Extraordinary direction

A highly-talented and select group of young filmmakers visit the country to develop scripts based on their own experiences.

PHILIPPE LACÔTE_521 (photo credit: CHEN KLIPA)
(photo credit: CHEN KLIPA)
Earlier this month a group of budding filmmakers convened at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem to get some help with furthering their incipient skills. Six of the young directors and scriptwriters were local while the other half-dozen came here from the Ivory Coast, Uruguay by way of Spain, Mexico, Germany, the United States and Argentina. The event, the first stage in the new Jerusalem International Film Lab project, took place under the auspices of the Talpiot, Jerusalem-based Sam Spiegel Film & Television School and its director Renen Schorr.
The final lineup was the result of a long process in which various screening committees scrutinized the candidates and their proposed projects. The list of foreign filmmakers was whittled down from no fewer than 120 candidates, while the local six were chosen from 35 film and television studies graduates.
This was no ordinary group of young film and TV professionals; most of them had already demonstrated their abilities on major stages around the world. For example, Alvaro Brechner, 35, a Jewish director and scriptwriter born in Montevideo, Uruguay, and resident in Madrid, had his directorial debut, Mal Dia Para Pescar (Bad Day to Go Fishing) premiere at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival as one of seven films in the Cannes International Critic’s Week competition.
“We are delighted that our very first group includes some of the leading young artists in the field, from abroad and from Israel,” said Schorr. “Five out of the six international artists came here after their first feature film was screened or developed by some of the world’s major festivals.”
Schorr was equally pleased with the way things went on the domestic side of the lab preliminaries. “The abundance of proposals we received from Israeli artists, two-thirds of whom are not graduates of the Sam Spiegel school, reflects the belief in the transparency of the process, and that was very important to me and to the supporters of the lab.”
This month’s week-long program at Mishkenot Sha’ananim was the first phase of the lab’s three stages, which will be spread over seven months. The participants are due to return to Jerusalem in March, after preparing a first version of the script for their individual movies. Thereafter, work will continue between the filmmakers and their lab consultants, including producer Hagai Levy, by e-mail and phone calls. The lab program will culminate with the participants and their film producers presenting their projects to an international judges panel, which will include Locarno Film Festival curator Olivier Pere, Cannes Film Festival Cinefondation young filmmakers’ lab executive director Georges Goldenstern and Sundance Institute director and screenwriter lab director chief Alesia Weston, at the 2012 Jerusalem Film Festival.
AT AGE 40, Philippe Lacôte from the Ivory Coast is the oldest lab participant and has several film and documentary projects on his CV already. “I’ve made three short 35 mm. films and I’ve made three documentaries,” says Lacôte.“I made a documentary (Cairo Hours) about young directors in Egypt and the last one I made was about the war in the Ivory Coast.”
Lacôte spent five years working on the documentary Ivory Coast War Chronicles, which laid the groundwork for the film he is currently developing through the Jerusalem lab. “I want to interpret the documentary material as a drama, with characters, and to say something new.”
Lacôte obviously did his homework before getting down to the feature film, which is called Run. “I want to say something new, including something about the political situation in the Ivory Coast, things which I couldn’t say before because I didn’t have the documents to prove them. I want to show in this feature that the conflict [the civil war in the Ivory Coast] is a real conflict and also a fantasy conflict, so a fiction film is a good way to show this. It is a mixture of fantasy and reality.” Run is a French-Ivory Coast coproduction.
Ivory Coast War Chronicles involved more than just scripting and filming, and things got a little hairy from time to time. “That is why I stopped after five years,” explains Lacôte. “Each side took me and said ‘you must say this and this.’ So for me, today, it is better to work with fiction. It is safer and less threatening to the different sides.”
Lacôte comes across as a serious professional who is willing to go to great lengths to ensure he gets a quality product for his efforts. Even so, he says he sometimes had to back off while making Ivory Coast War Chronicles despite having had some valuable inside information on where and where not to venture. “I worked with just a couple of people but there were some situations when I said we wouldn’t film something, because it was too dangerous.”
The Ivorian says he feeds off real-life events. “Before making films I was a reporter when the Berlin Wall fell and that gave me a strong feeling and bond with actuality. I am a documentarist and a director but I always want to work near and around actuality.”
During his Jerusalem stay, Lacôte worked on his script together with seasoned Italian scriptwriter Gino Ventriglia who, Lacôte says, helped the project move along appreciably. “We agreed on around 80 percent of the script right at our first meeting. This is the second version of the script and Gino gave me all sorts of small tips about characters, which I think is very important.”
Lacôte says he appreciates the conditions at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, even though he does not take a site-specific approach to his work. “I like this place and the feeling I get from it, but I can work anywhere. I am from Africa and in Africa you cannot make silence. You cannot say: ‘I am writing so I need silence’; that is not possible. So you just get on with your work, whatever the conditions.”
The name of the work-in-progress was chosen carefully, to convey a number of ideas. “The name of the film is Run; it also the name of the main character and it also describes the energy of the film,” Lacôte explains. “It is the story of a young man, age 21, who has three lives and he moves between them by running. I can’t say that it is an African idea but I can find this sort of thing in, say, Salman Rushdie books. It is not a Western style of telling stories, it is another form. I like the idea of having several lives in your life. I feel that about my own life too,” he adds. “I like the idea of destiny, but I like to take mystical things and put them in a concrete situation.”
THE STORYLINE of Alvaro Brechner’s film also flits between reality and an imaginary world. The eponymous main character, Mr. Kaplan, lives very much like his fellow former European Jews who escaped the Holocaust to South America. But, at the age of 75, Kaplan suddenly gets an urge to do something of note, something for which he will be remembered. He decides that an elderly German man who owns a nearby beach restaurant is, in fact, a runaway Nazi and he sets out to ensnare the imagined war criminal.
“I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said: ‘Life is not about discovering who you are but about creating who you are.’ And as a filmmaker, I create people the whole time,” says Brechner. “But I never know how they get related to me. That’s the beauty of the journey of discovery, of what you are doing while you are doing it.”
Brechner says he is generally happy to go with the flow. “I never try to understand why I am doing what I am doing, although I need to understand the characters. I am the kind of person who, if I know exactly why I am doing something before I do it, I lose my appetite for it. I think that discovery keeps you fresh and keeps you alive.” That doesn’t mean that Brechner never knows how his film will end when he starts it. “I do the screenplay so I know how things work out, but what sometimes changes is what it means to me. Like with my first film, it was only many years later that I discovered what it meant to me. You mustn’t be over-conscious of what your film is about, because then you will lose the energy you need to go on that journey.” Considering how well Brechner’s debut offering, Bad Day to Go Fishing, was received, the man may very well be onto something here.
Mr. Kaplan has some autobiographical aspects to it, even though Brechner says it largely the stuff of fantasy. “It is basically a story of an old man who happens to be a Polish Jew that emigrated to Uruguay. I like to say it is an imaginary story of my grandfather, who also came from Poland. But it is a story he never lived. Maybe he would have liked to live this story, but he never did.”
Brechner got the impetus to start working on Mr. Kaplan when he attended the Warsaw Film Festival a couple of years ago. “I visited my grandfather’s town and a lot of memories of him came back to me and that was really the seed for the story. But it’s not really a story about the Holocaust. It is a story about getting old.”
For Brechner, being in Israel is inspiring and, to an extent, helps him reconnect with his Jewish roots. Some of that comes through in Mr. Kaplan. “The film is a sort of dramatic comedy, and it has a lot to do with what I think is Jewish humor. You know, there is this Jewish thing that even in the darkest hour, if you can laugh you will find a way to survive.”
TZIVIA BARKAI, 32, has certainly had to negotiate some serious obstacles in her lifetime. She was born and raised in the religious settlement of Beit El and, over time, realized she was a lesbian. That did not sit well with her parents or their community. But Barkai has moved on to live with her partner in Ramat Gan and says she does not consider what people in Beit El may think about her current project, which is loosely based on her life. “I haven’t lived in the religious sector for some time and I am not interested how people in that community might react to my film,” she declares.
The film is called The Red Heifer, which references the biblical sacrificial animal whose ashes were used for the ritual purification of a Jew who came into contact with a corpse. The story is based on a young girl who lives in a religious
settlement and falls in love with another girl there. “The girl’s father is very religious and extreme in his political views,” Barkai explains. “The father finds it difficult to accept that his daughter, to whom he is very close, does not follow in his political footsteps, and it is only later that he rejects her sexuality.”
There is also a wide- reaching message in the film. “I think it is really about redemption of different kinds, for various characters in the movie,” Barkai continues. “There is a kind of messianic redemption, but there is also a very
Tzvia Barkai
Tzvia Barkai
human sort of redemption in which the main character finds freedom.” She continues, “There is the idea of where you come from and where you are going, which I get from my religious background, which I think comes across in the story.”
Barkai is, naturally, keen to get her story out and says she is encouraged by her acceptance for the current Jerusalem International Film Lab project, notwithstanding the unconventional and, for some parts of Israeli society, unacceptable subject matter. “Religious society still has a long way to go in this area,” she states, “but I started detaching myself from the religious community quite some time ago. It is far more difficult for religious young homosexuals who still want to be part of that community.”
The Red Heifer adds another dimension of challenges to the subject. “Not only is the main character a lesbian, she also grew up in a place in which she had to accommodate the religious and political beliefs of the religious-Zionist approach. That is a part of me too.”
For more information about the Jerusalem International Film Lab project: www.filmlab.jsfs.co.il