‘Hotline’ film is hands-off yet intense look at rights group

Silvina Landsmann’s prize-winning documentary chronicles the struggle to protect African asylum seekers in Israel

From Silvina Landsmann's 'Hotline,' which won best documentary at the Jerusalem Film Festival (Courtesy 'Hotline')
From Silvina Landsmann's 'Hotline,' which won best documentary at the Jerusalem Film Festival (Courtesy 'Hotline')

Silvina Landsmann keeps her hands off her documentary subjects. She doesn’t interview them; she doesn’t even research them. She simply shows up, records what’s happened and leaves, later editing the material into a dramatic structure.

Her latest production, “Hotline,” is an intense portrait of a small Tel Aviv NGO, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. Shot on a digital hand-held camera, “Hotline” chronicles the organization’s struggle to protect and advance the rights of African asylum seekers in Israel.

The 100-minute documentary won the Jerusalem Film Festival’s Van Leer Award for Best Documentary Film last week.

In “Hotline,” Landsmann sought to explore how an NGO, or nongovernmental group, operates in the democratic arena.

Landsmann concentrated more on Hotline’s staff than the actual migrants, providing a narrative that focused simultaneously on an institution and the larger social issue of African migrants in Israel.

“They are inspiring, this group of people,” she told The Times of Israel. “They are fighting for a different type of society and certain values.”

Her fifth feature-length directorial effort, “Hotline” grew out of Landsmann’s hope to make a film study of an institution.

“I was interested in making a film about an NGO,” she said. “When I heard about Hotline, I called them and they were immediately enthusiastic and asked me to come to their office and see them work with undocumented migrants. So I brought a camera with me and filmed for a few hours. Then I knew I would stick with this subject.”

The subject of the film is the Hotline organization, but the issue is the plight of Eritrean and South Sudanese asylum seekers who face deportation to dangerous third-world countries or detainment in Israeli prisons.

Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator for Hotline, emerged as the main character of the film. Her advocacy efforts show the uphill battle Hotline faces in trying to ensure that existing Israeli laws are respected.

The film shows Rozen, and other volunteers and employees, at public information meetings, the Knesset and the Supreme Court.

Landsmann also offered a glimpse into the circumstances of those asylum seekers.

She showed Eritreans and South Sudanese visiting the Hotline office in South Tel Aviv, seeking help with various problems: they accidentally got their ID cards wet; they were missing paperwork; they needed access to medical care. Landsmann doesn’t develop them as characters; she just shows them, one after another, explaining their complicated misfortune and chronically displaced lives.

“It was very important for the structure of the film,” she said. “It was a way to show the Israeli bureaucracy and complexity, and through the many personal situations of asylum seekers in Israel, the larger systemic situation.”

Structure was a major concern for Landsmann. “Because I don’t do interviews or narration or put any text on the screen, I have to be very careful to structure the film in a way that it can be understood,” she said.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1965, Landsmann moved to Israel with her family when she was 11. A graduate of Tel Aviv University’s Cinema Department, Landsmann created her own independent production company, Comino Films, to avoid what she called “industry imposed constraints,” like pre-determined film lengths and obligations to adhere to ratings categories.

Her previous film, “Soldier/Citizen” (2012), focused on a civics class taken by Israeli soldiers belatedly working toward high school degrees. Landsmann turned the film into a long conversation about the nature of Israel’s democracy, as the students continually debate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the role of Arabs in Israeli society.

Landsmann said that Frederick Wiseman, an American filmmaker often referred to as the “master of modern documentary,” has largely influenced her method.

When she first saw his 1970 film “Hospital,” she became interested in pursuing documentary as an art form.

Sivlina Landsmann (Courtest of Comino Films)
Silvina Landsmann (Courtesy Comino Films)

“It was the first time I realized documentary could be cinematic, meaning it didn’t have to be newsy or purely informational,” she said. “It could be stylized like a fictional film. It could be art.”

Wiseman, along with making films in the manner Landsmann has adopted, is also noted for consistently focusing on institutions as his subjects.

Landsmann said Wiseman’s approach gives her a framework.

“It enables me to function inside of what I do and don’t,” she said.

Like Wiseman, Landsmann believes the label of “cinéma vérité” is not the point. “It’s just the procedure for how I take recorded material and construct it into a story.”

“I have these rules that I respect, but I can always decide to break the rules if I want,” she added. “After all, rules are made to be broken.”

She then added, “For artists, that is. For the Israel government, that is another story.”

“Hotline” will be screened at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque starting October 15.

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