Shira Haas Brings Devastating Disease to Life in Award-Winning Israeli Film “Asia”
(JTA) – Shira Haas, the Israeli actress who has become a superstar with her roles in the television series “Shtisel” and “Unorthodox”, is used to playing multi-faceted characters. Nonetheless, she faced unprecedented challenges in directing the new film “Asia”, which topped last year’s Ophir Awards (the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars) and which is released this week in the United States. .
In the minimalist and brutally photographed film, Haas plays Vika, a tough but sensitive child struggling with a degenerative neurological disease. She lives with her single mother, Asia (Alena Yiv), a free spirit, and the two women are forced to come to terms with Vika’s accelerating condition.
For Haas, who was diagnosed with kidney cancer at age 2 and saw her growth stunted following her chemotherapy treatments, the role presented a unique challenge.
“First I had to deal with Vika’s physical condition, which changes from scene to scene, and it had to be very specific – from the way Vika holds a cup to the way she walks. Haas said over the phone to the Jewish Telegraph Agency from her home in Tel Aviv. “Although it’s never stated in the movie, she has ALS [Lou Gehrig’s disease]. We saw a doctor throughout the process.
Writer and director Ruthy Pribar based the story on the prolonged death of her own sister 14 years ago, after recalling her mother’s relentless and selfless dedication during this time. Pribar, who wrote the screenplay during her own pregnancy, said she often wondered if she could measure up to her own mother when she did.
She is not convinced that women are born to be mothers.
“Being a mother is a daily process,” Pribar, who has suspended production until after giving birth, said in a telephone interview from Tel Aviv. “I have good days, but also bad days when I think who gave me the right to be a mother?”
It’s a question few other filmmaking teams are so well equipped to deal with. “Asia” has the particularity of presenting a strong female presence both behind and in front of the camera: in addition to the writer-director, the director of photography and the editor are also women. Of the nine Ophirs awarded to the film, eight went to women, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Yiv), and Best Supporting Actress (Haas).
For much of the film, which takes place in a dark working-class neighborhood of Jerusalem, Russia-born Asia speaks to Vika in Russian, while Haas responds in Hebrew. Haas translated Asia’s Russian verses into Hebrew and memorized them in order to spontaneously respond in Hebrew when Asia speaks to him.
Breaking through Vika’s complex emotional journey as a youngster learning to cope with her own inevitable demise, Haas said, required deep soul-searching.
“I read Elizabeth Kübler-Ross on the five stages of grief – from negotiation to depression through anger, denial and finally acceptance,” she said. “It was difficult. Even though the film is about death and grief, it is also about the love and bond between a mother and her daughter.
At the start of the film, Asia, who works as a nurse, is alternately an almost indifferent mom and / or boyfriend. She and her daughter are close in age and even look alike; they could be sisters. At one point, they share a cigarette. Vika envies her mother’s easy sex encounters and is saddened by her own prospect of dying a virgin.
For Yiv, playing Asia as a non-traditional mother required an imaginative leap.
“The distance between Asia and Vika, especially at the beginning, was difficult for me to understand,” she said from her home in Haifa. “However, it is a very familiar modern story where teenagers become parents of parents who feel little responsibility for their children.”
Like any contradictory figure, Asia raises many questions. Pribar and Yiv see her through a feminist lens, insisting that she has been enjoying her life and that she is not a victim. Although she told her daughter that “the only good thing I ever received from a man was you,” she does not feel sorry for herself: the statement is more an expression of the mother-daughter bond.
And the end of the film, without revealing any spoilers, helps to reestablish this link. In Haas’ words, “Vika allowed herself to become the child.”
Even in its darkest moments, all three artists insist that “Asia” is a love story and an affirmation of life.
“Asia” premieres June 11 in New York, with Haas and Pribar in person at select screenings, and expands to other cities on June 25.