War can’t stop tragicomic project

Nesher films 'End of the World' despite conflict

JERUSALEM — Gas masks, lights, cameras, action!

When Israeli director Avi Nesher decided to shoot on native soil for the first time in nearly two decades, he hadn’t counted on the outbreak of war in Iraq.

“The first two weeks, people were wandering around the set in gas masks — it was hysterical,” he says. “Outside every frame lay a bunch of gas masks just in case.”

A tragicomedy entitled “At the End of the World, Turn Left,” pic revolves around ethnic strife between Moroccans and Indians in a small village in Israel in the 1960s.

“The words ‘Arab’ and ‘Jew’ are not uttered once in the film but the allegory is obvious,” says Nesher.

He had the village reconstructed in the middle of the Negev Desert.

“There was this huge set in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “We were shooting over Passover when a group of tourists came by and asked if they could rent a room.”

The cast and crew, featuring France’s Aure Atika and Jean Benguigui as well as Bollywood’s Parmeet Sethi, were actually lodged at a nearby kibbutz.

Backed by French producer Samuel Hadida’s Davis Films, the $10 million pic is in post in Paris.

Nesher had not shot in Israel since his fifth film, “Rage and Glory,” about the Israeli militant group the Stern Gang, sparked controversy in the mid-1980s.

“It was about Jewish terrorists fighting the British. It made people very uncomfortable,” Nesher says. “I got bomb threats. It was a bit of a nightmare.”

The scandal ended a run of local hits, which included one of Israel’s biggest grossers, “The Troupe,” about an entertainment group formed by soldiers.

But the pic became Nesher’s Hollywood calling card. Subsequent U.S. credits include MGM’s sci-fi thriller “Timebomb,” Drew Barrymore starrer “Doppelganger,” “The Taxman,” and Dimension Films’ “The Ritual.”

Also mining an allegorical vein, Nesher is currently developing “Oriental” — a humorous doc examining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a portrait of a Russian belly dancer and her troupe of Arab musicians.

“The cultural divide is huge, but they have arrived at a modus vivendi without actually liking one another … It’s what Israeli and Palestinian politicians should be doing,” he says, citing “MASH” as a source of inspiration for his use of humor.

The project just won an Israeli in the Spirit of Freedom grant, collected by Nesher and producer Shuki Friedman on the closing night of the Jerusalem Film Fest.

“I was supposed to go back to do an American movie. I’ll get a bunch of flak, but if I can make fun of Israeli and Palestinian politicians, spanking them with a Russian belly dancer, that will be a great thing,” he declares.