'Sand Flakes': An Israeli movie directed by a mother-son duo

While they worked closely together on Sand Flakes, where they are credited as co-directors, the two live very independent lives.

 GITIT KABIRI (left) and Yahel Kabiri at the premiere of ‘Sand Flakes.’  (photo credit: Izik Biran)
GITIT KABIRI (left) and Yahel Kabiri at the premiere of ‘Sand Flakes.’
(photo credit: Izik Biran)

There are many brothers who direct movies together – the Coens, the Dardennes, and the Safdies are just a few who come to mind – but Gitit Kabiri and Yahel Kabiri, who made the recently released Sand Flakes, are the first mother-son directing duo I have ever come across. 

Since most of us mothers have enough trouble getting our sons to take out the garbage, and most sons are so annoyed if their mom just suggests what shirt to wear, the idea of such a partnership on such a complex and demanding project intrigued me and I asked to interview the Kabiris. But while they worked closely together on Sand Flakes, where they are credited as co-directors and the script is by Gitit, the two live very independent lives. Gitit had just left for an unplugged vacation in Sinai when I reached out, so I spoke with Yahel about the film and their collaboration. 

How a mother-son duo directed a movie

Sand Flakes is a heartfelt and moving coming-of-age story set in an isolated Negev town, about David (Yonatan Lahav-Weisberg), a teenage boy who aspires to be a writer, and Iris (Shani Cohen), his mother, who gave up on her own ambitions years ago and now suffers from a crippling illness. As the son writes short stories – that are dramatized in beautiful animations – which are a thinly veiled version of his mother’s life, he begins to come to terms his family and himself. 

Yahel, 23, a film student at Tel Aviv University’s Steve Tisch School of Film and Television, said that he and his mother, a documentary filmmaker who has worked for Channel Two, decided to collaborate due to the unique quality of the story portrayed in Sand Flakes

“My mother started working on the screenplay in 2013 when I was 13,” he said. Like the hero in Sand Flakes, Yahel was part of an Internet group for teen writers, which, he said, “became a kind of support group.” It included creative teenagers from all over Israel – those from the center of the country and from the periphery; religious and secular, with all kinds of gender identities. 

 SHANI COHEN (left) and Yossi Marshak in ‘Sand Flakes.’ (credit: Courtesy of Laila Films and Nachshon Films)
SHANI COHEN (left) and Yossi Marshak in ‘Sand Flakes.’ (credit: Courtesy of Laila Films and Nachshon Films)

After his mother learned about the group, “There was something that fascinated her about it. Around the same time, she was in a car accident and developed a disease called fibromyalgia that was one of the elements that inspired her to create a story about a mother who can’t function, which creates a difficult situation at home.”

Work on the screenplay and the process of getting funding for the film took about six years. Although the family lives in Modi’in, Yahel studied film at Thelma Yellin High School in Tel Aviv, a prestigious art school, and had just graduated when Gitit was starting to get ready to shoot the film. 

“I came aboard to support her both physically and mentally, going to Yerucham, finding locations so that there would be someone with her during this process. And at a certain moment, something clicked between us, we realized we were speaking the same language when it came to the movie. We realized we had the same vision and then it was decided that I would direct together with her.”

They began working on the auditions and choosing the cast together. During the rehearsal phase they decided to split up the rehearsals so that Yahel was working with the young actors and Gitit rehearsing the adult cast. “I think this benefited the film, it mirrored the separation between Iris and David... They are in two worlds that don’t connect, they don’t quite see each other... We were able to portray two conflicting realities.”

But even though they worked separately, they shared what they were doing. Things shifted on the set, where they sometimes reversed roles, with Shani Cohen working more closely with Yahel, and Gitit concentrating more on the movie’s young star, Yonatan Lahav-Weisberg. Sounding like a veteran director, he acknowledged that this was a surprise, but said, “There are always surprises on the set... Things happen in an unplanned and natural way on the set, it’s in the organic nature of filmmaking.”

Now for the big question: How did they deal with conflicts that arose? Yahel said this wasn’t really an issue. “When we were on set, I don’t think there really were any arguments, because we had a very similar vision. We had discussions, we had thoughts, we did have a few disagreements about our vision, but that’s actually a good thing, it helps the movie develop, it brings new direction and new ideas. Any arguments we had, we saved for home, not on the set.” In spite of their creative harmony as filmmakers, they had the usual spats at home, about “who does the dishes and who walks the dog... But on the set, we were two directors collaborating.”

He described the process of working with non-professional actor Yonatan Lahav-Weisberg, who made his screen debut in Sand Flakes

“We discovered him, and in cases like that, I think the correct way to work is to work through that person’s inner world. He was cast because we saw many connections between David, the character, and Yonatan the person... To get him to bring out his internal David, we helped him work in a way that related to his life and his own inner world.” Lahav-Weisberg was switching schools around the time the film was made, and he was able to bring the loneliness and uncertainty he felt to his performance.

Yahel said that both Lahav-Weisberg and Shani Cohen were not really acting, so much as they were “bringing their inner reality to the work.” But although the character of Iris was inspired by his mother’s injury and difficult recovery, he said, his mother is a very different person.

Iris’s greatest fear, he explained, was “that she would be unable to function to that extent and that there would be a combination of depression and disability and complete passivity that would cripple her... I don’t think it’s just connected to my mother’s worry about her recovery from her accident, I think it’s a fear I can identify with, that we all can identify with.”

Yahel is working on films for his studies and Gitit is also at work on new projects, including a television series and a book. Yahel doesn’t think they will co-direct again. “Working together was right for this specific project,” he said, although adding, in English, “Never say never. If it’s right again, it will happen again.”