In a candid, revealing interview, LWLies speaks to Israeli director Haim Tabakman about his powerful, provocative debut Eyes Wide Open, which follows the homosexual relationship of two Orthodox Jewish men in the occupied territories of Israel. The film was nominated by Cannes for the Un Certain Regard award. Here he talks about his love of Godard, what he learnt about the Orthodox community that pelted him with stones while he was filming, and his belief in the irrationality of God.
LWLies: Was there a lightbulb moment when you were younger and it became clear that cinema was the medium you wanted to explore?
Tabakman: I just wanted a channel through which I could be creative. I wasn’t that much of a cinephile at first. I was more into music but somehow it didn’t happen, and cinema is a place for the dilettante, you know. I wasn’t a real literary man, I wasn’t a real musician and I wasn’t a real artist, but I felt this medium could really offer me a place to grow. So I went to Tel Aviv University and after some shouts from my professor I started watching more classic movies a day and dedicated myself to this. I’m used to being very total in everything I do, I try my best to learn and to be a professional and to gain enough knowledge. But of course with that I felt this could really be my world.
Was there a particular film or movement or director that struck a chord with you and made you think: ‘Actually, I could do this as a career?’
Yeah, I guess films of the New Wave in France during the 1960s really convinced me that there was a way to be so free when making films. I respect very much the big Hollywood movies and I wouldn’t say no to any kind of offer to direct a big time action or drama but there’s something about the freedom and the poetry that directors like Godard and Truffaut that really convinced me that there was something really nice about this job, and I think the films I still like are the ones where I feel this rawness or wildness or this sense of adventure; that you are within the mood of the person who made the film. I like the sense that the film you are watching is influenced by the mood that the filmmaker was in on a specific morning, you know? Sometimes you can really feel this spontaneous feeling.
You feel when you watch these films from the New Wave, not all of it comes of: Some of it works but some of it doesn’t. But when it does work, these little scenes possess such a poeticism which has a complete spontaneity. They wouldn’t be achievable with a conventional script and a conventional crew...
Yeah, I like this feeling of childish recklessness in the making of a film. Sometimes when you see a Godard film it feels he is making a restless attack, and I like this energy. There are many other films that have influenced me in this way; Rosselini’s films, and the films of Nicholas Roeg from the 1970s. They have this kind of uninhibited energy.
Was that something that was in your mind when you were shooting Eyes Wide Open?
Yeah it was in my mind. Part of the strategy of making this film was being extremely held back, but with it there were a lot things I was really experimenting with. Sometimes I was sure of my intuitions but I wasn’t completely rationalising everything so it was a kind of a synergy between something very much calculated but still having this chaotic opportunity. A lot of the time before a scene I didn’t really know how it would look, but I had many concrete points that I wanted to get to, but I didn’t know an hour before the shoot exactly how we were going to get there.
A lot of the scenes were improvised, were they not? Did you have a fully written script?
The script was written but I think it was said that the director shouldn’t be the executioner of the script. I used it as a sign, as something to go by. There was also a possession in the rehearsal stage. We rehearsed for a few weeks and the script changed a lot, and also in the shooting itself when you face reality, especially when you are doing a low budget film. You can’t force reality. If you discover something that is really disturbing, because you have so little time and so little money you think ‘Well, can I use this? How can I make it work for me?’ So there was a lot of work with reality blowing in your face while you were trying to come up with ideas and it was actually in parts fun because you did not feel you were just executing a plan.
So how close is the final film after the edit to the idea you had of the film before you shot it?
I don’t know because I had ideas, but it all happened very fast. Even the actors were chosen not so long before the shoot. I didn’t have a concrete face for these guys in my mind. It was kind of abstract in a way. I wanted it to be a surprise, even to myself. There were a lot of things I couldn’t control and I accepted this chaotic feeling. I just knew that I had to maintain certain aspects that were important. When Zohar Shtrauss came to the project he was a little bit different physically to how I imagined Aaron to be, but he had very strong merits for the part so I changed a lot of things to make it work for Zohar and to make Zohar work for the movie.
We said in our review that Ran Danker resembled Zac Efron. How much of a gamble was casting Ran? What were you looking for when you cast the roles?
I wanted somebody that would be the image of the stranger that comes to this town. It’s almost from a genre movie; a stranger that comes to this town and changes everything. While we were doing the matches between Zohar and the guy that auditioned for the role before him, we searched for someone who would be idiomatic of the image – that would persuade me or the audience that there was something really strong, really tensional between these guys and something really worked between them. Ran then, as he is now, a teenage idol. But the reason you become a teenage idol is because you have a certain charisma, a certain sexual charisma or charm. I think I tried to utilise these things for the character of Ezri.
It's a very personal film. How much is it autobiographical, if it all? Can you associate the characters or environments with your own life, or is purely a fiction?
I’m not gay, I’m not religious, so for me the dramatic and emotional compass was basically my life. I looked inside things I recognised in my life to understand the characters. This was the way I chose between some things I kept in the movie or didn’t keep in the movie. So the struggle for individuality and against the borders of your life, and the way passion can make you destroy the scheme you have built for many years. These are things I’ve had to deal with all my life, and have always interested me. So after making decisions based on that, I used extensive research. So basically it’s a personal film with a complex of a weird social habitat.
It’s a very hermetic drama with few characters, but it exists within a community that has global significance. How much do you see the film as your statement on Israel as a nation, if at all?
Well, one of my professors at Tel Aviv University said: ‘Every good film is political.’ In another way, every film is political if you decide it is political. It is a very simple story, Eyes Wide Open; it is based on almost mythical structures that you really can transmit to a lot of things in life. I’m influenced by Israeli politics and I’m aware of a lot of social struggles and that touches me. I don’t carry a social flag with this film, but I did try to say something about myself and maybe something about humanity, but if it comes across then I guess it can also be transmitted as a political statement.
There’s a real sense of hypocrisy in the way that Israel as a country demands tolerance of its own practices, but doesn’t extend the same respect to its own citizens. Is that something you think Israelis are aware of?
Yes. There is a lot of polarity in Israeli society. There’s a lot of indifference because life in Tel Aviv is like that in any normal metropolitan city in the world. It’s very gay friendly and it’s very tourist friendly, but if you travel an hour outside the city you are in the occupied territories, or maybe on the border. There is a of feeling of strange polarity, because you care about these things but you carry on partying. Sometimes you are indifferent and then you are terrified of your indifference. I think it affects everyone in Israel in some way. I think we are lucky because we get a lot of sun and I think this helps to keep people smiling.
What you have you learnt about yourself by doing this film?
I don’t know whether I can answer that question. I just wanted to understand some things about stubbornness, and about passion and about keeping your own truth at any cost and about the feeling that you’ve missed your life. There were a lot of these things that I tried to deal with, I don’t know whether I learnt anything really. I just tried to deal with it.
How has it been received in Israel broadly speaking?
Interestingly complicated. When you are a foreigner you are more accepting. You are more inclined to accept this story about a society you don’t know anything about and I think for Israeli people it was difficult because there's a feeling the Orthodox Israelis are familiar neighbors and this is a tricky and maybe dangerous situation because it is easy to fall into stigmas and preconceptions because you think ‘Yeah, we know them, yeah we see them everyday.’ But this is exactly where something can block you from really understanding your neighbour; the feeling of familiarity. So in Israel it was treated with suspicion.
When you shot on location did you have to hide the content of the film?
We shot very few times in the Orthodox neighborhoods. It was done almost like a guerrilla documentary. Most of it was shot just outside Jerusalem or in Jerusalem, or in the more secular neighbourhoods. My cameraman had a lot of experience of documentary though. He has shot in North Korea, so he said: ‘Don’t worry, we will shoot the same as in North Korea. We will just hang out normally, with a straight face, we have a right to be here, and everything will be okay.’ But still there were a lot of people coming up to us and throwing stones at our car. But we were quick, and then we went.
You said at the start of the conversation you weren’t religious but this is nevertheless obviously a film about an extreme religious faith. Do you feel you’ve gained more of an insight into Orthodox Judaism?
Yeah for sure. If you think about God then you are working for God. Sometimes you can work for God without even understanding that you are doing it or believe in God without understanding that you have faith at all.
So you believe in God?
I don’t believe in God but I guess in some ways I fear him, and I think it’s this irrational feeling I try not to demolish because it gives me the feeling I have a certain connection with God. I think rational thought cannot give you everything in life so you have to keep a little bit of irrationality. You cannot save your soul with logic and progress. You cannot do it.