Israelis family collapse inspires directorial debut

When Nir Bergman’s parents split up 25 years ago, divorce was rare in Israel. But the seed had been planted in San Diego.

“It was a year after we were in the States,” the soft-spoken Israeli filmmaker recalls. “We spent a year here and I think America opened their mind to a lot of options. We came back and that’s it: My family collapsed in one day.”

Not surprisingly, it was a traumatic event for the 10-year-old Nir. He was the only child in his class — make that the first child — whose parents broke up, and he’s still getting over it.

His wry, ominous feature debut, “Broken Wings,” centers on a traumatized Haifa family after the father’s departure. A surprise hit in Israel — where it sold a quarter of a million tickets and received nine Israeli Academy Awards — it launched Bergman’s directorial career with a bang.

“The inner pain of the characters is something that I carry with me,” Bergman reveals during a recent visit to San Francisco. “These characters are looking for love. In a way, I use them to look for love for myself. I wanted it to be a big family, to make it warm and to show that their potential is much better than my family had. So it’s a way to fix things for me.”

Bergman, who moved to Tel Aviv when he was 20, set and shot his movie in the Haifa neighborhood where he grew up. “For me,” he confides, “the big understanding while finishing the film was where I lost my dad permanently — although no one had died, but emotionally.”

“Broken Wings” is laced with dark laughs, mostly provided by the oldest child, 16-year-old Maya. With Mom working long hours at a hospital, the smart but put-upon Maya has to take care of her two youngest siblings.

“I guess what helps is putting in humor in the most dramatic moments,” says Bergman, who resembles a young, bearded David Brenner. “That I tried to do all the time because that’s life, too. It’s walking on this thin line, trying to reach the way [I] want to be touched when [I] go to see a film.”

Bergman hoped his offbeat independent film — whose deadpan sensibility echoes that of American Jewish writer-director Todd Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Happiness” — would find an art-house audience. Unexpectedly, crowds of mainstream Israelis connected with the movie’s tone of foreboding mixed with irony.

“The story is totally cosmopolitan, but the way it’s told I think is very Israeli,” Bergman says. “You feel the tension, and you feel fear for each character. There is a danger in the air.”

Israelis may flock to outlandish American special-effects movies like everyone else does, but Bergman suggests that they were able to recognize themselves in “Broken Wings.”

“For Israeli audiences, a family trying to go through a normal day is very appealing,” Bergman declares. “It’s not an escapist film for Israelis. On the contrary, it’s a very strong mirror because so many families in Israel are trying to just survive. People think that all we do all the time is deal with the conflict. It’s not like that.”

“Broken Wings” opens Friday, April 30, at the UA Galaxy, 1285 Sutter St., S.F.; the Act One/Act Two, 2128 Center St. , Berkeley; and the Camera 3, 288 S. Second St., San Jose; and Friday, May 7, at the Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.