Etgar Keret is one of Israel’s quirkiest, most imaginative writers. The new documentary about his life and work, “Etgar Keret: Based on a True Story,” captures the essence of Keret’s work as it blends slice-of-life scenes with fantastical elements. Like Keret’s fiction, the documentary is a hybrid that is bolstered by interviews with Keret, Jonathan Safran Foer, Gary Shteyngart and Ira Glass.

Keret, one of Israel’s more famous literary exports, writes regularly for The New York Times and has collaborated with artists such as Maira Kalman. Brevity and intensity, coupled with wild leaps of imagination, are hallmarks of his work. In an interview he gave to the Jewish Book Council last year, Keret elaborated: “I don’t expe­ri­ence my fiction and non­fic­tion as short, but as con­cise. There is something very inten­sive and full of ener­gy in my writ­ing expe­ri­ence. I once said that, for me, writ­ing feels very much like an explo­sion—and I haven’t yet learned how to explode slowly.”

Dutch filmmakers Stephane Kaas and Rutger Lemm have a unique approach to telling Keret’s life story. “Etgar Keret” starts with the duo explaining their reason for flying to Israel to an El Al security office. Like a Keret short story, their exchange skirts the borders of absurdity and the surreal. At one point, Kaas and Lemm are almost detained when they explain they will be “shooting” in Israel. In the next beat, they explain they are shooting with a camera, not a gun.

The filmmakers go on to train their cameras affectionately and intimately on Keret. The audience drinks coffee with Keret and his wife, Shira Geffen, in a Tel Aviv café. They watch Keret play soccer in the street with his young son and kibitz with a group of longtime friends. Kaas and Lemm go a step further and show how Keret has transformed many of these intimate, realistic scenes into fantastical short stories.


Keret’s friends and family inspire much of his fiction, which always begins with a kernel of truth. For example, an animated segment relates the tale of how he met Shira and had to leave his best friend, Uzi. The result of Keret’s conundrum was a short story called “Fatso.” Keret meets a beautiful woman who has a secret. At night she turns into a hairy, fat man. The story reflects Keret’s brand of magical realism, which unites the loves of Keret’s life—Shira and Uzi.

Keret began writing fiction at a traumatic moment in his life, when his friend Oren died by suicide in the army office they shared. Out of that tragedy Keret wrote his first short story, “Pipes.” The documentary’s animated sequence illustrates the story of a man who works in a pipeline factory. One day he puts together various pipes and rolls marbles through them. As time goes on, he builds more intricate, complicated pipes and finally notices that the marbles do not come out the other end. As Keret writes: “I decided to make myself a bigger pipe, in the same shape, and to crawl into it until I disappeared. When the idea came to me, I was so happy that I started laughing out loud. I think it was the first time in my entire life that I laughed.”

Keret’s protagonist, a stand-in for him, works on his “giant” pipe for almost a month and finally crawls into the structure. He eventually reaches the other end, where he sees the mounds of marbles that disappeared, along with people, including pilots who tried to fly through the Bermuda triangle, unhappy housewives and mathematicians who “squeezed” through “topological distortions in space.”

Keret has found heaven, where he is a halo-wearing angel. He offers a theology of hope and imagination to honor Oren’s memory. He writes:

“I always used to think that Heaven is a place for people who’ve spent their whole life being good, but it isn’t. God is too merciful and kind to make a decision like that. Heaven is simply a place for people who were genuinely unable to be happy on earth. They told me here that people who kill themselves return to live their life all over again because the fact that they didn’t like it the first time doesn’t mean they won’t fit in the second time. But the ones who really don’t fit in the world wind up here. They have their own way of getting to Heaven.”

“Etgar Keret: Based on a True Story” runs just over an hour. Throughout the documentary, Kaas and Lemm have evoked the parallel worlds contained in Keret’s stories. Like their subject, the filmmakers blend reality and fiction to find meaning and magic in the everyday.

“Etgar Keret: Based on a True Story” will be shown on Tuesday, June 25, at Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center. Find more information here.