In the beginning was the friendship.
Cinematographer Boaz Yehonatan Yaakov and director Joseph Madmony had worked together on two of Mr. Madmony’s films.
They clicked, despite the fact — or perhaps because of the fact — that Mr. Madmony had left the religious world of his youth, and Mr. Yaakov embraced Orthodox Judaism and Chabad as an adult.
“I think that we have a lot in common because both of us made a drastic change,” Mr. Madmony said. “It’s about telling yourself a different story. We both chose another story than the one that we were raised with.”
So it was natural that Mr. Yaakov would bring his idea for a film to Mr. Madmony. The fictional idea concerned a baal teshuva who left his life as a rock star when he embraced religion, only to rejoin his band on a reunion tour years later in hopes of raising enough money to treat his daughter’s cancer. They worked together on the script of what became “Redemption,” which went on to win the audience award at the Jerusalem Film Festival and will play in Closter next week as part of the IAC Cinematec. (See below.)
“At first, the story sounded a little bit too melodramatic,” Mr. Madmony said. “But Boaz was a really good friend of mine. I started to write it almost unwillingly. Because I knew it was so important to him, I couldn’t tell him no. Step by step, I fell in love with the story.”
The final film is not melodramatic, he said.
“It’s more like a slice of life. The text is very realistic.”
For Mr. Yaakov, the beginning of the story was another friendship — his friendship with the man who led him to become Orthodox, and to whose memory the film is dedicated.
“This friendship was maybe the most significant event in my life,” Mr. Yaakov said. “It was a very strong friendship, with a lot of sacrifice on both sides. A very big and deep appreciation.
“I wanted to tell a story about friendship. And being an Orthodox Jew who is very close to Chabad, the whole essence of redemption is in the air all the time. I understood and felt the fuel of the redemption is what you sacrifice from yourself and give of yourself to someone else.”
Friendship, Mr. Yaakov said, “turns life better for people who give from themselves to someone else. It has the biggest effect when it is hardest to do it.”
When it came time to expand the initial synopsis they had prepared to get funding into a full script, they realized that the main character — Menachem — was “basically underdeveloped,” Mr. Yaakov said.
“I started to see some pictures and events from my own life. The first scene, where he gets his picture taken and finds he can’t hold a smile for more than two or three seconds — that happened in my life, when I was going to have my picture taken for my ID card.
“Slowly we started building the character in a certain way, close to my life story — though I always kept working as a cinematographer during the whole process of becoming Orthodox.”
As Menachem came into focus, so did the lessons he learned from reuniting with his friends in the band.
“He starts to see his faults — faults which I had and have, in a certain different volume. Having a true partner like Yossi, who knows me well, helps me to be able to see those faults from the side. It’s very hard for a person to see his own faults because he loves himself very much.
“This movie is an event in my life which is much more than making a movie. It’s an inner process that is part of my whole life journey, which can be as fulfilling and as helpful as studying in yeshiva.
“Many times we see stories about people who fight something that is trying to hurt them. What’s special about this story is that Menachem is in a fight for himself, with himself. It’s a story which each one of us lives. We grow up and get taught about all the enemies that are on the outside, but the most important enemy which you have to deal with is yourself. This enemy disturbs your basic ability to just be happy.”
Mr. Yaakov grew up on movie sets. His father, Rony, now retired, was a film producer, “one of the main ones who established the film industry in Israel. I always knew that dealing with movies and films is my life.”
In high school, he took a film class and realized that cinematography gave him an outlet for his emotions and feelings. In the army, he worked as a cinematographer in the educational corps. At 24, he went to Los Angeles where he worked on films — and had an existential crisis.
“L.A. showed me something which was very hard to understand. In L.A., the life of a simple human being who isn’t rich enough or beautiful enough or powerful enough is useless,” he said. “It was very hard for me to live with. I came from Israel, which is a very small place, a very warm place. Suddenly to see people just walking in the street and nobody cares about them, was very hard.
“I said to myself, ‘You came to the end of the world where all your dreams are. And it’s a place you don’t want to live in. What do you do now?’
“I was feeling stuck for two years, which created a certain kind of darkness. Then I met my friend Yosef, the movie is in his memory. He was a baal teshuva. He started to talk to me about the essence of God, who created this big black feeling I was in, but it’s okay. Slowly, slowly, I started to see things differently.”
He compares this experience to when he first picked up a movie camera in high school. “It was the second light that came into my life after cinematography,” he said.
Mr. Yaakov was able to nurture both lights. In “Redemption,” Menachem wasn’t able to do that.
“He stopped dealing with a basic core of his being, the way that his soul can express itself through music. He became Orthodox, but on the other hand he’s in a certain way the walking dead because he doesn’t deal with it. When the movie ends, he understands that the music is something he can’t give up. He understands that it’s not about giving it up, but lifting it up.”
Even though the mix of religion and professional passion wasn’t a problem for Mr. Yaakov, Menachem’s conundrum “is like the voices and dilemma I always had in my head. In the movie they have a different volume, so we can have a movie which talks about a journey.”
And while he is a filmmaker, not a rock star, he wrote some of the songs in the movie.
“There’s a part in the movie where Menachem sings to his daughter in the hospital. He sings, ‘Give us joy for your basic essence of being.’ The song just happened when I was going to synagogue one Friday evening. I was very sad because of something. I was thinking about what could get me out of this captivity of being sad. I thought that if I can be happy for the very essence of God’s being, nothing can take me captive.
“Some sentences came together. Suddenly I had a small feeling of music to it. I started singing to myself walking to the synagogue.”
“It’s very powerful because the movie doesn’t really have any acts of religious ceremonies. You don’t see him pray. You don’t see him asking for God to help him. This one song is a certain kind of prayer.”
What: Film “Redemption, showing as part of the IAC Cinamatec, with discussion led by Rabbi Paul Kerbel
Where: Temple Emanu El, 180 Piermont Road., Closter
When: Thursday, May 9. 7:30 p.m. reception and refreshments, 8 p.m. screening and discussion
How much: In advance, $22, $18 for Temple Emanu El members. $25 at the door.