Master filmmaker Avi Nesher merges cultures in every part of production in his mysterious TIFF premiere.
You may not have heard of Israeli filmmaker Avi Nesher, but in his home country, he is a household name—something of a Robert Altman or Martin Scorsese. In fact, his first film, HaLahaka (1978), is a cousin to Altman’s MASH, an iconic army film that he admits, in the humblest way possible, "everyone knows backward and forwards."
And Nesher is certainly no stranger to Toronto. His latest film, Past Life, is his fourth in a row to premiere at TIFF.
Past Life stars breakout talents Joy Rieger and Nelly Tagar as two sisters who somewhat unwittingly uncover family secrets about their father's involvement in World War II. Like many families who were affected by the tragic events in Europe, they are treading in some murky and uncomfortable waters. This tension plays out in the unique visual treatment of the film, which punctuates muted tones with vibrant pops of color that carry meaning with each appearance.
“First and foremost, we’re filmmakers and we make movies for each other. And then we'll communicate with the rest of the world.”
No Film School spoke with Nesher about his visual language, international collaborations, making films for filmmakers, and more ahead of the film's TIFF 2016 premiere.
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No Film School: In a country like Israel where everybody's been through something—like multiple wars or tricky immigration stories—is it common for families to have stories like the one portrayed in your movie?
Avi Nesher: First of all, I believe that everybody has a story, period. I do masterclasses throughout the world. I like to teach writing, not directing, and people always ask me why, because I'm known more as a director than as a writer. I always tell them, "Because writing is difficult." You can fake your way directing, but you cannot fake your way writing. My advice is always for you tell your own story, because everybody has a unique story. At least one. Every life that has been lived is unique.
"You can fake your way directing, but you cannot fake your way writing."
Israel is a country which is really imbued with much history. Of course, we have additional layers of meaning and substance and subtext to every story. Sometimes too many stories. Sometimes too much subtext.
NFS: That’s also why I keep making films there. [Editor's note: Liz Nord is a documentary filmmaker who has made several films in Israel.]
Nesher: The thing about Israel which is interesting is that every movie you make is more than just a movie. You cannot make any money making movies in Israel. In Israel, making movies is like writing poetry. Nobody every got rich over an Israeli movie. Every movie needs to aspire to a higher goal than just entertain.
Of course, we all know that every movie needs to entertain because nobody owes you two hours of their life. If you want them to listen to what you have to say, you owe them some part entertainment. It's a give and take, but almost all Israeli movies that I know are about something greater than just entertainment. The Israeli film industry has enjoyed a tremendous decade. It's really come into its own.
NFS: Do you think it's a filmmaker's responsibility to unearth the skeletons in the closet of their own country or family?
Nesher: All I can tell you is based on my own experience from my early movies. We do what was successful to us early on. I made my first movie many, many years ago. It was equivalent to Robert Altman's MASH. It was an anti-military movie set in the military. It was a comedy starring young people and was hugely popular and was very, very subversive. It was made in the same year that Anwar Sadat came to Israel. Now, I can not take credit for Anwar Sadat coming to Israel [laughs] but I like to think that a movie is part of the mythology of a country. It's part of the mindset. If you create a mindset that is open to change, you become part of change yourself.
“If you create a mindset that is open to change, you become part of change yourself.”
For me, my first movie was part of the changing of Israel, from a very closed-off country that was at war with all Arab countries, to a country that opened up to one Arab country, to Egypt, and then to Jordan, etc. I like to think that my movie played a tiny part in the opening. That's, I think, the role that filmmakers need to play.
That movie has gone on to become kind of a mythical movie in Israel. I think that that's the beauty of cinema—of all art. I think mythology in many ways is more important that history. History dooms you. Mythology can fuel you to making a difference. I think that if you stick too closely to history, you will end up doing the same thing that people did before you. Mythology is something that empowers and gives you courage and strength. It's storytelling; it's not completely fact-based.
"I really like a lot different styles working together, inventing a language out of two languages which are spoken concurrently."
NFS: The thing that stood out the most in the mythology of this movie was your visual treatment, especially your use of muted tones mixed with pops of color. How did you develop the look and what were you hoping to express?
Nesher: Visually I really wanted to bring across two stories that become one. Israel came to be through great traumas. The trauma of immigration, and the one of the Holocaust. It’s comprised of a very powerful past and a very shaky present.
My recent movies comprise two different cultures: the European one, and the Israeli one, which coexist in this country. Israel is a Middle Eastern country. My parents come from Europe. A lot of us are bastards of these two cultures. Israel is a synthesis of these two schools of thought, which makes it such a vibrant country The way I play with color is trying to play with the dichotomy that, at some point, has to mesh in together.
Beyond the normal cinematic shtick, I try to bring to life this dialogue between the two cultures. I really like a lot of different styles working together, inventing a language out of two languages which are spoken concurrently.
NFS: Is there anything technical that you can discuss regarding how you achieve that blended look?
Nesher: I always use a DP who is not Israeli, by design. I have the eyes be European eyes. I work a lot with a French DP called Michel Abramowicz, who is one of the greatest DPs in France. He is very French. I mean he is onion soup, you know? I also use, for music, French or Italian composers. Again, because I really like this dichotomy between my own sensibility and the European sensibility.
But my editor is always Israeli. I go into every movie hoping an invention will happen throughout the process. Israel is an invented country. It's an invented culture because it's influenced by so many different cultures.
"I cast my crew the same way I cast my cast."
NFS: How do you find your international collaborators?
Nesher: I cast my crew the same way I cast my cast. I do it by design. I like to bring in different sensibilities. I take a long, long time working on a movie, letting everyone have their say. For me, it truly is a collaborative work. I really give my DP and my composer a chance to bring in their own culture into my culture. I really hope that what would come of it would be something truly original. Quite often it works out very nicely.
For this movie's cast, we have German actors, we have Polish actors, we have Israeli actors. The way they all come together is really quite miraculous. Cinema has been around for a hundred years, and people say that every story known to mankind has been told, and I'm not quite sure it's true. I really think there's a lot of stuff we can explore, and the best way to exploring is by getting outside of our comfort zone and bringing in people from different cultures into your own process.
NFS: Does that mean that English is the language on set?
Nesher: In many ways, English was the language on set. It was a truly international crew. There was a very interesting incident that happened in Poland. One day we came to our set, and the set was covered with swastikas. Which, to Israelis, is really menacing. Of course, I was really upset, and I thought the worst of it, and the Polish crew really took great pains to calm us down. Then, it turned out that the swastikas were not aimed at us.
NFS: You're kidding.
Nesher: No. Andrzej Wajda, the great Polish director, shot something a couple days before at the same set, and they got into a fight with a local gang. They did it as a sign of rebellion. In many ways, my own paranoia made much more of it than was necessary.
The movie is about getting past the past, and this was an example of me not being able to get past the past. The way the Polish crew stepped in—and they put themselves around us to protect us from our own fears—it was beautiful. Hopefully, the film has that kind of camaraderie that was on the set.
NFS: I think it does. The relationship between the sisters is really beautiful. It's so real in that it's love and hate and all the things in between.
Nesher: They're wonderful young actresses. The youngest one has never acted in a feature film before, and she's brilliant.
NFS: How did you prepare her?
Nesher: I'm notorious for taking very very long in the casting process. I have a friend who says that when I cast a movie I can pretty much figure out who are all the people who live in Israel. I take a census. We saw everyone. My daughter's a young filmmaker and [Joy Rieger] acted in two of my daughter's shorts.
We tested her, and she was brilliant, only she doesn't sing. So I said, "Well, we can't hire you." She said, "But I'm willing to learn." For a whole year, she took voice lessons. Every single day, four hours a day, and she does all her own singing in the movie.
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The other actress was in this wonderful Israeli movie called Zero Motivation. She plays this ditsy girl, but she's very, very smart. They really hit it off together wonderfully well. It's really important for me to have relationships work between actors. Like these two girls, they really love each other. They stayed best friends afterward.
I rehearse forever. I take like four months rehearsing, and I consider my actors my collaborators. So, for example, I would do a scene, and then I improvise on the scene, and I rewrite the scene, and we do it again.
"Every actor brings his own personality into the role, and every actor endured a personal catharsis throughout the movie."
NFS: That’s a luxury of most filmmakers.
Nesher: I'm telling you, making movies in Israel it's like writing poetry. It's not real work. You don't really get paid enough for the time you put in. People understand it, and it's really close to creating art. Everybody comes together because they love cinema. It's not advantageous financially to anyone. Not to actors, not to filmmakers. We are liberated from this capitalist need to earn money, so we just make the movie the best way we can.
Every scene that is shot gets rehearsed an endless amount of times. The dialogue gets rewritten and rewritten, and by the time we come to the set and we shoot it, the actor feels like the words he says are thoughts he thought. It's not something I wrote. Even though it is. It's part of the actor's personality. Every actor brings his own personality into the role, and every actor endured a personal catharsis throughout the movie. It's a very personal thing, not just for me as director, but also for my cast. Everybody comes out learning something about themself.
"The camera itself gets emotional about the filming, and for me that's the essence of filmmaking."
NFS: Is there anything you'd like to say specifically to an audience of filmmakers?
Nesher: Every time you make a movie, your first audience is filmmakers. I used to be a film critic. I make movies as a film critic. In many ways, that’s the same way that Francois Truffaut made it. When you come from writing about films, you really love cinema. You really consider your fellow filmmakers your family. You really think about them when you make your movie.
The scene in the move at the Polish concert, where [Joy Reiger] sings... at some point, the cameras start twisting with joy, and there's no reason to it. The camera itself gets emotional about the filming, and for me that's the essence of filmmaking. First and foremost, we’re filmmakers, and we make movies for each other. And then we'll communicate with the rest of the world. It's really interesting for me to talk to my fellow brothers and sisters that make movies.
NFS: You're a TIFF veteran. How does it compare to other festivals?
Nesher: It's my favorite among all festivals. For me, it's the most scholarly festival. I love that it’s no competition. You get this filmmaker camaraderie, which I really love. It has the best programming. To me, it's the one festival most devoted to filmmaking. More than Cannes, more than Berlin, more than anything else. I love to watch movies here. When I come here, the first thing I do is I block all the movies I want to see.
NFS: What do you suggest that filmmakers to do to prepare for their festivals?
Nesher: The great thing about Toronto is you don't have to prepare. It's the old Mark Twain quote: "Trust the tale, not the teller." Let your movie do the talking. There's nothing that you need to do. You need to come up, you need to be genuine, you don't want to try too hard, you don't want to sell. Unlike other festivals, it's not an "oily" festival. You don't have to rub up against big-wigs.
NFS: Although the industry people are here.
Nesher: They're here, but they'll see your movie, and let your movie do its talking for you. Who am I to tell anyone what to do? But I think the trick is to come and experience cinema. The way we all love it. And not to try to advance our own cause. Let the movie advance our cause.