OVER THE summer, the Israel Film Academy screened 31 new Israeli feature films to its members, who voted for the winners of this year’s Ophir Awards, which are the equivalent of the American Oscars.
Now in its 35th season, this year’s Ophir competition reflected a burgeoning industry that produced a record number of films with greater technical mastery than ever before.
But despite their technical prowess, many of the films, including “Foxtrot,” which won Best Picture, merely rehash well-worn themes relating to the tragedies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, giving viewers the feeling that they are watching something they have seen before.
Internationally acclaimed, “Foxtrot” has generated strong controversy in Israel and elsewhere because of its negative depiction of the IDF, especially a scene in which soldiers are shown killing innocent civilians.
One refreshing film that stood out was Asaf Saban’s “Outdoors” (“Bayit Ba’Galil”). When Saban began shooting his debut feature film two years ago with a skeletal crew and two actors, he had no funding. He did, however, have a sensitively written and carefully thought out original screenplay, two very capable actors and a talented cinematographer ready to hit his stride in his first feature production.
“Outdoors” centers around two characters and a single location with a very simple storyline: Ya’ara and Gili, a thirtysomething Tel Aviv couple (played by Noa Koler and Udi Razzin), decide to leave the urban rat race and build a home in the peace and quiet of the Galilee countryside. The film opens with the voices of Ya’ara and Gili discussing an animated 3D simulation of their vision of the house prepared by an architect.
The remainder of the film takes place at the site of the house during various stages of construction. During periodic visits, the couple clashes over almost everything, from whether the kitchen tiles should be sand- or sesame-colored to the meaning of a chance encounter Ya’ara has with a previous lover who happens to visit the site.
As the construction of the house continues, with both setbacks and progress, so too does Ya’ara and Gili’s relationship, with the two occasionally at each other’s throats and other times expressing loving warmth.
The story is both uniquely Israeli and universal. It is Israeli in its nuanced references to places where young couples hang out in Tel Aviv and in its depiction of friendly but distant relations between the couple and the Arab construction workers. And it is universal in its examination of love, marriage and long-term commitment, filled with witty dialogue, poetic charm and convincing acting that calls to mind the offbeat and innovative works of two independent American filmmakers who have also portrayed marital relations: Richard Linklater’s romantic trilogy (“Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight”) and Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson.”
When Saban was asked if he was influenced by other films that deal with married couples, he acknowledged a debt to Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from A Marriage,” which he describes as “the bible of dramas about couples.”
But Saban, 38, who grew up in a small Western Galilee town and today lives with his wife and young child in an apartment in Jaffa, didn’t have to look any further than his own peer group for inspiration. “I wanted to explore one of the main dilemmas of my generation,” says Saban, referring to the challenge that many young Israelis face today after putting off marriage to a relatively late age.
“My friends grew up in a very privileged way. We had the sense that, unlike our parents who were solely focused on finding practical jobs that would enable them to support themselves, we grew up in a kind of anti-bourgeois fantasy: We were more concerned with ourselves, with self-realization, with doing things that we wanted to do like studying art or film. Not surprisingly, we are a generation with frequent relationship break-ups, who didn’t start getting married until much later than our parents did. But then suddenly people decide to settle down and get married and they realize that they can no longer be so self-centered. The fantasy is over and they have to come to terms with a new reality.”
Saban points out that he wanted to examine this dilemma using both the concrete and fantasy elements of film language. He suggests that the building of the house, with its limitations, is similar to the limitations of a relationship. “It’s the moment in your life when you have to decide between fantasy and reality,” he says, referring to a scene when the architect rejects their plans for the placement of a window for being unfeasible.
SIGNIFICANTLY, EVEN though many of the scenes feature tensions between the two protagonists, neither husband nor wife seems to come out of any dispute as either the winner or the loser.
“I was aiming for a kind of philosophical truth where in an authentic relationship there is always a kind of dialectic at work,” says Saban, noting that the two struggle together without either appearing to be the hero. “You are led to see how they both come out of their disagreements with their own sense of being right.”
Despite the theatrical style of “Outdoors,” Saban came to filmmaking from the visual arts, which he studied in high school before taking up filmmaking at Hamidrasha at Beit Berl College, on the outskirts of Kfar Saba.
“I tend to think in images,” says Saban, adding that he tries to strip down dramatic situations “to their cinematic essence.”
One of the interesting aspects of “Outdoors” is indeed the visual style that Saban developed working together with cinematographer David Rudoy. As is often the case in avant-garde works of art, there is a sense that something new and different is happening, but it is difficult to say what exactly the novelty is.
The novel film language of “Outdoors” includes both the film’s structure and the placement of the camera. Each scene begins with a look at the physical changes that have been made to the house. Then the camera, without ever actually entering the house, begins to observe the interaction between the couple inside or beside the house.
“We wanted the house itself to be almost like a third protagonist, along with Ya’ara and Gili,” says Saban. Most of the scenes are shot in long takes of several minutes.
“It’s unusual for directors to work like that,” says David Rudoy, who has been part of production crews on many feature films, including Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote” and Natalie Portman’s “A Tale of Love and Darkness.”
“Usually directors aren’t willing to take risks so they back up each line of dialogue with numerous shots from different angles,” explains Rudoy, noting that productions need sufficient budgets to do so. “But because of the limitations under which we worked, and because as the production moved on, it became clear that the long takes were working so well, Asaf decided to go with more and more long takes.”
As a result, Rudoy suggests, the actors seemed to put everything they had into every shot, knowing that mistakes couldn’t be padded over in the editing room.
Also unusual for a feature film production was the sporadic way in which shooting days were scheduled. “The house that we used was a real house being built by my brother,” explains Saban. “So we had to spread out the shooting days to match the pace of the construction, which took place at intervals we couldn’t control over the course of about a year.”
Another unexpected development also affected the shooting schedule. One day after shooting had begun, Koler informed Saban that she was pregnant. Saban willingly revised the script and incorporated the new element into the story. It did mean, however, coordinating the script changes to synchronize progress in Koler’s pregnancy with progress in the construction.
“We all lived and breathed this film production for the better part of a year,” recalls Rudoy, noting that cast and crew were constantly juggling their personal schedules.
“Despite the difficulties, it was an exciting production to be a part of,” says Koler, 36, whose newborn child appears in the final scene. “It was very different than anything I had worked on before. It was like fringe theater. Art for the sake of art. But it was a project that captured my heart from the very start.”
Koler’s previous acting roles include her many years with Jaffa’s Gesher Theater and her recent critically acclaimed performance as an unmarried ultra-Orthodox woman in Rama Burshtein’s romantic comedy “Through the Wall,” which won her the 2016 Ophir Best Actress award.
“Working on this film couldn’t have been more different than working on “Through the Wall,” where every word of the script was written in advance and every shekel of the budget was approved by the group funding the film. Here we were all able to offer ideas at every stage,” she says, noting for example how the scene in which Ya’ara informs her husband that she is pregnant was altered after input from cast and crew.
“The first time we shot the scene about the pregnancy, Gili responds by sweeping Ya’ara off her feet out of joy. It had a real Hollywood feel to it. But it didn’t feel right. Because many of the crew and cast members or their spouses had actually become pregnant in recent months, we talked over what they felt like when they were informed about the pregnancy by their partners. Shock, fears and doubts were as much a part of it as joy,” says Koler, noting that the frank discussion led the scene to be shot again in a more nuanced way.
In developing the character of Ya’ara, Koler says that she often tried to think about her own fears when confronting situations that were “outside her comfort zone.”
Speaking to The Jerusalem Report a few weeks before the Ophir Award ceremony, Koler observed with irony that she was reminded of Ya’ara as she struggled to choose a dress to wear for the occasion.
“I’m not someone that pays a lot of attention to clothing, but suddenly I’m terrified about what the dress I choose is going to say about me. That’s how it was for Ya’ara choosing between the sesame- and sand-colored tiles. It was just some kitchen tiles. But all of a sudden her entire identity, everything she stands for, was connected to a bunch of tiles,” recalls Koler.
After more than a year of work, without money to pay his actors or crew, Saban edited a rough cut of the film and showed it to film industry investors. Impressed by what they saw, two film funds, the Rabinovich Foundation for the Arts and the Mifal Hapayis Arts and Culture Council, offered Saban the funding he needed to finish editing the film and launch its distribution.
“Outdoors” could turn out to be the surprise hit of the season. The Academy screenings led to several rave reviews by local film critics and Koler was one of the finalists in the Ophir Awards Best Actress category. “Outdoors” will have its world premiere at the Haifa Film Festival in October.