When filmmaker Tomer Shushan won the Grand Jury Award at the South by Southwest Festival for “White Eye,” his 20-minute narrative short about migrant workers in Israel, he wasn’t there to receive it.
No one was — as the annual Austin, Texas festival, scheduled for March 13-22, was canceled due to the coronavirus crisis.
The jury still chose its winner: Shushan’s short, which is based almost entirely on an event that happened to him.
It tells the story of Omer (Daniel Gad), a Tel Aviv millennial who unexpectedly discovers his previously stolen bicycle locked up on a Tel Aviv street. He tries to break the lock, soliciting help from nearby passersby. He calls the police, but they won’t help him since he never filed an official complaint.
When the police do, unexpectedly, show up, they again tell Omer they can’t help without a complaint, but that he should call if the thief shows up.
They leave, and Omer discovers the new owner of the bike, a migrant worker named Yunes, who works in the nearby meat packing plant and tells him he paid for the bicycle.
Yunes’s boss, Michelle, gets involved in the argument, attempting to negotiate on his behalf. The police return, unexpectedly, and ask Yunes for his visa, which has expired.
The story develops in a way that Omer had never intended, one that makes him rethink all of his actions, privileges and selfish behaviors.
The ending differs from that of the incident that happened to Shushan (his had a less dramatic and more positive ending), but is just as plausible.
“I wanted to make a film out of what happened to me because it really influenced me as a human being,” said Shushan. “The feelings were so real and painful.”
There are just ten actors in the film, including the main actor, Dawit Tekleab, an Eritrean migrant worker whom Shushan met on a Tel Aviv Street and “loved how he looked and his body language,” he said. “He didn’t understand and he was scared and suspicious.”
For any migrant worker in Israel, there is suspicion and concern about being involved in something that could bring attention to their situation, which is usually precarious and uncertain.
Shushan ended up working with Tekleab for seven months, meeting twice a week despite Tekleab’s 16-hour workdays.
“He wanted to be involved because of the message of the film,” said Shushan. “It’s a film that doesn’t try to show the same old story, of migrant workers as hopeless, poor refugees. It makes them out as real people who deal with a situation in life.”
A graduate of Tel Aviv’s Minshar School of Art, Shushan wrote the film in one hour as he was still reeling from the incident.
He sent the script that same night to the The Makor Foundation for Israeli Film and Television, which ended up giving him a budget for the film.
“They said, ‘Go make it,'” said Shushan.
The writing portion was brief, while the making of the film was more complex. Shushan wanted to film the story in one long take with a single camera.
“One shot of 20 minutes is really tough to do,” he said. While the actual filming is brief, it requires intensive rehearsal time for the actors in order to pull off.
When it was clear that he couldn’t manage it, Shushan began filming but ended up canceling the shoot after one day, frustrated with the filming process and having already used half of his budget.
Discouraged, he didn’t return to filming until six months later, when he used the other half of his budget to return to the one-shot concept, and filmed the entire movie in one night.
The film won the Best Short Film Award at the Haifa International Film Festival in 2019 and was scheduled to have its North American premiere at SXSW Film Festival 2020.
Shushan said he felt sure about the film throughout the process.
“It’s a natural subject for me… I always have the tendency to take a long look at people, whether Jews, Muslims, Christians, refugees,” he said. “Those are subjects that always interest me and that I want to look at as a filmmaker.”
What his own incident taught him, as a person, was the need to stop and think without reacting instinctively.
“I have no right to talk to people in a certain way,” said Shushan. “I’m a lot more balanced, and calmer.”
“White Eye” is Shushan’s second short, following his first student film, and he is currently developing a TV series, “Torso,” about a private investigator, as well as his first feature film “Between the Sacred and The Secular.”