LONDON — Family, and the dynamics that play out within it, has been the arena for many of writer and director Shemi Zarhin’s stories.
“When you wonder about the meaning and importance we attach to living together — which is a very Israeli issue — this question is strongest and most powerful when asked in connection to family,” says Zarhin.
“I didn’t plan it to be like this. It became this way,” explains the creator of acclaimed films “Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi,” “The World is Funny,” and “Aviva, My Love.” “The main purpose wasn’t to deal with family as a subject or as a phenomenon.”
Instead, he uses it as the place in which he can explore and raise the questions that interest him. What relationships mean; how they look and feel; how or what we must do in order to try and live together; our inner conflicts, roles and expectations. It may all sound rather pseudo-psychoanalytical but under Zarhin’s pen and insightful eye, the results are moving, astute and also funny.
Zarhin’s sixth, and most recent film drama, “The Kind Words” is no different. After their mother’s death, three siblings discover that the man they thought was their father is not their biological parent. They set off on a quest across France, first to Paris and then Marseilles, to find the Algerian Muslim man who was their mother’s secret lover for many years. In the process, they reassess everything they knew about their beloved mother, as well as themselves.
The film was nominated for 12 Ophir Awards last year and received its UK premiere in London on June 19, as the opening gala film of SERET International, the Israeli Film & Television Festival. There will also be additional screenings throughout the eight-day festival.
“The Kind Words” tackles issues of identity, loss, compromise and love. It examines how the grip of the past can affect the present and influence the future.
Each of the siblings is struggling with their own significant issues, aside from coping with their grief. Dorona (Rotem Zissman-Cohen) is dealing with possible infertility and has decided to reject adoption, despite the best efforts of her devoted, long suffering and semi-estranged husband, Ricky (Tsahi Halevi). Shai (Assaf Ben-Shimon), a bisexual father of one, is trying to be a parent to his son who lives in Hungary. And Natanel (Roy Assaf) is Orthodox for the sake of his wife but is now concerned about the impact his newly found paternity will have on his marriage.
Speaking with The Times of Israel on the phone from Tel Aviv, Zarhin explains that the title of his film has several meanings. First, it appears as part of the narrative. When Ricky tells Dorona that he loves her, she replies that his words are “just words.” True, he says, but “they’re kind words.”
The phrase is also “part of a very beautiful song written by my favorite Israeli poet, Nathan Alterman,” Zarhin says.
He adds that in Hebrew the word “hatovot” means more “good” than “kind.”
“The three kids are the good or kind words that their mother [created] because their names in Hebrew are different ways to say the word ‘presents.’”
Everything, says Zarhin slightly cryptically, starts with a word. But most of all, the title is “trying to say that we have to get to the bottom of things.”
The film also asks how much of our identity is affected by the past.
“When we’re in trouble, our nature as human beings is usually to look to the past in order to try and find answers,” says Zarhin.
But he believes that we do not need to be its slave. Although the siblings unlock their mother’s secret in the hope that it will provide the key to their “real” identity, they realize that the answers are not so straightforward.
‘The term audience is too abstract for me when I’m telling a story in a film or novel’
“The Kind Words” touches on troubling issues such as prejudice and the impact of secrets and lies on a family. It also poses more questions than it answers. When Natanel’s anti-Arab sentiment surfaces, it is not really challenged. Who is their real father — does it ultimately matter? And crucially, why did their mother keep her past from them all?
The ending is indeterminate, the audience receives no conclusions but, “You get the tools to think about the answers,” says Zarhin.
He explains that he does not consider the audience when he is writing or directing.
“The term audience is too abstract for me when I’m telling a story in a film or novel. The only dialogue I’m having is with the characters,” he says.
Zarhin considers himself to be a storyteller, but says, “The story is not the plot. The story is the meaning of the plot. I’m dealing with the experience, the emotions and the thoughts that come through the plot, especially through the characters.
“The only thing I can use as a tool is to be honest with the characters because I know a character is not a human being but an idea, pretending to be a person. I have to do everything I can in order to support this person and help them understand what he or she is supposed to do with their life,” says Zarhin.
He explains that his main challenge with “The Kind Words” was to create, and subsequently project on screen, the strong relationship and love between the three siblings, as naturally as possible.
‘It’s a piece that’s trying to create life, an experience’
“[It was also important] to feel the love that they got from their mother. We worked very hard, through the writing and by the casting,” Zarhin says.
The result is utterly compelling. The portrayal of the compatibility, credibility and togetherness of the sibling unit is one of the film’s strengths. Their onscreen positioning reinforces this. In many scenes they fill the frame and we feel that, whatever the outcome, their closeness will remain unchanged.
Did he base the sibling relationship on any personal experience?
“Well, you know it’s not a documentary,” Zarhin reminds me, rather pointedly. “It’s a piece that’s trying to create life, an experience.”
“The Kind Words” is the third film that Zissman-Cohen and Zarhin have made together but it is the first time that she plays a protagonist.
“In a way I discovered her,” he adds.
He also reveals that actor Assaf Ben-Shimon is almost blind and needed considerable guidance on set. Zarhin admits that it was amazing to experience the care and support that his “siblings” showed him.
Zarhin is currently awaiting publication of one book and in the process of writing another, which he refers to as a complicated novel that he has been working on for four years.
He also has a play at the Habima Theatre opening next year, “A crazy comedy about three nervous and selfish sisters, while in the background the world is suffering from a new Big Bang that causes the world to go around in the opposite direction.”
Even when the world is turning the other way, family is still at the center of his storytelling.
SERET runs in the UK until June 27. www.seret-international.org