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TARB Extra

What is Love? An Interview with Yaron Shani

An intimate conversation with the acclaimed Israeli filmmaker.

Still from ‘Love Trilogy: Reborn’

“Is caring Love?” The question comes at a pivotal moment in Reborn, the third film in Yaron Shani’s Love trilogy. There’s no clear answer, not in the film, and not in the trilogy. A positivist approach offers no answers, Shani wants to say: it might seem a bit of a paradox, but it is only after passing complications and contradictions of lived experience that the answer may begin to make itself clear.

The three interlinked films hinged on a fundamental life experience, challenging and at times confrontational, but yet offering no settled conclusion. This, I think, is a marked departure from the conventional approach to film-making, organised morality plays with clear distinctions between right and wrong. No surprise then that Shani’s career trajectory starts off on familiar ground before charting territory that perhaps leans more towards the unacknowledged than the unexplored. 2009’s Ajami (co-directed with the Palestinian filmmaker Scander Copti), intertwines stories of life and death in the eponymous, uneasily mixed Jaffa neighborhood, south of Tel Aviv. It was nominated for an Academy Award. Life Sentences (2013), an unsentimental deconstruction of family tensions, reminds the viewer that narratives of coexistence mean nothing if we choose to elide the uncomfortable truths that storytelling sometimes ignores.

The three films of the Love Trilogy—Stripped, Chained, and Reborn—are linked by the specificities of place and passions. The first explores a relationship—the word is used very loosely here—between a successful feminist-oriented writer and her teenage neighbor, a boy-man on the verge of conscription for army service. Their personal stories are underlined with anxiety and alienation; when they intersect, the consequences scar both. Chained, rooted in the familiar territory of domestic tension, anchors itself in the concrete territory of control and domination, its principals sucked into a spiral of uncertainty, hostility and, ultimately, tragedy. Rafi, a Tel Aviv police officer, has no illusions about the darkness of the wider world. Avigail cares, but doesn’t fear for herself or for her adolescent daughter from an earlier relationship. The battle of wills metastasizes into ugly confrontation, as the couple come to understand that they have mutually exclusive understandings of what it means to love another. Reborn focuses on sisters Na’ama and Yael. One is held captive by the dark underbelly of Tel Aviv nightlife, the other embodies positivity, in her work as a doula. The thread holding the two together is their father, lost to dementia and in a nursing home. The thread holds them together; the thread forces them together, with lacerating consequences for both.

I’d hoped to interview Shani in person. Perhaps wander along the streets of North and Central Tel Aviv that constitute the background for much of the three films. Sit at a coffee shop, consider why love cannot be just a bourgeois construct. But 2020 hasn’t been helpful in this respect. So, on a hot summer morning (normal for North Tel Aviv, unprecedented for North London, where I was based for most of 2020), we connected by computer, and talked about Love, language, and the uses (and abuses) of power in everyday life. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited, principally for clarity.

 

A

kin Ajayi: For you, what is Love? Or, to put it differently: What is not Love? Because I think this, what we mistake for love, is a strong presence in the three films.

Yaron Shani: When we are talking about life, we can use different levels of analysis, fields of discussion. You know, we can talk it about it in biological terms…we can talk about it in spiritual terms. But I think that what we can say is that the meaning of life is mostly concentrated around love. The connection between the “I” and the other “I” in the world. The connection between a subject and another—you know, the connection between me and my my friends, my family, my community, the world. These connections are expressions of love. So basically, we’re talking about the most important thing in life.

AA: I see.

YS: And also, if I say connection, it’s also something about the connection between me and what I regard as myself. You know, my body, my life, my memories, my thoughts. But the thing that I’m saying about me, is What is this “I”? It is something that is changing, that is moving, all of the time. Sometimes it’s in the body. Sometimes it’s in the mind. Sometimes it’s thinking about food and sometimes it’s thinking about sex. And sometimes it’s concentrated on politics. So you see, This magical beam that I call “I” is not my thoughts. It’s not my politics. It’s not my body. It’s moving, changing, all the time. So when I’m talking about the connection, I’m also talking about the connection to myself, and I think determines the meaning of everything.

AA: In practical terms, this means…?

YS: So, now. I’m talking to you and I see that I’m watching your eyes. I’m watching your body gestures. I am watching your reactions and responses. And I see myself in you in many, many ways. Because we are judging one another all the time. We are testing one another, to see if we can be friends, if we can trust each other, if we can understand each other. And I think it’s this instinct that makes us human, this great urge to connect to other human beings. To find ourselves in the other through this interconnection…And this is something that happens in drama, when we watch a film. The strongest impulse that we are occupied with is trying to understand what this person, the person on the screen, what this person wants.

AA: How does this relate to the films?

YS: What I was trying to do in this project, the trilogy, is trying to dig, to dig a bit. Into the most intimate of relationships in our eyes…between couples, between fathers and children, motherhood. In these connections, which are the most influential and intimate that we have in our lives. And in this, I tried to to touch the dark sides of these connections.

AA: Why would the dark side manifest in something so fundamental, as you describe it?

YS: Because every time that we face the other, we hold a lot of anxiety, a lot of danger, but also a lot of…I suppose you could call it wonder, you could call it grace. But what is interesting is that this state of wonder emerges from…it is the outcome of disaster, anxiety.

AA: The connection between pain and grace is not immediately obvious.

YS: Think about it this way. Let’s say I’m lonely, very lonely. And suddenly a woman comes and takes me by the hand, holds me. I can really understand the meaning of help, of grace, of love, of caring. But if I don’t feel lonely, I don’t give [the gesture] much meaning. In this sense, I think, our need to be together with somebody, to have a life partner, comes out of the tragic aspects of life.

But what one has to remember is that we all experience the tragic side of existence. All of us. Either by the fact that we could die at any moment, or that we suffer through the everyday tragedies that we face. So we all need this connection. This sense of belonging. It is a very precious thing, one that that keeps us alive.

AA: In everyday terms, how does this connection manifest?

YS: Well, caring. The feeling that that we have the right to be loved, that we deserve to be loved. Its an amazing feeling. And it comes out of the tragedy of living, comes out of death, out of suffering, out of violence. It is an output of all the anxieties of existence. And in this project, I was trying to face these anxieties, these dark sides of human connections in the most honest way.

AA: What comes to mind now is the notion of love being a step out into the unknown. And the trust, the belief that there is someone there that can reciprocate that trust. But it seems very dangerous in that it demands vulnerability, and confidence in ones own vulnerability.

YS: Yes. Precisely. As you know, one of the films in the trilogy is called Stripped. And the idea for this film came from the fact that in order for two people to be intimate, we need to be able to open up and show ourselves, expose ourselves. Basically, we need to be naked, to be vulnerable, to be fragile. Only then we get really, really, really deeply, intimately connected. But at the same time, I’m basically exposing myself to danger, because you are not me. You might change. You might suddenly surprise me in a bad way. I mean, this is something that builds a lot of anxiety. So inside this notion of two people connecting and building a bond, there is also a dark side of anxiety and when I’m anxious about you…

A key aspect of all three films is the consequence of vulnerability—what happens when self-exposure is not reciprocated in the manner that we expect. Expectations, of course, are shaped by the social milieu that we inhabit. That society mediates expectations in a certain way does not legitimize these expectations. Negotiating the gap demands honesty—a quality in short supply when one is struggling to control one’s own uncertainties.

YS: So I’m building mechanisms of control to try and calm down my my fear, by trying to control you. But I can become obsessed about it. I build up an obsession about control, and you are the target of this control. I’m suffocating you. So you, in turn, build this desire to break free. And so, the relationship can turn to disaster.

AA: I see.

YS: But the interesting thing is that this disaster is, well, it’s the other side of the bond. The other side of that wonderful, precious connection. The Ying and Yang of existence.

AA: Thanks to the lockdown, I’ve had the chance to do a bit of reading. I’ve read a bit about psychoanalytical theories of containing and holding, which I think come out very strongly in the film. Specifically with containment, the sense that one can project one’s anxieties onto another, and this other shows that these anxieties can be held, contained, that they are not necessarily destructive. But I wonder whether this sort of relationship implies a hierarchy because…the theory of containment emerges from the relationship between a child and its mother. And love, I think, should be the meeting between equals. I’m not quite sure if these two notions meet or can meet at all. Is there…I guess my question is, is there a hierarchy inherent in relationships of love? Or can people meet in love as equals?

YS: I think that you cannot have a conscience without hierarchies. You know, without an awareness that this is true, that this is less true, that this is a lie. This is false. We all make choices about what we think is the best way. We all choose a path of action on the basis of the fact that it is the best… consciously or unconsciously, we feel that it is the best choice. And this is part of a hierarchy of choices. When you fall in love with somebody, it becomes the highest point in this hierarchy. It’s like, I don’t think you can have a relationship, I don’t think you can have any meaning in life without hierarchies.

You’re talking about hierarchies in relationships…

AA: Yes.

YS: Well, in this sense, I think that the paradox is my way of looking at…at power relationships. Because you are talking about our relationships ultimately.

AA: Yes.

YS: Well, you know, power, as I say, it is a very paradoxical notion because…well, take, for example, the most simple of relationships, between the master and the slave. So on the surface, it seems that the master is at the top of the hierarchy and the slave is at the bottom of the hierarchy. The master has the power to oppress the slave.

AA: Right.

YS: But this is very simplistic because if we dig a little bit deeper, we can see that if the slave decides to stop being a slave—even if the the price of this decision is death—that same minute, the master loses everything. It’s like a tango, I suppose. The slave must consent to be the slave. Because if the slave decides not to be the slave, the master loses all his power.

AA: OK

YS: Let’s did a little deeper. In order to be the master, in order to oppress somebody else, you need to lose something first. You need to lose the ability to see yourself in the other, to see yourself in the eyes of your slave. You need to lose compassion to this person. And the only way to lose compassion to the other is by some kind of tragedy, of personal tragedy that builds up these walls, these emotional defenses. These defenses that give you the ability not to see yourself in the other, not to connect to this person, not to see the humanity in this person, the suffering, the value, the meaning. So you need to detach yourself from something which is very, very profound in your nature.

AA: It seems like finding a justification for emotional detachment, rather than a reason for emotional honesty.

YS: You’ve seen gated communities. Very wealthy people who close themselves in places which make them feel safe. But these walls that are supposed to make them safe are basically trapping the snakes within. You become more lonely, you lose the ability to connect to the other, to the people that live around you.

AA: Right.

YS: Is this a great way of living? I would say no. I would say that something very profound is lost when people live like this. And most of the time, when you see a violent man, say a boss in the workplace, who is really cruel to his workers…if you walked in his shoes, I’m pretty certain that you would find some kind of of of distress that this person is trying to deal with. But when he uses cruelty in order to deal with his own distress, he is basically building up more distress in himself. I can go on talking about it. I think this shows that this distinction between the oppressor and the oppressed is theoretical and a bit reductive. It is much more complicated than that.

The relationships in the Love trilogy—a woman and a boy, a man and his wife, two sisters—all explore variations of this theme of power. What I found very engaging in the films was a notion of performance: how the protagonists presented as normative variations of themselves in the public space, but could not—or would not—maintain this pretense in their intimate spaces. Or, to put it differently: they were not afforded the luxury of playing this role in their intimate spaces, provoking the clash of sensibilities.

YS: The “strong” man in Chained, the strong husband, is actually a very weak person. He is assertive in some terms, but he is very weak in other terms. And his wife is very weak in some terms, but she’s very, very strong in others. And he can be very aggressive in some terms, but very vulnerable and fragile in other terms. And for her also, she can be very violent in some terms. Like the fact that she is not doing anything to restrain her daughter, it creates a war zone between her husband and her daughter. She’s not doing anything. It is a passive aggressive demonstration of power. But at the same time she’s also a victim. So, I see it through the paradox lenses, that everything has its other side. And many, many, many, many facets in between.

AA: The metaphor of the gated community is really fascinating. It takes me to the setting for much of the film, which is the center and the north of Tel Aviv. It is a place that I know quite well. And we know that, you know, Tel Aviv is often called “the Bubble.” It can be a very self-absorbed place, I think. And in watching the film, you know, I get the sense that not just individual characters, but that an entire society can lose sense of what it’s like, what life is like for people outside this setting. So I believe…well, speaking for myself personally. I’m liberal. I’m politically aware, I’m socially aware. But at the same time, I try but I often fail to remember that I’m completely oblivious to the lives of many of the people in Israel.

AA: I wonder, can our conversation about love and power be projected onto a much broader platform, to consider the state of a community, state of a nation even?

YS: Wow. Well, Israel is really, you know, I can talk about Israel. But I’m sure that it’s the same for many, many other places in the world.

AA: Oh absolutely, yes

YS: So you have different bubbles of of identities. It is like so many segregated communities. Communities that are very strongly connected within themselves, but the connection between them and other communities is very strange. It can be very strong, but at the same time, there’s a lot of enmity between these communities. So…and there are so many other people, you know, who came from all corners of the world. Being packed in this very, very small place. Very religious, and nationalist, and idealistic, all at once. You know, it’s a country which was founded in a very tragic way. By crazy people who said, “let’s bring all the Jews here and build a state.” You know, it’s crazy. [Laughs]. So it’s a very conflicted place. But at the same thing, I think that…you can find a very a graceful…well, again, I’m coming to this paradox. Yeah, because sometimes…when we are most hostile to one another. It’s because we…we share something very, very strong together.

AA: OK…

YS: Like for, you know, I can be very, very, very aggressive to my brother, for example. Because we trust one another and we can show this nature to one another. So because we are so connected, we are more aggressive in ways that we wouldn’t be to strangers.

AA: Right.

YS: And also in acting, you know, when when you are acting in front of somebody else and…you use aggression and violence in acting. It’s very hard to do it with somebody that you don’t really love and trust. So actors need to build up a bond of trust that allows them to be very violent to one another—by acting not in real life. So you have this paradox, and…I’m afraid I’ve lost track of your initial meaning of the question…[we both laugh].

AA: To put it a different way. You said that a person can lose sight of themselves in the eyes of another. And that is what enables them to be hurtful towards them, by losing the capacity to care for that other. The connection between them is now gone. In much the same way, I’m wondering whether this notion can be projected onto a much broader scene.

YS: Yeah. OK.

AA: And the scene I’m using here is Tel Aviv. Or, to put it differently, a grouping of socially liberal, economically comfortable people, who can lose sight of other people who are not them— rather than trying to articulate the language that can frame a critique, but can also frame a sense of trust, a bond, a connection, as you put it.

YS: Look, I think that in describing Tel Aviv—and we are not really talking about Tel Aviv, we are talking about the liberal left wing cosmopolitan community in Tel Aviv.

AA: Yep, absolutely.

YS: To call it a bubble is very simplistic. Because if you go to Jerusalem, to an Ultra-Orthodox community, they are also a very, very tight bubble indeed. And if you go to an Arab community in the north, they are in a very, very gated bubble. In some terms, I can say that these liberal left-wing Jews in in Tel Aviv are much more open, much more interested in what’s going on outside their own bubble than the people in, say, Jerusalem. Let’s discuss it in terms of left and right, in terms of the political Left and the political Right. The political Left is trying to see the needs of the other. To be fair with the other. But the Right is mostly concerned about us. About “our” needs. And the needs of the other are less important or not important than all. And I think that these two sides are, basically, two justified sides that exist in every human relationship. And if…if the setting is a very complicated place traditionally, culturally, religiously, and if it’s a very conflicted place, then these two poles can become very, very extreme.

AA: Yes.

YS: But they they they need each other. You understand?

AA: Ying and Yang again.

YS: Yes. And they are bubbles in and of themselves. In the sense that the right-wing is mostly concerned about itself, and is less engaged with the world of the other. It concentrates on its own needs. And the left-wing…The left-wing is, well to the left-ing everybody is the other. The settlers are the other. But it’s not the same that the left-wing liberal is trying to determine who is the other that should have the the most…respect… attention. Who should I devote myself to? What is more fair for me, when thinking about the “other” that needs fairness? In this sense, they, the Left, still need a distinction between the good guys and the bad guys. And and that in itself creates a bubble. You know. Every act of conscience creates a bubble of sorts. You cannot escape it. One needs to make hierarchies, between what is true and what is false. Between what is relevant and what is not relevant. This constitutes the distinction of a bubble. I don’t know if I answered your question, but…

AA: It gives a lot of things to think about. I think it’s correct to say that the notion of a bubble in and of itself is simplistic. And indeed, that’s what interests me. Looking at Israel from the outside or looking at communities from the outside, it’s very easy to develop a simple, polarized narrative. This, and That. But from the inside, even if you do identify more with one side than the other, you have a much richer, much more nuanced, much more complex engagement with reality.

Character development across the three films is steered by conflict—the protagonists’ goal achievable only with the acquiescence of another. And when this is lacking, then the protagonist is forced into harmful action. In as much as we are never forced into action, but rather make choices that are most convenient for us at a particular point in time. With no consideration of the impact on the other…

AA: Coming back to your films, and now very narrowly. Something that struck me about many of the characters—I’m thinking specifically about Rafi [the protagonist of Chained] here, but also with lots of the other characters—is that even if I was repulsed by their actions, by what they ultimately did, I could identify with aspects of them, and I found this very challenging, as a watcher. As a filmmaker, do you find value in confronting your audiences with the very, very real complexities of life?

YS: I think that’s the first… You know, for me that the values that that guide me through. working are honesty.. or truth. Even though its not very politically correct to say truth, I would say the word. Truth, courage…and Love. Courage, after all, is the ability to say, “okay. I don’t know. I need to learn more. I’m stupid.” This is humility. The courage to say, “I don’t know everything. There’s a lot of things I don’t know. Therefore I’m going to search for meaning outside of myself…”

AA: Yeah.

YS: If I were a scientist, I think that I will mostly be interested in courage and and the truth. To discover the truth, even if this endpoint contradicts my beliefs, my needs. But as somebody who is dealing with life itself—the meaning of life, which is something more subjective, you know? Yeah, it’s not objective like the object of scientific inquiry.

AA: Mm hmm.

YS: Then I need to put love inside. And when I say love, it’s as I said, it’s very complex. But I’m trying not to judge life and people. Rather, I’m trying to connect to them, okay? Trying to put my own ego aside, and to allow them to teach me something that I don’t know. Even if this goes against everything that I believe in, even if they do things or say things that I know that are very, very bad. Because there is a reason for this, a reason why bad things happen. And one reason is that we need trouble. We need danger. We need loss. We need it. It’s an essential part of existence. Sometimes we cause it in order to gain something, to escape our comfort zone and to find some meaning.

AA: OK.

YS: Of course, when someone does a horrible thing, then he should be responsible for it. I’m not justifying it. But I’m trying to say it as a whole, not as a simple, simplistic political object. I don’t want to see it in terms of simply fulfilling my narcissist impulse that I do know what is right and what is wrong. I’m trying to put myself aside and to try to understand, to connect, not understand in irrational ways. I’m trying to understand, emotionally. People who do horrible things are not monsters, not like we see in movies or in television reports. They are not monsters. A few of them are psychopaths, this is true. People with a very, very big emotional problem. Sometimes they are like that because they went through something horrible themselves. But many people…I mean, I could be talking about my best friend. In the wrong circumstances, everyone could do something horrible. And we do horrible things all the time.

AA: We try not to think about it, but we do. Yes.

YS: You know, we eat animals. We enjoy eating animals. We don’t want to know what they go through in order to get onto our plate. We have so many disasters and suffering around us and we choose not to see these things. Sometimes when we want to discuss suffering, it’s because we want to feel that we are…that we are just and worthy, because as left-wing liberals, we care for others, we care for the poor people, for the weak people. Sometimes this does come from good-hearted impulses, good-hearted nature. But it could also be some kind of “Yes, I’m better than the others. I care. They don’t.” So it’s a very, very complicated existence, and I think there is a strong impulse to narrow it down to simple ways of understanding what life is about. We have to. We cannot survive otherwise. But the thing is how simplistic we go. And I think that politics is going to extremes with this simplistic notion, explanation for what is life. And it builds up a lot of problems.

AA: Good and Bad.

YS: Yes. And there’s a reason for this. It doesn’t come out of nothing. I’m trying to build a voice, which is saying listen, don’t rush into judging too fast. Keep some space for the other, for the other side of the paradox of living. So I’m trying to see, to observe people as they are. And because I’m working in a different way for me this is much easier. Because I’m not working like a common filmmaker who is writing characters and dialog on the computer at home, inventing life.

Shani has a justified reputation for coaxing realistic performances from his actors. This is, to some degree, a consequence of his working methods. He typically works with an ensemble cast, often with non-professional actors, always through workshopping and an organic approach to character development. This is evident in forms great and small across the Love trilogy—from the subtle but evident questions of social class that run through the films, to touches as light as the three pet dogs owned by Alice— protagonist of Stripped. Nuances, scripted and unscriptable, are recruited toward the goal of shaping a realistic setting.

YS: There’s an aspect of invention in what I do. But eventually I’m bringing people who are not actors. I’m letting them experience the story without knowing what I’m looking for. Without knowing what they have to say, what they have to do, how they think the scenes should end. It’s all completely spontaneous. And in this way, I’m letting them go through something which is not real. But in the deep sense, in the emotional sense, it’s very real.

AA: It’s fascinating what you say, because on two levels, there are embedded paradoxes. The first is in your working method, which is that you are a writer and a director. Well, I use the words “writer” and “director” in quotation marks, given what you just said. And you are an editor. All these roles have an inherent degree of power, and require a certain level of vision about what you’re trying to achieve. But by working with nonprofessional actors, by workshopping, by developing the characters and the story rhythm organically, you are willfully giving up that power. Which in the world of filmmaking seems like an incredible paradox.

YS: Yes.

AA: The second is about the characters themselves. I was reading a book by Erving Goffman, the sociologist, about the presentation of self and everyday life, how we play roles that are dependent on how other people expect us to be. And I’ve often wondered, how then can we actually…firstly, find our true selves, and secondly, hope and expect that our true selves will be accepted as true by other people who have become accustomed to playing roles? How does one make sense of these paradoxes?

YS: Well, you know, when you are studying acting there is this exercise. The actors put a mask on their face, and then they improvise freely. And most of the time, you see that when people put a mask on their face, suddenly they are much freer to express themselves. They are much more courageous. Because they feel more, they feel safe behind the mask. The fact that you don’t see that their face, their true face, enables them to express…a true dimension that with their genuine face, they would never do. So that’s the paradox of exposure and…of obscuring oneself.

AA: Despite the realistic orientation of the films–camerawork that makes the audience feel complicit in the action, for example—you adopt a very curious approach to the (contextual, non-gratuitous) nudity on screen…

YS: Also in the films, you know. I chose to obscure the nudity… the funny thing is that people [the audience] felt very exposed. Because of this choice, they feel like there’s real sex going on there. And it built up a very, very horrifying feeling for some viewers. It seems that if I had decided to show everything, the nudity and everything, that they would have felt safer, in a way, in a way.

AA: Yes. I found it very disconcerting myself.

YS: And you can see this as the basic distinction between documentary and fiction.

AA: In what sense?

YS: You know, documentaries sometimes also have fictional elements. And sometimes fiction is also based on the truth. But we can say, theoretically, that documentary is more concentrated on observing and not controlling, and we can say that fiction is only about controlling, like building a plan and performing it. Fiction is all planned. It’s all performed. It’s all controlled.

AA: Fiction is not an observation of something that happens by chance.

YS: If we discuss these two notions of of creating drama, you can see that the documentary is very, very strong with the authenticity. So when you observe somebody going through a dramatic situation, you get the truth, right?

AA: We hope so, yes.

YS: Yes. You get the truth. You get authenticity. But you get a certain type of authenticity. If, say, you are making a film about me, I feel like, OK, I’m presenting myself to the public. and I will not show a part of my self to the public. Possibly unconsciously. But still. I’m acting in accordance with what society expects me to be. I’ve been acting. I’m trying to show certain sides of myself.

AA: You are creating yourself, in a way.

YS: More than that, you know. You as an observer, there are certain places that you don’t want to be. You don’t want to look. For example, if people come and tell me, listen, your mother has just died, you switch off the camera. Because this is too personal. You cannot show it. You know, it violates something very, very, very private. So this is the truth, that it cannot show in the documentary. More than that, if you were a person that says, “oh yes, he’s getting the worst news in his life and I’m with the camera in his face. That’s great”—Even if you were this kind of documentary maker, the probability that you would be there at this most important moment in this person’s life is almost zero, because it never comes out of an invitation. It’s not something that you can prepare for. It just happens suddenly. And your ability to be there all the time… you cannot be there all the time.

AA: Right.

YS: So documentaries are very, very weak in relation to matters of personal intimacy. They’re very authentic, but they are not very intimate. The viewer receives one side of the truth. Now, fiction. Because everything is fake in a way, it can enable you to be there in the most private and explosive and dangerous places. You can see people torn apart. You can see people in the worst situations, in the most amazing situations. You can be there, in very intimate moments. So fiction can enable you to see truth, to connect to truth, to a degree that is unachievable in documentaries. That’s why fiction is so important. That’s why mythology is so important, because it is trying to grasp the deep meaning of truth.

Now, what I’m trying to do [with fiction] is to lose some and gain some. I’m able to get to the most private places in the characters’ lives, and the actors are more free to express things that in real life they would never do because they are safe behind the mask of the character. But at the same time, the way I’m working, I’m also able to to observe real emotions that come up with it. And this is for me, the most important aspect of truth. Because words don’t have much meaning when you talk about truth. When you talk about authenticity. Words can be manipulated. They can be very, very misleading. You can play with them. You can say anything without meaning it. But emotions are different. You can fake emotions, but when they are true, it is something else. You can see when somebody is really experiencing an emotion. And this is what I’m trying to get. I’m trying to tell a story that takes us to places that you need fiction in order to get there, but with real emotions.

AA: And this is all out of a process of workshopping and drawing from your people the experience that we can use to illuminate the condition you want to show on screen. It’s a fiction with foundations of reality.

YS: Yes. So I’m surrendering some control in order to gain some authenticity. But, I’m trying to hold enough control in order to gain that deeper insight of authenticity.

AA: It’s a very delicate balancing act.

Cinema is as much about aesthetics as it is about narrative. In this respect, the Love trilogy has a very visceral, disconcerting quality—not a question of relying on visual shorthand as an easy form of storytelling, but more in the composition and arrangement of frames and scenes. Across scenes, and across films, Shani flits between chronological and character perspectives with a disconcerting fluency. The stories do not proceed from departure point to destination; if anything, they constitute a cycle, albeit one where the viewer often shares the disorientation of the principals, thanks to the loss of predictability.

AA: Film, by its very nature, is very visual. I saw your film Ajami  at the Lev Cinema in Tel Aviv. And it was only after it started that I realized I’d made a mistake and I’d bought a ticket for a screening without subtitles. My Hebrew was terrible at the time. But I was like, “well, I’m here, I might as well stay to watch it.” And somewhat to my surprise, I found that I could actually follow the film, from the emotions that were being portrayed on the screen. It was extraordinary, powerful. And in that sense, I wonder…because it’s strange… Of course, the visuality of the film is terribly important. But so too are the words. I wonder, which do you place… do you place more emphasis on one or the other? Or do you place emphasis on trying to integrate what your characters are seeing with how they are seeing it?

YS: Well, I think that real filmmakers put much more emphasis on the visual, on the facial gestures and the acting, on the way things look, on how things look on there. On the enormous amount of information that comes out of the picture without any words. If you’re a true filmmaker, this is what you concentrate on.

AA: What you aspire to.

YS: I think I that the problem is that cinema is very young. And it came out of two two big siblings, literature and theater. With literature, of course, almost everything is about words, because these are the building blocks of the experience. But also theater, because theater is something that is supposed to be acted again and again and again every evening, you know. You are showing the same act, a story again and again and again. So basically, it’s mostly about words because most of the information is something that you can re-act, re-say, re-do.

But cinema is a very young thing. A little bit more than 100 years. I think that… words are not a big part of the best cinema. Of course, words are very important in life, because we we understand things through words, but we understand so much without them or against them, you know? So for me, as a writer, I’m not really concerned about the dialogue when I write. It’s like a sketch for me. So, I could write that one character says “I love you” to the other character. But it doesn’t have any meaning, because when I bring these people, if I do a very good job and they feel love for each other, it will be there. Without words, or with a lot of words, or with these words, or with other words. If the emotions are real, that’s the best thing. We don’t need the words. And it has also something to do with levels of authenticity, because words are very manipulative, you know. You can play with them. And many, many artists are very good with words. They say that they have this ability to play with words. And this is like a tool, you know, you’ve become an an expert. You have a great tool that you can dig with, and go very deep in your exploration of life. But sometimes, because you are so good with this tool, you neglect other tools. So you become stupid. You become a smart, stupid man.

AA: [Laughs] Okay.

YS: You know, and that’s the stupidity of experts. So many, many artists are very, very good with words. And they think that they are very smart, but they are losing so much because they are too concentrated on this virtue, this talent, that they have, of playing with words. I think that a lot of intelligent people gain a lot out of their intelligence, but they lose a lot because they place too much value on intelligence, on what the intelligence tells them.

AA: That’s fascinating. That’s a very good place for us to end now, to think about the stupidity of experts.

 


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Akin Ajayi

Akin Ajayi is a British-Nigerian-Israeli writer, co-founder of the Tel Aviv Review of Books.

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Silence is Golden