loss. The players roam between the city and the sea in cauls of loneliness; disconnection is the threat looming largest over this Tel Aviv. The author writes mainly in the format of “flash fiction,” but was undaunted by neither a more sustained narrative nor the prospect of dealing with characters who can talk back. The Voice sat down with Keret recently in New York.
You’ve been criticized in Israel for not being sufficiently political. And Jellyfish is a film about Israel, but is not overtly political. It’s funny—in many countries, telling the story of a foreign worker would be considered political, but in Israel, if nobody explodes, then you’re not doing anything political. I really think that this kind of dealing exclusively with the political point of view reduces us—like making Dutch people walk around in wooden shoes. I’m not saying there aren’t amazing political films about Israel; I am saying there is not just one type of film to be done. If there’s something subversive about our film, it’s the fact that it involves fantasy. And it’s not a shell-shocked soldier having a dream sequence and then killing his wife—this is what passes for fantasy in Israeli film. So just saying that you can live in this space and dream is a political statement, I guess.
Was it a difficult to go from the solitary act of writing to collaborating? The kind of polyphonic experience of making a film was amazing. I was working with the editor for a year, spending every day with him—much more time than I was spending with my wife—and I said to her: “You know, I think this is the closest I have ever been to cheating on you.” How do you explain something to a cinematographer? You tell him something about yourself. And how does he argue about it? He tells you something about himself.
You develop a language with someone, which is what happens when you fall in love. Yes! The whole experience feels like having an affair. There was this kind of intimacy—because you’re creating these people together—that doesn’t usually develop so quickly. I did everything but have sex with my cinematographer—and he was a very good-looking guy. Our last day of shooting was in April 2006, and I saw him for three hours in Cannes, and then I haven’t seen him since. This guy was like my whole life, you know? You feel a little . . .
Heartbroken? I think maybe there is this fleeting side of me that actually enjoys it. When my father survived the Holocaust, he said: “Now I know what life is, and I want to have more than one life.” So every six years he changed professions, and he was terrible at many of his jobs, so as a kid, it really pissed me off. But I am my father’s son, in the sense that what attracts me to art is that you can live more than one life. With writing, it was this discovery that I can break all the windows in a place, I can steal a car, I can have wild sex with a widow on her husband’s grave—I can do it and get away with it, because nobody gets hurt. When you make a film, it’s like this—except there are other people who are part of that fantasy. I can live one life, but I can make 10 films.
You return to the theme of suicide a lot in your work, and it recurs in Jellyfish. Each character is struggling, and there is this dangling question of why one person might make it while another does not. Three of the closest people to me have committed suicide. When my best friend killed himself [when Keret was 19], everybody said: “What was his problem? Was he crazy?” They needed to find a way to distinguish themselves from him, because if they can’t, they could be next. But contemplating suicide is a must; every person should ask if he wants to kill himself. I asked myself: “Why did he do it and not me?” And writing for me is a way of answering that. In my crappiest moments, I still think: “I want to be alive.” And maybe there will be a moment when this won’t be true—I hope this moment will not come—but talking about suicide is a good way of talking about great passion. Someone once asked me to define my stories, and I said my stories are a collection of short commercials for life. “Life: You Should Try It Sometime”—like Nike.