‘Ajami’ director on ‘Chained,’ his ‘Love Trilogy’ and truth-telling

‘Cinema speaks in many different voices,” said Yaron Shani, the director of Chained, which opened recently in theaters throughout Israel. “With cinema, I try to go with what’s true.”

A Scene from 'Chained' (photo credit: SHAGAI LIEBMAN)
A Scene from 'Chained'
(photo credit: SHAGAI LIEBMAN)
‘Cinema speaks in many different voices,” said Yaron Shani, the director of Chained, which opened recently in theaters throughout Israel. “With cinema, I try to go with what’s true.”
Shani has always featured different voices in his work and tried for authenticity, notably in his first film, Ajami, which he directed with Scandar Copti, which told the story of Arabs and Jews from all different backgrounds and religions in Jaffa. Ajami was shown all over the world and received a nomination for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and a special mention in the Golden Camera section at the Cannes Film Festival.
Chained is a very different film from Ajami but shares the naturalistic style which gave Ajami its intensity. It tells the story of a police officer, Rashi (Eran Naim), who is having trouble on all fronts. His younger wife, Avigail (Stav Almagor), has just had a miscarriage when the movie opens. He wants to be a father to her 13-year-old daughter, Yasmin (Stav Patay), but he seems to constantly get into conflict with the girl as he tries to discipline her, while her mother stands aside passively.
At the same time, he gets into trouble on the job, as he aggressively interrogates a teen he believes has drugs, only to get accused of sexually harassing the boy, who happens to be the son of someone important. As his world crumbles, he clutches hard at every last shred of dignity in this tragic and demanding story.
Chained, which has won critical acclaim around the world since it premiered at the Berlin Film Festival last year, has also been awarded many important prizes in Israel, including Ophir Awards for Best Director and Best Actor (for Naim), and it won the Israeli film competition at the Jerusalem Film Festival last summer, as well as another Best Actor prize and the Audience Award.
The film is part of Shani’s Love Trilogy, three films with loosely connected storylines, all about characters struggling with alienation in Tel Aviv. The first film, Stripped, about a successful writer experiencing an inexplicable malaise (that turns out to stem from a very disturbing incident), was released last year. The final film, Reborn, about how various characters who have been glimpsed briefly in the previous films try to overcome past traumas, won three awards at the Haifa International Film Festival last fall, including Best Film.
All three films star non-professional actors and all are improvised in a way that can be challenging for viewers, but which many have found riveting.
Asked how he has been able to make not one but three films in this intentionally uncommercial style, he said, “It was originally supposed to be one film, but I expanded it... it’s a struggle to get all movies made in Israel these days.”
Still, it’s an impressive achievement, but what Shani, who lives with his family in Pardess Hanna, cares about is telling stories in a truthful way and to do this, he has developed a complex method of working.
“I do research about things that have really happened, and I write the script,” he said. “Then I find people who have a similarity to the characters in the story.”
NAIM IS a first-time actor who was a police officer and had to leave the force under difficult circumstances, although not the same ones described in the film.
“We had many meetings together, with Eran and with the others to they did meetings to build the relationships. They don’t have a script, they live it,” he said. “It’s something between a fiction film and a documentary.... He went through a crisis [when he left the police force] and when we were making the film, it was up to him how much he wanted to go there.”
He works with the actors for months before they begin filming, and talks to them about the story. At all times, he explained, the actors know where the scene is going, but they speak in their own words. He films chronologically, which is extremely rare.
“The feelings that they express are almost exactly how they feel in real life,” he said. He tries to use their reactions and instincts to express and illuminate real drama and conflict, rather than creating it artificially.
“When a character finds love, we see what is the real meaning of finding love for them,” he said. “When they have a crisis, we see the meaning of that crisis. I look for something that has a deep grain of truth.”
Shani is trying to create a different kind of cinema from conventional films, where “everything is fabricated, it’s all under control and everyone is good looking and it’s all fake... I know people like it because it makes them feel good but it distances them from real life, the way that with PTSD, people distance themselves not only from the pain but from every aspect of life.”
Social media is almost all fiction, he said. “What does that say about our connection to people?”
When I told him that throughout Chained, I felt that Rashi could erupt violently at any moment, Shani said that that was the point. “We should feel like it’s all real and that anything could happen.”
Asked why Chained and the other films, which deal with very dark themes, are called the Love Trilogy, Shani said, “It’s not about romantic and kitschy love, it’s about the deepest love in all its aspects.... What’s important is that they feel love and they express it in their way. That’s my goal.”
What happens when the actors, as they express themselves, don’t go quite in the direction Shani was expecting? “Sometimes I go with what they want, sometimes it is more interesting. This process is very complicated. It’s not something that is easy to understand. I’m trying to get to something authentic.”
What he’s going for is “to get to the darkest parts of life, the violence, control, obsessions, suffering, pain and also the love... it’s very intimate.”
Looking into the darkness in people’s souls may sound depressing, but Shani said that, on the contrary, it can be liberating to experience real emotions.
“I’ve never met a human being, who when you break through their shell, isn’t complicated, isn’t suffering,” he said.