Based on the novel A Woman in Jerusalem by AB Yehoshua, The Human Resources Manager is a serio-comedy about a grim subject. The plot involves scandal, death, a suicide bombing, and, in the case of one character, a quest for redemption. Yet, the style of the piece isn't as ferociously downbeat as its outline suggests. It's funny, in a dry kind of way, and boldly allegorical; the narrative revolves around questions of identity and what it means to be without a place to die. The characters are known only by their role in the story. Only the dead woman whose tragic killing sets the story in motion is named: Yulia (Gila Almagor).
“I love this element, of characters in a story without names,” Riklis told SBS via phone from Tel Aviv. “It comes from the novel, and I liked it because in a sense the characters have to earn and deserve their name in a way.”
The screenplay by Noah Stollman is a close adaptation, says Riklis, largely because the director found himself in sympathy with the key elements of the story.
“I want to make films that have some kind of bearing on my society as opposed to an American kind of style of film subject which could be done anywhere,” Riklis says. “My films The Syrian Bride (2004) and Lemon Tree (2008) were very much embedded in the region [of the Middle East/Palestine and Israel] in a political, social and cultural way. Yehoshua's novel took me away (from Israel) but, on the other hand it derives its dramatic stakes from a reality – a suicide bombing that kills a foreign worker.”
In the story, the body of the slain worker lies unclaimed for a week. A journalist (Guri Alfi) whips up a report that smears Yulia's employers – the city's biggest bakery – accusing them of neglecting her welfare and that of her family. To avoid embarrassment the company boss, The Widow (Gila Almagor), sends the circumspect and rather lonely human resources manager (Mark Ivanir) on a mission. He is reluctant to go since he is a devoted father to a teenage daughter and is estranged from a wife he still loves. His job is to accompany Yulia's body back to her native land – un-named but it's Romania – and make sure that she gets a decent burial.
“This story is very much apart of what was happening here,” he says. “Yet it was universal. The character of the HR manager was very Israeli and yet he was some one you could find anywhere. And the whole plot was something you could adapt to any other environment yet was very much Jerusalem and what Jerusalem means and what it means to come here and leave this place in a coffin.”
Still, Riklis says that while the subject of 'foreign workers and illegal immigrants' is one that most audiences can appreciate his film taps into the complex subtleties of the issue as it plays out in Israel.
“Legal foreign workers who out-stay their visas is a big issue here,” he says. “It is not only a legal issue, but a moral issue because in Israel the sensitivities go way back to the Holocaust. The media here say that we should not expel others, because we were once expelled. It becomes an emotional issue.”
He says that there is a divergence of opinion over the legal issues; that the workplace should be responsible for the welfare of its workers. “Especially when there is no one else to take care of them,” he says.
The film has an ambitious style, of which Riklis is particularly proud of; it starts off as a mystery thriller, told in a very tense mood (“my model was Chinatown”) before it branches off into social comedy. Once the HR manager heads off to the former Soviet Union (“a place which is not East or West”) the film becomes “a road movie where anything can happen.”
Shot in 33 days on Super 16 by cinematographer Rainer Klausman, the film has a realist, 'you-are-there' quality that Riklis says was a deliberate choice to act as counter-point to some of the more bizarre elements of the story's 'fable-like' quality. Even if the Romania seen here has a kind of bleak beauty the film's action remains claustrophobic; Riklis keeps his camera close to the actors. “It's not a film where you're trying to enjoy landscapes. It's really about what happened to the characters on the journey.”
And it's a strange trip. Throughout much of it the HR manager seems lost – unable to adjust to his surroundings or deal with his guilt over being an absent father and his official responsibility toward a woman who for him is just a face and a name. Meanwhile, all around him people seem to act instinctively and emotionally. What's moving about the film is the way the HR manager learns to feel – a moral that Riklis says has a deep social and cultural resonance in today's Middle East,
“This is a very Jewish piece,” he says. “You have this woman who came not just for the work but to be in the Holy city and live as a Christian Orthodox lady. We, as her hosts, we're responsible for her life. We should be taking care of her. It's almost like being aware that there is a foreigner in the community and like a lot of communities we tend to look after our own, rather than look after the welfare of strangers. How come when something tragic happens, you suddenly disappear? For me, the story is the cry of the anonymous.”