Friday, April 4, 2008

An Interview with Tehilim Director, Raphael Nadjari

Ilan Dar (left) and Yonathan Alster (right) in Tehilim.

The 17th annual New York Jewish Film Festival was thrilled to welcome Tehilim (2007). An official selection of the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, 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. The Orthodox paternal grandfather immerses the household in prayer, annoying the more secular-minded mother. And during this time of uncertainty, the children suffer from the absence of a guiding father figure.

Starting April 10th, Tehilim will be screening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. For more information, click here.

To read my interview with Tehilim co-producer, Noah Harlan, click here.

Tehilim was written and directed by French-born writer and director Raphael Nadjari. I recently had the opportunity to interview him by telephone.

In the mid-90s you moved to New York and started making films there. What about New York appealed to you? For me, New York was a very Jewish kind of place where I could explore my identity from another angle and—because I wasn’t born there—with the right distance. But I felt a very close relationship to the city and to the people I met there…In New York, I made three films. The first one was The Shade (1999). It was based on a story by Dostoyevsky that I adapted into a story about a Russian Jewish pawnbroker living in Harlem. Then there was I Am Josh Polonski’s Brother (2001) which was shot in twenty days on super-8. This film is about a Jewish family—three brothers—who work together in a fabric shop on the Lower East Side. [His third New York film was Apartment 5C (2002).]

Richard Edson in I Am Josh Polonski's Brother.

What made you decide to start making films in Israel? Once I had made my films in the States, I discovered that my [recurring] subject concerned Jewish families, Jewish identity, religion—and Israel is a big part of that subject. So I felt I had to [learn about Israel]. I moved to Israel in 2003 and I have since made two films there—the first was Avanim (2004), the second was Tehilim (2007).

Can you talk a bit about your process when starting to make a film? Each time, I use a very simple story and then I start developing it. My films are mostly improvised—there is no written dialogue. In my films, I [blend] reality and fiction. When I use a rabbi, for example, it will be a real rabbi or if I film in a Yeshiva, I will meet the people there, listen to them and take notes. For me, the director is not necessarily the one who [dictates what’s going on] but the one who listens.

Would you talk about your process of improvisation with the actors? Do you rehearse with them? We don’t rehearse at all. We find everything on the spot, on location. But during pre-production, I meet with the actors and we discuss the motives of the characters. I help each actor develop their character's storyline. And then when on set and in character, the actors clash. They are in conflict because each character has a different version of the same story. The combination of all the characters’ differing subjectivities creates some kind of deeper truth.

Would you talk more specifically about what you discuss with each actor? We talk about how they perceive their own characters as well as the other characters… Well, for example, in Tehilim, there’s Ilan Dar who plays the [religious] grandfather. I asked him about his memories of his own grandfather. So, for example, we would take ideas from the way his grandfather sat [as well as his experiences with his grandfather]… Interestingly, [Ilan’s] a very secular man. And for the film, he went back to the synagogues or discussed torah and was surprised that he remembered so many things from his past… We would work on these very sensitive and delicate topics that we encountered. [The film] also becomes a platform for the actor to create some kind of testimony on their own life.

…Many things happened on the set which were very specific to Israeli society: For example, another one of the actors is very secular and, for the film, they met a rabbi for the first time after having not met one for ten years. Also, Michael Moshonov [who plays the eldest son] and Limor Goldstein [who plays the mother] are both from Tel Aviv and I took them to Jerusalem which they don’t go to often…So, when making the film, they were even exploring their own society in a way. That’s fascinating for me because it refreshes the film’s gaze.

At Cannes, you said with reference to one of the themes in Tehilim that "no one has a monopoly on the truth; truth is something people find together". That’s an interesting comment because I find that, 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. I never thought of it that way but that’s very interesting. Let’s say by removing the father, it’s like you remove God and suddenly everybody is equal, as you said. Okay so now, once God is away, the world stops to exist, as every religion is based around the return or the comeback of hope: If you behave well, hope will be back; if you don’t behave well, then you will wait longer. But that’s not reality. The reality is that God is not necessarily something you experience as a central figure. It’s maybe something that you share with others, it’s the way you perceive others, it’s the way you can listen [to] others. That’s what we found during the film. (I didn’t think of my films as being some sort of huge metaphor but as we were working on this film, the more we discovered so many elements of this amazing symbolic metaphor.) What I’m saying is that once you remove this [God-like] central figure, one can experience true life. You no longer have anyone to protect you, you don’t have anyone who can say what direction to take or anyone who can balance the situation. The father in the film was probably someone who balanced the dynamics between his father, his wife and his children; he was someone within the family who provided a balance between modernity and tradition. But once he’s not there anymore, the rest of the family can’t help each other because they never really listened to each other—only the father was listening (maybe that’s why he left because it was impossible to listen anymore). When the father disappears, something very interesting and traceable happens. It creates a great vacuum and forces the characters to think.

In the beginning, there’s no real connection between the sons and the mother, but perhaps by the end, they realize the need to rely on each other more.
In the film, the rabbi doesn’t make a mistake when he says that [the father’s absence] is an opportunity for the family to be together, to find something to share…[I don’t think there’s hope in] some kind of illusion where there’s something above us in which we have to believe. Rather something must be done between humans, between people.

(from right to left:) Michael Moshonov, Yonathan Alster and Limor Goldstein in Tehilim.

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