Eight years ago when Ofir Raul Graizer finished film school in Israel he was keen to spread his wings.
"Berlin was completely by chance,” he says. “There was a student exchange so I went there and then German students came to Israel and we worked together on projects. Except for the weather I thought it was a great lively place for young people and I thought I’d like to live there.”
Graizer has now resided in the German capital for seven years. Married to a Berlin florist and with a burgeoning side-career teaching cooking classes, the openly gay filmmaker drew on his own experience for his debut feature, 'The Cakemaker'.
“It’s my journey as much as it's the journey of the characters," he explains.
The story follows Thomas, a shy Berlin cakemaker who makes mighty good cakes and biscuits. One of his customers, Oren, an Israeli businessman and regular Berlin visitor, truly appreciates his cinnamon bickies and they start an affair,even if Oren is married back home.
But Oren suddenly dies in a car crash and Thomas is distraught. He travels to Jerusalem and anonymously works in a café run by Oren’s wife Anat (well-known French-Israeli actress Sarah Adler, also fabulous in Samuel Maoz’s upcoming award-winning Foxtrot). His cakes impress Anat’s clients of course and her business thrives.
Thomas and Anat realise they have something in common but only he knows what it is. They start to fall for each other.
After 'The Cakemaker' world premiered to immense enthusiasm at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, it went on to win the festival’s Ecumenical prize, with many believing it should have been awarded the main gong, which went to the Czech film 'Little Crusader'.
So why the Ecumenical Prize? “The film is spiritual in the sense that it’s about the connection people build while mourning,” Graizer says. “The characters mourn the death of a lover. He may be a homosexual man, we don't know, we don't care. And she’s a widow who just lost her husband. Each of them carries a secret: he was her husband’s lover; she has a secret we only find out in the end.”
We are speaking at the Jerusalem Fllm Festival where Graizer is being hailed as yet another success story for the burgeoning Israeli film industry. He says it was far from easy to finance the film, an Israeli-German co-production made for under a million shekels (AUS$360,00) including a contribution from an undisclosed private German investor. Maybe someone who has tried Graizer’s apparently fabulous food, which he describes as “Israeli/Palestinian/Jewish/Arabic cuisine”.
“I’m a filmmaker first,” insists Graizer who has just published a cookbook in German. Despite the film's low budget, he was determined to focus on the aesthetics.
“Israeli cinema has such low financing that there are few shooting days and that tends to diminish the films’ aesthetics," he notes. "So everything relies on the script and the acting. But cinema is also about colours, sound and design. It’s about faces, expressions and music and these things can be difficult to create cheaply. With my film I tried everything possible to have the feeling of cinema.
A well as successfully casting some of his favourite Israeli actors-Adler, Zohar Strauss as Oren’s critical, stringent Jewish brother, and Sandra Sade as his more understanding mother-Graizer conducted an extensive search for the German actor to play Thomas. Having exhausted all avenues and feeling desperate, he found television actor Tim Kalkhof on the internet by accident. He proved quite a find.
“Tim was a very handsome man when I met him but I told him he had to get fat for this project and he did,” Graizer recalls with a chuckle. “He learned to bake-the cakes aren’t his cakes-but when he’s working with the dough he knows exactly what he’s doing.”
Why did he have to gain the weight? “I wanted him to look like he’s working in a bakery and that he likes to eat. There’s also something childish about Thomas; he’s chubby like a baby. I wanted him to have this naïve look. He’s like the sad giant. He looks big and very masculine, but he’s actually sweet and shy.”
Graizer, the son of a religious father and a secular mother, was greatly influenced by his mixed upbringing. During his film school years he edited documentaries and directed shorts, which showed his wide range of concerns. 'A Prayer in January' (2007) focused on a man forced to choose between his gay identity and his religion; 'Dor' (2007) followed an Israeli soldier with a crisis of conscience; and 'La Discotheque' (2015), which screened at Director’s Fortnight in Cannes, followed an old man who spends a night in a Santiago strip club and reveals his true self through his encounter with music, bodies and alcohol.
Graizer admits he has always been keen to defy stereotypes and blur the lines, and with 'The Cakemaker' it wasn’t only in terms of his characters’ sexuality.
“I always wanted to tell a story about people who don't want to be defined by political, sexual or national identities,” he says. “People are complex. What we see or hear in news, the images we have in our heads, it’s never true.
"What is true is complexity, especially when it comes to Jerusalem. It's the most fascinating city for the Jewish-Arab-Palestinian lifestyle and culture. So much more happens here than the political. It’s an amazing place--and it has the best food.”
“In the last 20 years gay content has not been an issue in Israeli films,” Graizer explains. “A lot of films deal with sexuality. It’s much more difficult to make a political statement, to criticise the political, social and economic reality. Still it’s more open than other religious countries.”
'The Cakemaker' screens at the Adelaide Film Festival on Sunday, 8 and Saturday, 14 October and at next month's the Jewish International Film Festival.