A Jewish Mystic Meets Prairie Baroque

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One Yellow Rabbit’s first film morphs a 17th-century holy man into a suburban used-car salesman on a spiritual quest

By MARTIN MORROW

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CALGARY — At the best of times, the story of a Jewish man who thinks he’s the Messiah and ends up converting to Islam would be a sensitive topic. In light of current events, it’s downright provocative.

Beautiful Jew, One Yellow Rabbit theatre company’s first feature film, was shot before the latest Palestinian intifada and the terrorist attacks of 9/11, but now its contents seem highly charged. In fact, even the title has proved prickly.

“People seem to take offence to it,” says Blake Brooker, co-artistic director of the Calgary theatre company, who also co-wrote and co-stars in the film. “I’m sure we wouldn’t get the same reaction if we’d called it, say, Comely Baptist.”

However, the movie, screening tonight through Saturday at OYR’s High Performance Rodeo in Calgary, isn’t about religious fanaticism but religious ecstasy. It’s a loose recounting of the life of 17th-century Jewish mystic Sabbatai Zevi, who proclaimed himself the Messiah and gathered a large following before abruptly becoming a Muslim, possibly to avoid execution by the Turks.

The Rabbits and director Oliver Hockenhull have moved the story into the present day, turning Zevi into Barry, a used-car salesman from suburban Calgary, who dabbles in drug dealing and assisted suicide en route to divine enlightenment and a job slinging falafel in the West Bank.

“It’s about a spiritual quest,” says Hockenhull, a Vancouver-based filmmaker and long-time friend of One Yellow Rabbit, who adds that the joint project grew out of his personal fascination with Zevi. “He was this ecstatic character whose beliefs were more in line with Sufism than any other formal religious practice. I wanted to place him in a context that I was familiar with, and in relationship to what the Rabbits could give me, which is the kind of ‘Prairie baroque’ that they’re so well known for.”

The Rabbits, in turn, had been looking for an entry into movies. While individual members of the company have done occasional screen work, and a live taping of their hit play Ilsa, Queen of the Nazi Love Camp, has been shown on cable TV, this is the first time they’ve created a group work specifically for film.

The troupe wrote the script collectively, played the principal roles and even used their own homes as locations.

Brooker and Hockenhull say they took their cue from the prolific German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose first films were shot fast and on the cheap with members of his Munich theatre company. Beautiful Jew was written in three weeks and shot in two, using digital video rather than traditional film stock. Hockenhull pegs the entire budget at “a low five figures. It cost less than most one-minute car commercials.”

For the Middle East sequence, Hockenhull and the film’s star, Michael Green, spent an additional 10 days shooting without a permit in Jerusalem, Nablus and Ramallah. Their guerrilla filmmaking went without incident, although it included a scene in which Green’s shifty-looking Barry had to abandon a briefcase (stuffed with money) in a busy area near Jerusalem’s Damascus gate. Hockenhull says the experience felt pretty intense. “We weren’t following any of the rules that are laid out for film crews in Jerusalem, and it’s a hot spot no matter when you’re there. For Canadians, just seeing guys running around with machine guns is always a little bit unnerving.”

Although the picture was made in 2000, Hockenhull — whose credits include five other independent features, including a documentary on Aldous Huxley — has had a hard time selling it. “It’s been difficult to get it out there,” he says. “I really love the work. I’ve had other films that have been more successful in terms of [playing] festivals and getting recognition. This piece is more difficult because of the complexity of the dramatic presentation — it goes back and forth from comedy to drama — and at the same time there’s a lot of political content that is unnerving for people nowadays.”

However, its first public screening, as part of a retrospective of Hockenhull’s work at Vancouver’s Blinding Light Cinema last March, was well received and prompted the Rabbits to include it in their annual experimental-theatre festival.

While Hockenhull doesn’t hold out any hopes for a theatrical release, he is pushing to get Beautiful Jew on television. For now, it’s available on DVD through a Vancouver distributor, Video Out.

The Rabbits, meanwhile, are keen to do more movies using the Fassbinder quick-and-dirty method and have acquired digital video technology of their own. “We have a couple of ideas for films and as soon as we can we want to make another,” says Brooker. “I anticipate doing one within a year.”
Beautiful Jew screens Thursday through Saturday at the Engineered Air Theatre in the Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts in Calgary. Tickets: 403-299-8888. It is also available on DVD from Video Out Vancouver at videoout@telus.net

Martin Morrow is the author of Wild Theatre: The History of One Yellow Rabbit, to be published this spring by the Banff Centre Press.