‘Self-Made” is my favorite Israeli film since “Waltz With Bashir.”
Wow, that’s some big talk. Does that mean this movie is destined for universal praise and a wide(ish) release in the international market? Well, I’m not so sure. This one sure as hell isn’t for everyone, and I’m certain that’s exactly how writer/director Shira Geffen wants it.
Geffen takes us down a rabbit hole of perception and identity that blends absurdist comedy and brutal political reality. It is simultaneously a pointed essay about the current Israeli security situation in specific and an artful metaphor about the human experience in general.
Ugh! It sounds so annoying and pretentious when put that way, but trust me when I say it’s also really funny.
Things begin when cheap furniture literally wakes our lead character up on the wrong side of the bed. An angry call looking for a tiny screw sets off a chain of surreal events that eventually leads to Michal (Sarah Adler) “switching places” with Nadine (Samira Saraya), a psychologically disturbed Palestinian woman who may or may not be aware of the radical agents in her midst.
It is a rare example of a filmmaker having her cake and eating it, too. As Michal is a conceptual artist, there is a fair bit of ribbing at some of the flightier folk in that world. But then, when the movie needs to be, it is an aural-visual sensation, guiding the audience along through unfamiliar sensations and emotions.
Geffen’s last film “Jellyfish,” which she made with her husband Etgar Keret, won the Camera d’Or prize for best first feature film at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. “Self-Made” debuted at this year’s Cannes and took its Israeli bow at this week’s Jerusalem Film Festival.
Geffen cuts an impressive figure; if you rubbed a genie’s lamp and said “show me a confident, female Israeli director” she’s exactly what you’d expect to appear. And while it may not read so on the page, her comments came with a bit of understood warmth and good cheer. What follows is an amended transcript of our conversation.
I can’t want to browbeat every American critic into seeing this movie. Does it have a US distributer yet?
No not yet but . . .the deals. . .eh . . .Westend [a UK based sales agency] takes care of all of that.
You are talking about a topical, emotional issue in an artistic way, you are not hitting someone with a hammer saying ‘These are my beliefs, shut up and listen to what I have to say.’ And, also, it’s funny.
The humor is something built-in. I don’t make jokes. It’s more of irony or black humor. When you live in this place, you need to defend yourself with something. And humor works well.
I gotta say – your main character, Michal, who is a successful visual artist, is often seen in interview settings. And the interviewers are portrayed a little like dunces. So I’m very nervous right now!
Was this a way for you to get back at the press, a little? After your sudden success with “Jellyfish” at Cannes?
It’s a few things. It’s about Cannes, sure. But I come from a very famous family in Israel. My father [Yehonatan] is a famous journalist and writer. My husband is famous. My brother, Aviv, is a very famous singer. So, in our house, there have been plenty of camera crews like these over the years. And what I’ve noticed is that a lot of the time the interviewer wants to get from you what they want to see – but maybe not actually to reflect what you are. Sometimes you get prompted to say things that they want to hear. That’s how I conceived of the German crew. When you are famous, you create for yourself an image – and there is a big gap between that image and who you are. You can get lost in that.
Any reason it was a German crew? There’s so much co-production with German companies right now. Have you worked with German financing?
No. I chose it because I like that the language is very “tough,” you know? A bit of a frightening language.
More so than most interviews I do, I feel like this needs a time stamp. We’re at the Jerusalem Film Festival, it is the morning of June 17, 2014, and we just went into a five hour humanitarian cease fire. But we’re out here, beautiful location – life and the conflict intermingling. People here can live two lives at once. You express this in your film in a remarkable way. At the border crossing, you have the guard who is there to defend the nation of Israel, but also has a date that night – she wants to get off in time to make it to a concert.
When you think about the checkpoint – there are children stationed there. Eighteen years old. They don’t know why they are there. They are anxious teenagers – they want to play with their friends. This is not the place for them. You know, the ending of the film, she says “what do I care about peace, it’s my last week.” It’s exactly that: the people go to these checkpoints and they are made numb, indifferent. But not just a dull job, they humiliate people. They are checking old people and babies and pregnant ladies. It’s not good.
Well there’s a remarkable scene where Nadine is pulled out of line for a search, because she has a loose cord from her headphones. So, you understand… you need to inspect that. But the guard does it in a cold manner. She isn’t exactly polite.
It’s ideology. And… I am very pessimistic, really. Very pessimistic. I am going to the second screening in a few hours and I’m going to ask the audience to stand for the four boys who were killed yesterday in Gaza on the beach. I’m very upset about that.
You were part of the group who made the statement and read the names of the kids who have been killed. At what point did you realize you had to do something, that you couldn’t just let this be “business as usual” for the Festival?
Each one of us felt it was difficult to just show the film without any acknowledgement. Keren Yedaya called me and said “Shira, we have to do something, I don’t know what.” So we started writing this letter. Nadav Lapid came as well and then all of us.
Was there anyone you approached who didn’t want to get involved?
No, everyone wanted to be involved. We worked for about two days – there were a lot of arguments. Listen, you get five directors together and, you know how that goes. . .[laughs.] But we felt it was so important so we were all flexible. But, you know, I still hear the angry, violent voices here in Israel, who want total destruction. It makes me sick.
Some scenes in your film, like Nadine approaching the checkpoint, are shot in a very evocative way, with slow-motion and music. We’ve seen Palestinians at the checkpoint in a thousand movies, but it’s never been beautiful before. But that’s the character’s psychology. Can you talk about designing those sequences?
We built that checkpoint. We went to the Huwwara checkpoint with our art designer. You know the Maschom Watch? The group of women who go to the checkpoint to watch and make sure nothing bad was happening – I used to be in that group, at Huwwara, which is closed now, thank God. So, from my time there, I had all these ideas about the checkpoint. We built it and those scenes were choreographed, not shot in am improvisational manner. I wanted to show the regular, the typical – because, it’s like you say, in most movies, you see the checkpoint and something violent, something terrible is happening. No — it’s the everyday, the regular. To me, this is more awful.
I love the way you portray the art world. It is a satire… but not much of a satire. A woman selling a handbag made of her uterus, I mean, I can kinda see that happening…
It was a great opportunity for me to shoot some video art. Finally, yes, let’s do some video art! And I took it seriously. I mean, I laugh about her a little, but I was true to her… and I like what we created, as her installations.
When she’s in the museum looking at her work, it certainly “passes” for video art, but in the context of the film it is a bit absurd. When you were shooting that, was the crew cracking jokes a little?
The crew took it seriously, but the film as a whole is such a puzzle that the crew… the crew didn’t know what was going on throughout the whole film. They just said, ‘You want us to do this? Okay!’ [laughs] After a while, they just trusted me, I guess.
The movie is very surreal and associative but when it ends it all snaps together and makes sense, even if it is hard to explain how it makes sense. Was it all written as is, or was this a movie that was found in the editing?
I was writing this script for five years, as I was raising money. So I revised the draft a lot. In the editing, though, I still took out one hour. There was another storyline, with the mother of the two women – the same actress playing two mothers. It was too much. I felt that we had to take it out. It’s like a poem, it needs the right [cadence].
What’s so amusing about the film is how it is all set off by Michal thinking she’s missing a screw. One angry phone call leads to a chain of events and all sorts of people are upended. Was that the eureka moment in devising the film?
Yes, absolutely. But not just a phone call, the way she was feeling. She was upset, trying to build the furniture, and – listen, really, it was about me. I do this all the time. I’m doing something and it isn’t working and I blame all the world. Then, later, of course, you find what you needed. So this is something we do as a society, we blame everyone.
Well now that you’ve made this film, where a flash of emotion can have broad implications for so many people, has it changed your behavior?
I try. I try. But… [laughs.] But I’m never yelling! However I don’t have patience. I’m trying to change.
In English the film is “Self-Made” which is a perfect title. What does “Boreg” mean?
Yes, so, in English… we needed a different title.
Hey, change it back, you may get people thinking it’s a different kind of movie and make a lot of money!
Yeah, you have a good point.
What are you working on next?
Two things. My husband and I are writing a six part TV show for Arte in France, and I’m working on my next film.
Can you say what the next film is about?
Errrrrr… it’s still…
Okay, okay, I get it. But the TV show, that’s in Hebrew?
No, in French.
You speak fluent French?
You speak a little French? Tu parle un peu?
No! [Laughs.] I’ll write in Hebrew and they’ll translate it.
Wow, that’s a vote of confidence. With all the French-speaking writers in the entire world they still wanted you even if it meant the extra hassle of translation!
The producer Yael Fogel, she worked with me on “Jellyfish.” It’s about a real estate agent and a similar mix with fantasy.
Who are some of your favorite filmmakers?
Terry Gilliam, the Coen Brothers, David Lynch.
These names don’t surprise me, having seen “Self-Made.”
I loved the last Coen Brothers film “Inside Llewyn Davis” so much. Roman Polanski, too.
Your film reminds me of Polanski’s “The Tenant,” because for so much of it you are unsure where it is going, it doesn’t make sense and then when it ends… it still doesn’t make sense. But it feels right. Have audiences come to you upset, demanding more explanation?
Yes, last night, actually. After the screening a very old woman came to me and said “I’m very confused! I’m very confused!” and I was expecting this a little, but what she asked was funny. She says, “When she has the bomb, how does it work, with the button, or the rope or…?”
So she wasn’t confused about the content of the film, she just wanted to know how to work a bomb?
Yes! [Laughs!] But audiences… they either need to go with it and fly, or just accept this is not their type of movie that I am making. I’ve never been mainstream, I don’t want to be mainstream.
At some point there will be hardline right wingers who say this film is anti-Israeli.
That’s okay. I don’t mind. I’m used to that.
Then there will be some on the far left who say this is too pro-Israeli.
Of course, of course. I don’t care. Really. I don’t care.