Nolan Buick is aware he has changed as a filmmaker. He’s worked as a digital product design assistant and an intern. He earned a journalism degree and interned at a storytelling journalism site called Daily News Decor, and he does some freelance documentary journalism. So the events and people he follows in Yellow Rose are familiar. But perhaps Buick is also hoping to broaden his experience. And with Yellow Rose, he’s done his best to plant at least a token seed of doubt in the viewer’s mind.
“Why did this happen?” Buick asks. This question isn’t in the opening scene, when Nolan listens to the story of Pat O’Keefe, a country singer who, in 1960, acquired a recording contract and was ordered to tour in Israel as part of a public relations campaign to re-establish friendly relations with that country. But it’s essential, especially as we get to know the complex personalities involved.
In the years after Pat’s tour, as Israeli state control over Jewish lives increased, his friend Alfred Kotler created a town near Tel Aviv called Haifa, where gay Israelis could live out their romantic and emotional adventures as a group. Today, Haifa, which in 1968 had a population of 180,000, has almost 2 million, and a number of its old commercial districts are now tourist hot spots. As the number of Israelis and Palestinians has changed, so has the world of the Israelis and Palestinians, the two countries in conflict.
The film isn’t only a fictional account, but Buick makes full use of documentary techniques to explain life in Haifa at that time. Scenes of Haifa from the 1960s are intercut with scenes of Haifa from today, revealing the changes in a neighborhood over a few decades. There are clips of Israeli police officers who patrol, as well as “chicks take out,” anti-Israeli television clips from the time.
Some of the interviews Buick conducts were recorded as part of a separate documentary, So, Happy Night!, an artist-at-large series by The Israeli Broadcasting Authority called “Yossele: The Jewish Ghetto.” We hear the prayers and jokes that people in Haifa might have anticipated arriving at peace after a war, but were actually greeted with gun-toting soldiers and tear gas.
Even so, Buick adds necessary information about the thriving haredi Jewish community, which now dominates much of the Haifa waterfront. Those interviewed express deep-seated optimism about the future of their city.
After a long question-and-answer session with Abe Spiegel, an artist who runs a gallery in Haifa and lives in a small wooden shack, we observe a drag show in a large club, as patrons dance and listen to a man sing Arabic and Hebrew songs in English.
This film is about contrasts. And as a director, Buick acts like someone who knows how to act in them, showing us the places where music and sex collide, as well as how great a lot of the people in the film are. (As if that weren’t impressive enough, the Russian cinematographer Denis Alisa was on hand during the filming to capture the people he wanted on camera.)
Yellow Rose is a nostalgia piece, and about a music career before the Internet took over and made it possible for anyone to get their music out. But we learn that musical artists stay alive by being open to new possibilities. Listening to Akiva Strauss’ attempt to record a bilingual album about two artists who saw their lives completely upended by the apocalypse in 1959, I thought that the Dardenne brothers or John Steinbeck would have sympathized with Strauss, whose first-person narrator challenges Israel to feel less uncomfortable with this dual musical. We know that there will always be some friction between these two factions, so Buick gives us a take on a place in the world we may want to live in. It’s a city waiting to get whatever you tell it to become.