Israeli filmmaker takes a plunge into the ‘toxic family pool’
While Shai Gal’s documentary ‘End of Season Love’ has a distinct Israeli flavor, it is also a universal story about life, love and the sadness of losing that love
There are not too many people who talk openly about the flaws in their parents’ relationship, and there are even fewer who would actually go out and capture that dysfunction on film to share with the world.
Yet that is exactly what Israeli filmmaker Shai Gal, a well-known journalist and soon-to-be reality TV star himself, has done in his recently debuted documentary, “End of Love Season,” an intimate look at the breakdown of his parents’ marriage after four children and more than five decades together.
“It’s funny because a lot of people are telling me that I’m brave,” Gal, who has spent years as a TV journalist working for top Israeli news shows such as “Uvda” (Fact), and Channel 12 News, told Jewish Insider. “Of course, it’s risky when it comes to family stories, but at a certain point, I just looked at this great story happening in my house and thought, how can I not tell it?”
Gal’s very personal “toxic dive into the family pool,” as he calls it, begins in 2017 when his parents, Geula and Arik, then in their 70s, declared they could no longer live together. From behind the camera, their filmmaker son captures the grumpy break-up, including most poignantly the construction of a physical wall dividing his childhood home into two separate abodes. He then works expertly back through the years, using family photos, video footage and revealing interviews with his parents and two of his three siblings to investigate what went wrong and why his parents had not reached this conclusion sooner.
While “End of Love Season,” which premiered last week at the annual DocAviv Film Festival in Tel Aviv, has a distinctly Israeli flavor to it – both Geula and Arik were raised on kibbutzim during the heyday of the communal lifestyle – in many ways, it is also a universal story about life, love and the sadness of staying together out of misguided hopes or fears.
“The story of a couple deciding to break up at the age of 75 and 77 and building a wall – that’s, of course, universal,” Gal, who this week made his debut on the Israeli version of “Dancing with the Stars,” told JI. “But what I was trying to ask is how our parents’ relationship and their love life influence us… I think it’s something I was trying to understand for myself too.”
“I also think it’s a film about missing out,” added the father of three, who said he is happily married. “It’s a story about missing a great opportunity to live a happier life, a better life.”
The hour-long film is a roller coaster of emotions. There are funny moments as the couple separates and they must decide whether they will both have access to the washer and dryer, whether Arik will still drive Geula to her various appointments and who will keep the new television set. There are also more tender moments when the two remember how they first met, as well as some deeply sad revelations, including a damning admission from Arik that he never once kissed his wife or from Geula, a professional marriage therapist, lamenting that she was unable to fix her own unhappy relationship.
“It was complicated, for sure,” admitted Gal, who appears on screen in the documentary too. “I’ve been doing journalism and making films for 20 years, but when you turn the camera on your parents, meaning onto yourself, you have to understand the full circle of it.”
Gal, who won an Israeli Academy Award for his previous film, “The Jewish Underground,” and whose next documentary about NASA will be aired on Netflix in July, said the decision to tell his parents’ story didn’t come quickly.
“I remember the day my mother called and said she finally decided that she was leaving my father,” noted Gal. “None of us, myself and my siblings, were sad about it. We were just surprised that it was only happening at the age of 75.”
When they came up with the idea of dividing the house into two, Gal confessed to JI that he was complicit in “the crime.”
“Yeah, I brought in the contractor,” he laughed. “I kind of liked the idea. I mean, I thought, what else could they do? Sell the house? Pack up everything? That would be a nightmare.”
It was at that point he took out his camera and started filming.
“I didn’t know why I was doing it, whether it was just for family memories or whatever,” Gal described, adding that the next stage was realizing that his father was an amazing character. “He’s like an old-fashioned Hollywood star, like really funny and not even aware of it. That was maybe two years ago, and I thought to myself, ‘Hey, there’s a great story happening inside my family.’”
Still unsure what he would do with the footage, Gal continued filming what was unfolding between his parents and particularly what was happening inside his childhood home.
“I saw what came out after they started living with the wall and decided that I needed to dig in deeper, so I started interviewing them and documenting the family life – it got to the point that at every family gathering, I was there filming, and people just got used to it,” he said. “Then I thought to myself, listen, I’ve covered wars, I’ve covered everything that’s going on here, terrorism, whatever, but I never really handled love and you know, that’s a big theme, it’s about time I do something about love.”
“The fact that it was personal, I think helped me in a way,” observed Gal. “It helped that the camera was my shield when it came to talking to my parents about it and, on the other hand, my parents could not bullshit me like other people do. They could not say, ‘hey, we didn’t fight,’ because I was there, I grew up there. I mean, my mom’s current living room was my bedroom. So, it was a great starting point.”
And getting his parents to agree to expose their failed marriage in such a public way, Gal said, was not too much of a challenge.
“As soon as I decided it was going to be a movie, I told them that it would be about their failed love life,” he recalled, describing how he explained to them that what he was doing was out of love and an attempt to understand what really went wrong.
“It’s a question I ask myself too,” said Gal. “So many people around me now, in their 40s and 50s, are getting divorced and I’m always asking them: when did the alarm bells start ringing, when did you become aware?”
Another reason Gal believes his parents agreed to go on camera was because throughout the filmmaking process, they got to spend a significant amount of time with their youngest son.
“I don’t think that we sit with our parents enough and actually talk to them, dip into their world and really listen to them,” he observed. “You know, they are in their 80s now and if I don’t do it now, it will never happen.”
Gal said that about a month before the film debuted at DocAviv, he invited his parents over and the three of them watched the film together for the first time.
“I sat there with them, and it was tense,” admitted the filmmaker. “When you talk about the difference between making a journalistic film and making a film about your family, well, that was the point I really felt it.”
“When you put out a big journalism story that might impact the public view or offend someone you don’t care, you are making your mark, but here, it was different – I was giving my interpretation to their love life and it was not an easy moment,” he added.
After four sold-out screenings at DocAviv, Gal said he is hoping “End of Love Season” will be picked up by the global film festival circuit.
“The plan now is to cross the ocean,” he said. “One of the things I’m most proud of is that I think I’ve changed the perspective of my stories. I come from a very solid journalistic world of always getting an exclusive or getting the exclusive interview, but what has happened to me in the past few years is that I’ve realized I’m a lot more into trying to tell a very strong emotional story.”
“If you manage to tell a very strong emotional story, and I don’t care which emotion it is – love, hate, cry, envy, whatever – if you make the audience feel something, then I think that’s what filmmaking is all about,” he said.