By Gary M. Kramer.
In The Tenth Man, Argentine filmmaker Daniel Burman returns to his favorite theme of absent fathers/put-upon sons, and to his favorite location, Once, a Jewish quarter in Buenos Aires. The film’s title comes from the Jewish tradition of having a minyan (ten male adults in the Jewish community) for a public service. Ariel (Alan Sabbagh) is an economist in New York City who returns home to Buenos Aires to introduce his girlfriend to his father, Usher (Usher Barilka). However, his girlfriend has an obligation that requires her to join him later, and Usher is nowhere to be found.
A disembodied voice, directing Ariel from various cell phones, Usher manipulates his son’s life, making him run errands while in Once. As he does this, Ariel unexpectedly befriends Eva (Julieta Zylberberg), a mute, Orthodox woman who works for Usher’s Jewish relief institute. As Ariel experiences frustration and surprises during his weeklong visit to Once, he finds himself.
During a visit to New York in April, Burman chatted about returning to his favorite themes – fathers and sons, Judaism, characters named Ariel – and making his winning comedy-drama, The Tenth Man.
The Tenth Man is another of your films with an “absent father” (who knows best) and a put upon son. What is the reason for your return to this theme of fathers who disappoint their children and children who disappoint their fathers?
Because it’s a relationship that is inherently disappointing. We have kids believing the fantasy that we’ll never be alone again – that having a kid will give us relief from the feelings of solitude. As soon as our kid is born, we’re already alone because our wives take care of the kid and after a few years, our kid leaves us for another woman or man, and he never admires us as much as we wish. Our children expect us to be the receptacle of all of their love, and even that is never going to be enough. So it’s a set-up for permanent disappointment for the rest of our lives. Despite all of this, we continue to have kids. I can’t find any other subject that is as attractive to me as the connection between father and son.
Are you currently married? Do you have children?
I am divorced. I am remarried and have two kids.
Your films often deal with issues of identity (Jewish, familial) and questioning tradition in a rapidly changing world. Why are these issues so important to you?
It’s the other way around. It’s so normal to be Jewish, I don’t know how not to be Jewish. I don’t know any other way to be. It’s quotidian. That’s why it bothers me to reflect about Jewish issues, or what it means to be Jewish, or the condition of being Jewish. It’s like trying to talk about love. If you have to talk about it, it’s better not to talk about it. It doesn’t make any sense to talk about to. That’s why talking about Judaism is like work for me. I enjoy being Jewish so much, that to talk about it, and reflect on it, annoys me. It makes me lazy.
Whereas in your earlier film, Lost Embrace, the Ariel character was looking for his European ancestors, in The Tenth Man, the character of Ariel is returning home to find himself. What prompted this perspective in your work?
It has to do with age, and turning 40. How this is a generational thing. It’s from personal experience; if you are not finding yourself, you are losing yourself. As an example, after age 40, every phone call, you always fear it’s going to be bad news. It has to do with age and generation.
Likewise, Lost Embrace chronicled life in the same Once district as does The Tenth Man. But while you used abrupt editing to depict the fast paced life in that film, in this one, it’s long documentary-like takes. Can you discuss your stylistic choices to create the tone of the new film?
It’s a fiction that is created upon a reality. As you create a story, at a certain point when you use reality as a base, you modify it. I always have this image of coming back from a trip and throwing everything in my suitcase on this bed. I throw a sheet over it, and it forms a landscape. It’s as if all of the characters are performing or interacting on top of that sheet, or landscape without transforming it. There’s a reality underneath that is very concrete, and I am mounting the story on top of it – not to change the reality, but to be separate from it.
The Tenth Man also depicts various rituals, from mikvah baths for purity, keeping kosher, the tefillin, saying the blessings on Shabbat and having a minyan. What are your thoughts on rituals and the meaning of Jewish tradition? Do you follow them closely?
I never use the characters as narrative devices. I think about them in three dimensions. Why does this character need this ritual, or this connection? Apart from the fact that the characters are not very different from me – not just because they are Jewish, but they are human. Based on this presence, why does this character eat kosher meat? I build the character, and ask myself questions about the character. I normally don’t follow the same rituals as my characters do, which is why I am so interested in creating them…. It is an interesting question. In New York, everyone in the Jewish community follows the same rituals and practice the same ways. In Buenos Aires, everyone in the Jewish community practices differently. It’s more closed and cohesive in the U.S.
There are symbols or talismans in the film – the alfajores, the Velcro shoes, as well as the various items in the Jewish relief institute that is a setting in the film. Can you talk about ascribing meaning to object and how you selected the “stuff” – cell phones, suitcases, etc.?
It happens as I develop the narrative. I write the story in an unconscious way that the characters have relationships with certain objects. They can get lost, bought, sold, loaned, and I find it is an interesting way to show the relationship between attachment and dis-attachment or disconnection with objects. This is an attractive device, showing how the actual objects are an indication of the emotional past of the characters…. The objects can mark the narrative paths. I have an example of having trouble making a knot in my tie. When I got married for the second time, I had to ask my father how to tie the knot. But when he was in New York, I realized I knew how to tie a knot. One could make a story about this. Because an object can more easily carry the effective weight, and show connections with people that would be more difficult to do without the object.
Your Ariel characters (in The Tenth Man, Lost Embrace, Family Law, and Waiting for the Messiah) think they have control, but generally it is their fathers who have the power in the relationship. Can you talk about how your Ariel tries to be dutiful, responsible, and follow rules, but is at the mercy of a father who bends them?
Really, it’s about how much these sons [Ariels] can’t tolerate that their fathers love others as much or more than they love them. It’s a question of vanity and narcissism. As when kids have siblings and their parents love them more than their siblings. But they awake to the reality that parents do love their siblings as well, and they lose their exclusivity. In The Tenth Man, the son judges his father for leaving to do the minyan, and he judges his father for the rest of his life, but this is reverted. The same is true in Lost Embrace; the father saves everyone, but the son feels the father is saving everyone but him. It’s the painful fact that your father could actually love other people.
You effectively used voice-over in your earlier Ariel films, but here, the voice-overs are more Usher’s directives, sent via telephone. Can you discuss how you approached this aspect of your film?
It’s the voice of God and the father. I like this character who prepares his absence in such a particular and detailed way that he has an overwhelming presence. I always thought that the physical presence of the father has been overvalued – him sitting at a table, smiling. He’s more present in the place in his mind, which leads to disassociation. Maybe I say that because I travel a lot, and I’m not home much. Maybe that’s a good way of justifying it. Usher is more there in an intense way even though he’s not there physically.
Gary M. Kramer is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volume 2, which will be published later this year by Intellect.