Making 8,000 clipping connections at the Epos Art Film Festival

The Epos Film Festival features documentary about children expelled from Israel to South Sudan

A scene from Nissan Tal's '8,000 Paperclips.' (photo credit: BARAK BRINKER)
A scene from Nissan Tal's '8,000 Paperclips.'
(photo credit: BARAK BRINKER)
One of the tried and trusted gags that went around when I was a kid went thus: When is a door not a door? Answer: When it’s ajar. Taking a somewhat tangential riff on that cerebral wordplay, one could tweak it by asking, When is a vet not a vet? In Nitsan Tal’s case the answer is: When she a filmmaker. OK, so that was stretching the humor line a mite, but the thematic crossover divide does apply.
By the same token, you might ask: When is art more than art? That is one of the central themes of Tal’s 8000 Paperclips documentary, which is in the lineup of this year’s Epos International Art Film Festival which will take place at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, March 11-14.
All told, there will be over 50 screenings across the four days, taking in a broad sweep of arts and arts-related fields, including architecture, theater, the plastic arts, cinema, dance, literature, music and an intriguing category called The Art of Rebellion. The latter, naturally, references social and sociopolitical issues, and the same could be said for 8000 Paperclips, which has been slotted into the Israeli Competition section and will be shown at 10 a.m. on March 14.
So, what is the value of art? That is a question that has been around from time immemorial. It comes up in all sorts of forums and walks of life – for example, when one considers how much state funding should go to supporting cultural ventures. In this country, artistic endeavor is close to the nethermost rung on the government budgetary ladder, while in countries such as Germany and Norway, many artists from all sorts of disciplines can go about their creative business unconcerned about the niceties of making ends meet or worrying about where their next meal is coming from.
RAFFAEL LOMAS takes an existential approach to his art, and the field in general, in a very tangible manner. Lomas is an Israeli artist who lives in Klil, in the Western Galilee. For him, creation is what keeps him going on a day-to-day basis. He has had his emotional challenges in life and is patently and almost painfully aware of what engaging in art can do for others, too.
The titular theme of the film refers to a work of art – Lomas calls it a sculpture – which comprises a hut-shaped wooden shell festooned with 8,000 connected paper clips. It is not just the visual bottom line that appeals in this instance. As we see in Tal’s emotive and expansive 73-minute documentary, it is the process here that is of the essence.
The sculpture was made, under Lomas’s supervision, in Uganda by kids and youth, most of whom were born in Israel – others came here when they were very small – and who were expelled “back” to the Republic of South Sudan. For the vast majority of the refugees, this was no homecoming. Most had lived all their lives in Israel, albeit not exactly in the lap of luxury, spoke fluent Hebrew and knew very little, if anything at all, about Africa.
As we learn from the young interviewees, they were not exactly welcomed to their new/old homeland with open arms and five-star treatment.
“I hated it,” says one of the Israeli-born refugees. “There was no electricity, no food, and we had to walk a long way to a lake for water.”
Luckily, they had left friends behind here and a couple – Dr. Rami Gudovitch and Lea Miller Forshtat – sprang into action and establish a nonprofit called Come True. The organization primarily set out to ensure the expelled youngsters had a shot at a better future by providing them with an education. But that came at an emotional and familial cost. While the youngsters relocated to Uganda, where the education system is more advanced, their parents and other siblings remained behind, in South Sudan and other neighboring countries. Lack of wherewithal means the only contact they have is by phone.
Enter Lomas and, later, Tal. The latter worked as a vet for 10 years but always enjoyed taking photographs.
“I particularly enjoyed documentary photography,” she notes, adding that she gradually worked her way into worthwhile documentary climes. “I got a bit tired of taking pictures of Chinatown,” she laughs. “I began working with nonprofits such as Asylum Access [which works with refugees] and philanthropic associations.”
That led to Tal making a foray to Ecuador, to document Colombian refugees, followed by another photographic jaunt to Guatemala, this time aimed at spreading the word for enhanced medical assistance for villagers there.
Tal’s prints were greatly appreciated, and helped to get the job done; and, over time, people started asking her whether she worked with video as well. At the time she didn’t, but she began to take the possibility of branching out seriously, and took a video course for photographers. Meanwhile, her veterinary activities were taking something of a back seat – she now works in her original chosen profession just one day a week – and she put together a documentary about an organization that works with inner-city kids in Philadelphia.
She’d just put that piece of film to bed when she received a text message telling her a certain Raffael Lomas was looking for someone to make a documentary in Uganda. Tal and Lomas duly spoke the very next day.
“Raffael told me about the kids who were expelled from Israel and that he wanted to do an arts project with them,” she recalls. “Living outside Israel, I hadn’t heard about the expulsion of the refugees to South Sudan.”
At that stage Lomas was about to make his second trip to see the young former Israeli residents in Uganda, and to try to make a difference through his art. Lomas referred Tal to a TV report on the refugee kids, by Miki Haimovich, called Lipol Migan Eden (Falling from Paradise). Tal was suitably moved.
“I watched the report and started crying. Their stories were so emotive. They took children who were born in Israel and sent them to one of the worst-off countries in Africa without any preparation or protection.” The die was cast. “I immediately decided to join Raffael,” says Tal. “I didn’t read up on him or check out what he was doing in Uganda. I was on board.”
The result is a delicately crafted and touching story of the children and youth and their personal development, as they go through indescribable horror and personal circumstances, and eventually find their way to Uganda, where they meet Lomas and engage in an uplifting voyage of creation, for all concerned.
There’s more to 8000 Paperclips, much more. Between the heart-wrenching tales there are stories that make you want to sing and dance with delight. In fact, there is a dance in there, too.
Many a social worker, or humanitarian organization personnel, will tell you that one of the worst aspects of being a refugee on the margins of society is being dependent on others. The loss of self-esteem, when you lose the ability to have any control over your own destiny and to contribute, is a bitter pill to swallow.
In the case of the South Sudanese refugees, after enduring expulsion from the only home most of them had ever known, and finding themselves cut adrift in a strange country with dreadful living conditions, they finally found they were able to be of some use after all. Paradoxically, these non-Jewish youngsters had far more knowledge about Judaism and Hebrew than their Jewish counterparts in Uganda. The latter form part of the Abuyudaya Jewish community of Uganda.
After completing the sculpture, having it shipped to Tel Aviv where it was put on display, Lomas stayed on the case and went back to Uganda to see what else he could facilitate for the former Israelis. That led to a fruitful and happy confluence between Victoria, Atoch, Veronica and the rest of the ex-Tel Avivites, Yoash Mayende, director of the Tikun Olam School, in Namutumba, Uganda, and members of the Jewish community. A Shabbat prayer service, with the Torah reading split between Lomas, who hails from an Orthodox background, and Victoria, ensues. And there is a moving Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony in there, too. Meanwhile, the sculpture has been exhibited in San Diego, California, and Lomas is looking for funds to take it on other roads.
I wondered whether Tal brought a fresh approach to the work, in view of her outsider status in the world of documentary making.
“I think that may be right,” she observes. “I wasn’t looking to make a beautiful artsy film. It is not a film about itself. I wanted to convey the message, a powerful message, about these children who were expelled from Israel, and what has happened to them. I like simplicity. It is about the story.”
Quite a story.
For tickets and more information about the Epos Festival: