Off the beaten track

Presenting her film ‘The Loneliest Planet’ at International Haifa Film Festival, director Julia Loktev speaks about how people act in extreme situations.

Julia Lotkev 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Gustavo Hochman)
Julia Lotkev 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Gustavo Hochman)
Julia Loktev, the Russian-born, US-raised director of The Loneliest Planet, who is a guest of the 27th Haifa International Film Festival, may seem soft-spoken and cooperative, but she can be pretty feisty if someone tries to rob her.
She recalls how she defended her property on several occasions while discussing The Loneliest Planet, which is about a young couple on a hiking trip through the Georgian wilderness and how certain unpredictable incidents change their lives forever.
When Loktev was in Brazil, “a big guy tried to take my camera. I fought back and hit him. If you had asked me ahead of time, I would have said, I should just give it to him.” Instead, she got into a “a real confrontation, kicking and punching.” In Mexico, even at gunpoint, she refused to hand over her property – at first. “I gave him the camera, but I managed to hold on to my purse.”
She gives these examples not to spotlight her bravery – or foolhardiness – but to explain her interest in how people act in extreme situations. “You think you know how you’ll act, but you don’t,” she says.
At the center of The Loneliest Planet is just such a moment, but Loktev doesn’t want the details revealed in an article.
“It’s about what happens in a relationship and what happens in this one moment, in which one lover does something that makes the other feel unloved... How do you negotiate your way back from a moment like that?” she says. It’s a moment that inevitably divides the couple, and the second half of the film details the rest of their very uncertain journey together.
“It’s about the way people move back together, and the herky-jerky process of reconciliation,” she says, and laughs as the film is described as either the best or worst date movie ever. Although the film is set amid the spectacular backdrop of the natural beauty of Georgia, “it’s in an intimate space where there is no place to hide – it’s very exposed, there are no trees, no place to disappear.”
CASTING THE couple was a critical challenge for Loktev. The movie stars Gael Garcia Bernal, the Spanish actor who played Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries.
“I thought it would be hard to find the right actor, so I cast a pretty wide net, looking for an actor who could play this character, who is both strong and masculine, but who is also comfortable with being sensitive. And people told me, ‘Israeli men are strong and sensitive.’” But while she watched Israeli movies, looking for that elusive sensitive guy, she found herself noticing Israeli actresses, particularly Hani Furstenberg, whom she cast opposite Bernal.
“I went looking for Israeli men and found an astonishing, tiny redhead,” she says of American-born Furstenberg. She was intrigued that Furstenberg could play such different characters in Yossi & Jagger and Campfire. When she learned that Furstenberg was performing in Hamlet with the Cameri Theater in Cleveland, she got in touch with her and they met.
“She’s definitely not playing herself here. She put on muscle for the role, to play this brash, adventurous hiker.”
Furstenberg, who isn’t “an outdoorsy girl” had to conquer her fear of heights for the role. “The first couple of takes of her climbing on a rope would be Hani conquering her fear. By the third take, she would be Nica [the character].”
Loktev, who notes that a huge part of the international backpacker culture she depicts in the film is made up of young Israelis, says that this is her first visit to Israel, although she has distant relatives here. Her parents left the USSR for the US in the wave of Jewish emigration in the late Seventies.
“I became a director against their advice.
They had the typical immigrant dream, they wanted me to become a doctor.”
But Loktev took an unusual route to filmmaking.
“I did sound pieces and experimental radio art. And then it became logical to add images to that.”
Her previous feature film, the 2006 Day Night Day Night, was an enigmatic study of a young female terrorist in New York. It won awards at festivals around the world, including Cannes. For her next film, The Loneliest Planet, she was drawn to make a film set far from civilization.
“Georgia was the jewel of the USSR when I was growing up, it was a very popular travel destination,” she says. “But we wanted to avoid picture-postcard shots making the movie. Until the very last shot, you only see the sky in little slivers.”
The film, which was shown at the New York Film Festival, will be screened next in London. But she is curious to see how Israelis react to her film here.
“Israelis are the most intrepid travelers.
And part of going backpacking is opening yourself up to unpredictable experiences,” she says. Like getting into fist-fights with camera thieves? Loktev nods, laughing.