CHANGE YOUR HEART; LOOK AROUND YOU
...an interview with Udi Aloni on FORGIVENESS
I think it was a combination of three different influences. First, the original name in Hebrew is Mechilot, which has double-meaning: One, 'forgivenesses' in plural, and two, underground tunnels. There is a Kabbalistic belief that when righteous Jews die in the Diaspora, they go through underground tunnels (mechilot) in order to resurrect when the Messiah comes. I thought that if Jews come to Israel with more humbleness and more forgiveness, and not as conquerors, we could have a much better Israel-Palestine than we have now. But according to the narrative, I could also have called the movie The Unforgiven (which is the title of the beautiful film by Clint Eastwood) because –and this is my second point– the forgiveness is more in the heart of the audience than it is, maybe, in the film itself. The third influence happened after September 11. I was sitting in a seminar at NYU of Jacques Derrida and Avital Ronell about forgiveness. It was a very powerful seminar that made me contemplate the philosophical-political issues in my previous movie, Local Angel. Derrida say that when it is impossible to forgive, only then forgiveness can take place. In my previous movie, I tried to challenge this idea, and I visited Yasser Arafat while he was on curfew in order to try to understand the conditions for forgiveness, not between individuals, but between nations. When I finished shooting the new film, it suddenly occurred to me that this movie also deals the concept of forgiveness --but more in its emotional, melancholic aspects, and maybe as a necessary step towards love.
Can you tell me about how you came up with the title of your film, FORGIVENESS?
Why did you decide to move from documentary to fiction?The more I thought about important documentaries and fictions that try to deal with politics, the more I realized that they seem to share the rationale that, by creating a film that relates facts or tells a story about injustice, the audience will see the truth and then change their opinion. This is also the reason why many political fictions have a documentary-like appearance. More and more, I felt that an audience without a heart that is ready to receive the truth will be blind to the facts. So when I learned about the mental institute for Holocaust survivors sitting on Deir Yassin, a Palestinian village in which a massacre took place in 1948, I thought that a fiction has the potential to get much deeper into the unconscious of the trauma zone than another true story. In a way, this functions like the song from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: “Change your heart; look around you.” First we have to change our hearts, and then we’ll be able to see the truth. And after seeing the truth, we might get the courage to try to change the reality.
So… if not documentary-like, what kind of aesthetic did you choose?I thought that if I want to deal with the collective unconscious of a community that searches for its own identity through its relation with the other, I should create a dream-like visual and yet keep the narrative intact. I had in mind an impossible hybrid of Hitchcock, Lynch, Kaufmann and Eastwood. In relation to Hitchcock, I thought mostly about Vertigo and the repetition of the same --but as the behavior of a nation-- and how you can break the curse of the vicious circle. Lynch and Kaufman show how the visual always situates us at the uncanny borderline between internal and external realities. And Eastwood uses tragic protagonists, like in the good old Greek tragedies. The theorist Slavoj Zizek, in his books, discusses the deep psychological insight of these film makers. I wanted to use some of those insights to make a political thriller.
But your aesthetic is unlike any of them.You know, for me aesthetics and ethics cannot be separated from each other. And the fact that the hub of the movie is Israel-Palestine means that the movie has to bring with it the taste, the smell, the light, and the sound of the Middle East. So by using my experience as a visual artist, I wanted to celebrate the beauty and the mysteriousness that these two cultures create --and to let this beauty and mysteriousness radiate also to New York and to the underworld. Therefore, I used pre-eminent artists from both sides, Israel and Palestine, to help me to create the visual environment of this movie.
You must be speaking about people like the world-acclaimed choreographer, Ohad Naharin. Ohad is a great example. He is by far one of the most original creators that Israel has produced. For the last 15 years, I have followed his work, which uses an international language of modern dance with the materials of Arab and Jewish cultures in Israel. So I really felt privileged when he agreed to take on himself the choreography of the film, which helped to create some of the film’s most powerful moments. Moments much beyond dance itself.
Can you tell me more about the cast, which is a mix of Palestinians and Jews, and how it was to work with them?For us, Jews and Palestinians working together is obvious. Inside all of the chaos, hate, and occupation which serve many external interests and feed the racist monster, there is a community of Palestinians and Jews who know that something extremely unique and beautiful can come from this region if we just get the chance. But to be more specific, I would like to say a few words about the actors themselves. At first, I searched for the protagonist in New York. I looked for a young, hot American actor. Then, I went to see in Tel Aviv, Itay Tiran’s performance as Hamlet, which gave me goose bumps. I have seen many Hamlets in my life, but here, there was something so beautiful yet deep --even humorous in a way, that took me totally by surprise. I knew in this moment that I wanted him to play David. While working with him to create the character, I was more and more impressed by how many ideas and insights Itay brought to the film. After intensive months of working with him, by the time we got to the shooting, I felt that I had nothing to add. In a way, at this stage, he knew David Adler better than I knew him. If we had more time right now, I could tell you about the similar experiences I had in working with Clara Khoury, Moni Moshonov, Makram Khoury, and Ruba Blal. Each of them helped me to understand their characters and to make them much more alive than the way I imagined them when I first wrote the script. I felt extremely privileged to have actors of this caliber working with me on the film. And I think that during the shooting, we all had the feeling that we were creating something important and unique together.
From the point of view of production value, the movie looks very rich, even though it’s a low-budget film. How did you achieve this?I have to admit that with this movie, I wasn’t lucky only because of the actors, but also because of the amazing producer David Silber, who with so much love and innovation took upon himself this task. I think that his faith in the project made everyone--from the director of photography (Amnon Zalait), to the art department, to the costume designers, to the location manager– want to invest their hearts and souls in this film. And I really believe that this amazing feeling that we had on the set is projected in the final result itself.
There is a young actress, 11-year old Tamara Mansour. How was it for you to work with her as a director, especially taking into consideration that she plays three different roles in the film? Choosing the girl was one of the hardest tasks. Many young actresses auditioned, but there was something in Tamara that immediately grabbed our attention. Amnon Zalait, the DP, was very impressed by her presence, which made me take the chance to work with a girl who had never acted before. Tamara is from Palestine, and each day she had to pass through checkpoints to get to the set and back. There was the fear that because of that curfew the Israeli army imposes on Palestinians, she might not have been able to come to the shooting. I have to say that working with her was a true pleasure. The combination of her beauty, her intensity and her innocence touched all of us like magic. The fact that she knows four languages helped in shooting her scenes, which took place in New York and Israel.
How did you come up with the concept of an anti-memory drug? When I wrote about Post-Traumatic Shock Inhibitor (PT-25) in my book, I wanted to create a symbolic manifestation of the selective memory that the oppressor uses in order to keep his split subject intact. On the one hand, he thinks of himself as an honorable man, and on the other, he is willing to do anything in order to live his good, productive life without any guilt whatsoever. It was kind of scary when, soon after I wrote the book, I read elsewhere that doctors are working to develop medicines to erase soldiers' negative memories or to attach good associations to bad traumas. Somebody already said that reality is more surreal than any fantasy; or in other words, there is no gap between the symbolic and the real. This might also relate to your question about what representation means in documentary films versus in fiction films.
There is a great variety of aesthetics and textures between New York, the mental institute, the army, and the underground. Which scenes did you find the most difficult or interesting to shoot?As far as "interesting" goes, the question is hard for me to answer. Each scene was a challenge to shoot in its own way. But for sure, the most difficult and exciting scene was the rainy night in Brooklyn. It's the scene where David is losing his mind with the medi-gun in his pocket. Itay and I felt that a good night of rain would give the character the right emotional environment for the scene. Even as someone who doesn't believe in superstitions, Itay did a rain dance the night before. And as the gypsy curse says: be careful what you wish for. We had two days and nights in a row with one of the biggest storms that New York has experienced. Most of the American union crew wanted to call the night off (probably rightfully so), while we, the Israelis and Palestinians, trained to grow up tough, were out there in the middle of the storm, not giving up. The producers, David and Lemore, were out there with us, helping to hold down the tents (bravely but unsuccessfully) in the wind. One after the other, the projectors were blowing out, and the equipment was failing on us. Not only that, but exactly at the right time, like a miracle, two subway trains that we had been waiting for all day long passed by the bridge, finalizing the best set that God could offer us. Clara got hurt, Itay got hurt, but none of them were ready to quit. When I saw the daily footage, I couldn't help but admire once again our DP, Amnon Zalait, for the beautiful result of all of this.
Is there anything that you would like to say in closing?Perhaps I should end on the same note that I began with, the seminar at NYU. There Derrida told a story about Yankelevich, who never agreed to forgive the Germans for the Holocaust. He met a young German who tried to negotiate forgiveness with him, and in the end, they play the piano together. The music, which is beyond words, was the place that the impossible could take place. I want to bring the possibility of forgiveness back from heaven to the realm of the possible, the realm of politics, the realm of action --in short, back to earth.