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Israel's immigrant wave has personal side in 'The Human Resources Manager'

Director Eran Riklis' new film puts a human face on the conflicts and pressures brought about by country's growing multicultural workforce.

March 14, 2011|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • Mark Ianir, right, in "The Human Resources Manager."
Mark Ianir, right, in "The Human Resources Manager." (Film Movement )

Many people don't think of Israel as a multicultural country full of immigrants — lots of them non-Jews from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe — but that reality and its complexities underpin "The Human Resources Manager," the new film from Israeli director Eran Riklis.

"There are thousands of foreign workers in Israel, and they come from all around the world, notably Romania, Thailand, Africa," said Riklis, whose previous films, "The Syrian Bride" and "Lemon Tree," dealt with the conflict between Jews and Palestinians.

"It is a crazy mix of legal immigrants who come to work, but their visa expires after a while and they become illegal," Riklis said by phone from near Tel Aviv. "A lot of them have kids. So we have a second generation of foreign workers, kids who were born and raised here."

Riklis said this phenomenon has "become a huge practical and moral issue" that has sparked a national debate in Israel. "But people like me say, first of all, we are not talking about foreign workers," he added. "We are talking about people. You have to deal with them as people."

How Israelis sometimes fail to treat immigrants humanely is exactly what Riklis explores in "The Human Resources Manager." When Yulia, a Romanian immigrant alone in the country, is killed in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem, her body goes unclaimed at the morgue. The press gets wind of this and accuses the company she worked for, the largest bakery in the city, of indifference. To make amends, the bakery's wealthy owner asks the company's human resources manager (played by Mark Ivanir) to accompany her body to Romania for burial.

The manager (he's only known by his title in the film, not a name) seems anything but human. A gruff, surly man, he is separated from his wife and alienated from his teenage daughter. His anger at his assignment is heightened when the obnoxious journalist who broke the story accompanies him on the trip.

"In the end, the film is about the redemption of the human resources manager, and I think the journalist is a tool on the way to his redemption," said Riklis.

Anchoring the film is Ivanir's shaggy-dog performance as the manager. Ivanir said Riklis encourages actors to bring their own interpretations to their roles. "He has a very good eye," said Ivanir. "Directing — he is a very subtle man, a very sensitive man. He is very generous. As soon as he chooses you, he goes with what you bring to the part."

The trip is fraught with problems, including a broken-down truck, a driver with an expired license, the woman's perplexed ex-husband and her surly son. But as this rag-tag group of passengers travels through the bleak Romanian countryside, the human resources manager grows up and takes responsibility for his actions. With a renewed passion for life, he is determined to bury this woman who had come to Israel to make a better future for herself.

The manager, Riklis said, ultimately becomes a hero — "a character who is bigger than the sum of his parts."

"I think in that sense it is a bit of a religious journey. … He is almost like an angel who is not aware of his abilities and he's now spreading some good. According to Jewish tradition, when somebody dies you are supposed to bring them to proper rest. I think that's his quest. In the end, the human resources manager can claim his title. Until now, he wasn't really fit to be a human resources manager. He had no idea about human relationships."

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