(Top) Poster of A Hebrew Lesson; (Bottom) A scene from 9 Star Hotel; (Right) Producer Elinor Kowarsky and NYJFF blogger Stuart Hands.
Producer Elinor Kowarsky discusses A Hebrew Lesson--which played at this year’s festival--as well as her recent film 9 Star Hotel, a very touching portrait of two Palestinian laborers who cross into Israel illegally to seek employment.
Do you keep in touch with the two protagonists in 9 Star Hotel, Ahmed and Muhammad? What was their response to the film? They are very happy with it. They travelled with the film when we brought it to IDVA [The International Documentary Film Festival in the Netherlands]. They were very eager from the beginning to do the film because they wanted to tell their story. For them, it was a chance to bring home to their village the story of their lives on the hills, as the women, the mothers, the family didn’t really know the conditions and where they stayed. Also, the film helped Muhammad because, initially, the girl he was in love with didn’t want to marry him as he’s a simple worker and she comes from a Jordanian family which is better off. But then he came to Jordan with the film’s poster. They then decided that he could marry her because now he’s a movie star. Ahmed is already married. But overall, the film did not provide any tremendous change for them though it did help them financially because we are giving them all the prize money that the film is winning.
I love the opening shot of 9 Star Hotel where we see these two figures at night running over the hills. It so effectively introduces the film. The idea for the film actually came from that image. When director [Ido Haar] saw the men running across the highway and disappearing into the forest, he was moved to find out this story. This visual was very strong in his mind when he did the film. Visually, I think the intimate camera is the strongest feature of the film because it allows the viewer to be very close with the protagonists—it is as though you are with them on the mountain and around the fire. We used a cinematographer at the beginning but we thought the protagonists felt awkward when there was another person filming. It was better for them when it was only Ido filming.
During the Q&A after the opening night screening of A Hebrew Lesson, you discussed your sense of responsibility toward the people who appear in the film. I found this rather refreshing as many documentary filmmakers place more importance on “what’s good for the film” rather than the lives—in particular, the privacy—of the people in their film.
There are very different types of documentaries. When we do a political investigative documentary where there is something we need to expose—such as in the film we did about the incident at Joseph’s Tomb—we will use every means to expose it. But in a film like The Hebrew Lesson, where we follow people who share their personal lives, there’s no need to exploit them to the point where they would not be happy with the end result. When people are willing to open their lives and their hearts and share their stories, I always promise myself that they must be happy with the result because nothing is more important in this case. In this film, which is about identity and love, there’s no reason why somebody should be overexposed.
There are some very effective moments in the film where you cut away from the action before possible sensationalistic moments of yelling or crying or arguing. I think decisions like this help make A Hebrew Lesson a better film. This film is not about peaking into their lives. This leaves the viewer with a more active role. We are not feeding the audience every emotion. They are supposed to have their own thoughts and feelings through their identification with the characters. I think it is more thought-provoking this way.
At the Q&A for A Hebrew Lesson you also mentioned that there was a casting process where you chose your protagonists and placed them all in one class. What was your reason for doing this? How do audiences respond when you tell them about this casting process?
The casting process allowed us to follow the different stories. It is not as though we changed any of their lives’ realities (except for, of course, the effect that the camera has on reality). Every documentary has casting: Every documentary chooses their protagonists. And like in any documentary, we chose our protagonists after extensive research. What’s different with this film is that we put them all together in the same class. But some of them would probably be together anyway, maybe with a different teacher. I think people are surprised when they see the film: They think, “Wow, there are so many interesting stories in one classroom.” But I believe that every Hebrew class in Tel Aviv is full of such interesting stories because all the students have just recently immigrated for some reason: Something is going on in their lives that made them decide to make a move. This is a time in every immigrant’s life—it doesn’t matter if it’s in Israel or in any other country—which is full of drama and full of change. But we were looking for a variety of stories and people who were willing to share their stories. When we first came up with the idea for the film, we did a small test: We went to an Ulpan [Hebrew immersion class] with a camera. We interrupted each student for two minutes and asked them to tell their story. Every story was amazing. (I remember that one of the students was the wife of the Peruvian ambassador.) After that, we felt confident about this project. Because everybody there is in a very dramatic point in their lives, the Ulpan is a casting heaven.
Could you talk a little about the history of your company, Eden Productions? It was founded in 1989 by my mother who was initially a journalist. She started out making films about art. In the past nine years, we have produced television programs and various types of documentaries. We’re a small company in that we take on very few projects each year, usually ones dealing social or political issues. Doing fewer projects allows us to be much more involved in the making of the films. Apart from the fundraising, distribution and marketing, we’re also involved with a lot of the creative aspects of production. We work very closely with the director, we’re present on most shooting days, we develop ideas with the directors. So it’s a small family company with a very strong creative side.
Could you talk about the project you are working on now with director David Ofek, 1 Legend? We’re actually finishing it now. The film tells the story of a foreign worker from Romania who comes to Israel. Through his story we’re trying to deal with the subject of the Law of Return. We’re also trying to stretch the documentary format as we have the people in the film recreate scenes from their past, playing themselves at different moments of their lives.
You have made some films that are critical of Israel. How have audiences at Jewish film festivals responded to these films?
Usually, they are very disapproving of films that criticize Israel or show anything about Israel which is not pretty. Of course, when we show films like Checkpoint and even 9 Star Hotel, people say that, by showing these films outside of Israel, we are arousing anti-Semitism because they are exposing something that would obviously turn people against Israel. And I think there is this confusion that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism. I think it’s very important to show the reality of life in Israel in all its complexity. So for me it’s very important to screen Checkpoint and 9 Star Hotel outside of Israel.
Do you get much of this attitude in Israel? It’s different in Israel. In Israel, it’s an inner political discussion. Some people have this political opinion, some have that opinion. But nobody would say, “Why are you exposing this?” Though, in Israel, they do ask why we are screening these films outside of the country. They think that because the world likes to hate Israel, our films are successful outside of the country because we are playing into their hands. They say that if you show the soldier at the checkpoint, you will win the film festival at IDVA because the audience wants to see the soldier at the checkpoint. There will always be people that don’t want these stories shown: They want everybody to think that everything is perfect in Israel. But of course, you cannot hide these stories. Hiding is never good in any situation. So I believe the more people are aware of the reality, the more they are able to think about the situations, the solutions, and they are able to have a real opinion…For instance, there’s the debate concerning the separation wall: Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? Will it help? Or will just cover what will eventually erupt, as you are not giving the people behind that wall the means of providing for themselves, you are not developing their economy, you are suffocating them? The more you reveal the complexity of the situation and show the people that are behind this wall, the more you’re able to have a real debate. You cannot seal up the wall and think that we have solved the problem. There are people behind that wall and we always need to look. I think the aim of documentaries is to turn the camera into different corners and to make the audience look.