Avishai Sivan’s new release, Tikkun, premiered last August in Locarno, and since then, the movie’s festival circuit buzz has been unstoppable all the way to last month’s Vancouver International Film Festival in Canada. I met with Sivan in the lovely Spanish town of Valladolid at the 60th Seminci Film Festival (Semana Internacional de Cine de Valladolid), where he presented his film as part of the Official Section and as a premiere in Spain. The Israeli director was very generous with his time, and we had a care-free conversation in a little nice pastry shop before his press conference. The audience received his provocative film with curiosity, and as expected, it rose arduous debates among the cinephile audience.
Tikkun revolves around a faith-challenged Yeshiva student who has a near-death experience that will change his whole modus vivendi. It affects his ultra-Orthodox Jewish family in suggestive ways in order to raise questions about death, spirituality and certainly about paternal relationship. Tikkun is a part of a trilogy that began with The Wanderer, premiering at Cannes in 2010. Sivan’s latest release hasn’t gone unnoticed and won the Best Cinematography award at this year’s Seminci competition.
Andreea: You started a trilogy regarding the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community with The Wanderer, and then you continued with Tikkun. How did you envision this ensemble?
Avishai: I think all the time in a very epic way. Even my first piece in cinema — I don’t know how to call it, feature movie, documentary — is made of seven chapters, kind of a soap opera diary. Soap Opera of a Frozen Filmmaker is a video diary about a filmmaker in Israel who fights with all the institutions to express himself through his art. I feel like I have a lot of ideas, and to narrow it to one piece and call it a feature film is too small for what I’m trying to deliver. In that sense, I’m more drawn to new forms of storytelling. I mean series in television or trans-media, trans-cinema, and this is like building a new community. So this is how I’m thinking when I’m inventing a story. And specific to this trilogy of religion, I’m also examining how far I can go with a story, how far can the character break his routine, his way of life. I want to take this trilogy into an extreme place even if it wasn’t in the religious society, even if it were in a liberal, secular society. The story is also radical. So I try to explore different angles because I think one angle is not enough.
Andreea: Can you tell me something about your upbringing as a filmmaker?
Avishai: In Israel, at 18 you have to enroll in the army. I was so anxious to do a film, so I went immediately after high school to study film. I didn’t want to hold a gun, I wanted to hold the camera. It lasted four years, and right after that, I started to write feature films.
Andreea: Is it hard to find money in Israel for a movie that questions religion?
Avishai: It is specifically hard to find money for movies that treat this kind of topic that questions the ultra-Orthodox type of community, but it is even harder to find money for this type of cinema that is not so straight-forward narrative-wise. In my first film The Wanderer, they almost did a test with me. They gave me fifty thousand dollars, which is a joke to make a film, and told me “let’s see if you can make a film.” And I took the challenge, and I pushed it even harder on myself to shoot it in 35 millimeter, and after that, it was accepted at the Cannes Film Festival, and from there it went a little bit easier. I say a little bit more easy, because I finished writing the script for Tikkun right after The Wanderer, and I waited almost five years to get here.
Andreea: You write your own movies, but you are also an artist and a writer. How do scenes come up in your mind? Do they start as images or as ideas, and do you think of yourself as an artist or as a writer?
Avishai: It’s more of a combination of situation and images — impact images, strong ones — and from there I collect a list of fragments and examine them. I see which is the most powerful situation that I can deconstruct again. I can start the process from there, and after that, I do the most important thing in my process, which is the shooting script. I know from a very early stage how the film should look. So, I’m very mathematic — where to put the camera and which lens to use before the shooting.
Andreea: The actors you worked with aren’t Orthodox Jews, most of them. Would it have been hard if you really wanted to find someone from the community?
Avishai: There are no actors among them, and when I started to cast with real actors, I understood that no actor could have acted those specific attitudes of theirs — to walk like that, this way of speaking and walking with your head down, very humble. It is also a physical thing — not only the dramatic motivation — so I started my casting to scout for an ex-Orthodox Jew. But for the father and the mother, it would have been difficult to find a former Orthodox Jew at that age that can also act, because most of them leave the religion in their rebellious age, 15-20. It’s very hard to find someone who left religion at that age and is now the age of the parents and remembers how it was in their former life, the little details which help with the dramatic aspect.
Andreea: Do you find the fact that you are not a part of this community as an advantage or a downfall?
Avishai: I am more daring than someone who is coming from the community, than someone who is emotionally engaged. I really respect them. I spent a lot of hours with them, and in some ways, I admire them. But I think it is important to tell this kind of story without being fully connected to them. My inspiration was to do this kind of film, from a really different and bizarre angle. I really admire Robert Bresson and Carl Dreyer’s cinema and how they deal with those religious movies. And both of them do it in a very cinematic and poetic way, more than the realist and socialistic way of trying to say something. I am more connected to the experimental than to the documentary, so every direction I take would be more like the auteur kind of filmmaking.
Andreea: You are from a particularly provocative area. Israel is a country full of contrasts and history, but also conflicts. Are you interested in the social aspect of your stories?
Avishai: I don’t want to be the voice that tells this story about the conflict and shows people “Look! This is right or this is wrong.” I don’t want to do that, to be a politician through films. But I have an idea that I am writing for the right time. It would be a genre film, a western. But I’m just playing with the idea…
Andreea: The public is challenged by the surreal images, the ones with the crocodile, the one with the horse, the stick insect. What kind of meaning do you add to those elements, or it is a choice of aesthetic?
Avishai: I have an interpretation for those symbolic images. I think everybody can have their own interpretation, and I put them in the film in a vague and mysterious way because I want them to solve their own puzzle. In the Jewish mythology, the alligator is considered the devil’s sender. My first image that came up in my mind when I started to write was the father sitting on the toilet and smoking. This was the first image I thought of. And then the alligator came in. Again, my interpretation on it is that the father has to adjust… with his son, with his expectations, with his consciousness, and also the house adjusts to the story. The house has this big installation of water, that goes to other tunnels and you can see the water not working even in the bathroom when the little brother is washing his teeth, and the water stops while Haim-Aron takes a shower. And this adjusting is there all the time. It’s not functioning right and it symbolises the situation of the father, and I think that it’s a threat.
Andreea: Apart from the quotidian, what inspires you?
Avishai: I think I am more drawn to the surrealist movement, Georges Bataille, Nagisa Oshima from In the Realm of the Senses. This is more the place where I take my inspiration from. I really admire Georges Bataille. He is very visual. He has very strong images, and most of the inspiration was from literature. Even in a very bizarre way, Hakim Bey, the American philosopher who wrote Temporary Autonomous Zone, was also an influence, for his adapting to the current, modern age.
Andreea: I noticed the sound in your movies is diegetic and it lacks music. Why?
Avishai: Fist of all, my sound designer and I put a lot of effort into trying to do an almost silent movie. I totally want to use music in my films, but I find it a very dangerous tool. It immediately shifts the emotion and the attention in the scene. Budget-wise, if I have the rights to the music and the composition even before I am going to shoot the scene, then I have to be accurate on how to shoot it for the music. It is very hard for me to put it immediately after shooting the film, it’s kind of erasing the intention of the scene. I want to use music in the future, but I need to be very careful with it. For me, it’s like using close-ups. As a director, I am frightened of shooting close-ups, because I know it’s immediately emotionally touching the audience, and for me, even in a stylistic way, it is a bit too much and I want to approach things in an enigmatic way, elegant way. So using music and close-ups can be dangerous.
Andreea: What are your future projects?
Avishai: Obviously, I want to do the next chapter of the trilogy, but I’d rather wait and do a smaller movie instead. It will be much more radical than Tikkun. The main character in The Wanderer cannot bring a child in the world, and he is almost getting a divorce, and finally — it’s all gonna sound like a provocation, and it’s much more deeper than that — the couple will succeed to get pregnant, and the child that will come out will be a child with two heads. And in the story — dealing in a very Nietzsche kind of way, the battle between good and bad — one of them is a good child that pushes his body to do some cool stuff, but the other one is like the evil twin. I’m putting the story in a very provocative way, but it will be much more delicate. I finished the treatment and the next stage for me is to write the shooting script, but I’m so terrified that nobody will fund it that I almost try to zoom out and examine my career, if I want to struggle again or try to find my way easier, because waiting for five years to make a film was disastrous. I have this urge to do film in a self-consuming way like Fassbinder, but that will never happen, because I passed the age of 36.
Andreea Pătru (@andreeapatru89) is a Romanian film critic based in Spain. She has a bachelor’s degree in Communication and Public Relations and graduated with a thesis on cult images in Andrei Tarkovsky’s cinema. Apart from writing for various Romanian publications, Film Reporter, Reforma and The Chronicle, she has written for Indiewire and was selected for their 2015 Critics Academy at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland. Along with her film criticism activity, Andreea has worked at Romanian Film Promotion and was the coordinator for an art center in Bucharest.