A conversation with Matthew Kalman, filmmaker

by simone August 03 2008

Matthew Kalman, Director

Israeli humor is hot these days, and Matthew Kalman, co-director (with David Blumenfeld) of Circumcise Me, a comic documentary starring Yisrael Campbell, is at the forefront of this trend. The film, which traces the life of Campbell, a Catholic boy turned Jewish comedian, is currently doing the film festival circuit, and in the near future, the directors hope to hold weekly showings at Jerusalem's Lev Smadar Cinema, which hosted the film's Israeli premier on July 3.

Can I get a brief genesis on the history of this movie ands how you got involved? I'm a reporter, and David [Blumenfeld] is a photographer, and we've been working together here in Israel for the last 10 years. A few years ago, we started doing a lot of documentary work. It was all about suicide bombers, the intifada, guys with masks, and it got grueling after a while. One day, we'd just finished interviewing a 16-year-old who wanted to blow himself up but was caught at a checkpoint before he made it to his destination. We went to interview him in jail, and on the way back, David said to me, "We've got to do something fun, something for ourselves." That night, I went to the opening of the Off the Wall Comedy Empire. I heard Yisrael Campbell perform his act, and I said to myself, "We've got our subject."

How did your past experiences in journalism influence this project? How did you find the transition from print journalist to documentary filmmaker? The thing about print journalism is that you have very little control over what actually appears in print. You don't choose the headline; you don't make the final editing decisions. There are many times where I'll focus on one thing and something else entirely will appear in the published version. Here, with this documentary, we have complete control over what actually appears on the screen. So it's much more creative. But it's also a much greater responsibility. When I write for a paper, I get up, do my work and then come home and turn on Seinfeld and it's no longer my responsibility. Here, David and I are completely responsible for how Yisrael is perceived by the world.

Yisrael Campbell's comedy is a major selling point, but his back story is also key to what you did with the movie. What kind of balance between profile and concert document were you trying to strikYisrael Campbell, Circumcise Me e? This was a really easy film to make, because Yisrael is really funny, he's really talented, he already has a show, so all we really had to do was film him. What we wanted to do with this project is take his show, which has been performed to numerous audiences here in Israel, and make it accessible to people elsewhere, and not just to Jewish audiences but to a wide range of people. We had to explain the contexts in Campbell's show and take out the parts that had too much Hebrew (which meant removing some of the funniest parts of the show). We also wanted to tell as much as possible of Campbell's back-story using very elementary documentary techniques. For example, Yisrael's father only has a few lines but they are all about very transitional points in Yisrael's life and they help move the story along.

Finally, we want to show people who don't live here what this place is like, so we filmed Yisrael driving along the security wall and visiting the Hebrew University, so that people can visualize the places he refers to. At one point, you see him at the café where his friends were blown up. For me, that's the emotional highlight of the film. It's a very powerful image that you can't do in print. You can describe, but to actually see it, to see Yisrael sitting on the memorial, is very powerful.

How would you describe the role and presence of the city of Jerusalem in the movie? Jerusalem is definitely one of the characters in the movie. In that way, I think we were very influenced by shows like NYPD Blue. We consciously modeled some shots from NYPD Blue and Seinfeld - the scenes of Yisrael in the comedy club and in various Jerusalem locales. We stole nakedly from all of our favorite programs. There's a very fine comedy called Just Shoot Me, and we used that as inspiration too. In that show they zoom in on all these different magazine covers shots, and we did the same thing with tourist t-shirts. It was brazen thievery.

What sort of audience have you found is attracted to this film? Who needs it the most and how do you plan on getting them to see it? This is a feel-good film about Israel and therefore Jewish audiences love it, English-speaking Israeli audiences love it and we think Jewish audiences abroad will have the same response. They're fed up of seeing Israel only through images of violence. This provides an alternative. It's about the intifada but it's also about how life is lived here. As journalists here, we always have to cover death, but there's also a gallows humor and we wanted to capture that absurdist, Life of Brian-type humor with this film.

For example, the day after the cease fire began in Gaza about a month ago, I was doing an interview with some Hamas guys there – it was this heavy interview about Israel and the intifada and they were all dressed up with masks and machine guns. As soon as we shut the camera off, they took of their masks and one of them says to my cameraman, "Are you Indian?" He said "Yes," and all of a sudden this Hamas fighter, who's holding an M-16 and packed with grenades, starts singing this song to him, an Indian song that he wanted translated. The cameraman said he wasn't able to translate, so he called his mother in England and here is this Hamas guy in full fighting gear singing on the phone to my cameraman's mother. It's this sort of humor that we wanted to show with the movie.

We're billing it as the first – and possibly last – real intifada comedy.

What was it like doing production in Jerusalem? Is it a case of dealing with logistical nightmares in order to capture peoples and places that you could never capture elsewhere, or was it a more nuanced experience? Can you share an anecdote that sums it up for you in your memories? Jerusalem is a great place to be a reporter, it's a great place to film because people here are so used to having cameras and television crews around them at all times. It was almost like having a professional cast of extras to work with. We saw the guitarist who plays the theme song playing on Ben Yehuda St., and we asked him if he wanted to be in the movie. He said yes right away and it took him all of about five minutes to learn the theme song.

Meah Shearim was the only place where filming was a little dicey. They're more wary of cameras there. In fact, we had an alternate beginning to the film which showed Yisrael emerging from a group of charedim, but the other charedim in the crowd were none too happy about it, so we decided to cut that part.

Photo of Matthew Kalman courtesy of David Blumenfeld; photo of the Circumcise Me cast and crew courtesy of Melissa Blumenfeld.

The kindest cut

HAARETZ : August 1, 2008
By Raphael Ahren

Yisrael Campbell had enough of circumcisions. Indeed, the Philadelphia-born standup comedian, who converted from Catholicism to Reform, then to Conservative and finally to Orthodox Judaism, has had his share of foreskin curtailments. The last time around, the rabbi told him that he'd have to do everything again. "I'll do a third circumcision," he said according to a sketch featured in a forthcoming documentary about his life, aptly called "Circumcise Me." "But I want you to know," the sketch continues, "three circumcisions is not a religious covenant. It's a fetish."

Seriously now, Campbell has at long last made peace with his Jewish identity. Even if the ultra-Orthodox won't accept him as a full Jew because his last conversion was done under Rabbi Haim Druckman, whose conversions have been declared null and void by their Supreme Rabbinic Court, Israel's leading English-speaking comedian does not intend to go through the process again.

"Maybe they not only converted me to Judaism this time, but to Israeli," he said during an interview this week. "I mean, that's it. Maspik (enough), I am done."

Campbell, whose first name used to be Christopher, is an interesting man. A drug addict in his youth, he was attracted to Judaism even though he did not like religion. He now looks like one of the many Haredi men who bustle around Jerusalem, where he has lived since 2000.

If one reads his biography superficially one might be tempted to call him the Matisyahu of standup comedy, as some have done. Like the Hasidic reggae star who was raised as a secular and began donning suits and black hats after becoming observant, Campbell turned his life around and turned his newfound spirituality into art.

Even "Circumcise Me," which was produced by Matthew Kalman and David Blumenfeld and is being screened at film festivals around the world, reinforces that notion. But a closer look reveals that while the kosher comedian might look Haredi his beliefs are rather more progressive. He attends Shira Hadasha, a synagogue on the liberal end of Modern Orthodoxy. When asked what he thinks of the recently passed law that permits Haredi schools not to teach English and math, he said it's admirable to spend as much time as they do studying Jewish texts, "but I don't think it's bad to be able to calculate a tip."

So why the Haredi garb? Campbell's first answer is a joke from his standup show, which has become the most popular act on the Jerusalem Anglo comedy scene: "When I did the Conservative conversion, it upset the Reforms. When I did the Orthodox conversion, it upset the Conservatives. The only thing I have to upset the Orthodox is to dress Haredi." He then explained that he doesn't play by the rules of traditional chromatics. Even his rabbi was surprised that Campbell sometimes wore a black hat but no suit jacket. "Apparently, nobody does that," the comedian said. "You first wear a jacket, and then maybe you wear a hat also. I didn't come to it from that side of it."

Campbell's Haredi dress serves two additional purposes. Firstly, he enjoys being easily recognizable as Jewish. During his honeymoon in Italy, he was asked on the street about the day Passover starts and whether there is a seder in Venice. "We became a Jewish information booth. I love that," he said. Then there is also the question of religious identity. "Jews don't need to do anything to feel Jewish, their whole life has been Jewish. For me, when I go home [to the U.S.], nobody is Jewish. It helps me to dress the part."

There are aspects of ultra-Orthodoxy that Campbell admires, such as the slow, devoted manner of prayer. But he still feels strongly about the non-Orthodox movements to which he once belonged. Many Orthodox Jews would say that the Reform and Conservative movements lead Jews astray from authentic religion, but for Campbell they brought him closer. He became Orthodox more because he longed for regular ritual practice and a sense of belonging than for theological reasons. He wanted to put on tefillin and pray three times a day. In the Reform movement, he said, "there just wasn't the opportunity to do that." Even the Conservative movement didn't offer the kind of community he sought. "The rabbis were religious but the general population was not. And I really wanted a community," he said.

Two circumcisions later, Campbell maintains that the Reform movement gave him his "most Jewish welcome to Judaism." They gave credence and credit to his spiritual journey.

In contrast, he compares his Orthodox conversion to getting a driver's license. "Imagine you walk into the Department of Motor Vehicles and said: 'I want to tell you guys why I want to drive. I want to go to the sea, and then I want to go the desert, and then I want to go to the mountains.' They'd say, 'Shut up and just take the test. If you pass, you get the license.' Nobody cared why I wanted to be Jewish. In fact, everyone was suspicious why I wanted to become Jewish."

A modern man at heart, Campbell also struggles with certain Orthodox beliefs, such as the renewal of animal sacrifices in the Temple. "The traffic in Jerusalem is already horrible, one can barely drive in the Old City now. Could you imagine if everybody were carrying a cow in their car?" jokes Campbell, who will be performing his one-man show off-Broadway in New York this fall.

Despite these reservations, Campbell's long and sometimes painful journey to spiritual fulfillment has arrived at Orthodoxy, and he is sure it will be his last stop.

"The questions that I can't answer don't trouble me as much as what it offers me," he said. "Ultimately," he added half-jokingly, "I like the separation of men and women in prayer. It easier for me to focus both on my prayer - and on where the women are."