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Director Guy Nattiv (Skin) and star Helen Mirren discuss their tragically timely film, Golda.
While making their biopic Golda, Helen Mirren and director Guy Nattiv had little idea how tragically relevant their film about the legendary Israeli prime minister would become in light of the current conflict. The film focuses on the high-stakes decisions that Golda Meir, also known as the “Iron Lady of Israel”, faced during the Yom Kippur War. Born in the USSR, Meir was educated in the US before emigrating with her husband to what was then known as Mandatory Palestine and becoming a kibbutz representative. In 1969, Meir became Israel’s fourth prime minister – the only woman ever to have led the country – swiftly becoming one of Israel’s most recognisable faces as the country’s indefatigable leader. But by the time she left office in 1974, her reputation had been tarnished by her role in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, a war in which Israel ultimately prevailed, but at a terrible cost.
Born to an English mother and Russian father, Helen Mirren likewise spent some early time on a kibbutz, speaking fondly of the experience. While Meir would go on to dominate Israeli politics, Mirren ascended the dramatic world, winning an Oscar, Tony and several Emmys. It was with Mirren’s ancestry – and of course talent – in mind that led Meir’s grandson Gideon Meir, to insist upon the formidable British actress to play his grandmother. “My hope is that this film humanises Golda, through the storytelling and Helen’s deep portrayal of a woman whose fate, along with that of my own young nation, hung in the balance,” says Nattiv who was just three months old on 6 October 1973 when a loud, terrible siren awoke his family in Tel Aviv, all fasting for Yom Kippur. Held tightly in his mother’s arms, the family ran to the local shelter as a whole nation was caught by surprise during the holiest day of the year. The Israeli people hoped such a horrific event could never happen again – only for history to repeat itself with Hamas’ attack on 7 October 2023 this year.
Recalling the early days of getting Golda off the ground – in the midst of the pandemic – Nattiv says, “It was Gideon who said: ‘When I see Helen, I see my grandmother, and that’s who I want to play my grandmother!’ So I met Helen at my house in Studio City and we had an amazing bonding with her telling me about her days in the kibbutz when she was 29, and I felt very connected.” When we meet Mirren, 78, in Los Angeles, she says that she is grateful that she didn’t know about Gideon Meir’s request until after filming. “Luckily, I didn’t know about that. So, I was liberated from the fear of that. It’s only comparatively recently that Guy shared that with me,” she says. Still, one of the first things she said to Nattiv was, ‘You do realise that I’m not Jewish?’ “Fortunately for me, he very much wanted me to play the role. And I was very honoured to be asked. It was very important to me that it was an Israeli director who had that visceral intimate knowledge. And then, of course, for me, just as a greedy, selfish, egotistical actress, I knew it was a great role, and we want great roles.
“I knew it would be an incredible challenge and also a dangerous challenge because you take on board that sort of transformation – so, I’m thankful to Karen Hartley-Thomas, who helped that happen. That particular type of work is a tightrope – you can fall off it very, very easily,” she says, referring to the make-up and prosthetics expert with whom she’s worked with before. “But I’ve historically had – not a deep, profound understanding of Israel, but I’ve always felt a connection with Israel. I played a member of Mossad in another film called The Debt that was based on a wonderful Israeli film. And I’ve always had a sort of instinctive feeling about Israel. So, many different elements came together for me,” says Mirren who co-stars with Liev Schreiber, who portrays the late US diplomat Henry Kissinger. Certainly, Nattiv hopes to shed new light on Meir’s life and legacy in this timely and riveting geopolitical thriller that frames the icon’s triumphs and failures in the tense first ten days of her country’s worst military crisis. When unthinkable losses in the first days of the war leave her advisors in disarray, the lone woman – with no hands-on experience in warfare – shoulders the responsibility of protecting her country while also avoiding an all-out nuclear confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Talking about Meir’s profound influence on his life, Nattiv says, “I grew up on Golda. Her face was on the 50 sheckel note. She came from the US, so there wasn’t any garden or school or street named after her, and I didn’t understand why when I was growing up with this myth. Part of what we wanted to do in this movie is to clear her name a little bit, because it was not only her that was part of this debacle of ‘73. She paid a price and said, ’It’s on me’, and then she resigned. “So, part of the whole journey for me as a filmmaker was to bring justice to Golda, and to see a more human side and to understand that this woman was a revolutionary. For me, it wasn’t a war movie, per se. For me, it was more of a character piece, about an older woman, surrounded by dysfunctional men,” he says, prompting Mirren to giggle and interject, “Welcome to my life!” before clarifying that she is not describing her own beloved husband, director Taylor Hackford. Everyone involved in making Golda was devastated at the recent events in Israel and Gaza. “I must say that waking up on 7 October, and seeing the exact thing that happened to us in 1973 times 10, I was gutted – as was everyone else on our crew,” says Nattiv.
“When we first did research for this movie, we met with every single general from 1973 and all the people that wrote books – we massive research. Everyone told us, ‘Listen, it was a debacle. It was the downfall, but it will never happen again’. That’s what we heard. So, we worked on this movie, and it’s like here’s something horrible that happened in the history of Israel. And there you go, it happened again, even worse,” he says. “So, now a lot of people are quoting this movie as something that predicted the hubris of the government and the regime, and it’s like the blindness and deafness of the regime that couldn’t see what’s going on; couldn’t hear the people. “And I feel that this movie has double meaning now and we’re hurting even more. And a lot of people in Israel took their daughters and sons to see the film and to tell them what happened. And there it is, it happens again. For us, it’s very painful, and it has so many meanings to see this film now after 7 October,” he says. No stranger to playing powerful women, Mirren has portrayed both Queen Elizabeths, Catherine the Great and Jane Tennison in BBC series Prime Suspect.
“I loved the idea of playing Golda,” she says. “More than anything, Golda Meir is proof that women as well as men can be great leaders. We have the same courage. The same fierceness. When Golda’s country came under attack, she led them in war as powerfully as any man could.” Today, of course, the discussion surrounding Golda Meir is timely. “I think we have to learn from history,” says Mirren. “One of the reasons that I’ve always supported Israel and felt for Israel is because of the Holocaust, and – as a child growing up in London, post war England – the growing awareness of what had actually happened in WWII in terms of the Holocaust, was so devastating and I still can’t quite grasp it, you know, it’s ungraspable.
“And the fact that it was not actually in my lifetime but very shortly before I was born – within my parents’ lifetime. It was so monstrous, so inconceivably inhuman that I’ve always felt that we must never forget. And the great danger is forgetting. If people forget it, it disappears slowly into history and becomes an amorphous thing that history is and we read about events like the Mongols killing millions of Chinese people and it’s history and we don’t really feel it in the same way. But I’ve always felt very strongly that we must not forget – but I don’t know how we learn from this. We have to learn how to learn. But above all, we must not forget,” she urges.
Golda is playing at the British Film Festival in November and the Jewish International Film Festival in early December.