Conversation with Oren Gerner: Best Director at SGIFF 2019

What is it like to direct a movie in your home, with your parents making up the cast?

10 min read

Israeli-born Oren Gerner graduated from Minshar School of Art in 2013. He has directed the short films Greenland (2014), Shark Tooth (2016) and Gabriel (2018), which competed for the Short Film Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. His feature film debut, Africa premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival 2019.

In Africa, 68-year-old Meir is older than his father ever was, but is still unready for the next stage of his life. While his wife is thriving in her career, Meir has been replaced by teenagers as the organiser of the village festivities, which he has led for 30 years. Grappling with a loss of purpose, he jumps at the chance to build his grandson a bed from scratch. The film explores how his actions are a rebellion: rebellion against the betrayal of his aging body, against the growing distance from his children, against the absence of meaning.

Africa was in competition at the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) 2019 and won Oren the Best Director award. Here’s what the jury had to say, “One of the most difficult challenges for a director is to film the story of his own family. This director is even more courageous in casting his real-life family members to portray this story that is so close to his own life. Though they are non-actors, they manage to convey a sense of naturalness with subtle emotions. This fine acting speaks to the tremendous talent of the director.”

Trailer of Africa

The World of Apu caught up with the filmmaker in Israel for a telephonic conversation. We discussed the making of Africa and Oren’s unique method of filmmaking that blends reality and fiction. His dog, who features in the film too, had several interesting things to say as well.

How and when did you get the idea to make Africa?

It started about eight years ago when I made my graduation short Greenland for my film academy. It dealt with the process of separation between a young adult and his parents. He is moving out of his parents’ home to begin his own independent life. I played this youngster and my parents played themselves. This was the first time I I tried out this method of playing myself in a film and working with my parents, and having this interplay between reality and fiction. After this film was done, I felt it was a good base to develop into a longer film. This was how Africa began.

Oren Gerner’s graduation short Greenland

The protagonists of Africa are your father and mother playing characters with their real life names and they have a son named Oren in the film played by you. You intercut the film with documentary materials from an actual trip your parents made to Africa. How much of Africa is reality and how much is fiction?

It depends on who you are asking (chuckles). I had my own ideas of what is reality, and my parents felt differently. It’s around 50-50—everything is based on reality. Some things are versions of a possible reality. A mixture. A lot of the text and dialogues were created through improvisations. Even though the film is fiction, plenty of it is based on the real character of my parents. So it is some kind of reality.

Tell us about your approach to handling actors in this film. Several scenes like the grandson interviewing his grandfather Meir for a school assignment felt very spontaneous. Did the actors rehearse? How did you achieve this?

Instead of rehearsals, we did tests for some of the scenes. When I shot this interview scene the first time, I didn’t tell my father anything. I shot it not with the grandson but with me asking him the questions. I saw what his natural reactions were. Based on his reactions, I rewrote the script and said to him, “Let’s keep this and that. On this question please say something different.” (dog barks) I wanted to get his natural organic reactions and added dramatic inputs whenever necessary.

How about the scene where your father gives a birthday message to a friend? (A snippet of this can be seen in the trailer.)

It was only me and him. I filmed it with a home camera. I gave him some general pointers on what he needs to say and at which point he needs to pause. It was done on the spot.

Editing seems to be the most time-consuming process for you (An article mentions that you spent six days shooting your short Greenland and six weeks editing it). As you work and rework on a film during editing, how and at what point do you determine that it’s finished?

This is always a hard question. It is hard to say this is it. It is a process where you go back and forth. You feel you have the film–you take a break for two weeks–you watch it again. And then you feel there’s still something missing, there are some things you need to refine. After the basic editing is done, I gather some friends and watch it with them, and I watch with colleagues to have other points of view. When you watch a film with other people, you watch it with different eyes. I try to do that several times. After I’ve done this a few times, I feel the film is actually complete. And that’s when I say, “That’s it.”

Your father Meir Gerner said during the post-screening Q&A that he had to grow his beard a second time because you wanted to reshoot some portions after editing. Could you share with us what were the changes you made after the first round of editing?

I wanted to redo the scene in which he plays with the grandson. He’s shouting and screaming in that scene and I wanted to have a more intense version of it. We did several takes of my father screaming, hoping our neighbours wouldn’t get too stressed (laughs). The other scenes I reshot were minor ones like my father doing his carpentry. Little scenes that helped to establish his character in the first half of the film—scenes that give the audience a better understanding of his character through his craft. Little intimate moments that help the viewer to identify with the character.

What are some of the unique challenges of making a film at home with members of your own family as actors?

In my case, this element was mostly an advantage. It was very convenient, I was filming at my parents’ house. I felt at home obviously. They were very helpful and devoted (dog barks). I think the difficulty was that since it’s a very personal film, everything is exposed and very close to you. It is kind of difficult to see it from a distance. On the sets, I sometimes felt I needed to distance myself from my parents, get into a professional zone and see them as actors. This shift was a little tough, because during the day you’re directing actors, and when everyone leaves you’re left with your parents. This transformation was sometimes confusing. Other than that it was very convenient.

There were some places where my parents had their orders and said, “I’m not going to do that.” It’s mostly relating to their professions—my mother is a therapist. So if I told her I’m going to film a scene in which my father interrupts an actual therapy session, she wouldn’t let us do it because it doesn’t look professional. My father is not a carpenter in real life, but carpentry is his hobby. If I want to shoot something in a way that doesn’t seem professional to him—you know, as a man of craft—he would say, “I don’t want to do it like this because I’m a professional.” I would tell him, “No. Just hold the block of wood like this because it’s better for shooting.” But he would say, “No. I won’t do it like this because it doesn’t look professional.” You know… (laughs) So I had to find a different shot.

It is interesting that your short film Greenland ends with you getting tired after dusting the couch and slumping on it, while Africa ends with an exhausted Meir lying down on the bed he made for his grandson. In both scenes, you have music playing in the background. Were these similar endings intentional?

That’s an interesting insight. When I filmed Africa, I had in mind that it’s important for me to have some kind of catharsis in the climax that’s not fully conscious. An energetic catharsis is not less important or interesting. For most of the film the character is struggling and is holding on very strongly to his ideas. I felt that I want to see him letting go a little. I tried to do this by having an energetic climax—you see the exhaustion and his moment of realisation. It is a mixture of energetic and mental climax for him. So yes, I did have this in mind.

The bed that Meir makes with wings and a ship’s steering wheel was lovely. We are curious to know who designed it.

My father made it! The truth is we wanted an art designer to do it. But my father said, “No, no! I will do it myself!” (laughs) And that’s what happened eventually. He was the one.

Both Greenland and Africa give the impression that you read literature. Do you? If yes, has any specific writer or work influenced the way you make your films or compose your shots?

How come? How did you find this connection?

The pacing of the films and the small moments that you focus on suggest that maybe you read literature or poetry.

I would say poetry more than literature. I love literature too. I’m not really using this and that reference from poetry while making films. Some Japanese haikus I really find inspiring for film, because they are very visual and very precise, and I aim for that.

Africa does not try to verbalise what Meir is going through. When his grandson interviews him, Meir says with a momentary pride that he shares his birthday with Israel’s independence day. You let the audience work it out if there are parallels between the lives of Meir and Israel. Do you ever worry as a creator that when you understate something, viewers might completely miss it? When you wish to convey something through your film, how do you decide how much is enough?

If you have some kind of space—like emotional and dramatic space in your film—you’re allowing the viewer to bring himself into it, to be more involved in understanding it, you’re not just saying okay now you feel this and feel that. (dog barks) You do this by bringing some form of essence to the screen, and the viewer can interpret on his own. Of course, I have my idea too, but I believe that creating some space around the character gives more freedom to the viewer in the way he experiences the film and interprets it, using his own emotional tools. I know this could make it slightly more difficult to understand for some people. But I believe this is the right way for me.

Oren’s mother Maya [first row fifth from left] in Africa

Greenland focussed on you, while Africa focussed on your father. Can we expect to see a film about your mother next? In this film, her character comes across as being content and at peace with herself. It did make us wonder how Africa might have turned out if the protagonist who feels ignored had been the mother and not the father. Do you have any such future projects in mind that might focus on a character like Maya?

Maybe! Not at the moment but it’s a good idea for the future. I don’t know what she will think of it. It’s definitely a good idea. It’s a whole other conversation and different research I think.

On that note, have you decided what your next project is going to be?

Not yet. I do have some projects in development. I’m not sure which one will go for production. I haven’t had time for writing and opening my mind to other inspirations. It’s still early to say.

Are you happy with the response Africa has received so far? Has it been screened in your home country?

It’s really great. It had a premiere in one of the main festivals in Israel, where it won the main award. We are now developing a strategy for local distribution. Hopefully in the next few months it will start going to the theatres and meet the local crowd.

Best wishes for that! And congratulations for winning the Best Director award at the Singapore International Film Festival. How do you feel about that?

It was really great. I’m really really happy about it. I’m really happy that my father was there and he told me about his experience. It’s a great honour to receive such an award with such great films on the lineup. I was very excited about it.

Do you have a particular film festival that is your favourite?

From the ones I’ve been to, San Sebastian is one of my favourites. It’s very beautiful and very warm. Maybe the next time I come to Singapore, my answer will be different.

An interview of Oren Gerner at San Sebastian Film Festival

Do you remember the first time you felt you want to make cinema?

I do remember as a teenager I saw in a film a low angle shot of someone’s legs, something like that. I remember feeling it is very unique to have the possibility to capture a very specific point of view. I remember having this image in mind, the idea that you can control the point of view. There’s something about it that actually started this process. I always knew I wanted to create something. I tried poetry and writing for a while, tried different artistic avenues, and cinema was the one that attracted me the most.

Your father Meir Gerner mentioned during the Q&A that when Africa was screened at many festivals, the usual questions of war, riots in Israel and Palestine came up. “This film has nothing to do with war. Aging happens everywhere and the youngsters are the same in all countries, they want to have fun,” he said. How do you see this phenomenon of always viewing films from certain countries through the lens of their political and social issues?

I think it’s true but there’s nothing you can do about it. Every spectator sees a film from his own point of view. If someone has a strong agenda about Israel then he will find this agenda in any film. Africa is not really a political film. But I understand this phenomenon. If you make political films, people want to know why you are only dealing with political aspects and not others. If you don’t make political films, someone else wants to know why you didn’t mention these political aspects. You can always ask such questions. It is kind of natural. Sometimes people find what they’re looking for in a film.

“This film has nothing to do with war. Aging happens everywhere and the youngsters are the same in all countries, they want to have fun.”

Special thanks to Leck Choon Ling, Ho Xiu Xian and the SGIFF 2019 team for making this interview possible.

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