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  Hidden Treasure
Interview with Keren Yedaya about her new film Or (My Treasure) By Ohad Landesman

Photo by
David La Spina / birdboxarchives.com

Winner of the Camera d’Or for best feature film at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, Keren Yedaya’s impressive cinematic debut, Or, is a shining example of the recent new wave in Israeli cinema. Making bold and uncompromising aesthetic decisions rarely produced by contemporary filmmakers, Yedaya puts form ahead of content to austerely tell the heartbreaking story of a unique relationship between a mother and daughter living together in Tel Aviv. Or, a teenager forced to provide maternal protection to her emotionally needy mother who is earning a living as a prostitute, becomes a tragic urban hero not unlike Bresson’s Mouchette or the Dardennes’s Rosetta. The traumatic reversal of their family roles and the inevitable understanding that their fate is entirely predetermined in life are compassionately told with no camera movement, a minimal use of music, and a roughly framed mise-en-scène. Right in time for the theatrical release of the film in New York, Yedaya visited our city and shared with REVERSE SHOT a few words about film aesthetics, Israeli politics, and Hollywood boredom.

REVERSE SHOT: At a Q&A during the New York Film Festival, you mentioned that you don’t think the use of overly complicated and ostentatious camera movements in contemporary filmmaking can be justified within the story of the film. Since you don’t really move the camera at all in Or, is it part of an aesthetic effort to bring cinema a few steps backwards in time to its “point-zero,” something not unlike what Abbas Kiarostami is trying to achieve these days with digital cameras? The first and most obvious reference here is the early Lumière films, of course, in which camera remains static and reality is being captured in one-minute long takes.

KEREN YEDAYA: Ironically perhaps, the first compliment I received about this film came from a woman who didn’t quite intend to give me a compliment, asking me very directly, “I don’t understand. Haven’t we gone anywhere in film history since the days of Lumière?” [laughs] “Bingo, thank you!” I told her. I do not want to suggest of course that there haven’t been any aesthetic improvements since the days of Lumière, but yes, generally speaking, I am trying to make a provocative statement about how little we’ve progressed. I am not the first one to make such a suggestion. There is this famous article by Pasolini that forms an analogy between film and language, and I truly think that in terms of our level of control of that language we are still very much like fourth-grade students. We still speak the language of cinema like retards. In between us, I think that my own success is ridiculous. When you watch my films, it is quite easy to notice that I don’t know how to move the camera. I am only lucky because people don’t treat cinema seriously enough and fail to notice that my cinematic skills are not better than a first year film student’s. I don’t really know how to connect one shot to another, how to frame a character moving from left to right, etc. There are so many things that I still want to learn, such as the aesthetics of using colors, the chemistry processes of cinema, the mimicry of a characters’ eye movements, the history of art and photography. You know, cinema is the only art form that brings all of these things together.

RS: This aesthetic approach to film, with all its modesty, is very uncommon. People usually say that cinema, perhaps like a living organism, reached its peak during the Sixties, and now it’s difficult to develop its language significantly further.

KY: Well, you know, I have always thought of these kinds of claims to be ridiculous. I truly believe not only that the language of cinema hasn’t reached its peak yet, but also that cinema as an art form is still in its diapers. In order for me to take such an extreme aesthetic decision in the film as not moving the camera at all, there should have been several other reasons other than merely the aspiration to go back to Lumière. After making that decision, I had to reevaluate if it fits the politics of the film, its possible assertions about social life in Israel, etc. I was also wondering whether or not I would still be able to move the spectator emotionally with such minimalism. In any case, I think that it might be possible to discuss and interpret the film from various standpoints, but every single one of these will eventually lead us to politics because, you know, it is all there in the frame. Take for example the way in which Ruthie’s body is fetishistically fragmented. Ruthie fills the frame completely, and Or is left out without any space for herself. This becomes so symbolic of their relationship. Or doesn’t have a space of her own in the house and she is always shoved into the corner. While Ruthie is trapped in her fatalistic situation, Or is still oscillating between life and death and remains on the borders of the frame or simply outside of it. This is the point where the political and the aesthetical converge.

Also, there’s something political in my wish to propose some kind of an alternative to Hollywood. In Hollywood films, as I see it, there is always the feeling that nothing is truly satisfying the audience. You know that film Little Shop of Horrors? I think of the audience as that monster, always starving for more and never quite satisfied with what’s being offered to it. We have become this animal which needs more blood, more sex, harder pornography, cooler movies, and louder music. When you think about contemporary films and trailers, they are so ear piercing! It is really a colossal attack on our senses, as if nothing is ever enough and life is too short to miss out on anything. Well, personally I think it is disgusting. This is where my film becomes political in its overall form, as I’m not willing to satisfy my audience’s immediate needs. It is very much like Or’s first client who only talks about his own needs and desires and admits that anal sex “fits” him at that very particular moment. It is always about us in our modern life, but what about the Other? What about what Or really wants? We cannot really see the Other anymore, since our empathetic capabilities as a society got significantly screwed up. There is something in the pace of the film and in my decision to keep the frame static that conforms with my wish to provoke the audience, to challenge them, as if saying, “Although you might expect so, I have no intention of satisfying your needs.“


RS: Are the Dogme films a source of influence at all? Your project seems to emerge from the idea that artistic creativity might be achieved by imposing technical restrictions.

KY: Freedom makes me anxious. Putting formal restrictions on my film is so liberating for me. If I allowed myself to move the camera, my first instinct would be to follow Or in a point-of-view shot. How boring! Everyone is doing this. But if I tell myself ahead of time that I cannot do such a thing, it becomes much more interesting. I put restrictions on myself in every film that I make. It might be an unconventional decision, but it really doesn’t testify to my talent in any way. It is just that the others are too much afraid to be stuck in the editing room too long.

RS: You mentioned the word “political” and I am very interested to hear from you how much you think that the film is indeed political on a more national level. There seem to be very few suggestions for this throughout the film such as the scene in which Or gets an unexpected visit from her friend who visits her while on leave from the army, forcing himself on her sexually. Were you trying to create here a larger statement about the overall masochistic militarism characterizing the typical Israeli man? Is it a clandestine statement about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

KY: Well, I think that the film is utterly political, perhaps even more than films that explicitly define themselves as political. Every aesthetic decision being made in the film emerges from my clear political standpoints (choosing actors, placing characters inside the frame, composing the spatial relations between them). I am a very political woman, so it all becomes to be about what I want to say about the society in Israel, the status of our women, and so forth. I’m also not making any distinction between the political and the social, so perhaps this is where you can find the answer to your question. It might seem like a big cliché, but I truly believe that the personal is always the political. I first wanted to make it about Ido (Or’s neighbor), the Arab worker in the restaurant, and describe a forbidden love story between the two, but then I came to my senses, because you know, why don’t I just puke on the audience? [laughs] These are very delicate issues. Think how easily I could have put army uniform on Ido and make my political suggestions much more obvious. There were moments in the rehearsals when he was improvising some lines such as, “You can’t believe how many ‘Fatmas’ [a derogatory term for Palestinian citizens] are there”; so you see, I don’t want to spoonfeed the audience in any way.

RS: Is it because you are afraid of censorship or have some ethical concerns about dealing with such sensitive matters?

KY: No, not at all. I just think it is ridiculous. It is too obvious, although there are films that do that. But this film is more minor, more delicate perhaps.

RS: Did you get any furious critical responses that focused on the politics in the film? I remember, for example, Manola Dargis’s review in the Times, which appeared right after the NYFF screening of the film. Dargis was basically accusing you of social determinism in the way you treat prostitution as a problem. Neither for Or nor for her mother there is a way out of this horrible situation, and the film seems to be supporting this view both thematically and formally.

KY: One thing to understand about Dargis is that she is actually coming from this field of study, and she holds an oppositional approach to mine, claiming that prostitution has to do with the freedom to choose. Since she is all for legalizing prostitution, I think she sees me as her enemy. Therefore, I truly believe that the attack on me here was both political and personal. Although I usually don’t have a problem accepting negative criticism about the film, I found the review to be really insulting.

RS: But I’m wondering, is your deterministic approach to prostitution—as a trap from which there is no way out—the most crucial aspect of the film? Don’t you consider the film to be more of a personal story of love and compassion between a mother and a daughter than a direct social critique in which prostitution retains a much broader scope?

KY: I think that I have this need to start working from the general, relying on the audience to fill in on the more personal level. And you know, you cannot move the audience with ideology. It’s funny, because I just told an interviewer yesterday about a friend I met a few weeks ago who told me “I never expected Or to be a good film, because you more than often really get on my nerves”. He is this well-educated intellectual guy from the academia, and I have this ‘street’ level language, and a rhetorical side which is not too strong. I grasp reality with my senses, and therefore, if you ask me something about Karl Marx, for example, I wouldn’t be able to answer properly. I learn more about life from looking at things and experiencing them rather than reading. On the other hand I am very radical politically and very opinionated. It has been clear to me from the start that I am creating political art. I’m on a mission.

My next film is entirely motivated by my belief that we should do everything at our reach for peace in the Middle East. Luckily I love cinema with all my heart, and I like smart films. Otherwise, I would have created only didactic films for educational television.

RS: I think there is something inherently non-didactic about this film, almost humanistic. Your aesthetic decisions kept reminding me of André Bazin and the realism he advocated for in which one gets the illusion that reality almost spills out from the frame.

KY: I agree, and I am also very much influenced by the still photographs of William Klein. When I first started thinking about cinema, I wanted to learn all about the frame and how to treat it as a still photograph before creating cinema. You’ll be surprised how little I know about cinema. Everybody was making fun of me in Camera Obscura [a film school in Israel] for wanting to study the art of sketching before turning to shoot my films. Even when I focus on the storyboard too much, people don’t seem to understand it.

One of the first things I’ve done in school was to buy books about photography. One of the things that really struck me as interesting in his photographs was the absence of any clear borders for the frame. The viewer really gets the feeling of being part of what he sees, as if he is there by accident. Even the focus is not on what it should be, perhaps as part of an effort to negate all of the aesthetic rules.


RS: Thinking about films in photographic terms brings to
mind some obvious references here such as Chris Marker’s
La Jetée, or Jean-Luc Godard’s My Life to Live. Was Or inspired by these films or by any others in this sense?

KY: Yes, it was perhaps, but really, I’m not much of an intellectual. I regret to say this, but I am still constantly trying to catch up and fill important lacks in my knowledge. I started studying cinema when I was 16, and back then I was merely watching trash films for teenagers. I wasn’t much of an ‘art-house’ cinephile, and during my studies I had neither the time nor the money to watch any films. Someone also told me, and I think it is quite true, that artists in general are more engaged with ‘throwing out’ what they already have inside themselves, while the intellectuals try to absorb more of their surroundings. I mean, watching a film for two hours straight is a difficult task for me, and I am quite ashamed of the paucity of my cinematic knowledge. However, one of the films that really struck me emotionally when I first started thinking about the script for Or was Rosetta, and critics usually don’t forget to mention these films together. I think that the Dardenne brothers are brilliant, and I always cry when I watch their films. I feel ‘crippled’ compared to them and their cinematic skills. When I first saw Rosetta in the Jerusalem Film Festival I immediately realized what my own first film should look like. I wanted it to be modest and simple, focused on a survival story for life and death. I also love Godard very much. My Life to Live is indeed one of the few good films ever made about prostitution. I have seen it perhaps 30 times by now. Everything moves me there, from Godard’s musical decisions to his penetrating close-ups. I think that what Godard had done in the Sixties is still extremely innovative today, as no one dares to do it. It is unbelievable how much his films are so up-to-date aesthetically.

RS: You mentioned your next film. What is it going to be about?

KY: It will deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am now taking private lessons with two teachers, one who helps me to become aware of the consequences of my formal decisions and the other who teaches me the history of Jaffa and Palestine, a history which remains largely inaccessible to us as Israelis. This is going to be a very different film. However, as much as I want to do a politically radical film, I don’t want to lose my chances to make it also a popular film, one which appeals to a mass audience without compromising too much. I mean, I can sit in Cannes and cry while watching Kiarostami’s Five. When I saw it, I tell you, I literally cried, I simply could not believe my eyes. But you know, as much as it is a brilliant film, it is also a film for filmmakers. It is a film which taught me quite a lot about cinema, about the relationship between audience and screen, about the active role of a spectator inventing his own narrative from what he sees, and so forth. There was a massive walkout from the screening in Cannes. Kiarostami really begged for people to stay and was quite insulted when they didn’t. But still, I cannot do films like that. I always lean more towards the audience, and I think that Or also shows that. Although it is quite a strange and difficult film to watch, it still preserves a basic narrative level. So in my next film I want to try and be both radical and revolutionary, talking about one state for two nations and revisiting the events of 1948 (the establishment of the state of Israel), while still making an effort to create a popular hit, encouraging the whole country go out and see the film! I have in mind a saccharine telenovela, a very naïve and optimistic film about the reality in Israel.

RS: This is very different fromOr’s approach, no? The opposite of a fatalistic artwork which is both dark and pessimistic?

KY: But isn’t it basically the same thing? I am a very optimistic person. I don’t consider Or to be a pessimistic film. Many people come to me after they see the film, confessing that they would never go to see a prostitute again, for example. “We now understand what we didn’t before,” they tell me. Since I believe in our society with all my heart, I think that I am allowed to show what would happen to this poor girl (Or) if no one helped her, trusting the audience to give such a girl a hand the next time they see her.

RS: On that note, let’s talk about the ending of the film, when the camera seems to endlessly linger on Or’s face as she prepares herself for another night as a call girl in a bachelor party. Her look is puzzled, bewildered, somehow accepting the faith in a very realistic and mature way. One cannot avoid thinking here about the ending sequence of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. The stillness of your camera produces the effect of a freeze-frame, and there is something about Or’s expression that remains ambiguous and enigmatic.

KY: This was one of the most personal and problematic aesthetic decisions I have taken in this film, as everything pretty much showed me that I shouldn’t go this way. If you watch it carefully, you can see that Dana is looking at the camera for a few seconds there. To let Dana do that at the end of the film was something very much like debating whether to put the army uniforms on the soldier (which I decided not to do). There is something naïve and childish about this, but I decided to go with it, as if Dana is saying: “Please help me.” My editor still thinks this was a mistake. There is something strange about this direct gaze pointed at the camera: the audience is to be blamed. I had to work hard with Dana on creating this look, because she tended to create either a look too blaming or too miserable, and it was very difficult to achieve something more ambivalent. The film which had its influence on me here was Claude Goretta’s The Lacemaker, one of my favorite films in the world.

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