Patriarchal projection

An Argentinean's problems adjusting to his daughter's move to Israel form the basis of 35-year-old director Daniel Burman's new film.

'For a long time, I've been interested in the question of love between parents and children, because the love of the parents for the children is a kind of unrequited love. There's a point at which you are giving to them and not getting anything in return' You might not think it to look at Daniel Burman, but the handsome, poised, 35-year-old Argentinean director has been called the Woody Allen of Argentina. Burman, here to accept the Achievement Award at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival at the Jerusalem Cinematheque last week and to present his latest work, Empty Nest, seemed flattered when asked about the comparison. "It's a little bit of an exaggerated claim," he says, speaking halting English and fluent Spanish. "I like it, but it's not something I feel myself." In truth, although all of his films have very funny moments, they are all bittersweet in a way that is reminiscent more of Woody Allen's recent films than his Seventies comedies. Burman's latest, Empty Nest, which will open throughout Israel early in 2009, showcases his trademark knack for looking at heavy subjects with a light touch. But although his other films have looked at the Jewish community in Buenos Aires, this is his first movie in which the main character, Leonardo (Oscar Martinez), a playwright suffering from writer's block, is not Jewish. It's not something Burman planned, though. "When I start writing, I don't ask the characters if they want to be Jewish. But that's how it came out." Thinking it over, he laughs, saying, "He may be Jewish, but he doesn't know it." But it isn't really a joke, because the milieu in which the intellectual Leonardo lives is not so far removed from the Jewish enclaves that were home to characters in Burman's trilogy of films about fatherhood, Waiting for the Messiah (2000), The Lost Embrace (2004) and Family Law (2006). And the plot, which involves Leonardo's difficulty dealing with it when his daughter moves to Israel to be with her Israeli husband, also has strong similarities to Burman's previous work. "For a long time, I've been interested in the question of love between parents and children, because the love of the parents for the children is a kind of unrequited love. There's a point at which you are giving to them and not getting anything in return," says Burman, the father of two young boys, aged six and four. "And then they leave... Since we live in a society where we always expect to get something in return for what we give, I wanted to explore this issue." The idea for Empty Nest was partly inspired by a moment he had when he watched his children playing in the park in sunlight. "It looked so perfect," he recalls. "Like a commercial for a bank. But it was a fleeting moment." There are many movies about children breaking away from their parents, he says, but this moment made him want to write a movie about "a father separating from a child." In his last movie, Family Law, he looked at the life of a son who has a difficult but in some ways very close relationship with his own father, then feels adrift when he marries and has a child of his own. "In Derecho de Familia [Family Law], I show a character learning to be a father, learning to love his child. And in Empty Nest, it's about what happens when the child no longer needs the father." He recalls that when his own first child was born, he expected to have a natural feeling of tenderness, but says when he first picked up the baby, "It was like holding a hamburger." Late in the film Empty Nest, Leonardo and his wife, Martha (played by Cecilia Roth, the renowned actress who starred in Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother), go to Israel to visit their daughter. This trip is a turning point in Leonardo's life. "I wanted to do a film here for a long time," says Burman. When he first visited Israel five years ago, "I had only known Israel from the newspapers before, but I experienced a special feeling when I came." Asked to describe this feeling, he can say only that it was "abstract." In the film, when Leonardo arrives and looks out the window as the van he's traveling in rolls through the desert, "It's a regression to a moment of childhood. It brings him back. It's a pinnacle moment." Burman is not a political director and chooses not to make any overt political statements in his work. But surely, presenting Israel in such a positive light - he portrays the daughter's desert home as a refuge that helps turn Leonardo's life around - is political in a way. Burman agrees, but cautions, "Politics is not only to document barriers of control." Instead of making sweeping statements through dialogue, Burman "presents little details that show what is going on." When Leonardo discovers that his son-in-law owns a weapon, he is surprised, but the film doesn't belabor the point. Another such detail is "where he decides to place his gaze when he arrives" - as the van moves toward the desert, Leonardo gets a brief glimpse of the security fence, although, again, there is no explicit comment on this. BURMAN HAS written the script for a movie about Argentinean immigrants to Israel that had hoped to start filming earlier this year. When I interviewed him in 2006, he was here to promote Family Law and said that the Israeli film would be his next movie, although he mentioned in passing a script about the empty nest question. He still wants to make the Israeli movie, but "there was a problem with the financing. I was working on both films and got the money to make Empty Nest first." Although he likes to make movies about complex family relationships, Burman says his relationship with his own parents is very sunny. His parents, who are lawyers, were fully supportive of his decision to make movies his career. "In 2,000 years, no one in my family has been an artist," he jokes. "But they were happy when I told them I was going into movies. They're proud. My mother searches for my name on the Internet." But before going into movies, Burman, a good son, studied law and only went into movies after he realized he didn't want to be a lawyer. He has certainly been successful enough to warm the heart of any Jewish mother. His films have won prizes and are distributed all over the world. The Lost Embrace, a movie about a young Buenos Aires man whose father moved to Israel after he volunteered to fight in the Yom Kippur War, won the Silver Bear-Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 2004. He has also produced a number of films, including the acclaimed Motorcycle Diaries. His early feature film, Waiting for the Messiah, the first of his so-called Fatherhood Trilogy, is being shown at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival in a retrospective. Waiting for the Messiah is the first of three films that star Daniel Hendler as characters who, Burman says, all just happen to be named Ariel. In Messiah, set against a background of Argentina's economic crisis, Ariel is expected to take over his father's restaurant, but rebels. In The Lost Embrace, Ariel is a dutiful son whose estranged father is in Israel, and Ariel wants to use his refugee grandmother's documents to get Polish citizenship to move to Poland and have a better economic future (a prospect which horrifies the grandmother). Family Law features a different Ariel, a law professor, who rejects his remote but demanding father's insistence that he join the family law firm. Many have noticed similarities between the tone of these three films, as well as the fact that a single actor plays characters named Ariel, and Francois Truffaut's Antoine Doinel series: The 400 Blows, Antoine and Colette, Stolen Kisses and Bed and Board. Burman is clearly happy with this comparison, saying that, along with Woody Allen, Truffaut is one of his favorite directors. But he never intended to make a trilogy. "It's very pretentious to make a movie and then another and another and call it a trilogy." He used Hendler all three times just because Hendler is so good and chose the name Ariel simply because "it's short," he claims. "There was no grand plan." Told that a moment in Empty Nest seems to closely mirror a particular scene in Truffaut's Stolen Kisses, he is surprised. "If I did, it's unconscious," he says. "I'll have to take a look at it again." Mobbed by admirers at the sold-out Empty Nest screening, Burman seems surprisingly shy, even a bit embarrassed. His expression as these well-wishers surround him brings back a comment he made during his pre-screening interview, about Leonardo in Empty Nest, "He's lost within himself." Or maybe it's just jet lag, and Burman, the quiet focus of a noisy crowd, smiles and keeps shaking hands.