An Interview With Dror Shaul, Director of “Atomic Falafel”

"Atomic Falafel", which satirizes Israel-Iran nuclear tensions, has been praised as an Israeli "Doctor Strangelove"

By , 15 Feb 17 04:06 GMT
Dror Shaul on location for a commercial shoot with Huawei (next to Polish soccer star Robert Lewandowski)
Atomic Falafel‘s poster.

Dror Shaul is the director of Atomic Falafel — a 2015 satire that pokes fun at nuclear tensions between Israel and Iran. Shaul gained prominence in Israel with his 1999 cult hit Operation Grandma (winner of an Israeli Academy Award), and further international recognition with his 2006 film Sweet Mud, both of which were partly inspired by his upbringing in a kibbutz (Israeli collective community). In the past year, Shaul has been on a hiatus from feature filmmaking, instead focusing on commercials for international clients like China’s Huawei.

With a dark-humored story featuring teenagers who must work together to prevent Israel and Iran going to nuclear war, Atomic Falafel was released at a time when hopes for peace were lifted by the signing of a nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers. Now, with a more bellicose global political environment and the deal possibly in jeopardy, Atomic Falafel suddenly has renewed relevance.

Cinema Escapist caught up with  Shaul and learned more about his experiences making Atomic Falafel as well as his insights on the current political landscape.

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What gave you the idea to make Atomic Falafel?

After my film Sweet Mud gained international recognition, I originally wanted to develop another big film that would take place in several countries, and it looked like financing for that would take quite some time.Therefore, I thought I needed to make a quick and “simple” film — funny and light — a comedy in a piece of pita bread… but [Atomic Falafel] took five years to finance.

Atomic Falafel is a co-production between Israel, Germany, and New Zealand, and apparently it was originally supposed to have an Iranian co-producer as well. That’s a fascinating combination of countries. How’d all this international collaboration come about?

A scene from Atomic Falafel.

From the first step in production, the most important thing for me was to try and get real Iranian filmmakers on board so we could actually make the first Israeli-Iranian co-production in the history of film. I thought this was a crucial message to convey before anyone watched the film. We almost succeeded at that.

I secretly met an established Iranian film producer in Berlin. We had very accurate plans about how to shoot in Iran — without me, of course — and also get Iranian investors. We met several times and we were very excited as we didn’t even know how legal this was, but it felt great, making peace with your “enemies”.

It was a huge disappointment for me that eventually, the Iranian producer had to abandon the film a few weeks before we started shooting, due to a high risk on his life. The German and New Zealand producers came on board later.

From what I see, Atomic Falafel has multiple layers of humor: there’s universal jokes about horny teenagers, political jokes, and jokes about pretty integral parts of Israeli identity that non-Israelis might not immediately get. Can you highlight some of the more amusing or insightful “Israeli inside jokes” embedded in the film for our non-Israeli readers?

I tried to tell the story in the most authentic way, assuming that the audience would be aware of most facts regarding the nuclear issue here. That said, it was obvious that some levels of jokes or scenes would be understood differently in different audiences or cultures.

Compare this shot to this real-life picture .

For instance, the name of the army dog, Vanunu, was taken from the name of the Israeli nuclear worker who gave away Israeli nuclear secrets to a British newspaper. Another example: when [the real-life] Vanunu was arrested, he pulled his hand out to the press with a message written on it, with info about where and when he was arrested. In the film when Mimi’s arrested, she pulls her hand out to tell her daughter Nofar that she had left meatballs for her in the fridge. This joke was hilarious for Israelis, but some international viewers did not get it. Then, there is the whole issue of the Holocaust which, compared to the rest of the world, Israel talks or laughs about from a different perspective.

But, in general, I thought I was making a film aimed at young people, showing that 15-year-olds in Israel, Iran, Paris, London and New York are all the same, and are so different from the entire world’s adults.

Another question on the “distinctively Israeli things” front — are those real Merkava tanks in the movie? I’m quite curious because the only Israeli movies I’ve seen Merkavas in are pretty anti-war (Lebanon, Beaufort, and of course Atomic Falafel), which makes it seem less likely that the IDF would just let people borrow their tanks for filming.

That is a great question — actually, the story of how we got the tank to participate in the movie might be funnier than the movie itself. In Israel, filmmakers must have good friends to call for immediate assistance. Better to have a brother, and I have two of them — as you can see in my film Operation Grandma.

Falafel truck with a Merkava tank (main battle tank of the IDF).

After six months of huge attempts to get a tank for shooting, the entire production gave up all routes and applications and came to inform me dramatically that “there’s a problem with the tank, and the problem is we just won’t have it”.

That Saturday, when I went to a family celebration away from Tel Aviv, my brothers asked me why I looked so worried, and I told them that we couldn’t get a tank for shooting and I had dreamt about this scene with the tank since it was written five years ago.

One of them, not the ex-army one, called a friend of his, who was a Colonel in the army, woke him up from his Saturday siesta, and asked him if he has a tank for “my brother’s film”.

It turned out that this guy owed a favor to my brother (at least his wife thought so) and on the next day he made some calls — which released our application in the Army Spokesmen Office. And suddenly we had a tank.

Atomic Falafel has been compared with Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War satire Doctor Strangelove. Do you think that comparison is accurate, and did that film happen to be one of your inspirations?

To be honest, I never tried to make — and don’t think I was making –a new Doctor Strangelove. It would not be modest for any filmmaker to think like that. I thought that I was making wild comedy, a combination between the style of Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds and a desert “small town” tale.

Israel seems to have a rich satirical tradition, for example with shows like “What a Wonderful Country” (Eretz Nehederet) which have gained international attention for their sketches. What kind of role do you think satire plays in Israeli society, and do you think Israel provides more fertile ground than other countries for satirists?

IDF officer from Atomic Falafel.

Maybe the more insane life in a country is, the more potential satire can explode. Israel is one of the craziest places in the entire world in terms of the number of different groups or religions seeking different wishes and willing to fight till their last drop of blood.

I do think that, in the last ten years, Israel has been getting less and less normal. I don’t know if we can predict what it’s going to look like twenty years from now. As a father to two young kids, I am extremely worried about how my home country has turned into a monster that is not controlled by any common sense anymore.

I’m lucky to be doing much commercial work in the international market, so I get to worry more about my Chinese cell phone clients — but Israel, as a home that we grew up in, is losing its shape everyday. It’s marching backwards, in difference with the entire world, into darker and darker days.

Atomic Falafel was released in September 2015, a month after the Iran nuclear deal was signed. Now, President Trump has taken office in the US and threatened to dismantle that deal. If you were making Atomic Falafel today, would you change anything about the storyline, humor, or characters?

Dror Shaul at Sundance, after winning the World Cinema Jury Prize for Sweet Mud.

I wouldn’t change the plot today for any real event. But, on the other hand, maybe I wouldn’t have made the film at all. In fact, I don’t know if I wish to make any more comedies.

I make films hoping that many people can view them, but I learned that comedies have difficulty traveling. There was an idea that the film was trying to communicate, and it didn’t travel well to the world. It was bought by Netflix, but I was not happy with the world recognition the film received.

So, generally, I think that since making a film takes so long and since it’s such a nightmare to get it financed, especially in Israel, when you choose a topic or a character or any story line, it must be very close to your heart. It must be the one story that, if they tell you it’s the last story you’re going to tell before you die, you’d still want to make that film — and I don’t know if those stories can be comedies for me anymore.

Recently, it seems like liberal voices in Israeli society have been losing ground — as seen through the defeat of the Zionist Union coalition in 2015’s elections or demographic trends like emigration of secular Jews alongside increasing birth rates of more conservative, ultra-Orthodox groups. In terms of getting financing, or having a receptive audience for pro-peace movies, are you worried at all for the future?

For the past ten years, the Israeli government has been right-wing, and lately it became a radical right-wing government, which is exactly the opposite of my political and social views. I hope for a big change in the next elections, which I’m told are pretty close.

Up until now, I did not feel that any film fund or TV station was trying to control my material. I’m more worried by the voices that we hear. In the last three years, we’ve heard more and more threats from right-wing ministers (including the minister of Culture!) or Knesset members towards left-wing people, specifically artists like writers, filmmakers, and musicians. Those threats on Facebook and other media networks should worry any human being here.

And on a lighter note: imagine you were on a Skype call with both Avigdor Lieberman (Israel’s current Minister of Defense) and the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. What would you say to them?

Great question, I guess I would just recommend them to watch the film, and then send them to sleep. I don’t care what they say to each other — just make sure they drink hot milk and go to bed early to lose some of their anxieties.

I strongly believe that Mr. Lieberman and the Iranian Head of Revolutionary Guards are people exactly like you and me. I don’t think they have any plans to bomb each other. I think they know it’s impossible. I don’t think anyone has the guts to send nukes at each other. They’re just a nice tool to have.

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Watch the trailer for Atomic Falafel here

Want to watch Atomic Falafel in its entirety? The film is available for streaming on Netflix. 

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