Wednesday, January 9, 2008

After NYJFF's Opening Night Screening, Producer Elinor Kowarsky Discussed her Film, A Hebrew Lesson, and the Ethics of Documentary Filmmaking

(Above) Elinor Kowarsky and NYJFF Director and Associate Curator for The Jewish Museum, Aviva Weintraub (photo:John Aquino); (Below) A Scene from A Hebrew Lesson.

Last night, the festival opened with the recent Israeli documentary A Hebrew Lesson (2006). The film follows Chin, Dong Dong, Sasha and Marsiol, various newly arrived immigrants to Israel. Their lives intersect in a language immersion class, an intensive and intimate environment that tries to cushion the students’ difficult adaptation to the new foreign culture. Their various stories are seamlessly interwoven in this compassionate documentary that questions Israel’s self-image as it explores the diversity of its inhabitants.

After the screening producer Elinor Kowarky discussed the genesis and aims of the project:

"This film was made with two partners, David Ofek the director, and Ron Rotem the photographer. All three of us had worked together on another project called No. 17. We knew we wanted to work together again and were looking for an idea that would deal with the identity of Israeli society. The idea eventually came from Ron who went to a language school in Denmark. He came back and told us all about the different characters and people he met. He ran through their different stories. So we thought a language school would provide a very good framework to tell a story about Israeli society through the eyes of the new Israelis.

"We started out looking for the teacher. Our film is a documentary but there was a lot of casting involved because we knew we wanted a teacher who would be more than just a classroom teacher. We wanted her to be someone with her own story, someone who would be very much involved in the students’ lives and weave the different stories together. So we met over fifty language teachers until we found Yoela—we were also very touched by her personal story. And she was very much involved in the students’ lives and was like a mother to them.

"Before we started shooting, we met with all the different students that were enrolled in the language school at that time. And we chose our characters and put them all together in the same class with Yoela. That’s how we were able to really follow all the characters over six months.

"It was very important for us to try to have different voices and different faces. We didn’t want to go with the real standard Aliyah stories. We wanted to use the space, the space where you slowly get into the history, get to understand Israel through the language. At the beginning, you’re very much just a newcomer—you don’t know much but as long as you keep on learning the language, you get more and more involved, more and more opinionated … So this was, for us, a great framework to have a look at society."

Did you find it difficult to distance yourself from the subject matter or did you become emotionally involved, an audience member asked.

"The story that I was most involved with was Marisol, the girl who gets pregnant…I helped her along by just being with her throughout the stages and helping her. You don’t see a lot of her crisis in the film because we preferred to leave it out. There were a lot of difficult moments with her boyfriend and his family. We saw much of the other stories. But I think we tried to get the right balance between the film and her life so they would be happy and feel good when they are showing their story. We didn’t want to overexpose them. I’m very happy that she’s going to be married soon. She has a new boyfriend who also has a daughter. They are living in Peru and she is very happy. In making documentaries, we are always very much involved in our characters’ lives. It is not that once the film ends, we stop being in contact. It’s a constant relationship that we maintain. A film is a film and life is life and we try to keep a good balance…We try to make films about people we love. That’s the way we treat them."

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