THE AV INTERVIEW: AVI NESHER
Avi Nesher has been directing films since 1978. Recently, his work on Past Life came to our attention. Watch the trailer below and observe some World Cinema cinema magic. Jim Laczkowski (Our Man in Chicago) found quite a few amazing stories in Mr. Nesher. We hope that you’ll find some wonder as well.
Now, Jim interviews Avi Nesher
Jim: Hi Avi. How are you doing today?
Avi: Good. How are you Jim?
Jim: I’m doing quite well. I am very excited to talk with you. I’m gradually becoming a fan of Israeli cinema. It reminds me a lot of the work of Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, whose work I have become enamored with. And your latest film Past Life, I found it to be quite powerful. What motivated you to want to tell the story? I know this is probably your most personal film to date, because of where the subject material has come from in terms of your own family history.
Avi: I am a son of holocaust survivors. My late father and my mother. And you know, Israel is a country still traumatized by the holocaust. The war, Second World War is over for so many years everywhere in the world except here. Here it’s still pretty much part of the psyche and in Israel the past is very much part of the present. It’s very difficult to shake it and you know traumas can be dealt with only by addressing them and talking through them. A little bit like, personal traumas can be addressed through psychoanalysis and I feel that, that cinema is a great vehicle to bring it out to light. And it took my mother years and years before she opened up to me about what happened to her in the holocaust. Still much of it remains a mystery to me. And I just thought, the true story about the two sisters and the father and I thought it would be a very interesting way to bring it out especially since the younger daughter is a musician and part of his struggle is an artistic one as well. It was easy for me to identify with it.
Jim: I haven’t dealt with sort of the cultural demons but at the same time I know historically since I’m Polish I know that there’s a lot of horror and trauma that was experienced there earlier on. After all, William Faulkner said, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Avi: Yes very much. And again, even if you are not a holocaust survivor, I mean what do we really know about our parents? I mean, we meet them at their late 20’s, early 30’s. We miss out on the whole life time. And it affects up so much. So for me it’s an amazing source of mystery. These people that we love so much and it affects our lives to such a degree. You know, I mean what do we know about them?
Jim: That’s a great point. And I think the best way to deal with trauma is through the arts. Like music and writing and of course film making which this film felt like that to me. It felt like a personal statement, as well as telling a compelling true-life story of this incredible dynamic that these two sisters shared. So, I mean, focusing on that family turmoil and just learning about the history that they experience and how tension between two people can clash with the outside world and different culture. So clearly this was something that interested you. How did you go about casting these two particular sisters? They are remarkable.
Avi: Oh, they are extraordinary actresses, both of them. And because it’s based on a true story, I did really try to get people who would look like the two sisters even though the younger sister was really really beautiful. And as the actress who plays Sephi, the younger sister and the older sister was really really brilliant as is Nelly Tagar, who plays the older sister. She is in Israel. She has a very popular blog and she’s really renowned for her talents and she is a really great writer. So it took me just about a year to cast because for me casting it would be like falling in love. I mean, you never know exactly what you want until you meet it. And then you feel it.
And Joy Rieger who plays the younger sister is a young actress. She has not done anything before this. And she did some amazing auditions and it’s interesting you mention Iranian cinema, which I like very much myself. And one of the great things about Iranian cinema is, it always rings very true. It rings like, these are stories that are truthful. And I think the notes of the truth in cinema is really interesting and I am very partial to doing as much on camera as possible and that’s using a trickery. So for example, it was very important for me that the actress who plays the younger sister, the singer can really sing. Now Joy Rieger is a great young actress but she could not sing. She is an actress. And it was really frustrating and our musical director told me if I give him 10 months, he will turn her into a classical singer. And I thought this was preposterous. If I think he would take 10 months and turn me into an Olympic sprinter. I mean, mission impossible.
But he really put her through the wringer. I mean every day voice lessons and piano lessons and this and that and after 10 months he called me up and he invited me to a recording studio and she stood there and she opened her mouth and she sang. And my heart skipped a beat. I mean, she does her own singing in the movie which really had an amazing effect because she really singed herself and her body vibrates to the music. So it’s a very unique experience for everyone.
Jim: Yeah. It kind of reflects a little bit what’s Sephi herself. She aspired to be a classical composer and just felt like the odds were against her a lot of it due to the times and also just her place as a woman and I think that it’s interesting that your lead actress sort of had to go through her own arc and being able to be a powerful singer. So that’s kind of inspiring to hear as well.
Avi: Yes indeed.
Jim: Israel is a country that’s really embed with a lot of history of course. And you cover that throughout your filmography and I am very excited to catch with your early work. You’ve been working all the way back since the late 70’s and I’m excited because I mean a lot of films from other cultures and other countries don’t get the kind of American distribution that I think they deserve so they sort of get swept under the rug over here but then you have these wonderful film festivals like Toronto and Sundance and now luckily we are getting a lot more knowledge about the kind of work that’s been made and there’s even a Jerusalem new wave of cinema that’s taking place. But I am very curious for you. What was it like shooting in Poland? Was that the first time shooting in a different country for you for this?
Avi: Well, Poland was a really unique experience for me. Because I have never been to Poland before. And Poland has a very rich cinematic history. I mean, it has one of the finest film schools in the world. I’ve always wanted to go Poland. About this crew what you see on the movie, was an Israeli crew with some German actors, with some Brits and the DP’s French. And those are really defining moments because we shot all the Polish and German parts in Lodge. And I became so close to the Polish crew. The Polish crew really made this movie their own. They really embraced this movie. It was a unique… I mean, I’ve never had a rave party like the rave party of the Polish community. We shot in one of the poorest sections because we recreated the seven days and there was one section that looks like old communist Poland and when we showed on the morning of shooting, there was swastikas covering our sets.
Jim: Oh my god!
Avi: And it was really scary. And you know, I mean you show Israeli swastikas and get a knee jerk reaction right. And you freak out and you fear for your safety. And the Polish crew just completely protected us, understood us and it was a great experience and we met some Police there. But the amazing thing was, at the end of the day we found that the Swastikas were not meant for us.
Avi: The swastikas were meant for a different movie! A Polish Director shot around the same street a couple of days before that and he got into some kind of fight with the locals. And in a way, it was their way of expressing their displeasure. And I thought how extraordinary that is. You show me some swastikas and I fly off the handle.
Jim: Of course.
Avi: And in many ways, this movie aims to be art triumphing over history or art triumphing over traumas. And in many ways, by the way the Polish crew and the Israeli crew and some French crew and the German crew all came together. It was our own overcoming our fears and our own traumas. And it was truly one of the best filmmaking experiences I ever had shooting in Poland. I loved that country and I intend to work there again. It’s an incredible country I saw.
Jim: Yeah, I don’t doubt it from what I’ve seen and of course the films that have come from there. So, in that sense the environment, the visual treatment that you do, I mean especially with just these pops of color here and there. You clearly have a great visual palette with the way you present this world and this material. So how did you develop that and what’s your relationship working with the cinematographer to sort of create that?
Avi: Well, I am a great believer in assigning specific colors to specific sections and specific emotions. And I really take a great deal of time working with the production designer and the wardrobe designer and the DP and creating all these subjects in specific color and I am really that you notice it. Because I mean, you do it in a subtle kind of way and you try not to call attention to it. But very much there and I was fortunate in some of my Israeli movies having people see it more than once. And we see it a second and a third and a fourth times. I mean, a whole different cinematic layer come to life through color. And just through usage of wide lenses and things that take place in the background that have their own significance and I really like the movies that you see it for the first time for a story and then you see it the second and third and fourth time for meaning.
Jim: Yeah. That’s a great point too. I mean, I’d often watch a movie first and have one part of my brain intellectualize it and then the second time I watch it, I have more of an emotional experience with it. And sometimes it can be flipped but for the most part that’s what I love about re-watching movies is that., and especially as you grow and change over time you might have a different feeling when you watch it again. So, I have no doubt that will be the case with this film. This is the first installment in a trilogy so is there a thematic consistency that you are looking for with this trilogy because I know the next film is… you are working on it currently right?
Avi: Yeah. I’m shooting it. They also do the best and it’s interesting if you use the Faulkner quote. Because this is the quote that they drive the trilogy. Because Israel is a country that has the best, so much a part of its present. I mean, we have prisoners of our own traumas. The holocaust being one. We’re an immigrant society so we are prisoners of our own. Old notions or racist notions and this and that and Israel is really being held back by traumas and of course, as we know the only way to deal with trauma is by talking about it and as you said before cinema is really an extraordinary medium of bringing our traumas to life and inducing discussion.
As this movie really did in Israel, I was shocked at how successful this movie was in Israel. So three films constitute the trilogy. I am about to start shooting in two weeks is called Past Imperfect. Which is the second film of the Past trilogy. And again, it’s in Israel which is in many ways is a very modern country and very successful country. It’s really being held back by its own fears and by the presence of the past in it’s present. That’s what these three movies try to do. It’s trying to decipher what is the effect of the past on the present and what do we do with it.
Jim: Wow. That’s a great theme to continue exploring. And I am very much looking forward to it. Other filmmakers that you find inspiring currently that are- I mean even some unknown names out there that you think that we should look out for?
Avi: You are dead on about Israeli cinema. Israeli cinema is., I find it truly extraordinary. The last 15 years there’s a surge of young Israeli filmmakers coming up. Really some of the best film schools in the world and every year Israeli produces 3 or 4 great movies. Toronto is a great place that shows Israeli movies. I have been to Toronto maybe four times and each time, there’s three or four really good Israeli movies. So it’s really astonishing. I mean, I started making movies in the late 70’s. Past life happens in 78 also because I made my first movie in 78. So for me it’s a very significant year. But Israeli cinema is so vibrant and so inventive and so alive and so effective within Israel and outside of Israel. I truly recommend that the people go out and see almost any Israeli movie that they can get their hands on. You are very right in comparing it to Iranian cinema from 5,10 years ago.
Jim: Well it was a real honor talking with you, Avi. Again, I was very moved by Past Life and cannot wait to explore more of your work whether from the past or in the future. Thank you so much for spending some time to talk with me today