Saturday, November 24, 2007
Saturday, December 09, 2006
Interview by David Horowitz
Humorist Fran Lebowitz wrote that “Life is something that happens when you can't get to sleep,” but in filmmaker Alan Berliner’s case, Wide Awake, his most personal film to date, was what "happened." In a late-night interview, well after midnight, Berliner notes that it’s hard to get any sleep when you’re busy making a film about yourself tossing and turning.
Obviously, your film is about your personal struggle with sleeplessness, but I’m curious how you decided to make the film, not so much the subject matter itself but what made you decide it would make a worthwhile subject for portrayal on screen and for sharing with the world?
First, one in three people who are reading this – let alone who watch the film – don’t sleep as well as they want to. Insomnia has always been in the air, but somehow, now, it might be present more than ever before. There are both sociological and cultural reasons for that. For instance, since I started working on the film a couple years ago, I clipped every newspaper and magazine article on insomnia – how-to’s, sleep hygiene, all these sorts of things, and there were lots of these articles, and they’re always in the newspaper. Once every year, or every 18 months, it’s on the cover of Time or Newsweek.
It’s a rather ubiquitous subject, and just to start with, everyone who watches the film certainly knows what it’s like to prepare for bed, get into the bedroom, turn off the light, put their head to the pillow. Some people know what it’s like to “let go”, to set off on their course of sleep quickly and easily, and blithely. Others do it with varying degrees of difficulty. It’s not something that comes easily to me, and it never has. So I have a fair amount of experience with the subject, but I also know from doing reading and research about sleep that I’m certainly not alone, and even my subjective experience of what happens when I can’t do these things, and my understanding of it, are rather common. I’m not unusual. I can’t tell you how many people have told me after seeing the film, “That’s exactly what goes on in my head.” The thoughts might be different, but the process is the same. And so, I’m trying to tap into that common experience, and I think that there is a lot of room there for people to share and grab on to things, and connect with a rhythm and with things that I’m going through.
There’s a section of the film where the doctors ask me all these questions, “Do you have nightmares? Do you snore? Have you ever harmed anyone?” These are questions that they would ask anyone, so I feel that I am, in effect, running the gauntlet for everyone, in terms of the questions doctors will ask. Because if anyone who has a sleep problem went to a doctor, they would get that same series of questions, so everyone in the room gets to answer those questions for themselves, or at least gets to know those questions that they’d be asked, by seeing the film. And then they can make their own assessments. I put enough “doctorly” advice in the film that people could begin to get a picture of the experience, and to learn to keep some things in mind -- what not to do wrong, what to do right, some basic sleep hygiene tips, etc. I like to think that I seeded the film with enough information and advice (for example, when the doctor says, “take the clock out of the room”) that I’m helping out a bit, too – in, through, and amidst all the other idiosyncrasies of the film.
One more level is that I think I’m emblematic of a cultural dynamic, in which we all live in a world that is conspiring to keep us awake. Some of the doctors would even say that we’re living in the midst of the greatest experiment in sleep deprivation in the history of civilization. We know (from novels and journals and such) for instance, that in the Victorian era, people slept an average 9.5 hours a night, and we’re averaging now (according to the latest studies) in the neighborhood of 7.5 hours a night. So we’re all getting a lot less sleep than ever, and that’s not likely to ever go up again.
Beginning with the light bulb’s opening up of space and time during the night, and collapsing that light bulb into a micropixel, and surrounding it with millions of others on a computer screen, we all have reason, and opportunity, and occasion to stay up all night, and partake of wherever we want to go on the Internet. This is not to mention all the movies there are to see, and books to read, all the extra work that everyone wants to do to be productive in this world, etc. So my obsession with media, and the world at large, and what I do in my work and my collections, and all the media that I surround myself with, I’d like to think is emblematic of broader cultural things, and I want that to be part of the experience of the film, as well.
All I’m saying is that it’s about me, of course, but I want the film to transcend me and I want to use my experience to open up all these other ubiquitous and transcendent things about sleep and the world in which we live.
And it certainly opens up a lot of questions that people might not have had in their minds when they came to the film. At one point in the film, you said that you were “suffering from an urban disease, needing to be connected all the time”.
Right, especially in urban centers, we basically are living in the nucleus of the cell, and there’s a vibration that goes on in there. There’s excitement, and there’s distraction, and there’s enticement, and there’s overload, and there’s saturation. There are all these things – information, media, worry. We’re in the middle of that, and if that gets out of hand, it’s certainly not conducive to sleep.
When the Internet first came about, we used to say – somewhat pejoratively – “All it does is suck time away from us,” when describing how much of our time would vanish, we couldn’t account for it, or where we had been. Now, I have a somewhat different relationship to it – it’s an amazing tool, you can read tomorrow’s news in any city in the world, in real time -- but it can still be a black hole sometimes.
Well, all that helps us to understand where you were coming from in making the film. It is somewhat different from your other films -- but at the same time there are parallels: the sense of humor, the experimental nature to some of the structure, your use of sound. But this was your most personal film.
No question about that. I started to see insomnia as a subject totally suited to explore from the inside out. It is one thing to ask someone “What happens when you can’t sleep?” and hearing that as a third-person narrative or some objective story being told. But with this subject, I could actually lie in bed and watch myself be unable to sleep, and mine that psychological laboratory, all night if I wanted to. “OK, that’s what’s going through my head. Why? What is happening with my body?” I could examine any number of self-reflexive things.
As the so-called director of the film, and as the subject of the film, from the subject’s perspective, when you’re making a film about not sleeping, and you’re the subject, it’s not fun --night after night after night – when you’re suffering, and you’re also taking notes, it’s a kind of madness. From the perspective of the director, it’s a fantastic research opportunity, to get inside someone’s head, and really tap into, in a first-person way, how the issue of sleep pervades everything -- how it affects my sense of responsibility to my family, how it affects the pulls of love to my family, how it affects and is woven into my sense of identity as a filmmaker, as a creative person, all those things.
On the poster for the film, the tagline that the publicists came up with was “Portrait of an Artist as Insomniac”. I think that’s one way of looking at the film that’s quite reasonable and illuminating.
The other thing is that I saw insomnia as a really interesting subject for filmmaking. Its sounds and images and thoughts lend themselves to creating metaphors for what the experience of not sleeping is like. I can create metaphors for what it’s like to try to fall asleep. There are lots of visual and audio metaphors in the film for sleeping, for not sleeping, for trying to get to sleep, doors that you can’t get through, “no trespassing” signs, dreams, and all those things. I dream all the time, I often have them when I am working on a film. Those dreams, while they may be helpful in terms of the filmmaking, they are never part of the film, they are always anecdotal. But with this film, I can use these dreams, and that’s a cinematic challenge. Between what goes on in my head when I’m not being able to sleep, and what goes on in my head when I am sleeping, from an image perspective and from a filmmaking perspective, editorially, I thought it was one of the richest subjects I could have tapped into. It was very exciting from that perspective. And you’ll see, there are a lot of images in the film.
What would you say are some early influences on your filmmaking style, or artists who have influenced you in developing your unique style of filmmaking?
I just came back from Amsterdam, where I was a special guest at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, and they not only did a retrospective of my films, but they asked me to program my ten favorite films, as a special program. They had wanted me to program my ten favorite documentary films, but I didn’t exactly give them that. I knew they didn’t want me to go in the direction of dramatic and feature films, but I gave them the films that were the most important to me as I was evolving and trying to find my voice as a filmmaker. So, that’s a matter of record now.
That list includes a lot of old Russian and European films from the 1920s and early 1930s, including films by the brilliant Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov (Man with a Movie Camera; Enthusiasm), Russian filmmaker Esther Shub (The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty), German filmmaker Walter Ruttmann (Berlin, Symphony of a Great City), American filmmaker Stan Brakhage (Window Water Baby Moving). In other words, these were examples of where documentary meets avant-garde, and where people did not know the difference yet, because they were still inventing cinema. I even used the Lumière Brothers’ first films on my list, some collage films by Bruce Conner, a film by Jonas Mekas.
There are other contemporary filmmakers who do similar, first-person, personal work, and I am certainly sympathetic and connected to them, but in terms of actual filmmaking and the actual connection to what I do, and how I go about doing it, I am more connected to the past in a certain way. With each film that I make, I try to reinvent the wheel anyway, and I try to start from scratch and try to find new forms and new modes of storytelling, new sets of metaphors for every film.
My films are connected – as cousins or siblings, if you will. I am always re-using shots and sounds from one film to the next. I like to think that they share DNA, so to speak, so there’s commonality, even stylistically, but I certainly want each film to have its own authentic feel and motor. They’re all hand-made labors of love, any way you slice it. This film was scary to make, for sure.
In what way was it scary?
Because it was so personal in a way, and I wanted there to be deep truths and a high degree of honesty in the film, so that meant showing some rough edges, airing some contradictions in my life, in my relationship to my work, in my family, in sleep. It meant I couldn’t just say I was tired, I needed to be tired. I wanted to show what it was like to be tired all the time, and to admit to the confusions of being tired. So I put some things out there that I hadn’t intended to when I started.
Initially, I had wanted to tell the film from what I refer to as my “morning voice”. When I wake up in the morning, I’m really slow and groggy, whether I slept three, four, or five hours. I have this quality of voice that’s really low and slow. But then I realized I couldn’t just use my “morning voice”, it’s too disembodied. So there I am, waking up in the morning, reading these lines or just saying things, and I said, “OK, let’s film me recording the ‘morning voice’,” which added a whole visual element to it. So the crew would set up the shot in my studio, and then they would wake me up, and I wouldn’t even look in the mirror, I would just walk right out to the seat and we would roll. It was sort of scary.
One thing leads to the next. So now, I can use sync of me talking, I can use the voiceover of me talking, and that’s all fine. But then I realized that I’m tired, and that’s true to life, but there’s this other guy who comes out at night, who’s whipper-snapper sharp, who makes these films. Where is he in all of this? So then I said, "OK, if we’re going to do the Morning Guy, then I have to put the black T-shirt on and bring out the Night Guy." So now, there are these two warring parts of me. These two parts play out different dialogues in the film, and that’s a real schism and tension in my life, as well. And that’s territory I hadn’t really thought I would enter in making this film.
Not only that, but I’m a son in the film, I’m a father in the film, I’m a husband in the film, I’m a brother in the film, I make fun of myself in the film, I’m a patient to doctors in the film, I’m a filmmaker in the film, my subconscious makes an appearance in the film (in the dreams). There are a lot of selves that are being negotiated in the film, and I hadn’t thought about all that when I started. The journalist, or educator, in me wants to put all this information in the film (through the doctors, to help people). There is this information that I put in the film because I felt responsible.
If you get a referral to a sleep specialist through your regular doctor, you don’t go directly to a sleep lab for a full workup (as I did in the film). More than 90% of people in those overnight clinical sleep facilities where they get wired up, those people are apnea patients for the most part. It’s unusual that someone like me would have the opportunity to be in the lab. They did it for me so I could understand my problem better and enrich my experience and understanding. The first thing they would do is debrief you about all your habits and everything going on in your life, and they would try to peel away the physical from the psychological and try to approach you and see if the medications were appropriate. They would work with you for six months to a year, and only if something seemed odd would they put you in the overnight lab. It’s such an artificial set of conditions, anyway – who can sleep with all of those wires? I’m a restless non-sleeper, so I toss and turn a lot, the wires got twisted.
You talked about the craziness of putting yourself out there, and being in front of the camera was a bit scary for such a personal topic, and you also portrayed, in the film, the impact of the insomnia on your family. But what about the impact on your family of the filmmaking process itself? At a couple points, (your wife) Shari was upset, on screen, about the camera being in her face in the middle of the night.
Coming to bed really late at night would wake Shari up, as would tossing and turning, working with the camera alone while I’m up in the middle of the night. Fortunately, she’s very understanding, and very patient with me about all that stuff, and she knew when I first met her that sleep was an issue, and she had a sense, having seen my work, that there was a chance that she might eventually, somehow enter into the work. I don’t think she knew I was going to make a film about sleep or bring the camera into the bedroom, but she gets even with me in the film -- it was an equal-opportunity camera, as it were.
She’s cool with it. I don’t know what the next project is going to be yet, but I think she likes to be part of it. She’s gone to screenings, and been interviewed, and been involved with question-and-answer dialogues and discussions, and I think it’s all great. She likes the way that (our son) Eli is, gently, a little character in the film. In the end, even with my mother and my sister, who are obviously and clearly exasperated with me, there’s a lot of love around. There’s nothing that is not colored with deep affection and love, so it’s all OK, whatever goes on. Everyone loves everyone, and while the exasperations and frustrations and annoyances are real, everyone is understanding and “with the program”, as it were.
What do you think makes your story uniquely Jewish, if any, and what in your Jewish background, maybe, contributes to your struggle with sleep? To me what felt the most “Jewish” was the scene around the kitchen table, with the whole family there, and I think that for perhaps a non-Jewish viewer, they might not understand that there’s a lot of love there. They might see that scene and be concerned about everybody’s level of tension!
I think that’s a good take on it. You know, it’s funny, because when I was first exploring myself as a subject of insomnia, I actually was wondering if there were different types of insomnia? Is there a “Jewish Insomnia”? I decided against that type of slicing of the pie, but it always intrigued me, the possibility of that. Shakespeare (not a Jew) was an insomniac, Kafka (a Jew) was an insomniac, but where would this kind of categorizing end? I think it is an equal-opportunity curse (or blessing), depending on how one utilizes it and copes with it and plays with it.
It’s funny, I was talking to one programmer of a Jewish film festival, and I said, “You know, Wide Awake might be the least Jewish film I’ve ever made, at least on the surface.” And she said, “Well, I actually think that it might be the most Jewish-themed film you’ve ever made.”
I think she was alluding to not only the kitchen table scene, which is reminiscent of my film about my father (Nobody’s Business). It’s not uncommon for Jews to sit around and talk like that. There’s something about that kind of dialogue that’s transgressively Jewish. But I think what she was referring to, by implication, was that there is something Talmudically resonant about getting so deeply and thoroughly inside a subject, and understanding the questions that you want ask yourself, and answering those questions, and then questioning the answers. I think that there is something to that, without having to call it a “Jewish Insomnia”. I’m certainly not saying that lack of sleep is a Jewish problem.
Then there’s also the condition which maybe hearkens back to a Jewish approach to humor, in which I firmly believe. In order to cope with any problem, whether it’s existential or health, you have to be able to play with it, you have to be able to make fun of it. If you can’t play with your problem – push it, pull it, knead it, laugh at it, tear at it, rip it, piece it back together – then you can’t even hope to be close to being healed. Part of where the humor lies in this film is in that 360-degree, all-dimensions, all-axes probing of the subject, and looking for ways of mediating it, and analyzing it, and understanding it. Whenever I make a film, regardless of the topic – names, parents, sleep -- I have an obsession with the subject matter. It’s part of what I do, and it’s part of what all artists do, to be able to obsess on and intensely focus on your subject.
I think there’s some Jewish stuff in there, at a deep cultural level. There was a time when I didn’t think about this film circulating in Jewish film festivals at all, but the Jewishness is all subtextual, it doesn’t wear it on its sleeve. You could call it a temperament, as much as anything.
I’m intrigued by your use of sound. My favorite scene in Wide Awake was when you’re drinking coffee for the first time in 31 years and you set the soundtrack to the kinetic music from Run Lola Run. You use sound creatively in a lot of ways – for example, the ticking of the clocks to create the pressure and mood of sleeplessness. How do you select your music and make your choices regarding sound and sound editing?
The decisionmaking is all deeply intuitive. Obviously, sound is profoundly important. It’s not the second sister of the image, it’s a primary concern. Sound and image are in equal importance to one another. In doing my research for Wide Awake, I was looking through some old films, looking for images of people sleeping and not sleeping, and I found this Ernst Lubitsch film, and there was this one scene, not even thirty seconds, where this woman was pacing in her bedroom, and the sound in the scene grabbed me and became the “sound” of insomnia for my film. It was loopable, and I just instinctively said, that’s my “insomnia theme”. In the film, I reference the source of that sound. That was an early decision, and that helped give the film a tone. I used it in combination with all sorts of different images and sequences. I had never done that before, where I used a small fragment of scratchy instrumental music from the optical track of an old film – but it created a perfect tone, and that colored a lot of images that I made throughout the film.
Earlier, you mentioned the “urban disease” quote. In New York, there’s WINS news radio, “All News. All the Time”. That line where I talk about the “urban disease” and needing to be plugged in, to feel connected “all the time”. Underneath that scene the radio is playing, and I say “all the time” at the same time that the person on the radio does. So the film is filled with little things like that. For better or for worse, everything in the film is carefully thought through. I’m trying to be a filmmaker, in every second of the film. “All the time.” That means being dynamic in my use of sound and image, and image to image, and sound to sound, and sound to image.
And last, we're asking all our filmmakers this year, since we're in the Nation's Capital: if you had the opportunity to have one DC celebrity - political or otherwise - in the audience for your screening, who would it be and why?
One of the doctors was talking in the film about lack of sleep, and mistakes that people make. And I responded that the expression “human error” might just really mean “sleeplessness”. Someone was too tired and pushed the wrong button, did the wrong thing, said the wrong thing. One of the doctors responded that President Clinton, in an interview in US News and World Report said that every major mistake he had made in his life (or his Presidency, I forget which), he made when he was too tired. Other articles from the literature and news reports mention plenty of similar examples tied to sleep deprivation: the Staten Island Ferry crash, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Chernobyl accident, a lot of big catastrophes all happened in the middle of the night when people who should have been very alert were involved in catastrophes related to lack of sleep.
The problem with choosing Clinton is he doesn’t live in DC any more…or, rather, he doesn’t live in DC, yet, again!
Wide Awake screens at 9:45pm on Saturday, December 9, 2006 at the DCJCC's Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater and at 4:15pm on Sunday, December 10, 2006 at The Avalon.
Read Desson Thomson's interview with Alan Berliner in Saturday's Washington Post.
Visit the filmmaker's Web site at http://www.alanberliner.com/
For more information about sleep disorders, visit the National Sleep Foundation and the National Library of Medicine.
Interview by David Horowitz
Posted by David Horowitz at 12/09/2006 02:27:00 AM
Friday, December 08, 2006
The Journey of Vaan Nguyen screened on Monday, December 4, 2006, at 6:30pm.
Jordan Hassin, Cultural Affairs Officer at the Embassy of Israel, spoke with Duki Dror, the director of The Journey of Vaan Nguyen, to find out how Vaan and her family are doing now.
So, where is Vaan now?
About 3 weeks after we finished shooting in Vietnam, Vaan returned home to Yaffo. I think that her dream of returning to Vietnam became shattered as she felt more and more alienated in Vietnam, and understood how different she is. This was not an easy situation to be in, so she went back "home" to Israel, or to what feels more like home for her. I purposely wanted to end the film with Vaan in an ambiguous moment of her wandering in the streets of Saigon because ultimately I felt that as a character, she finds no home. In the television version of the film, it ends when she's back in Israel.
Did the father get any land back?
Of course not! This is too big of a challenge for one individual -- let alone one who is a refugee and a VQ -- to achieve in a Communist country. But even after this realization sunk in, he did not give up. Hoimai (the father) decided to buy a plot of land next to his brothers in Bong Song, and to build his home there.
What about the rest of the family?
The parents and the young sister came back to Israel six months later, after they spent all their money. All the family is now in Israel. Vaan is writing and publishing poetry, her middle sister (seen going to the Army in the film) has decided to convert to Judaism. Hung Waa (Vered) is excelling in her studies and was admitted to school for students. Hoimai, the father, is back and forth between working in Israel to save money and going to Vietnam to start working on his home -- so his dream didn't really die.
Visit the filmmaker's Web site for The Journey of Vaan Nguyen at http://www.zygotefilms.com/vaan.htm
Posted by David Horowitz at 12/08/2006 07:47:00 PM
Thursday, December 07, 2006
WJFF Director Josh Ford issued the following statement on The Living Orphan:
"This Friday’s screening of The Living Orphan is in memory of Miriam Saul Krant. We don’t explain who Mimi was in the brochure, so allow me to elaborate a little bit here.
"Mimi was quite simply one of the most remarkable people I ever had the privilege of knowing. For many years she was the co-founder and Associate Director for the
"As a man working in a field that is populated mostly by women (important Jewish film festivals in
"When my children were born – it was around the time of the 2004 election – Mimi said to me in great exasperation just after the election, 'Apologize to your children. We were supposed to hand them a better world and we just screwed it up more.' But Mimi, if you can hear me – and she would probably say I was talking nonsense to suggest that she can – but if you can hear me, please know that YOU made this world a better place. You made it better through your honest and noble work, your sincere love and your unwavering friendship which so touched me and many many others. I miss you today and always."
Posted by David Horowitz at 12/07/2006 02:12:00 PM
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Interview by David Horowitz
Marty Huberman, president of VideoArt Productions, talks with us about the most widely seen film in the Festival -- the 90-second trailer he produced for WJFF 17.
What interested you in doing work for the Jewish film festival?
A couple of years ago we did a pretty nice 10-minute video on the rescue and recovery of the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. I sent it in to Josh Ford, but since the film did not quite meet entry guidelines for the Festival, he needed to decline. But he let me down gently, and told me that he liked it, and when he later asked if I would consider editing a trailer, I immediately said "Yes!"
What other film and media work have you done? Tell us a little bit about VideoArt Productions?
My company, VideoArt Productions, creates videos and documentaries. Among the clients we are now working for are the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the U.S. Institute of Peace. Transformation: Building the Rubin Museum of Art is now airing on public television stations nationwide and Chevy Chase, Maryland: A Streetcar to Home will be broadcast on public television in the region early 2007. When the National Portrait Gallery reopened earlier this year, six films produced by VideoArt Productions were on display, including a film on The Presidency and the Cold War with commentary from Brian Williams of NBC News. We have also done fundraising pieces for a number of local schools.
What were some of the challenges of putting together a 90-second piece for the Festival?
Fortunately, Josh knew exactly what he had in mind. Willie Karell and I had the simple job of editing stills from a number of the films to music that Josh and Jessica Perlman compiled and provided. We added the text, and voila!
And last (a question we're asking all of our filmmakers), if you could have one DC celebrity, political or otherwise, in the audience to see your work, who would it be, and why?
Ben Bradlee has always been a hero. I'd love for him to see our work. As for whom I'd like to interview, I am working on a documentary that would benefit greatly from the participation of former President Gerald Ford, so I am hopeful that we'll be able to make that happen.
Interview by David Horowitz
Posted by David Horowitz at 12/06/2006 02:34:00 AM
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
The director and producer have different viewpoints on the issue of interfaith marriage, and their opposing perspectives are both re-published below. (This material originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com.)
A review of the film appeared in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.
Visit the filmmakers' Web site for Out of Faith at http://www.outoffaith.net/
Out of Faith screens at 6:15pm at the DCJCC's Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater on Wednesday, December 6, 2006.
On Out of Faith and Intermarriage: The Director's Perspective
by Lisa Leeman
My new documentary feature film, Out of Faith, tackles the emotional subject of interfaith marriage. It follows three generations in a family headed by grandparents who are Holocaust survivors--all being pulled apart by interfaith marriage.
When Mark DeAngelis, the producer, and I began this film, we thought it would be a straight-forward documentary on Leah's remarkable experiences as a survivor (she's the grandmother). However, as we began filming, I learned that her family situation was causing her great pain--her first grandchild had married out of faith and Leah had not spoken to him in six years. And just months earlier, her second grandchild had "married out." The family was wrestling with a classic immigrant dilemma--how to honor, preserve, and pass on one's own ethnicity while integrating into today's multicultural society.
This resonated deeply for me. I am a product of an interfaith marriage. I grew up familiar with both traditions, while being steeped in neither. In December, we had a Hanukkah bush--usually a towering evergreen topped by a Star of David--and in the spring we celebrated both Easter and Passover. I identified as "half and half," partially belonging to both groups, fully belonging to neither.
At first, I didn't understand why interfaith marriage had caused such a deep rift in Leah's family. Then I began to hear some sobering (and hotly debated) statistics--that almost 50 percent of non-Orthodox American Jews marry out of faith, and less than a third of the offspring from those marriages grow up to identify as Jewish.
Some sociologists predict that if those statistics continue, the Jewish population could drop drastically, to less than a million by 2076. Leah's rigidity, which I had chalked up to close-mindedness, took on a new dimension--a deep grief and concern over the possible end of her people. I began to better understand her. And yet, I felt for her grandkids--they'd married for love. And who is to say that individuals must carry the weight of their heritage on their shoulders?
We could bandy about these statistics forever--it's hard to trust statistics; they can be "spun"; social trends change… etc. Concern and anguish over interfaith marriage is at the core of Leah's position in Out of Faith, and equally as compelling is her granddaughter Cheryl, who says that she always thought she'd marry "a blonde, blue-eyed yeshiva boy" (she says she "got everything but the yeshiva boy")… until she met someone she grew to like, then love, who wasn't Jewish. In other words, fate may throw you a curveball. I know that some would say that you can control who you fall in love with, but I don't think that's the case, or that life is so simple.
As we filmed, Leah's story became even more complicated. I learned that she was not an observant Jew--so just what was it that she objected to about her grandchildren's marriages? Slowly, I came to understand that Leah's refusal to accept her grandchildren's choices stemmed from a complex mix of reasons: she'd lost nearly her entire family in the Holocaust; she'd grown up in an extremely Orthodox family; when she was growing up in Slovakia, interfaith marriage was unheard of. Leah simply could not shake the feeling that if she condoned her grandchildren's interfaith marriages, she would be betraying her ancestors and contributing to the loss of her people.
When the wife of Leah's grandson Danny became pregnant during our filming, even more pressure was exerted on both Leah and Danny--would they reconcile before Leah's first great-grandchild was born? Although I don't want to reveal what happens, I will say that this film explores several themes--conflicting loyalties within families; family estrangement and how it can or cannot be resolved; conflicting loyalties between one's own tribe and the society in which one lives; issues of cultural continuity; and finally, the trajectory of assimilation in this country that seems to cause an inevitable loss of culture over generations.
I, and the film, make no judgments about interfaith marriage--indeed, if it weren't for interfaith marriage, I would not be here today! I think our producer and I come from opposite ends of the spectrum on this issue, and making this film has produced many hours of thoughtful and heated debate.
After working on this film for four years, I still feel that most of us cannot sacrifice our own lives or personal happiness for a sociological point, but at the same time, the film did make me realize that there are sobering ramifications to our "melting pot"/"salad bowl" beautiful diverse society. With pluralism and cultural mixing it up comes wonderful new things, but also a dilution and loss of culture. Making the film has made me re-examine what my own relationship to Judaism is, and what I want it to be, and what I want to leave for the future. I'm still working on it.
In addition to raising sobering questions about Jewish cultural continuity, this film also illustrates the wrenching consequences of family estrangements. When Leah's first grandson "married out," Leah chose to cut off contact. This resulted in her grandson's wife having no exposure to Leah, a Jewish grandmother, a survivor, and a living embodiment of Eastern European Jewish culture. Perhaps if Leah had chosen a different tactic, her grandson's wife and her great grandchild would have a better understanding and appreciation for Jewish life and culture.
I've been asked what the appropriate communal response to intermarriage should be--but I have no answers. I think each situation is unique and deeply personal, and each one of us must make our own decisions.
I can say that I wish my parents had given me a much deeper knowledge and understanding of both sides of my heritage. And that I would have rebelled against any "rules" about who I should date or marry. Ultimately, I think that more is accomplished through relationship than estrangement.
It's my hope that Out of Faith can be used as a springboard for discussion about interfaith marriage--certainly in Jewish communities, and in many other ethnic communities across the country. I hope the film stirs viewers to explore what their heritage means to them, how they want it to inform their lives, and what they want to pass on to future generations. I also hope the film can bring together people from opposite sides of the "intermarriage" divide. I hope that the film can help each "side" understand each other a little more and create a little more tolerance on each "side," so perhaps some families can avoid six-year (or lifelong) family estrangements.
Lisa Leeman is an independent documentary film director/producer based in Los Angeles. In addition to directing Out of Faith, credits include the recent Who Needs Sleep (co-directed with Haskell Wexler); directing Metamorphosis: Man Into Woman, Fender Philosophers, and Breaking Up. She is currently editing the indie doc Made in LA, and producing the feature doc Crazy Wisdom. She directed Out of Faith over a four-year period. It's a topic close to her heart, as she is the product of an interfaith marriage.
On Out of Faith and Intermarriage: The Producer's Perspective
by L. Mark DeAngelis
When I first considered producing a documentary about Leah Welbel, a woman who survived nearly three years in the infamous Nazi death camp of Auschwitz/Birkenau, I envisioned a film about her courage and tenacity. However, after spending more time with Leah and her family, the film's director, Lisa Leeman, and I quickly realized that Leah and her family were dealing not only with the residual trauma of her and her Survivor husband's experiences during the Shoah, but also with probably the most crucial issue facing the Jewish community today--assimilation through interfaith marriage. The interfaith marriages of two of Leah's grandchildren had broken her heart. And the conflicts that arose from Leah's frankness on the issue threatened to rip her family apart.
Early on in production, I agreed with Lisa that we would present the conflict regarding interfaith marriage in the Welbel family in as balanced a manner possible. Although Lisa will speak for herself in the counterpart to this essay, my reason for presenting a balanced consideration of this issue stemmed from my desire not to alienate people by lecturing them. Nevertheless, I would be remiss if I did not admit that I do want Out of Faith to motivate those who would normally not contemplate their individual roles in our collective survival to begin to do so. More precisely, I would like people, at a minimum, to recognize that if we care about the future of Judaism, we can only accomplish this through the creation of strong, two Jew unions.
However, prior to considering why we should each marry within our faith, it is completely appropriate to ask two questions: First, is interfaith marriage in fact leading to a decreased number of those who identify as Jewish? Does the evidence support the proposition that the Jewish population is shrinking precipitously? And second, if the evidence does support this proposition, does it really matter?
As space for this essay is limited, I will not spend a great deal of energy arguing that which should be obvious to even the most casual observers. If the comprehensive National Jewish Population Surveys do not convince you, just ask yourself how many Jews you know personally who are, for all intents and purposes, Jewish in name only? And of how many families do you know where none of the children have married Jews? Feel free to present me with evidence you feel suggests our community is not decreasing, let alone not growing proportionally with the national population.
The second question--does it even matter if we intermarry out of existence--is extremely important, but rarely considered. If our definition of Judaism is having Chinese food and going to the movies on Christmas Day and just “not being Christian,” why would it matter if we go the way of the dodo bird? I do not mean to be flippant. If we truly have nothing to offer the world, and there is no greater purpose in our being Jewish, is it not merely a bigoted tribalism that compels us to believe we should persevere as a distinct people when so many other ethnic groups have already lost nearly their entire cultural uniqueness? Because for all our warts, being just an American, and not a hyphenated one, is still pretty special.
Further, Judaism cannot merely be about honoring the memory of those lost in the Holocaust and supporting Israel. Jews should do both, but it is not enough to justify limiting one's pool of potential soulmates by several magnitudes--Leah unfortunately learns this the hard way in our film. Anti-Semitism, whether it manifests itself in Holocaust denial, anti-Zionism, or in some other way, cannot keep people Jewish, especially given that our society is the least anti-Semitic in history. As Alan Dershowitz states in his important book, The Vanishing American Jew, “Today's most serious threats [to American Jewry] come not from those who would persecute us, but from those who would, without any malice, kill us with kindness.”
So why be Jewish then? How about to preserve our special relationship with God? To mention God sends many Jews running. To mention Torah and mitzvot (commandments) makes these same people roll their eyes in condescending disapproval. However, without recognizing the predominance faith plays in Judaism, it is nearly impossible to recognize the sacred nature of marriage and justify any real reason for INTRAmarriage. Only when we honor the religious component of marriage can we begin to recognize why marrying someone of the same faith matters. Generally, we have denigrated the importance of the two-parent family in our society to our great peril. Jews are infected with this same disease. By reconnecting marriage with its spiritual significance, perhaps we can take great strides toward eliminating our precipitous fall into demographic insignificance.
In our secularly dominated society, it is difficult enough to instill Jewish values with two strongly identified Jewish parents, let alone with only one. Nearly everything in the Diaspora in which we live--the media, the public education system (although I am a strong advocate of Jewish day school education, not all can afford it, unfortunately), and the non-Jewish symbols everywhere--work against our efforts to instill in our children a sense of how important is their “Jewishness.” So if it does indeed “take a village,” the village isn't Jewish.
A strong family core is essential. So although I applaud the efforts many make to compensate for the fact that the deck is stacked against us, or to motivate “half-Jewish” families to explore and enhance their Jewish experiences, it is like trying to cure cancer with a Band-Aid. Yes, do what we can to bring people back into the tent, but if we have any chance at a meaningful survival, we need to concern ourselves more with how to keep people from leaving the tent in the first place.
L. Mark DeAngelis, a recovering attorney, left the Jakarta, Indonesia, firm with which he practiced law five years ago--just after September 11--to produce Out of Faith and find himself a nice Jewish girl. He and his wife Lindsey live together in the Chicago area with their two little gifts from Hashem, Esther Plia and Gavriella Leah.
Posted by David Horowitz at 12/05/2006 05:29:00 PM
Sunday, December 03, 2006
Interview by David Horowitz
Freida Lee Mock, director of Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner, spoke with WJFFBlog Editor David Horowitz about her admiration for the playwright's humor, work, and social ideals -- and why Tony can't watch her film about him.
How did you develop the idea for your film, and what fascinated you about Tony Kushner to lead you to do this project?
What fascinated me about Tony were his social, political, and artistic sensibilities. I saw that combination, that he is a great artist and playwright. For me, he is incredibly engaging because he places many of his stories in a social and political context and he is always dealing with big philosophical, moral, and political ideas. He looks at race, class, the AIDS pandemic, terrorism, the Holocaust, genocide - but he sets these issues in small, really human circumstances. For me, that is what makes his work so engaging for audience members. There are a lot of layers of resonance from his work. Besides all of those things, he is very, very funny. His way of reaching out entails many techniques and aspects of his personality, but at his core, he is a very funny person, and that comes out in the dialogue of his characters, and certainly in his public speeches. That's when I first met him, it was not on the page or seeing one of his plays but when I saw him at a graduation, as you see in the film. He is a highly sought-after public speaker. I was struck by how incredibly funny, serious, and astute he was about social and political issues.
Right, I remember the first time I saw Angels in America just how struck I was with what a completely different kind of playwright he was, and how eye-opening and refreshing it was to see politics portrayed so viscerally on the stage. Had you seen any of his plays before you became interested in doing the film?
Exactly, he touches head, heart, and pulse all at once. I had actually not seen any of his plays when I started the film right after 9/11. But I had read a couple of his essays, and I had heard him speak at the Vassar graduation, as you see in the film, and he only was speaking for one minute! He was receiving an honorary doctorate and they gave him only a minute. It was a tour de force of humor, substance, and inspiration. He had the entire audience laughing, and he had to speak really fast.
Right, and with his rapid way of speaking I was surprised to learn that he was from the South, I would have guessed his roots were in New York. Or at least that's the stereotype, that the rapid-speaking Jews of the United States, we all come from the Northeast!
Well, his mother's side is from New York and he does seem very much the New Yorker, but his formative years were definitely in the South. That was insightful for me, and I hope for the audience, to see the influence of those roots, of a fourth-generation, Jewish family from the South who have obviously dealt with issues of race and class, Jewish-Black relations, all of which you can see and can begin to understand in Caroline: or Change. My husband is Jewish, and he is from the South, from Little Rock, Arkansas. This is a generalization, but anecdotally, it has been my experience that Jews are often the most outspoken people on liberal political viewpoints.
In terms of the film's genesis, the tipping point for me was right after 9/11, I read an article in the LA Times about a new play he was rehearsing, Homebody/Kabul, a story set in Afghanistan, and that caught my eye, and made me think this would be a good time to do a film about a playwright and look at issues of art, politics, and creativity. Kushner's experience was especially appealing because he worked simultaneously as both an artist and an activist. Had I not seen him speak, I'm not sure I would have started the film, because an effective documentary needs a subject who is cinematic, or mysterious, or electrifying enough to come across to the audience.
How did he react when you approached him and expressed interest in doing a larger piece on him based on a minute of speaking?
I didn't quite put it to him that way (laughs). I wrote him a letter, saying that I was interested in talking to him about doing a film, similar to the one I had done on [Vietnam Veterans Memorial architect] Maya Lin (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision). He called me back and he seemed interested, but he didn't ask me why I was interested in him per se. He did say to me that he doesn't do much except sit and write, but I disagreed, saying that he is so much more involved in his community as a citizen, teacher, etc., and that he and his work would provide a compelling subject.
I think had he not been a playwright he would have been a professor. I think he enjoys that academic milieu and working with students. And he takes his speaking engagements seriously. He doesn't want his audience to fall asleep, and he uses the moment carefully. On one level, he became a semi-celebrity because of Angels in America, and he's a little bit shy, and so he's developed a technique of speaking that keeps his audience engaged.
What was his reaction to the film after you showed it to him?
Actually, everybody in his immediate family has seen the film except him. He has not had the desire to see himself yet. What he said to me was that he doesn't really like looking at himself. I can empathize with that, honestly. I think I'd be mortified. His father, and his six-year-old niece, they have all seen it and have given him and me a lot of positive feedback. And it's in theatrical release in some cities right now and is having a successful run, and he's getting feedback from that, and he wrote me to tell me that he's gotten wonderful comments from people. He's happy that this prolific period of his life and work was captured, and I think he was waiting to make sure that it survived the release. After the release of my film about Maya Lin, she said she was "relieved", and (I loved her verb, connoting total exposure in a harsh light) she said, "I'm glad you didn't 'crumb' me."
I think anyone who is the subject of a film like this would be fretful until someone they trusted reassured them it was OK. Tony asked me if (his partner) Mark (Harris) could see the film first. Mark saw it and told me he thought it was very positive, and that was reassuring.
He talked in the film about how he feels like his whole body of work comes down to one person's opinion when he picks up The New York Times and looks at the review. It must be so hard for any artist to put themselves out there and hear the reviews come back.
I was thinking about this today. Ultimately, as an artist you have to please yourself. You depend on everyone else, of course, and it's a vulnerable place to be, but you have to be able to say "I am OK. I have done my best effort." It's a basic human need, for approval - everyone prefers to be liked, rather than not liked. Press tours, speaking as a filmmaker at festivals, these are challenges for all of us.
It's fascinating to me, that he seems shy about critics' reactions. He writes these incredibly thought-provoking plays, he obviously wants to engender a reaction in his audience. That's the point of his writing, isn't it?
Well, I think the difference is that audiences are so different than critics, whose job it is to critique. It's a different kind of reaction, a different kind of analysis. Because of the position they have, critics are such a different kind of audience. One person often really does have the power to kill a play.
In terms of structuring the film, you structured it from 9/11 to the 2004 Presidential election. Did his dialogue and your interactions with him in the making of the film take it in that direction, or had you structured it in advance with a goal?
It was based on all the research I did, and the material that I had observed and read about his work. Things logically fell into these three big thematic ideas. It started sequentially right after 9/11, and his work on these plays ended right after the 2004 election. These works were naturally bookended by these two big national/global events that were reflected in his work directly or indirectly. It fell into place just naturally because of the material, and I was really happy that it ended up being almost like a play -- with a Prologue and Epilogue, Acts, setting, timeframe -- with things organized along those lines.
Things just kind of fell into place along these lines. Tony's partner Mark wrote me, and said it was funny to see their life organized into a logical format like that! He had lived through all these events, and life wasn't exactly organized this way, with themes, as it was happening.
Since you won't be able to attend the WJFF screening, is there anything specific you would like audiences to know about the film?
Hopefully, the audience will be engaged and inspired by what Tony's work and life represents, and that they will feel empowered to do their part. I find that is what his work, and his presence as a speaker does. His last line in the film really stayed with me, "We have an ethical obligation to look for hope, an ethical obligation not to despair." It's a fresh idea, and it's not a grand gesture, but it inspires us all to do our small part to make the world a better place, and it links his ideas to this collective consciousness that comes out of the Jewish legacy. The community is a Whole, and everyone does their part in overcoming injustice.
What question do you get most frequently at festivals?
There are many types of questions, but one question that stands out from Sundance was "Kushner criticizes Laura Bush. Why don't you criticize Kushner politically?" I responded that this was not a cable TV shout-fest, this was a non-fiction story about Kushner's journey. The questioner felt that I needed more political balance when Kushner made a statement criticizing Laura Bush, but I think the audience can figure that out. When I ask myself who would be unhappy with the film, I think it would be homophobes, and the Right wing, generally speaking. The film is a story about a person who happens to be a Progressive. I think people sometimes expect with a documentary film that you're doing a news show, but it's not. All documentaries have a point of view, and there is still a story that is being told.
We're asking all our filmmakers this year, since we're in Our Nation's Capital: if you had the opportunity to have one DC celebrity - political or otherwise - in the audience for your screening, who would it be and why?
I think having Dick Cheney there would be more interesting than W. He has a much more complicated personal life, since he has a daughter who is a lesbian. I think that the film works best if one comes to it with an open mind and an open heart, but if you are not, you're not going to like it, right? Since Mr. Cheney has had to confront some of these issues in his life, it might be interesting to see his reaction to my film.
It's my hope that Tony's story helps to build bridges of understanding and tolerance. It wasn't easy for him to be able to be open about who he is, and to embrace that. He grew up in our very repressive society, too. But had he not gone through that experience -- during the era that he did -- he probably would not have been able to write Angels in America and change the face of American theater. Nor could he have dealt with portraying things like Roy Cohn's hypocrisy with such a stunning sense of empathy! That's what makes Tony's work so powerful, he looks at the flawed, human complexity inside the character.
Visit the filmmaker's Web site for Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner at http://www.wrestlingwithangelsthemovie.com/
Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner screens at 8:45pm at the DCJCC's Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater on Tuesday, December 5, 2006
Interview by David Horowitz
Posted by David Horowitz at 12/03/2006 10:38:00 AM
Interview by David Horowitz
WJFFblog Editor David Horowitz spoke with filmmaker Jack Baxter about Blues by the Beach.
First of all, how is your recovery progressing? How are you doing today?
I'm feeling pretty good. I still have some aches and pains, and of course I'm not in the same shape I was in before I got blown up, but I'm doing all right.
What did it feel like, if you can describe it, to wake up and discover that the film project you had started was in progress by the others on the team, without you -- or, rather, with your role profoundly changed?
Well, it was encouraging - it made me feel that the film had now taken on a much greater immediacy and importance. Here I was, doing a fairly light-hearted look at Israel. Although I was touching on all these subjects of terrorism and suicide bombings, etc., with everybody that I was interviewing in the film, because the politics of the situation are always there when you talk to people in Israel. But when I realized the Marwan Barghouti story was not going to happen, and when I decided to do a story that involved spending time in a bar, taking a look at Israel from the angle of a free and open society, it was really great for me to be able to do that.
Of course, the suicide bombing changed the script. If you look in classical Greek tragedy, things are going along OK at the beginning of a story, and then all of a sudden something happens and changes the course of the story entirely. Here, we have a real-life tragedy that followed that same structure. So, I was glad to discover that the film project was going to continue, despite what happened.
You already had your two filmmakers on the team, you had hired them shortly before the bombing, right?
Well, I had hired them a couple weeks before, when I decided that I was going to see if I could do a documentary. I met [director] Joshua [Faudem] through [Mike's Place owner] Gal [Ganzman], whom he grew up with, and he was bartending at Mike's Place, and that was pretty much the way it happened. At the time, I didn't expect that it would turn into the years-long involvement that it has turned into, to be honest. If I had, who knows what kind of film it would have been, or the fact that we're continuing to screen this film for audiences around the world.
Because of the injuries and because of what happened, what role did you end up playing in the final film that resulted? Did your role change in some ways, or did you stay involved in the original way you intended?
Well, I went through many months of therapy when I first got back from Israel. For six to eight months, I was pretty much flat on my back, with my arm in a sling, recuperating. My wife and I decided that we were going to produce this film. We brought Joshua and his then-girlfriend Pavla [Fleischer], and an editor from Prague who had edited Joshua's previous documentary. We brought them into New York for the rough cut, and then we edited for about two months. About four or five months later, we went back to Prague, and we edited again. Then they came back to New York and we did more editing six months after that. Then I went back to Prague for the final edit, around April 2005, and that's the version you're seeing now.
And that version of the film that is being screened, would you say that it is still true to your vision of what you wanted to do?
Considering the arc of the story - the fact that I originally went there to do a story about Marwan Barghouti, and I went outside the courthouse and I met the parents of people who had been killed in suicide bombings - I didn't have the wherewithal, or the real knowledge of the situation's nuances, to take on that kind of documentary. I wanted to talk to some people about perhaps collaborating on something like that, I met with some people to see if I could do a film about the Passover seder bombing that had occurred a year earlier at the Park Hotel in Netanya. At the time of my visit, it was too soon and neither the hotel nor the survivors' families were comfortable discussing that kind of project. Then all of a sudden, I walked into Mike's Place and connected up with that story idea.
The politics of the situation in Israel are always floating around the outside, that's pretty much how life is over there. The way we look at it when we read about it in the paper or see something on TV, it's different from what life is like for the real people who live there. And I think the film captured that really well. But at the same time, it makes it superreal because of the bombing.
And some of the other films we're discussing in this year's Festival have that similar theme. Eytan Fox's new film, The Bubble, looks at the detachment that many urban Tel Aviv residents live with, which serves them as an escape mechanism from the everyday political realities. Sometimes it's in the back of one's mind, but the realities are always there. Certainly, the perception is different over here when one is considering going to Israel for a tourist or business visit. Your film helps us understand a lot about this issue, I think. Everyday life happens - it has to.
What would you say your personal reaction was, spiritually, to the process of making this film? Obviously, there were the physical injuries and the incident, but how else would you say the process of making the film affected you?
My wife and I have been through every emotion that you can go through. The main thing is that we wanted to keep going with this and make this film successful, and to make it something that would be iconic of what life was like during the worst days of the second intifada and how Israelis survived and how they managed. Years from now, when people look back at this film, this is the image that I would want to look at instead of seeing people running out of the Sbarro pizzeria bombing and screaming in the streets, and the terror and the horror. This film takes the terror and horror, and the tragedy, and turns it into something that can answer all of that in a bigger way.
We're very proud of it, we've shown this film around the United States. We still don't have a distribution deal for it, so it's not completely on the radar yet. We just won the Avignon/New York Film Festival Best Documentary Award two weeks ago. We've turned the film into a 35mm Dolby digital surround sound piece, which we're still working on financing. We're looking down the road with this film and shortly we hope to be able to distribute it more widely in theaters in the US. We're not just planning on keeping it on the festival circuit.
We're asking all our filmmakers this year, since we're in the US capital: if you had the opportunity to have one DC celebrity - political or otherwise - in the audience for your screening, who would it be and why?
I would want former Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Bush (Sr.), because I believe that now we're coming down to the wire with the question of whether there's going to be a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I would hope that perhaps with all of the credibility that the US can muster, with these former Presidents, if they could go over there and make a big-push, nonpartisan, concerted effort to try and solve things, we would at least know that if it can't be solved, we tried with our best efforts.
In terms of the others in the film, Pavla, Joshua, and Avi (the security guard), how are they doing now? Are you in touch with them?
Well, I went back to Israel this past March. I stayed for two months in Tel Aviv at Gal's apartment. I was in Mike's Place a lot. I met with Avi, who is now running a security company. When I was there, he was guarding members of the Australian Embassy. He's recovered, pretty much. He went through a lot of changes himself. He got married and he has a child. Joshua is with the film right now in Canada, he's been going around and showing the film at Hillel-sponsored events. Pavla, I believe, is in London, but she's back and forth between London and Prague. Downtown Dave was here in New York last night for a wedding. Mike's Place has expanded, and it's still happening. It's bigger than it was when I was there, and it's become the symbol of a place that caters not only to Israelis, Americans, and Westerners, but to Arabs as well. That's the perfect metaphor - it's a place and a situation where we put aside differences in politics and religion and everybody just grooves to the music.
I understand your wife is Jewish? How did your interest in Israel and the Barghouti story first develop?
I made a documentary in the 90s called Brother Minister: The Assassination of Malcolm X and of course that dealt with Malcolm X, who was - and still is - the most famous American Muslim. In dealing with that story, I went to a lot of mosques. Even though my wife is Jewish, I spent several years working on that story, and I had the experience of looking at it from an Islamic angle. After 9/11, this was my second time in Israel. I had been there in June 2002 to check it out. I rented a car and I traveled all over Israel by myself. I waited in the hot sun for a couple hours to enter the West Bank. I've been to Bethlehem and I've seen the posters of the shahids (martyrs, "religious witnesses") covering all of the walls in the West Bank. I even made my way down to Hebron.
I tried to see the situation from as wide an angle as I could, because I thought to myself, after Yassir Arafat was stuck in his bunker in Ramallah, and became discounted by Israel and the United States, that there had to be a Palestinian leader in the wings who was going to step up and become that Mandela-like figure for the Palestinian community. To me, that was Barghouti. I just thought that this might be the guy who was going to provide a sensible, realistic voice to the Palestinians. I still hope that's possible, but who knows what the future is going to bring over there.
The people who bombed Mike's Place were not Palestinians. They were British Jihadists who were supported by Hamas. There are, of course, wider questions of the connections between Hamas and al Qaeda and international terrorism, and it leads me to wonder whether one could set up places in the Middle East that could function much like the microcosm that Mike's Place is, and like Beirut used to be in peacetime? I'd like to see a Mike's Place in Jericho.
In terms of your film work, what is the next project that you're planning?
I'm thinking of an idea for a documentary that would look at a friend of mine, a Jewish comedian who's never been to Israel, who I would bring to Israel for a comedy tour, maybe during Passover 2007. There aren't that many comedy clubs in Israel, and I think it would be great for him to do his act in Israel. I'm still working out the details and he doesn't know about it yet, so that's all I want to say about it for now.
For more information about efforts in Israel to provide assistance to victims of terrorism, visit the Life After Terror Fund at http://www.mikesplacebars.com/lifeafterterror
Blues by The Beach screens at 4:30pm at the DCJCC's Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater on Sunday, December 3, 2006
Interview by David Horowitz
Posted by David Horowitz at 12/03/2006 07:25:00 AM
Saturday, December 02, 2006
Interview by David Horowitz
Saved by Deportation co-producer Robert Podgursky speaks with WJFFblog Editor David Horowitz
I understand that your father went through this experience, and that was your inspiration for this film, but you did not use his story specifically in the film?
I did not use him personally in the film because he was very young, he was only four years old when World War II broke out, and about 10 when the war was over. Even though he remembers quite a bit, we wanted to use older subjects for the film because they would have more substantive memories and different kinds of experiences than a young child, like my father.
Can you talk a little bit more about the personal connection to the story, what your family went through, and how that relates to the film?
The story that we tell in the film, typically, was a very positive story of survival. The subjects personally escaped much of the horrors of the Holocaust, and even though they had a difficult time for the most part in the Soviet Union, and many had family members and friends who did not make it, all in all, it was a story of survival that was very positive. Had they not been deported, had these Jews remained in Poland, they certainly would have been killed by the Nazis in the camps. Growing up, my father always told us stories of life in the Soviet Union and being in Central Asia as a child. Very typically, they were difficult stories, for example, my father lost his mother to pneumonia in the second World War in Central Asia, and that was very difficult for him. But generally speaking, his story and those of other deportees that we tell are positive.
How did you find the Scharf family, who feature prominently in your story?
Actually, by coincidence. I had contacted the Ronald Lauder Foundation here in New York, which is known to provide funds to support Polish-Jewish causes, specifically rebuilding synagogues, etc., in Poland, and the head of the Foundation is Rabbi Besser, a very prominent Rabbi here in New York. I contacted him and told him about the story, he was very familiar with it because he was a Polish Jew himself, and also because he knew the Scharfs, and he recommended that I contact them. They are a very well-known family in Brooklyn, especially among the Chasidic community, and they had survived this journey. What's remarkable is that when I went to visit the Scharfs for the very first time -- there's a lot that goes into deciding whether or not you can use a character in a documentary film or not, they might have a fascinating story but there are always other issues involved, such as do they have the motivation to make a return trip, are they engaging, how would they appear on camera? It just so happened that in our very first meeting with them, they had already acquired visas for Uzbekistan! They had wanted to go back on their own, so it was almost fated, in a way, that we came upon them and that they were willing to go back and be engaged in this project. It really made the film more poignant, to go on location and see these areas that had hardly changed in 60 years. Without them, the film would have been very different.
Slawomir Grunberg (the film's director), he is from Poland also, but was living in the United States when you met him?
Yes, he's been in the States for the past twenty-some years. He has a fascinating story himself. His father is a prominent Polish-Jewish scholar in Poland. Slawomir immigrated here 20 years ago, during the time of the Solidarity crackdowns. He had made an early film on Solidarity and came to New York to screen it, and was told by the Polish government, essentially, "Don't return." He left behind his pregnant wife and a child, and he was not able to see them for five years. He was already working on documentary films, he was a cinematographer who trained at the famous National Polish Film School in Lodz that Roman Polanski and many other famous Polish filmmakers had attended.
I had seen a film that he was the cinematographer for, Shtetl, that he and Marian Marzynski, another Polish Jew, had made in 1996 or so and that aired on PBS. It was a very well-known film about these elderly Polish Jews who returned to Poland only about 10 years ago to return to their small villages where they had lived prior to World War II, and recounted what life was like, and met up with the Poles who live there now, and they shared their memories, etc. It was a fascinating film, and I'd been carrying around this idea for my documentary for some time, and when I saw Shtetl, it just kind of jelled, that's the kind of film I'd like to make. It was a good format for the retelling of this deportation story, a first-person accounting of the return, using the voices of those who survived the deportation, as opposed to, say, an academic-historical film with scholars and talking heads, etc.
What's it like for you to do a World Premiere at WJFF, having done a Works-in-Progress screening with us earlier?
It's very exciting and rewarding. I lived in DC for many years, close to 10 years, and I attended WJFF every year that I lived there, and I would watch the films there, and it would inspire me. In many ways, Saved by Deportation had its origins at WJFF, because I would watch the other films made by first-time filmmakers, and I would be inspired and say to myself, "I can do that, too!" So, premiering my film at WJFF has a special meaning for me because of my personal connection to the Festival. The film would not have been made had I not lived in DC, because the accessibility I had to people like Aviva Kempner (The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, Partisans of Vilna), who gave me very sage advice, and the Library of Congress, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, all these scholars and academic materials that facilitated my background research were amazing to have. I would not have chosen anywhere else to premiere the film than DC!
I understand you're going to be a father soon. What are your thoughts on that, in relationship to the genesis of this film and its story?
That's a good question, I've thought about that a lot. In a way, I'm giving birth to two children this month! The film, and my human child-to-be at the end of December. I had wanted to do this film not just because of my father, who obviously inspired it -- and it's a gift to him and to all the other Polish Jews who survived this ordeal -- but because there were no other films on this subject matter. Their experiences were so different from those of the Jews who had lived under Nazi occupation. Their stories still needed to be told, and now that it's out there and finished, and having a human child on the way, it's great because I can now pass this history down to my child in a very immediate way. This child will know its grandparents' experiences. Obviously, had my father not survived, I would not be here, nor would my child-to-be. It's important that future generations know where they come from, and the experiences and ordeals that their ancestors lived through, it will help inform their lives in many ways, as well. So this is a very sweet moment for me with this film coming out right now, when my child is about to be born. Hopefully in ten years or so, when my child is old enough to appreciate the story, we will be able to sit down and watch the film together.Mazal tov on both babies! And a last question that we're asking all our filmmakers - and this may be easy for you since you lived here - but if you could have one Washington, DC celebrity (political or otherwise) attend your screening, who would it be and why?
I reached out to the Uzbek and Tajik embassies because I thought they would especially like to send a representative to the screenings, especially in light of some of the controversy surrounding negative stereotyping in the (Sacha Baron Cohen) film, Borat. Unfortunately, both had prior commitments this weekend. I think Saved by Deportation is a nice story of inter-ethnic cooperation and friendship that really, today, we don't hear much about at all. Muslims and Jews came together in this story, and we'd obviously like to see more of that today. So it would be nice if representatives from the Embassies were there.
Visit the filmmakers' Web site for Saved by Deportation at http://www.savedbydeportation.com/
Saved by Deportation screens at 2:30pm at the DCJCC's Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater on Sunday, December 3, 2006
Interview by David Horowitz
Posted by David Horowitz at 12/02/2006 03:05:00 PM
Interview by David Horowitz
Professional collaborators and life partners for 18 years, director Eytan Fox and writer/producer/journalist Gal Uchovsky are the creative team behind some of Israel's most commercially successful and internationally acclaimed contemporary films.
In honor of the 10th Anniversary of the Washington DCJCC at 16th & Q, WJFF is thrilled to inaugurate the WJFF Decade Award; Eytan Fox is the first recipient of the award.
I spoke with Eytan and Gal at the DCJCC on Friday afternoon.
The Bubble, 2006 (Fox, Director; Uchovsky, Writer/Producer)
Walk on Water, 2004 (Fox, Director; Uchovsky, Writer/Producer)
(screening at WJFF 17 on Saturday, December 2, 2006 at 9:50 pm at the DCJCC)
Yossi & Jagger, 2002 (Fox, Director; Uchovsky, Producer)
(screening at WJFF 17 on Thursday, November 30, 2006 at 9:15 pm at the DCJCC and on Friday, December 1, 2006 at 1:00 pm at the DCJCC)
Gotta Have Heart, 1997 (Fox Director; Uchovsky, Writer)
Florentene, 1997 (Fox, Director; Uchovsky, Writer)
(screening at WJFF 17 on Sunday, December 3, 2006 at 7:00 pm at Busboys and Poets)
Song of the Siren, 1994 (Fox, Director)
Time Off, 1990 (Fox, Director)
On Saturday evening at WJFF, you are being honored with the inaugural WJFF Decade Award. This year’s Toronto catalog described you as “Israel’s most interesting, courageous, taboo-busting young filmmaker”. Would you agree with that assessment? Why do you think they are describing you that way?
Gal: Of course it’s their point of view; we’re very honored and appreciative about it.
Eytan: Because we’re dealing with different taboos and issues that are important to Israelis in ways that, maybe, are not like the ways these issues were dealt with in the past. For example, introducing a gay love story into the Israeli Army. A lot of Israeli films have soldiers as their heroes and main characters. To do this was kind of shattering the holy shrine of Israeli society, masculinity. Suddenly you’re saying maybe things aren’t exactly the way they look. Maybe there are different ways to exist within Israeli society and within the Israeli Army. With The Bubble, where you have these different relationships between Israelis and Palestinians, you have a love relationship between an Israeli guy and a Palestinian guy. The films have been successful with younger crowds in Israel. The films have left a mark outside of Israel.
One of the things I was getting at with this question was: did you set out to be the "taboo-buster", did you set out to challenge society, or perhaps did you decide that you just wanted to portray (and there aren’t just two options, I’m only saying this for illustration) a narrative, and characters and a story, and because you were portraying a group of people’s everyday lives, it was groundbreaking simply because these were countercultural people, and the characters were just being themselves, and it was groundbreaking because the mainstream wasn’t ready to see that in a film?
Gal: That's it exactly. Yet we feel very mainstream, we feel being gay, the way we are, we have never felt like big rebels. Although we didn’t think that we changed all the views in Israel, we did it from the point of view that we’re part of everything, and it’s so obvious that they will accept us. Most of our movies don’t come from the point of view of “let’s shock them”, but we’re trying to do the kinds of things we’re interested in, and we’re always standing with one leg inside the mainstream, and one leg trying to push the rope a little bit.
Do you think that because of that mainstream appeal that’s why your films have been so successful both in Israel and here? Because, of course there are filmmakers who are on the other side of that fence. John Waters comes to mind, his style is to always be pushing the envelope, doing outrageous things in his films, but using the real characters that he finds and writes. He has many followers because he does things as outrageously as possible, but there are also many people who won’t see his films.
Eytan: And that also is not because we’ve decided, "Hey, let’s be more commercial, and that we have all these issues we want to bring forward, but let’s do it, let’s manipulate the audience, we’ll wrap it in this kind of mainstream, easy-to-digest kind of coating." I could see that kind of approach. I have all these issues I want to bring to a larger audience, it’s not enough for me to “convince the convinced”. I want to reach all these people and take these issues, and bring them forth.
Gal: If we wanted to make money, we definitely wouldn’t be doing anything gay – we would just do a romantic comedy between a man and a woman, something with more commercial potential. The other thing is that we’re telling stories that are very important to us, close to us, stories of our lives. There’s always something in the movie that is about us. In The Bubble, it goes even to the places and details where the clothes are ours. Every character that we have is us in some way - something they said, something they wear. It’s a very artistic, personal thing, our films. That’s why they are our characters, and in portraying them you can somehow understand us more, as well.
Eytan: Some of the criticism that we get in Israel is that our films are too Americanized, because the movie-making style is “too nice”. But that’s us, that’s not something we’re doing consciously to reach a larger audience. We’ve been accused of portraying these assimilated characters, these sweet, nice, conventional gay people, without flamboyance, etc. That’s not our thinking. We’re thinking, let’s bring along the people that we really know. The people that are our close friends and family, bring them and whatever happens, happens. The realism and the story of what's being portrayed will make the audience identify with, sympathize with, and understand the issues and the characters.
You were born in the US and moved to Israel when you were 2, is that correct? What brought you/your family to Israel, and do you think that gave you a uniquely different perspective on Israel?
Eytan: Yes, I was 2. My parents moved to Israel because they were Zionists who wanted to make aliyah and my father got a good job offer at Hebrew University and their three sons were born in the States, and we all moved to Israel. That’s actually another film that we’re developing, about a Jewish-American couple, moving to Israel in 1967, before the war. A lot of American Jews moved to Israel after the war. My first childhood memories were from when I was, like, 3, and I remember scenes from the war, like being in a bomb shelter in Jerusalem in the 1967 War. And my parents coping with moving to such a different world – Israel in the 1960s was so different than Manhattan at the time.
And Gal, you were born in Israel?
Gal: Yes, I am Israeli born.
Eytan, you attended Tel Aviv University’s School of Film and Television? What did you focus on in film school? Which filmmakers/artists would you say influenced your vision and style the most?
Eytan: Well, when you get these questions, it’s always crazy. I have so many filmmakers and movies and influences that I like. Robert Altman was probably the biggest…when I saw Nashville and McCabe and Mrs. Miller as a teenager in The Jerusalem Cinematheque, I can remember coming out of the National Cinematheque and saying “I want to be able to make something as great and influential as that.”
Gal: Three weeks ago we were in Italy, and we were walking in a little street in Pisa and there was a DVD store, and the film McCabe and Mrs. Miller was on sale there, and we bought it. And two weeks later, on the evening Altman died, we had a tribute to him and watched all his old movies.
Eytan: And on the plane we saw A Prairie Home Companion, such a beautiful film, and there are so few films made that way today. The filmmaking that I grew up on, Coppola, Scorsese, Woody Allen films of the 70s. American auteurs of the 70s, they are really my favorites. So are the musicals, my parents loved American musicals, Singing in the Rain, all of those are things I loved as a kid.
Gal: And I grew up on The Sound of Music. The funny truth was that when I was little, my parents went to Austria for a couple of years, and my father studied there, so I spent, like, 5 years of my childhood there, and when I came back, I sounded very Austrian in Israel, and then The Sound of Music came along, and I thought it was about me! In high school, we did the play so many times.
PROFESSIONAL COLLABORATION AS A COUPLE
What would you say are the advantages of working together as both professional and personal partners? How about the challenges? How did you two meet? How long have you been a couple?
Gal: We have been together 18 years. It was a shiddukh (an “arranged match”).
Eytan: I was a film student at the time, and I was asked to direct the event for the first Israeli Academy Awards. It was a very big project. I hired a bunch of students and alumni, and we organized this big event. The producer was a graduate of the production department, and she was Gal’s best friend, and they were talking about me, and …
Gal: She was telling me she got this job, and she had met this very hot guy, and everybody says he’s so talented and so nice and everything, and then I saw her a week later and I asked her about him, "So?" And she said "Oh wonderful, we’ve been meeting and talking a lot." And I asked “Well, have you slept together yet?” And she said “No, why?” And I said “Well, because you said he’s handsome,” and she said “Yeah, well you know, that’s funny, it never came up in conversation!” And I said “Well, if it never came up, maybe that will be good news for me!” And the rest is history…
Eytan: So she got us together. Gal was already a very well-known writer for Ha-Ir (“The City”, a Village Voice-like newspaper in Tel Aviv), writing about culture, music, theater, film, and I was still a student. And then I started my career as a filmmaker and Gal was still very much in journalism. He became the Editor of Ha-Ir and he wrote for different newspapers as a music critic, and slowly he came into my world and I wanted to make use of his writing abilities, and he started working with me on the films. Our first collaboration was on Florentene, Gal wrote some of the episodes, and then we continued with Gotta Have Heart. And then we became collaborators when he co-produced Yossi & Jagger, and then for Walk on Water he was the producer and writer, and for The Bubble we co-wrote the film and he co-produced it.
Gal: It’s challenging working together as a couple, but it’s what we decided to do. These projects are our children, this is what our family produces. We have been a family for many years now, and I think, as a family, you need to produce something. For us, the good thing is we are producing art, it is something that connects to us, that belongs to both us. These products are made out of elements of both of us. Of course, there is a downside too. When you work somewhere, usually, when you have a hard day at work, if you have a fight at work, then you come home, and you put your head on your spouse’s shoulder and you feel better when you can complain about your coworkers. When you work together, of course, it's different. It’s about symbiosis. The thing about gay couples, I think, is that they are very similar to straight couples who do not have children. After many years without children, this symbiosis develops, and you become one entity, and it’s very hard for each person to find their own place as an individual. And if you work together, it’s ten times harder.
Eytan: It’s a journey, and we’re still here, so I guess it's working (laughs). We try to avoid spending 24/7 together. We have kind of a system, there are periods when we really work together – for example developing the script together -- but then when I go off to shoot the film, Gal is not around. Then when we promote the film, we work on that separately, Gal will go to his festivals and I’ll go to mine. It can become very difficult otherwise.
Gal: It comes from needing to have your own space, not so much a need to cover different festivals efficiently. He doesn’t like me on the set, because he likes to have his own space for that part of the work. He is entitled to have his daily anxieties and his artistic moments on his own. I operate more easily with the world, so daily routines like promotion, production sales, etc., I try to shield him from that because it would drive him crazy. But for me, it’s food. And we wear the same clothes – we’re the same size.
GLBT film developed here in the US and elsewhere against a backdrop of increased production of independent films, in general, beginning in the late 80s, and the growth of film festivals. In the GLBT community, we were virtually starved for images of our lives until the explosion of GLBT filmmaking in the 90s.
Gay films with positive images were so rare when I came out in the mid-80s, that I can remember them all clearly, films like Parting Glances and My Beautiful Laundrette. There are so many more films and television series for the younger generations of gay men and lesbians who are coming out now – frankly, I’m jealous. The same can be said of Jewish films, and films that deal with minority experience of all kinds.
It was much harder for filmmakers 10, 20 years ago. What was your experience making gay-themed films in Israel? Did factors in Israeli society or the Israeli film industry cause you to continue to run into barriers, perhaps later than filmmakers in other countries did?
Eytan: Right, there was no Queer as Folk or Six Feet Under or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or The L Word then, either. It’s complicated in Israel, you would think because it’s so small, and has religious sides to it, and it's a young macho culture, and it's very uptight about a lot of important issues to deal with like survival, that there would be no room or place to deal with minority issues or gay issues. And it’s also a fearful society about so many issues, "The Other" (whoever that is: Arab, Gay, etc.).
Gal: And being a small country means it’s easier for you as individuals to reach people. So if you’re integrated into the mainstream of Israeli society as we are, then the point that we are gay isn’t really the point. Israel is a little less conservative than America; the glass ceilings are different. In Israel, when they look at the two of us, and we wanted to do one of our first films, a straight romantic comedy (Song of the Siren), it was very successful, then we said we wanted to make a youth-oriented series for television (Florentene) and then they liked it of course. And then we said we wanted to do a gay character, and so, bit by bit, things got easier and barriers were broken. Florentene was a funny story. It was the first gay kiss on primetime Israeli TV, so when we were editing, everybody was standing behind Eytan in the room, all the executives, they were, you know, like making it cut at exactly a certain time. Then a year later, they loved it and were ready to take it a step further.
Eytan: When Florentene played Jewish film festivals in the States like in 1997, before HBO series and all these gay shows…people were so shocked that we had this show in Israel with an explicit gay male relationship. It’s this interesting thing about Israel. Gal used to say, Israel is so concerned with these terrible questions of life and death. "His son is gay? At least he’s alive!"
Gal: The concept of the young, dead soldier is central to the Israeli psyche: the most beautiful, handsome, talented in his generation. He is your father, your brother, your neighbor, your best friend. It’s so central to Israeli thinking that everything else is not that bad, in comparison. The thinking goes, as long as everybody is alive, being gay is not such an issue as it has been in the US. It’s an oxymoron, but it’s easier to be gay in Israel than in America.
Eytan: But of course when we started it was much more difficult. I made Time Out (my first film) as a student, so it was easier, I was free to do whatever I wanted to. But then when I came out into the world and I was working on my first feature film, maybe one of the reasons I made Song of the Siren not as a personal film with gay characters, was the fact that I was afraid I was dealing with the real industry, the real world. But then we made Florentene and I think we really were part of a big change in Israel.
Gal: The thing about Israeli society, somehow, is it’s not very traditional. For example, if you were to ask somebody "What do you think about transgender people?" In 1997, they would say, "That is different, that is odd, I don't understand that." But then they got to know Dana International, who became a very big celebrity in Israel after winning the Eurovision Song Contest, and suddenly, everyone was saying, "Yes, it's great, transgender people should be celebrated and appreciated." And with Yossi and Jagger, when we made it, this thing about the Israeli Army, the center of Israeli society, this film has these two commanders of the Israeli army and they are both gay, everyone was saying, "Oy Vey". Now, five years later, when they did their withdrawal from Gaza, that’s become our favorite story of the moment, our biggest accomplishment.
When they did the withdrawal from Gaza a year ago, there were two guys in charge of it. One was the head of the Army in the area, and one was the head of the Police in the area. And they were in charge of this operation. And they became these big local heroes in Israel, and they became Men of the Year because the operation went so well, and nobody was killed on the Jewish side. And at the end of the year they had this big interview for one of the big daily newspapers. And one of them was asked to describe their most intimate moments during the exercise, what were their emotions, what were they feeling. And they said there was this one day after they finished work in this village, and everybody was gone, the protesters, the soldiers, and everything had been demolished, there were fires everywhere, and they were standing there next to the synagogue at sundown, and it was very sad, and they were standing very close to each other and they reported that "It had felt like Yossi & Jagger".
In the same way that Brokeback Mountain’s success in the US has become a popular cultural metaphor here for closeness between men?
Eytan: Exactly, it’s this measure of Yossi & Jagger's cultural success in Israel – it’s the only reference the culture has for intimacy between soldiers.
Have you ever felt stereotyped as the “gay” director, has it impacted your ability to do some of the projects you have wanted to do?
Eytan: No, not really. I am considered "the Israeli gay director", but that's OK with me. I'm happy with that. Usually it's the opposite, people are trying to get me to make films that don't have gay characters or gay stories.
Gal: The thing is, when talking about the Israeli filmmaking community, it's really small and you don't have that many good directors. So when you have somebody like Eytan, people are going to ask him why he can't do a romantic heterosexual comedy and sell more tickets. So, the pressure is the other way around.
Compulsory military service is a universal social experience in Israel, and several of your films have looked at homosexuality in the IDF [Israel Defence Forces]. In the US, of course, we have the hypocritical “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and a mostly volunteer military service.
Yossi & Jagger, which shattered the taboo of a gay relationship between two men in the IDF, was a landmark film in Israel. In the US, very few films have been made about GLBT soldiers’ experience. Two films that come to mind – both were made-for-TV dramatizations and had limited audiences -- are 1995’s Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story (with Glenn Close, about a lesbian officer, a 20-year decorated veteran, who was involuntarily discharged) and 2003’s Soldier’s Girl (about the brutal murder on an Army base of Barry Winchell, a 21-year-old soldier who was romantically involved with a transgender performer).
Winchell’s 1999 murder was classified as a hate crime, yet one of his assailants was released from prison in October 2006 after serving only a portion of his sentence. A Pentagon survey conducted shortly after the murder revealed that 80% of nearly 72,000 soldiers reported that they had witnessed derogatory remarks against gays. Obviously, we still have a long way to go in the US on this issue. There seems to be little consciousness of these issues, nor efforts to eliminate the abuse and improve the working conditions for GLBT soldiers and officers.
In what ways did Yossi & Jagger have an impact in Israel, and how are things different both in the IDF and Israeli culture at large, now that the issue of homosexuality in the military is out in the open?
Gal: Perhaps we should sell the rights to Yossi & Jagger in the United States?
Only if we can get Yehuda Levi ("Jagger") to play the same part again!
Gal: (Laughs.) He lived in South Africa, so his English accent is good! Seriously, in Israel, because it's mandatory, the Army is viewed universally as almost the most important thing in the Israeli society. So the whole attitude towards the Army is not that it's a "Thing". It's Us. So everything that is Us has to be in the Army as well. So if gays are not discriminated against in society by law, then they should not be discriminated against in the Army, either. The whole attitude is different. Most of the changes that have occurred in the Israeli Army have been regular, individual people causing incremental changes in policies.
For example, there was this guy who was boyfriends with the head of the medical department in the Army, and the guy died, and he sued the Army to become his official widow, and he won his case. And so, all the rules of the Army were ultimately changed, and the Knesset enacted the legislation because of the efforts of the first openly gay MP, Uzi Even. The laws in Israel have been very good for a while now. There is no discrimination legally.
The only discrimination that you get is on a personal basis. And this is what has changed in recent years because of films like Florentene and Yossi & Jagger, because Israeli society is very tolerant and is changing. There are even Army units that are known as very "gay" units, like the intelligence units. A lot of gay people go to those units because of the reputation of them being good units to be in. Yossi & Jagger was a more symbolic thing. We had a screening for soldiers one day. The unit called us and said they wanted to see the film.
Eytan: But we don't want to portray this as a world that is too good to be true. When we started working on Yossi & Jagger, we met with the Army officials whom we had to work with to secure permits and funding arrangements. This was a very low budget film, so we needed their help to secure uniforms, equipment, locations, etc. And when we went to them they said "No". And we asked "Why?" And already they are more sophisticated, they know that they cannot say "The reason we said 'no' is because you are gay." Instead, they said "Because you are breaking the Army rule that forbids a relationship between a soldier and a commanding officer."
Gal: But then later, when we were making The Bubble, we could have done the film without the Army's assistance, but it was going to be easier if we had their "buy-in" and support. So we called the new Army spokeswoman, and we explained how we had told everyone that the Army didn't support our last film, and look at how successful it was, etc., and don't you want to portray a modern, evolved Army? And she decided that the Army would support the film and supply the needed permits, etc.
Eytan: And we succeeded because we had been making these films, and so many people and their families had been affected by these films and other films in the world. And with The Bubble it was harder for them also because it wasn't so much the gay issue as it was the issue of the relationship between a Jew and a Palestinian.
Press coverage of The Bubble during the Toronto International Film Festival in September noted that the film faced boycotts abroad, related to this past summer’s conflict between Israel and Lebanon. Now that things have simmered down in Lebanon, are you experiencing continued difficulties? Are you anticipating any issues with US distribution?
Eytan: No, we're negotiating the distribution right now. I was talking about this in Toronto; before the Toronto film festival, and after what we call the second Lebanese war, you had these film festivals, throughout Europe especially, who were cancelling the participation of Israeli films. I think The Bubble is a film that they would appreciate a little more because it deals with and confronts the issues of Israelis and Palestinians in a very direct way. It will probably be a film that people will argue about.
Gal: The Bubble is not an easy film. I think between the gay aspect and the Jewish aspect, it is something people can relate to a lot. It contains all the things that we always have in our films: interesting topics, new angles.
For example, the fact that most people here in the US probably don't know that Palestinians can't cross the border and enter Tel Aviv. That was eye-opening for me in the film, I didn't realize that.
Gal: Exactly. And I don't think most people are aware that Tel Aviv is such a cosmopolitan place, with a young culture like big cities in the West. And yet, it is still part of the country Israel and has all the political connections and context of that situation.
What is the release schedule for The Bubble in the US?
Gal: That's not finalized yet, but it's going to open in the US sometime in 2007. Either spring or early summer.
Boycotts aside, how was the audience reaction to The Bubble in Toronto?
Eytan: Toronto was wonderful. The screenings were sold out. It was the first screening outside Israel and one of the first screenings, period. You know, as a filmmaker you're very excited, and even though you are full of fear and anxiety, you sit in a screening and it's very rewarding to feel the audience relating to the film, laughing and being moved in certain places, being very emotional. The Q&A was very interesting.
Gal: It was strange, though, Walk on Water was very well-received in both Toronto and in Berlin but somehow with Walk on Water it took everyone a while to admit they liked the movie, especially the festivalgoers. But with The Bubble it was much more emotional. People were crying and saying it was the best film they'd seen, and more emotional sorts of reactions than we got with Walk on Water. The Bubble was more demanding somehow, and I think people were either going to love it or hate it, but have a strong reaction either way.
How did you develop the idea for the story in The Bubble?
Eytan: It started with the fact that when we were shooting Walk on Water, at the end of the shoot, my mother passed away. That was very difficult for me. Her whole life was devoted to community service and building relationships between Israelis and Palestinians. After she moved to Israel, she became a city planner, and she served as head of the Jerusalem City Council, and she put a lot of effort into improving living conditions in Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Much of the film involves real stories that were part of my life. When she died, I wanted to tackle the issue of Israeli-Palestinian relations for her sake, for my sake, for Israel's sake, and to confront that issue in a more direct way than we did in Walk on Water. So that's where it came from, but then I had to decide how to make it about our life. We live in Tel Aviv, in this bubble, we live this urban life that is detached somewhat from the national scene. But of course we are connected to what is going on. We write articles, we make films, we write books, we do Reserve duty. It is this crazy survival technique that we need to have in the context of the country we live in.
Interview by David Horowitz
Posted by David Horowitz at 12/02/2006 01:09:00 AM