At the turn of this century, Israel experienced a surge of illegal immigration that many Israeli nationals felt threatened the fibre of one of the oldest societies on Earth. It became such a concern that, in September 2002, Ariel Sharon's government established an organisation whose primary role was to collect and extradite as many illegal immigrants as they could find.
It was called, simply, the Immigration Administration and its cold, clinical deportation of illegal migrant workers ensured close to 50,000 working refugees – from as distant shores as China, the Philippines, Thailand, Eastern Europe, India and Latin America – were sent home.
The migrants experience in Israel is the starting point for director Ayelet Menahemi's Noodle, in which an air hostess dealing with her own grief is left to care for an abandoned Chinese boy, whom she calls 'Noodle', when her housemaid, a Chinese national, is deported.
As Miri, the lead character in this moving film, Israeli actress Mili Avital was asked to bring her stance as an Israeli to the role, while still finding sympathy for the plight of the migrant worker. “It is an ethical issue,” she says, on the telephone from her New York home. “It's a terrible problem in the sense that it is terrible that any human being has to go through these things. The movie is trying to say, in a subtle way, that we are all the same, that this experience is the same for all nationalities.”
Avital says she was touched by the universality of the script and of the parallels the two characters shared. “My character is a typical Israeli woman, alone at 37 having lost two husbands in the wars, wearing a depressed face and then this 7 year-old boy, alone and frightened, [enters her life] and they have everything in common. They are both lost. They are both trying to find their way back to love and life and happiness.”
The film was a major hit in Israel, and Avital says she was surprised at her country's openness to the experience of Noodle and Miri. “The film was done on a very small budget, even in Israeli terms, and it was unusual for an Israeli film to focus on the mundane life of suburban Israelis, not to take a political stance or focus on the war.”
The production did not have any sense of how the film would play on its home soil at first, though the success that led to ten nominations at the 2007 Israeli Film Academy Award ceremony ultimately convinced them. “The audience responded to that emotion that we all share, that yearning to be part of humanity again,” said Avital. “The film has a very commercial appeal, but at the same time it has this much deeper angle to it, which is what I liked to relate to in the film.”
Avital felt deeply honoured to have played Miri Calderone, a real-life friend of director Menahemi and who had lost two husbands to regional conflicts before she turned 30. “This level of grief is impossible to act, so it was crucial to me to manifest it physically,” recalls the actress. “I had to convey the weight of grief. I used weights on my ankles and padding around my abs and thighs to bring this burden of grief, which is impossible for any actor to understand or pretend to convey.”
Mili Avital was able to bring some life experience to the role, but in a way she did not expect. It was the displaced sense of nationalism and loneliness inherent to the plight of Miri and Noodle to which she felt the most affinity. The Jerusalem-born actress, married to American screenwriter Charles Randolph (The Interpreter, 2005), travels regularly between her homeland and her American bi-coastal existence. “The sense of isolation these people feel I actually feel all the time,” she says, “I'm an Israeli who lives in America; a half-American who goes to Israel to work. I'm a hybrid; I really don't belong anywhere.”
Conscious of her responsibility to explore her Jewish background in many of her roles (her Hassidic 2005 comedy When Do We Eat?; the Holocaust-themed made-for-TV drama Uprising in 2001), Noodle represents the most contemporary portrayal she has attempted to-date. “I try to find things that I feel emotionally connected to.” Avital remembers turning down a major role in the pilot for the hit TV series 24, opposite Kiefer Sutherland, because Uprising became available.
“I remember telling my agent 'I'm Jewish, I must do a movie about the Holocaust!'” she recalls with a laugh. She takes her heritage and its traditions very seriously, though. “It's natural to want to feel that you belong to something, that you represent something that you actually understand deeply. Naturally, I'm attracted to things that tell an aspect of my story, of things I understand”.
Of her co-star BaoQi Chen, a seven year-old non-professional actor making his screen debut in the title role, Mili Avital is full of praise for his depiction of the migrant experience. “His talent and discipline was beyond belief. He doesn't speak a word of English or Hebrew, of course, so we all spoke with each other via a translator. It's amazing that he has achieved such an incredible character.”
In telling such a personal story, it is hoped Noodle can redress some of the social tension that still exists between Israeli population and the immigrants of the larger cities. Regardless, it is beautifully told tale, centred by the chemistry between a 37 year-old woman and a seven year-old boy. It is also a transition piece for Mili Avital, her beauty undeniable but the experience of her years only now allowing a deeply talented, mature actress to emerge.
Read our review of Noodle here
Listen to an extended interview with Mili Avital in Hebrew here