Madness versus mortality in Israeli art film about yeshiva student on the brink

With dark narrative and male frontal nudity, Avishai Sivan’s latest release ‘Tikkun’ is a surprise success — even for the filmmaker

'Tikkun' (2015) by director Avishai Sivan, is about a yeshiva student who escapes a brush with death. The film has won awards both at home and abroad. (Courtesy)
'Tikkun' (2015) by director Avishai Sivan, is about a yeshiva student who escapes a brush with death. The film has won awards both at home and abroad. (Courtesy)

The Kabbalistic idea of “tikkun” as a form of repairing, fixing and healing is a familiar concept in Judaism, including among the ultra-Orthodox. Far less familiar is framing the world of the ultra-Orthodox with a disturbing narrative, including male frontal nudity and other shocking elements, as in the dark two-hour Israeli feature film, “Tikkun.”

“It’s not an easy film,” admits director Avishai Sivan.

An award-winner at home in Israel and an official selection at leading film festivals around the globe, this tale of a tormented yeshiva student opened at New York’s Lincoln Center this month and is playing in other select theaters across the US.

“Tikkun” is Sivan’s second picture in what he calls his religious trilogy, which began with “The Wanderer,” a story of a young yeshiva boy who seeks deliverance by wandering city streets. That film premiered at Cannes Film Festival 2010 in the Directors’ Fortnight section and landed Best First Feature Film and Best Cinematography at the Jerusalem Film Festival 2010.

“After I finished the first film, I felt like I had a lot of material inside of me to share in another film. That’s how I started to write ‘Tikkun,’” says Sivan, 38, who does not come from an ultra-Orthodox family. For “Tikkun,” he also served as screenwriter, co-producer and co-editor.

Avishai Sivan was born to traditional Uzbek parents, considers himself secular, and writes of an ultra-Orthodox world. (Courtesy)
Avishai Sivan, born to observant Uzbek parents, considers himself secular but writes about an ultra-Orthodox world. (Courtesy)

The film, which screened at Telluride and Mill Valley Film Festivals, is also an official selection at the New Directors/New Films Festival and the third Annual Jewish Film Institute WinterFest. It won Best Cinematography at the Valladolid International Film Festival in Mexico and at Locarno, Italy, it took the Silver Leopard Special Jury Award, with a Special Mention for Cinematography and the IFFS Don Quixote Prize. It was named Best Israeli Feature Film, Best Script, Best Actor for Khalifa Natour and Best Cinematography at the 2015 Jerusalem Film Festival.

In addition to filmmaking, Sivan is the author of the book “Musings on Filmmaking Whilst Cycling Through the City” (Sitra Achra Publishing, 2011) and exhibits artwork in galleries and museums in Israel and abroad. Sivan is a native of Or Yehuda near Tel Aviv who grew up going to secular mamlachti mainstream public schools and later studied cinema at the Camera Obscura School of Art in Tel Aviv. In an interview, he shared more about his work with The Times of Israel.

I understand you have created a number of experimental pieces. What led you to make “Tikkun” a narrative piece about a man surviving a brush with death that only leads to more suffering?

The story is a bit different from “The Wanderer,” my first feature film, so I don’t really know how I came out with these surrealistic scenes. It just hit me while I was sleeping or wandering in the street. I don’t really have a specific way to grab my imagination.

All my works are much more radical than this. This is a film that you can actually see a story. All the other films are much more abstract.

How do you feel about the attention the film has received?

The awards that I receive — it’s flattering and very surprising. Although this film is very “art house” and suits the festival industry, it’s also a very radical film and I had a very difficult time attracting funding.

I didn’t really think it would be that successful and receive awards. It’s my first time as an artist and as a filmmaker that I have the kind of widespread success where this piece “Tikkun” is being distributed in both the US and France and has won a lot of awards. I’m not really used to that. So it puts me in a situation where I’m surprised. And on the other hand, I’m kind of embarrassed that I don’t really know how to react. And obviously, it has its upside. It’s nice to receive awards.

The second installment in Avishai Sivan's 'religious' trilogy, 'Tikkun' (2015) has received unexpected mainstream attention. (Courtesy)
The second installment in Avishai Sivan’s ‘religious’ trilogy, ‘Tikkun’ (2015) has received unexpected mainstream attention. (Courtesy)

How was your experience working with Tikkun’s diverse cast?

The main character, Haim-Aaron, [portrayed by Aharon Traitel] was, in his past, an ultra-Orthordox Hasid. He left religion at age 15. He is a non-actor. Working with him, I learned a lot because I myself do not come from this world. It was also fascinating for me because I needed to create a method for him to understand and start learning to act for cinema. He is not professional and I think this is his first role ever.

The father [portrayed by Khalifa Natour] and the the mother [Riki Blich] are both secular professional actors and didn’t come from the Orthodox world so they needed to do some study and research how to behave Hasidic. And the father is a Palestinian actor so for him it was a really big challenge. And he’s just amazing, how he has a dogmatic way to get inside every role that he does, so watching him learning Yiddish and learning the prayers, it was amazing and I was full of admiration for the way he managed to get it so accurate.

How does your own belief system play into the film?

This film is not really about the Jewish belief. It’s about belief in general, and that is how I came to shape and design this film. I am also an artist and I had time before I started the film to make things in a very professional way. I had a studio and painted on canvas, and in this process, I felt like it’s kind of like trying to reach my belief and reach for the sublime. I worked very hard and eventually the result was that I forgot to eat and I forgot to sleep, and without noticing, did some damage to my health.

‘The mind wants to reach and be connected to the metaphysical dimension, while our body tries all the time to remind us that we are not that different from animals’

The film “Tikkun” addresses this battle between body and mind. The mind wants to reach and be connected to the metaphysical dimension — it makes us civilized, clever, poetic human beings, while our body tries all the time to remind us that we are not that different from animals. And all the time you need to play with these two forces that are within us.

So I don’t know, it’s kind of not really a kind of specific religious belief but a more universal one, how human beings need to reach their soul and meditate and break down the fact that the body is more like a tool of the soul.

Have you any near death experiences that impacted your making of this film?

I have fainted a lot. So I know this feeling of being temporarily “out of this life.” Because I don’t eat well and I’m constantly weak and dizzy, and feel like I’m losing control over my body, and so I’m a bit between the worlds. I get a slight taste of that with my physical condition. So I know how it feels for me, like my body is against me. Or my body is giving me a fight. I guess inhabiting my own body is sort of a conflict in my daily life, and this somehow carries over to the experience of death. It’s there all the time and I feel it quite strongly.

How do you identify Jewishly?

My parents are from Uzbekistan. They are very traditional. I’m very secular so I don’t really have a conventional or specific definition for my way of interpreting Judaism.

Why did you show the lead, a yeshiva student, nude?

‘I don’t think nudity, or provocation or taboo is out of the question while you’re making a film’

Filmmaking for me is art. It’s not entertainment for an audience that needs to run away from their life… I don’t think nudity, or provocation or taboo is out of the question while you’re making a film. Everything is a tool that needs to challenge the art you’re trying to make.

I don’t think the nudity or provocation in my film is just nudity. It’s an organic part of the story… The film needs to show things in this extreme society, and nudity is part of the game, and part of the story, and part of life, so even the Hasidim can be naked.

What are your current screenwriting projects?

One will be a different one from what I’m used to and have made so far — a spy thriller based on the Israeli book “Three Envelopes” by Nir Hezroni. It’s about an agent that works in an organization that is similar to the Mossad, but he’s got a very creative method of getting the job done. It’s almost similar to a terrorist attack. The film will be called “The Pirate” and I hope to somehow connect it with with Hakim Bey’s novel “The Temporary Autonomous Zone” about places that aren’t really mapped, where people can be very free and very clandestine. My agent will be this kind of pirate who winds his way through modern technology… doing very simple things but… very effective.

The other project that I have is called “Lot’s Wife.” I’m also developing it now and it will be the third installment of my religion trilogy, which includes “The Wanderer” and “Tikkun.” It’s about an Orthodox couple that cannot bring children to the world. It’s a battle between good and evil.

What is your process?

I write every day, not necessarily a scene, script or treatment [but] little stories or poetry or essays. A lot of times I’ll write things and then discover parts during a reread that I should perhaps put in a film. I don’t really have a clear way of writing. It’s kind of like searching for something that is maybe interesting and surprising, something that you don’t get from the usual daily or routine way of writing. I’m always trying to challenge and surprise myself.

What type of joy or satisfaction do you find in your work?

‘I only feel joy or satisfaction in real time while I am creating’

It’s very hard for me to answer this question because I only feel joy or satisfaction in real time while I am creating, while I finish a day of writing, while I finish a day of shooting. So after all these processes are finished… I am just moving ahead to the next project and trying to find another joy or satisfaction while I am working. It is only happening for me in the present time, not while I am thinking on the past, or I don’t know, on a future project.

Then why make films?

I didn’t think I would be a filmmaker. I thought I would be a painter or an artist. Now I am also a painter and an artist. Filmmaking is very hard to do. It’s very massive and demands a lot of people and a big budget. It just happened. It’s like catching a disease that you can’t get rid of. It became part of my life when I was a teenager. I thought it was the best way to combine all arts together.

I prefer to communicate in images. Also my Hebrew is not that good. I am not a man of words in any language. That is why I ended up doing film.

Most Popular
read more: