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Solo Avital, director of ...More than 1000 Words, which is playing as part of the Docu-Lev series at the Lev Cinema in Dizengoff Center, says he didn't set out to make a political movie. True, his film focuses on Ziv Koren, a photographer whose passion is taking pictures of the current intifada, but he says he wanted the film to be about "character rather than conflict."
"I knew I wanted to make a film about Israel, but not about the Israeli- Palestinian conflict," he says. "A lot of films are already being made about the issues and I'm not an expert. But I wanted to learn more about the subject myself, through focusing the film on one person."
Koren, the subject of the film, is a prize-winning, Tel Aviv-based photographer whose photos have graced the covers of magazines such as Newsweek and whose work is exhibited at galleries all over the world.
Koren was not a friend of Avital's before they began making the film. "I went to his Web site and was stunned and amazed by the quality of his work," says Avital. Initially Koren, who works alone and often travels to the most dangerous areas of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in order to record the conflict, was reluctant to let Avital shoot him at work.
"He said, 'I've had many offers to be filmed but I work alone. A camera crew could ruin my intimacy with my subjects,'" recalls Avital. However, he managed to convince Koren that, since Avital operates his own camera and would need no other crew - that he could fade into the background and not disturb Koren. Avital ended up spending two years recording Koren at work.
The result is a film about a man's obsession with documenting the conflict and is dominated by Koren's arresting and often beautiful photographs of a charged situation. You can view some of these photographs at Avital's Web site, www.happyzoda.com or at Koren's site at www.zivkoren.com
"The film serves as a metaphor for what Israelis are going through," says Avital. "I was fascinated by how Ziv can be a normal guy with his family, drop his daughter off at kindergarten and then go to the territories and take these photos."
At the beginning, he did not anticipate how much the film would be a personal look at Koren. "I didn't realize I would interview his wife," he says. But the interviews with Koren's wife, actress/model Galit Gutman, are revealing as she explains her frustration with her husband's obsessive pursuit of scoops and her worries about his safety.
Avital himself went through some harrowing experiences making this movie, but he says they were all worth it.
"Sure I was a little scared at the beginning, it's only natural," he admits. There were times, though, that Avital didn't realize what a dangerous situation he was walking into.
Once, in 2005, he went with Koren to Jenin, to photograph members of the Al-Aksa brigades. Their guide was a young man named Palestine. Palestine and Avital chatted and even exchanged hats as a friendly gesture. Not understanding the ground rules completely, Avital began filming when he was not supposed to and was threatened with death by some of the senior members of Al-Aksa. "Palestine put his hand on my shoulder, he said, 'This guy's a friend of mine. He didn't know he wasn't supposed to shoot yet.' He saved my life." A few days later, Avital and Koren were stunned to learn that their guide, who was the #3 most wanted man from the Al-Aksa Brigades, had been killed.
One theme that runs through the film is that Israelis "just don't want to know" what is really going on throughout the West Bank and Gaza. The motivation to bring this reality to people is what drives Koren and Avital. At one point, Koren describes the bizarre experience of covering a West Bank riot, then driving three or four kilometers to Jerusalem and seeing people sipping espresso at cafes.
"I didn't want this film to simply present one side or the other, but to show what is happening and what motivates Ziv," says Avital, who has made several other documentaries and is also a composer and creates special effects for big-budget foreign films. Koren does photograph both Palestinians and Israelis and the film shows him documenting the Jewish withdrawal from Gaza last summer, a sequence in which Koren demonstrates compassion both for the soldiers tasked with evacuating the settlers and the settlers themselves.
The film has been shown at festivals around the world and won awards for Best Feature Documentary at the Winnipeg International Film Festival and Best Feature Film at the BRIDGE Film Festival in Vancouver.
Avital's next project is "much more low-key," a look at the struggle to bring former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters to Israel for a concert.
...More than 1000 Words has received a warm reception around the world. Says Avital, "In Berlin one woman came up to Ziv and she said, 'With everything I have ever read and seen about Palestinian conflict, I now understand so much more...One of the best reactions I got was a man who came up and said, 'I'll never complain about the weather in my life again.'"