Friday, January 11, 2008

An Interview with Noah Harlan, Co-Producer of Tehilim

Above photo: A scene from Tehilim; Bottom photo: Liza Johnson (director, South of Ten) and Noah Harlan with his mom, Elizabeth, at the festival screening of Tehilim.

Selected for competition at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, Raphaël Nadjari’s Tehilim depicts an ordinary Jerusalem family confronted with the father’s mysterious disappearance after a car accident. This perceptive and nuanced film explores how the family members deal with such a sudden and inexplicable loss.

Tehilim is the third film that Harlan has co-produced with Nadjari. In this interview, Harlan discusses Nadjari’s production process, his style as well as some of the themes that the film raises.

What about Raphaël’s style appeals to you?
I think what moves me about Raphy’s work is his resolute neutrality. To my mind, he defiantly rejects taking a position in terms of telling the audience how they should feel. As an audience, this is something that makes us very uncomfortable. But it would be wrong for anyone to hear a comment like this and assume that he hasn’t made decisions. In fact, he’s made incredibly specific decisions but he’s not going to tell you how to feel. You’re going to have to watch the film and engage with it.
A lot of audiences have been frustrated by the film’s ambiguity in explaining the father’s absence. I think what’s important when looking at Tehilim and responding to it is to understand that the film is not about answers. The film is about how each person in the film genuinely responds. In my opinion, the father’s disappearance is, in some ways, almost a totem event because the film is dealing with how one responds to loss, in any of its forms. So Raphy created a world, created this family and then removed one element. He then records how each of these characters respond to it.
I am really struck by the perceptiveness with which Tehilim deals with family dynamics. With the absence of the father, the authority figure disappears. To me at least, the film suggests that this disappearance creates the opportunity for a greater sense of interdependence among the mother and sons. The film is about loss in a number of different ways. The film can be an allegory for what happens when God leaves you. But more generally, it is also about what happens when an authority figure—in whatever form it takes—leaves and how one responds to it. What I think is interesting is that each member of the family—as well as each member of the extended community that we see in the film— has created, in their own mind, their own explanation for what happened and each one takes it in a different way. Some people take the vanishing as something very specific to them and other people treat it as an abstract event. And it obviously forces the son to confront who he is as an individual, not as defined by the rest of the family. And, without giving too much away, he goes through a very specific arc of swinging through an emotional understanding of self—in religious, social, cultural, sexual terms.
I love the opening where the father and son are sitting in on a very abstract torah study lecture. A bit later at the dinner table, when his mother asks her son what was discussed in torah study, we can clearly see that he didn’t really understand the lecture. But he wants to come across like he did so that he could be like his dad. What I love about that opening scene is that we get introduced to this very heady conversation that they are having in this Torah study. And when the son walks outside, the first thing he does is take off his yarmulke and stuffs it in his pocket so that he could go hang out with his friends. And I think this actually sets up one of the underlying tensions that runs through the film: The push-and-pull between the religious and secular influences within that family. And in between is a son who is trying to resolve a relationship with the two different halves—a mother and a father who have two different views of the world. And when that father is gone, the son struggles to keep the memory of the father alive but still be his own person—not a caricature of his father nor a caricature of his father’s beliefs.
Could you talk a bit about the title? “Tehilim” means “psalms”. Psalms is an interesting concept because psalms in Jewish life are things that are used at every moment of transition: at the end of the day, at the end of a life, at a birth. You really use them at moments of turning and at moments of decision and at moments of change. And when the father vanishes, that’s really what it is—it’s a moment of change.
Raphaël uses improvisation when working with his actors. Could you tell me how this process works? Generally speaking, with four of his five films, he has used improvisation. Only his first film, The Shade, had a full written dialogue script. Now, oftentimes when we hear that someone works in improv, there’s the assumption that it’s an amorphous process as if they go out and find the film. But the way Raphy works is that he writes a very specific script. He writes every scene, the intentions of every scene and the actions. Now Raphy is natively French and his family has a lot of influences from a lot of different places. He has also lived and worked in New York for seven years and now he’s lived and worked in Israel for four or five. So I think he felt that he could gain greater truth not by putting words into his actors’ mouths but by creating very accurate and precise situations for them with very specific intentions and allowing them to find the right words to say it. And that would also allow one to avoid idiomatic problems: You don’t have a concern about phrasing and using the wrong language because you are using people that are genuinely of a place. And Raphy mixes professional and non-professional actors. His leads are often professional actors but much of his supporting cast is made up of actual people that he meets and engages with.
With Raphaël’s work, there is such formal precision when it comes to the staging and the cinematography. How does he plan what the camera will do in relation to the improvisation of the actors? Are the shots storyboarded? We have a phenomenal cinematographer named Laurent Brunet.
Laurent has shot all five of Raphy’s films and they have a tremendous collaborative relationship. I think Laurent is brilliant because he has the ability to convey fragility and a raw sense, but with great formal rigor. They compose the shots. The entire film is storyboarded. Again, Raphy knows the whole film in his head. He knows what he wants and then he and Laurent work in the locations. But the film is shot in real locations—not soundstages—so the process is also about working within the confines of the actual environments that we find. But Raphy does have a very clear sense of a shot. So the filmmaking process, aside from the fact that you couldn’t find the lines written somewhere, is very similar to that of other films

does not use a handheld camera, but rather a suspended camera. This is a whole device that the director of photography wears. The film was shot in high definition and the cameras are very heavy so there is a belt and harness system with a pole that comes over the cinematographer’s head. The camera hangs from this. The director of photography is then able to hold the camera. This allows for gentle motion but not that jagged handheld look. That, in my opinion, is part of what provides the intimacy of his films. In Tehilim, it provides a lot of that intimacy because you feel as though you are looking through a particular set of eyes.

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