CANNES — In a 20-minute interview slot between film screenings, parties and blurry-eyed meetings at the Cannes 69th International Film Festival, Eran Kolirin looks worse for wear.
“It’s very emotionally tiring,” says the Israeli director. “All my work has been done already, so it’s kind of an ego trip… the only thing now is, did they like me, or didn’t they like me? It’s strange.”
Reflecting on the circus of what is one of the biggest events on the cinematic calendar, the award-winning director says while a good review can feed your ego for five minutes, a bad one “can ruin it for days.”
The insecurity is something Kolirin shares with his protagonist, David (Alon Pdut), in “Beyond the Mountains and Hills,” which screened this year in the Un Certain Regard section of the festival.
“When I started I was thinking about the biblical story of King David and Bathsheba: A retired king sits in his palace, he sees a woman bathing on a roof, her husband comes back from war — he’s probably really potent,” says Kolirin of his inspiration for the main character, David, a discharged serviceman struggling to find peace and acceptance. “The king looks at the woman, thinking… [she’ll] never be mine.”
Returning to civilian life after 27 years, David attempts to adapt to the pace and values of modern Israeli society by opting into a dubious marketing scheme.
In the meantime, his activist teenage daughter Ifat (Mili Eshet) gets herself into increasingly dangerous situations in reckless displays of trust, while his dissatisfied wife Rina (Shiree Nadav-Naor) seeks sexual gratification. Finally, their son Omri (Noam Imber) becomes entangled in a dark family narrative that reflects the twisted nature of daily life in Israel.
“I was trying to get out an emotion of being consumed with fear, the feeling that you need a refuge… that reality is no longer clear: who’s good, who’s bad, who’s a friend, who’s a foe,” says Kolirin. He explains that while humans aspire for good, we inevitably stumble when faced with challenging situations.
“What does it mean to be good people?” he asks. “There are good actions, maybe, but the consequences of your actions in a complex situation are beyond your reach. There is no control over your life. Wherever you throw a stone you will hit something. It gets you into a state of mental siege.”
‘Wherever you throw a stone you will hit something. It gets you into a state of mental siege’
This metaphor is literally played out when David, overwrought with disappointment and stress, fires shots into the hills at night. News of the death of an Arab the following day spurs a series of events that corrupts the innocence of everyone in their path, including David’s children. By the end of “Beyond the Mountains and Hills,” each family member has a sin to repent for, but David reassures his wife, “We are good people.”
“I love and hate the place where I was born and live,” says Kolirin. “As the years pass, I accept this conflict as a given, neither good nor bad. This is the only reality I have,” he says.
He describes the film as “a story that tries to question the meaning of the decisions made within this reality,” which “allows only the roles of the victim or the executioner.”
“When he tells her this at the end,” he adds, “it’s like in a cartoon when the guy in the air says, ‘Don’t look down.’ We have to cling to this belief, because if we lose this too, we have nothing.”
The willful blindness exercised by the characters in the film is not solely an Israeli condition, adds Kolirin.
“Here in Cannes we are participating in a certain kind of exploitation,” he says. “We are here drinking our wine and someone is cleaning your room. We just don’t look. The inequalities are there. It’s impossible, you cannot do good, so your status is forever doomed.”
Though bleak, “Beyond the Mountains and Hills” is an accurate embodiment of sentiment in Israel at the moment. And while well-written, beautifully shot and cast to perfection, it is certainly not pleasant to sit through. Kolirin says he wanted viewers to feel as uncomfortable and conflicted as the characters in his film.
Suffice to say, “Beyond the Mountains and Hills” received mixed reception at Cannes and, by the festival’s end, failed to bring home any awards — a blow to a director who received worldwide critical acclaim and more than 50 awards including the Cannes Un Certain Regard Jury Coup de Coeur for his 2007 debut film “The Band’s Visit.”
“For a time I felt healed, in that I’d lost any fear making this film; I didn’t care how it it was perceived… or if it was on the right political side,” says Kolirin. “There was something brutal in the making of the film… free and brutal.”
But at the end of the day, adds the director, human beings have egos that demand gratification.
“You kick, and you scream, and you spit, and you want love,” says Kolirin.