Ex-Israel soldier Mischa now a hit film-maker in LA

MISCHA Livingstone has an ever-so-slight Scottish twang to his American/Israeli accent.

This is despite the fact that Los Angeles-based film director Mischa, hasn’t lived in Glasgow since he moved to Israel when he was 10 in 1982.

“Moving to Israel was a big adventure and was very exciting at the time,” 37-year-old Mischa recalled.

“I did not speak the language and therefore I could not communicate with the other kids in my class.”

In Glasgow, Mischa had attended Calderwood Lodge Primary School with brother Aaron and sister Mira. They lived in Newton Mearns which he described as a “safe and secure environment”.

Mischa said: “The loss of ability to communicate was a profound experience. It left a significant mark on me.

“I think that experience may have something to do with my becoming a filmmaker.

“It is all about communicating your ideas and emotions — you strive for great communication.”

Mischa hung out with the Anglo olim and never tried to learn Ivrit.

He continued: “It was an active rebellion – I was really unhappy.

“Befriending the Anglo kids was my act of defiance and I just did not care.”

But eventually Mischa realised his unruly behaviour was not getting him anywhere and his parents were recommended to send him to a school where the children spoke only Ivrit.

The decision proved to be a fruitful one as his school grades improved.

Mischa later took a psychometric test to evaluate his strengths, which showed that he was creative.

It was then suggested to his parents that he might do well at a vocational high school.

Mischa went to a performing arts school in Givatayim, east of Tel Aviv, but realised that acting was not for him.

This was despite the fact that his parents, Joy and Arthur Livingstone, had been involved with the Avrom Greenbaum Players drama group in Glasgow.

“I felt that the arts was my calling, but maybe that I should be behind the camera,” he said. “That made much more sense to me.”

But his creative ambitions were put on hold, as like all 18-year-old Israeli citizens, he joined the army.

And, unfortunately for him, it coincided with Iraq’s despotic leader Saddam Hussein ordering the invasion of Kuwait.

Saddam’s invasion led to the 1990 Gulf War and his decision to launch Scud missiles at Tel Aviv.

Mischa remembered: “I had done my basic training, which I had mixed feelings about.

“The next thing, I was handing out gas masks to the residents of Tel Aviv. It was a surreal experience.”

After his stint in the army, Mischa applied to study film at the University of California, in Los Angeles.

He arrived in America a few weeks later.

He said: “I was only 21 and so excited to be in Los Angeles.

“It was a case of diving in at the deep end, but I thought LA was the best place to do it.

“I literally got off the plane and the next day I was at UCLA.

“The transition was not that difficult — I knew what to expect, although it was a big challenge.”

And it was not until he moved to America that Mischa was questioned about his Judaism, which was a new experience for him.

He added: “It was a strange question to be asked and, in a way, irrelevant to me.

“I did not grow up with a sense of a strong Jewish identity once we had moved to Israel.

“I was simply Israeli and everyone was Jewish.

“I guess the family was more religious when we lived in Glasgow, but once we arrived in Israel, it was a case of, ‘OK, we have fulfilled the dream now’.”

He said his parents moved the family to Israel for a better life and for better opportunities and he still visits his parents, who live on a moshav in Tel Aviv, on a regular basis.

Mischa’s big film break came in 2000 when he directed and co-produced The Key From Spain.

The film followed the story of Flory Jagoda, who was born into a musical Sephardi family in Sarajevo, Bosnia.

When the Nazis invaded, her family fled to Italy where she met and married a GI.

But in Bosnia, her remaining family had been beaten to death and thrown into a mass grave.

The traditional Bosnian Sephardi music died too, but Flory revived the culture and music in America.

Mischa recalled: “The woman who was producing the film was a teacher at UCLA.

“She originally brought me on-board as an editor so once I had put it together, she could go after funding.”

Two more films, Barbara Jean and A Little Fright Night, followed, both of them winning a host of festival awards.

Describing himself as an independent filmmaker, Mischa admits he is disenchanted with the American independent film movement.

He said: “It has become so commercialised. It has become a genre in its own right.

“That is sad because we have so many talented voices here who are simply not being heard.

“Having said that, there have been a couple of excellent independent films I have enjoyed lately, particularly Ballast and The Wrestler.

Perhaps his best moment was winning the top award at the Berlin International Film Festival for A Little Fright Night.

Mischa’s maternal grandfather, Alan Hall, who changed his name from Zydlow, escaped with his brother from Germany just before the Holocaust.

He said his grandfather’s family had property in east Berlin and that if the Berlin Wall ever came down, he wanted to see it.

But he died three days after the Livingstones made aliya — and the property returned to the family.

The sale of it enabled his parents to buy a home in Israel and also helped fund Mischa’s UCLA course.

Mischa, who had visited Berlin a number of times, explained: “My grandfather was the dominant force in the family and a strong influence on us.

“We put on a screening for A Little Fright Night — it is a kids’ horror film — for more than 1,000 children.

“They were laughing, cheering and screaming — and children don’t lie when it comes to their feelings.

“It was very emotional for me.”

Mischa admits that he loves living in LA.

He said: “I could have gone to New York — I have lots of friends and family there — but it is so hectic. I just think, ‘Where would I have the room to be creative?’”

He added that it is important to keep busy, especially in LA, and to always have irons in the fire.

He explained: “You have to have something going on. I currently have five different projects going simultaneously.

“I have been in LA long enough to know that it is about developing friendships and contacts.

“But I am under no illusion about how hard it is out here and I know I have not chosen an easy path.

“If you have something to say as a filmmaker, you have to keep working and slogging away day after day to get it said.”

Mischa, who also teaches at LA’s Art Institute of California, added that he would love to make a film in Israel.

“Israeli cinema has come such a long way in the last 10 years,” he said. “It was a bit of an embarrassment when I was growing up.”

© 2009 Jewish Telegraph