A focused artist

Life in Stills - follow this intimate documentary by Heymann Brothers Films showing soon in Tel Aviv.

Heymann Brothers 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Heymann Brothers 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Documentary film director and producer Barak Heymann sits at his office desk, focused on the computer screen in front of him, elevator music playing from a phone set to speaker nearby. “I’ve been on hold for half an hour waiting to yell at the phone company,” he explains. Other items on his to-do list this Tuesday morning include collecting information on Jewish film festivals around the world, cementing details of a private screening of his film Forever Scared about Israeli-Arab writer Sayed Kashua, and contacting famed local singer Daniela Spektor to sing background vocals for his latest television series on divorce. “She just has a nice voice,” he says.
Heymann’s company, Heymann Brothers Films – which he runs with his brother, Tomer – has been producing and creating documentary films and television series since 2003. Their subject matter covers the colorful array of personalities and communities in Israel from the first integrated Arab-Jewish school to beauty competitions to their own family history. Their films are regularly shown in large theaters and private screenings throughout the country (“we do a lot of private screening, after which discussions are held with one of us as the director or producer of the film”) and in film festivals around the world.
Heymann recently came back from a trip to China, where his film The Lone Samaritan, about a dying religion and one family’s struggle with excommunication from its community, won an award at the Shanghai TV Festival.
Their two-roomed office is fittingly located in grungy, art-filled South Tel Aviv. Both rooms display framed posters of their work over the years; several shelves hold film festival awards shaped like filmstrips or hands or undecipherable statues, and many shelves contain blue folders with labels like “Press for The Way Home” and “General Office Maintenance.”
Heymann, red haired, goateed and wearing a worn, yellow T-shirt, plaid shorts and black sandals, moves minute to minute between activities, hunching over the computer, sitting back, feet on his chair, tapping a hand fan as he talks on the phone, going into the other room to talk to office manager Nevo Lederman or festival coordinator Aicha Funk.
“I was shocked by the amount of work that goes into film,” says Lederman, who joined the office just under two months ago and has slowly been helping the company get a grip on organization so the brothers “can focus on being artists.”
But it is doing this mass of work that characterizes Heymann’s passion. In the world of producing and directing documentaries, including not just finding film titles and watching screenings, but doing bank statements and yelling at phone companies, Heymann’s energy and enthusiasm span every possible role.
After about an hour at the office, Heymann jumps on his moped and drives over to where film editor Nili Feller, whose work includes Oscar-nominated film Waltz with Bashir, is editing the upcoming TV series on divorce. On the way, he explains that he’ll later do a daily stop to drop off flyers at the Cinematheque Tel Aviv, where his latest venture as producer, a film called Life in Stills, was recently brought back by popular demand.
“He’s a phenomenon,” says Feller at the editing studio, an adjunct room to his brother’s apartment with brown, patterned floors and a door-sized window to the tiny balcony outside. “He’s 14 people, but he’s one person.
And he doesn’t take in enough iron!” she says, to which Heymann responds, “I do, I take B12 supplements every day.”
“His involvement in films is not just one of a producer,” she continues, “not just budgetary. Because he wants to make the best film possible.”
FIRST-TIME director Tamar Tal, who directed Life in Stills, became aware of Heymann’s work at a convention he helped organize called “Whose Film Is This Anyway?” The convention had been set up to inform directors about their rights. Tal agrees that Heymann’s involvement in his work goes much deeper than setting up the logistics of making a film.
“Beyond simply being the producer, he’s a creative partner,” she says about their work together. “In the case of the name of the film, for example, I was dead set on The Photo House because it was a direct translation of the Hebrew. But he believed in Life in Stills, and he did everything to convince me. He made phone calls and put people on speaker asking which they thought was better. He understood it was a name that people could connect to, and he was right.”
Life in Stills tells the story of Miriam, the 96-year-old owner of a Tel Aviv photo house with a million negatives of Israel and Tel Aviv, from the country’s inception in the 1940s through its life in the 1960s. The photo house is itself a monumental treasure of the city, and when Tel Aviv threatens to tear down its building, Miriam and her grandson, Ben, who joins the business just before the film begins, must fight for its survival while continuing to run the business. The documentary follows the pair’s intimate relationship closely, as Ben considers his grandmother’s every need.
Throughout their work together, Tal always appreciated Heymann’s steadfast dedication to the story itself. She describes the filming of a scene in which Miriam’s house has been broken into: “Ben sent me a text saying, ‘Someone broke into grandma’s house.’ I looked at the phone, appalled. At that point I wasn’t sure if it wouldn’t be too paparazzi [to film that storyline]. I immediately called Barak to deliberate. And he said, go film and we’ll talk about it in the editing room. And it’s a very important scene that I couldn’t have imagined doing without Barak’s grasp of [filmmaking]. Many producers might say we have to think about the budget, but Barak is dedicated to the story.”
HEYMANN MEETS me again at a café across the street from his office, wearing a different worn, yellow T-shirt, jean shorts and a navy blue newsboy cap. After he offers to buy me coffee and brings me a glass of water, we sit down. He answers questions openly and comfortably, often smiling to reveal the small gap between his front teeth.
“There is no specific answer to what a producer is,” he says. “It’s different in the US from what it is in Israel, it’s different between fiction films and documentaries, and it’s different from producer to producer. I am a creative producer, which means I’m heavily involved in the creative process of the work, including research and editing and filming. That is researching who we are filming and why, then being stubborn about what moments we want to catch on film, then editing the footage, which is the most important aspect of the process, where we discover what the story is.”
“A good producer,” he continues, “is one who takes a dream – it doesn’t matter if it’s his or someone else’s – and roots it into a reality of [sometimes] boring and heartbreaking details.”
Asked what his favorite part of the process is, he replies, “It’s hard for me to say, because I’m involved with several projects simultaneously, so at every given moment I’m at different parts of the process. There is of course that moment when you stand on stage at a premiere for a movie you’ve worked on for two or three years and the Cinematheque is full of 400 people laughing and crying and clapping, and your heart just swells. I think a good day of filming, when you don’t even know how a scene will be edited in but something crucial happened to one of the heroes, [is another].”
This love of being involved in every part of filmmaking has taught Heymann that he has no interest in expanding Heymann Brothers Films. “We’ve had a few opportunities, which meant taking on more projects and taking on more people, but for me it meant being less directly involved in every detail, and that’s something I won’t let happen. Maybe it’s right financially, but it’s not right for me.”
The audience never far from his mind, he says, “I create with the thinking that ultimately I have to communicate with people. If I made you feel something different about your grandmother, your monumental experience is monumental for me – and I want to be there for that.”
And so, on a Monday in which Life in Stills is being shown at the Cinematheque Tel Aviv, a surprise screening that, despite not having been publicized by the theater, has crowds streaming in, Heymann walks around speaking to audience members, putting up flyers of the film and, at one point, answering his phone.
“Nili the editor says I’m crazy for coming to every one of our screenings,” he says after getting off the phone. “But for me it’s the most obvious thing in the world [that I would be here]. It’s our movie.” ■