Filmmaker Ruthy Pribar’s debut, the award-winning feature film “Asia” starring Shira Haas, is set to hit Israeli theaters later this week.
The movie tells the poignant story of Asia (Alena Yiv), Russia-born single mother to Vika (Shira Haas), a teenager grappling with the calamitous physical symptoms of a degenerative neurological disease.
The story echoes elements of Pribar’s life. Her sister died 14 years ago after having been cared for by Pribar’s devoted mother.
“It was a huge challenge to deal with such massive subjects,” said Pribar, a graduate of Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel Film and Television School. “As I wrote it, I thought maybe it would be better if it were my sixth film.”
Pribar’s first feature film has won the accolades of audiences outside Israel after winning nine awards at the Ophir Awards and three at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. It’s set to screen in Israel at Lev theaters on June 25.
The film is a quiet one, its Jerusalem settings including the unnamed hospital where Asia works as a nurse, their simple apartment in a low-income housing block, and the skate park where Vika tries to experience life as a regular teen.
When Vika’s disease quickly progresses — following an ill-advised drinking spree with a friend — Asia has to evolve from responsible but self-absorbed mother into a realistic, empathetic caregiver who is loving and pays close attention to her failing daughter’s needs and wishes.
The last third of the film, its more intimate part, packs an emotional wallop.
“It touched people the way I wanted it to,” said Pribar. “It’s something to succeed with the intimacies of the scenes.”
The two protagonists are basically alone in the world, and have no choice but to depend on one another, as refugees of a sort from the Soviet Union.
“I knew some women like that and when I tell a story, I want to find the thing that is as close as possible to reality and interesting to tell,” said Pribar.
Pribar had wanted a Russian-speaking actress for the role of the teenage Vika, but she eventually realized that the Israeli Haas looked like Yiv and the two had chemistry, said Pribar.
The mother and daughter characters angle cautiously around one another in the first half of the film as they each cover up their whereabouts — Vika smoking and drinking in the skate park, Asia heading to bars and quick hookups after work — as the two women, a teenager and 35-year-old, attempt to meet their own destinies.
Their shared story comes to a strong, quiet head in the last part of the film, as they come to terms with Vika’s illness.
Yiv and Haas won Ophirs for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively for their portrayals of mother and daughter.
Haas, familiar to audiences from her roles in “Shtisel” and “Unorthodox,” studied some Russian for “Asia,” as did Pribar seven years ago at the start of the filming process.
It was Pribar’s first time learning a language that wasn’t Hebrew or English and “I learned I wasn’t so good at it,” she said. Still, she learned enough to be able to understand the parts of the script that are in Russian.
“I imagine I’ll continue deal with these kinds of issues, I’ll continue to do dramas — I doubt I’ll do comedies,” she said, laughing.
Now that the film is about to reach Israeli audiences, Pribar has to keep reminding herself that the film has made an impact, even if she couldn’t go to New York’s renowned Tribeca Film Festival because of the pandemic and was in quarantine with her family during the presentation of the Ophir Awards.
“We couldn’t even celebrate. I was in a process of putting on brakes all the time,” she said.
Pribar finally went to the film’s recent debut in Russia and that gave her sense of success and joy.
“The way audiences are seeing it, the way it’s reaching people from the world over, shows that there’s something that’s so universal about this story,” said Pribar. “It’s wonderful to know that.”