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Balancing Gentleness and Extremity: Avishai Sivan Talks TIkkun

Tikkun 01

By Martin Kudláč.

The 17th edition of the T-Mobile New Horizons International Film Festival in Wroclaw revisits several Israeli film within their retrospective introducing New Israeli Cinema that the festival considers producing “some of the most interesting cinema in the world.” The thematic sidebar also featured Avishai Sivan’s existential, and in a way mysterious, thriller Tikkun that perplexed, incensed, and reaped accolades during its initial festival run. I spoke with Sivan at the festival.

What was the impetus for Tikkun?

The genesis is a bit complicated. I grabbed bits from all the things that interested me at the time I was writing the Tikkun script. Tikkun is a second film in a film trilogy tackling the topic of religion beginning with The Wanderer that looks closer on different religious group and the next film will also deal with religion and a crisis of faith among yeshiva bochur following a protagonist in yeshiva college.

After finishing The Wanderer, I did not really fully explored the ideas about this community and I started writing the script revolving around extremely orthodox student when I read a newspaper article about a person brought to life after 15-minute clinical death. This simple idea of dying and coming back eventually metamorphosed and the idea of having to experience physical death stricken me and I put it into the mix with other elements.

And regarding the final act where you witness the accident and a fog, I had this very strange night where I slept at my ex-girlfriend house at a very urban place and a terrible accident occurred in the middle of the night, somebody crashed a car. After ten minutes while I was laying in a bed half-sleeping, a person from the accident started crying for help. I woke up my girlfriend and told her we must call for help to what she replied that we are living in a big city and somebody had probably already done it. “Go back to sleep” she said. After another twenty minutes, I could still hear the person shouting for help however. And this turned into a twilight zone for me that I heard it the whole night and did not acted on it and my moral guts, consciousness, started torturing me and interfering in my dreams. This event triggered the Tikkun´s final act. When I had the big topic and the theme of religion, I knew I need to walk between them. This is how I approached the matter and eventually wrote the Tikkun script.

You mentioned you are not a member of the community, how did you research the material then? Have you lived among them?

Tikkun 02I have never been a member of the community. I am not a religious person. I did a big research starting with The Wanderer that eventually continued with Tikkun in a deeper way. I know a lot of people from the community. I frequently dressed like them, tried to emulate their behaviour, sneaked among them. I am a part of the community even though I am not religious for over seven years. I know all the little details and codes operating in the community.

Is your leading man a member of the community or it is a professional actor?

He is a non-professional actor coming from the community, a former orthodox Jew who was Hasidic. The role he plays was quite easy to engage with reconnecting through his past but the acting itself was strange for him. You can see he is a bit awkward in the role operating like a machinery in the space but I like it, it gives a certain quality to the character. On the other hand, the father is a professional actor and I think the tension between them make them both look like realistic characters.

Is the actor in the role of the father religious?

No, he is an Arab from Palestine and he had no contact to Judaism whatsoever. I think he is an amazing actor and very professional. He did the same research I did. He took on the clothes, went to the community, studied their way of speaking, he even studied Yiddish specifically for the role. He is highly professional and you can see those qualities transpiring in the film.

How did you cast the leading character?

It was very difficult. People who abandoned their religion do not have usually the star-quality or ambition to become an actor. It was a long chain of meetings going from one person to another, really a myriad of small connections when eventually you grab people and convince them that maybe they will do an amazing job in a film. The whole process took me eighteen months to finish.

When you mention the long talent scouting process to find the actor for the role, how long did you have to rehearse?

That took also a long time, around twelve months. Eventually, the whole film took five years to finish. I was working on a daily basis on the project and it was a long process finding the actor, teaching him the basics, giving him the necessary tools of how to re-enact the scenes.

Have you prepared for him some special exercises or specific things to do?

I did a physical exercise with him which might sound stupid but it helped him to became more energetic like pushing the wall, running on a beach at 6 A.M. All these things to get him boost up. Oftenly, even though he had the Hasidic gestures or fashion of speaking, he lacked energy when it came to shouting. Besides exercises, we talked a lot about the topic, I gave him philosophical articles to read like for example Platon´s Allegory of the Cave which I eventually ended up incorporating also into the script. We also did a lot of improvisations so we played like on a playground testing a lot of things. I had a spreadsheet with what we could and could not do to open his mind to thrust him into the acting process.

What was your approach to the film´s structure because Tikkun runs 130 minutes and when you read the official synopsis, it reveals basically the first half of the film.

Tikkun 03I had to go through several drafts of the script, challenging myself every time. My technique is trying to understand how to deliver a scene with dialogue without the dialogue. Or when I have a scene I consider too simple or too cliché, I try to surprise myself coming up with something I have never before seen in cinema like for example the crocodile.

Is this happening during writing the script or during shooting the film…

… during the writing. When I am immersed deeply into the writing, I personally write the shooting script without my cinematographer. I am doing it while doing the location scouting. The process of writing the shooting script takes more time than the script with lines because I am getting into the details of mise-en-scene, camera angles and also other layers of the script. There, I try to squeeze the dialogue, change the way I am telling the story or experiment if the story can become more surprising. Because of all this elements, it is hard to describe precisely how I built the story´s structure but you see it happens within the method of how I am working.

Have you spoken to you DoP before the shooting?

The way we, me and Shai Goldman, work is that I am bringing to the table all the visual material after I did the research, the location scouting, the shooting script and the storyboards and he proceeds to contribute with his touch in terms of arrangement or erasing something when there is too much stuff. His work is more of an editor, he is editing my work and I think, it is very important and he has to have a high sensitivity to know what needs to be done.

Tikkun seems to wield a symbolism that maybe people unschooled in Judaism might not decode even though Tikkun’s imagery breaths the surreal vibe.

Of course there is a lot of specific religious symbolism employed and one of the greatest tasks I faced whilst writing about this specific religious group was how would I make this story understandable universally. And the solution that emerged is the one that is not really bound to the religious community but is bound to cinema in general. I want to give a space for audience´s own interpretation so that they can decode the film´s symbolism in their own way.

I believe the film contains several interpretation angles and one of them is also emotional angle not rigorously the one bound to the logic of this community. And this kind of arbitrariness, I believe, is what is beautiful about making these images. But if you press me against the wall to provide you the symbols I worked with, a crocodile is in religious thinking considered one of the devil´s senders. Firstly, I like this idea of crocodile and wrote it like this and found out about the connection to the devil later in the process.

But you don´t really know who is sending this creature, the God or the Devil, and I think the international audience may feel like this but still, I am not enforcing any meaning on the imagery, you can get, what you want out of it. Naturally, the father-son relationship mirrors Abraham and Isaac. Also mother eating an apple while mourning her son in the scene where you see a pile of apples on the table, this family eats only meat and apples, represents the family getting a wisdom, it is there. But you can read the film through the social-economic optic as well, I am fine with it.

But one of the recurring motifs is also corporeality and sensuality.

This is my personal interpretation. It is very clear sexuality and the will or the hunger you have for life. It is the same for me. But in a good way, not the sleazy one. If you are full of passion, sexual passion, you are full of life and this comes strong in the film.

In the car crash scene, you used a rather edgy, and somebody might argue, even shocking, at least surprising, image. Why did you come up with it?

It is a reference to Gustav Courbet´s painting The Origin of the World. I think my big advantage while making this kind of film about an orthodox Jews is the fact I do not come from the community and have really an outsider´s view so I can come up with these images that are not directly connected to the community but nevertheless be able to connect to this world. Most of the films made in Israel about the community are made directly by the people coming from there. My film offers completely different perspective almost like, and this is also my inspiration, like Carl Theodor Dreyer cinema. Eventually, it is about belief in general or dogmatic way of capturing life. I am maintaining the angle that the film is a look of an outsider and that is crucial fact.

If somebody is not part of the religion, why would he be interested in it?

Tikkun 04I think I am very religious person, I mean in a very metaphorical way. I operate my life in ritual or dogmatic way even though I am not wearing a religious dress or participating in this kind of communities. The way I am driving my life, with my art and everything I am approaching, is the rich kind of sublime at very spiritual level. I feel, deeper inside me, this is my cinematic way to express my feelings.

In what stage is the closing film of the trilogy?

I am currently writing it and since it is much more extreme than the previous two, I wrote a treatment and a short script to do a test shoot because I do not want to shoot it right away because of the extremity. Firstly, I need to grab some money to show on a short film how could I handle this kind of story. In the process of writing, I have many ideas so I do not really know which one we will tackle first and get the funding for and what will ultimately become my next project.

What was the community´s reaction on your depiction?

This community does not usually go to the cinema but they heard about the film. Actually, somebody told them about my film while I was shooting it and some of them even came on set to obstruct the shooting. For example, we were shooting on location and some extras received a notification that this is not a kosher film and they threatened us to bring yeshiva students to mess with the film if we do not stop the production. We changed all our schedules, packed the stuff up and moved to a different location. It was a real pain in the ass, cost us a lot of money and we lost a half of day of shooting. When we shot in one neighbourhood, a person came and was blocking our camera until we packed and left. There was several run-ins with these people interrupting our production.

How did they know about the project?

That´s because we used a lot of people from their community, former members or people contemplating leaving the religion but since they had children or spouses in the community, they did not drop out. We used these people. When it was getting extreme, they would panic and tell the others we are making film about their community after which they started causing troubles.

Tikkun has also occasionally these contradictory image: it is a film about faith and then suddenly characters visit a whorehouse. It relates to the passion and sensualist side of life but it still seems like an extreme choice in the light of the orthodox community.

Well, the protagonist is wandering on streets and I thought I did not shoot enough of those scenes in The Wanderer. You can find similarities between the two films but the brothel scene you are referring to happened to me in real life. I was doing a research for a project where I was supposed to be a cinematographer, a short film, and the director took me with him to a brothel. He went inside to speak to a prostitute and ask her question or two for the sake of the research. We were sitting and waiting the exact same way you see in Tikkun and I was the one who panicked and ran away out of there. I just replicated the events in the film.

How many autobiographic moments have you interweaved into Tikkun?

A lot. I wandered a lot on streets, I went to see the sea in very ritual way during nights to see the black void, I had also many experiences with hospitals and I have a very strange relationship with my father that I am still trying to figure out. He is really amazing person but I was just not able to crack him so far. He is a cipher for me.

In the last act, you have very atmospheric fog scene. Was it hard to set it up for the shooting?

The atmospheric part was shot in real fog with the actor chasing the fog in a bad weather in winter in Israel and the part with the car and a cow was shot in a studio with artificial smoke. We also shot some material on location using fog machines but that was a nightmare since even a little breeze could change the fog and we had to chase it changing the cameras. This was my most difficult day of the shooting because we had to do like twenty takes for each shot while I usually make one or two takes.

Was the whole film shot in Israel?

Except the slaughterhouse scenes which we had to shoot in Hungary. Nobody would give us a permission to shoot in an Israeli slaughterhouse. Furthermore, it was very difficult to find one also in Hungary and we thought we will have to relocate to Bulgaria or Romania to get the shots.  The meat industry does not want to expose itself.

Gaspar Noé had a similar problem whilst making Carne.

I have been a vegetarian for 25 years now and I wanted to show you how disgusting is this industry. They do not really want you to get near it to see what is going inside.

So you did not have to get a permission to use the scenes afterwards?

No, I did not. I shot much more extreme scenes there. For me, it was traumatizing experience just to do a scouting in such a place but eventually I did not need to use the extreme images because despite that they are extreme, there is a kind of delicacy in them and in other scenes, the car crash for example, and I like this kind of dancing between gentleness and extremity.

Did you encounter any dilemmas when you were editing the film?

Of course. I did the first cut alone. I was doing for about a year and a half and then I co-edited it with Nili Feller who edited Waltz with Bashir. She was also editing The Wanderer, she is amazing. Nili needed only ten sessions of editing to re-arrange my cut. She took a cluster of scenes from the middle and relocated them to the beginning. Basically, we re-wrote the script from scratch in the editing room and it just clicked. The script does not resemble the final cut.

Martin Kudláč is a PhD candidate in Aesthetics and a freelance film journalist based in Slovakia.

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