Whistler Film Festival Filmmaker Interview: Elinor Nechemya on OUR HEARTS BEAT LIKE WAR

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With his eyes in a fantasy book and his ears to the horrific testimony of an Eritrean refugee, nine-year-old Sinai falls asleep at his mother’s workplace, and his mind drifts away.

Jennifer Merin: What your film is about — both in story and theme?

Elinor Nechemya: Our Hearts Beat Like War is a seemingly simple straightforward story that turns into a fantastic excursion into a kid’s wondrous mind. In the center of the film is 9-year-old Sinai, who goes with his mom Rona to the refugee-aid center where she works. A harsh testimony he hears there, from an Eritrean girl at his age, is getting mixed up with the fantasy book he reads and puts him to sleep. In his sleep his mother tells him a surrealistic fairytale about a Syrian refugee family living in Sweden. This “fairytale” is about a young Syrian boy who falls into a coma-like situation after the family receives a deportation letter from the government.

The way the mother tells the story is highly imaginative and playful, even though it is dealing with the very serious issue of the refugee crisis and its harsh implications. The film is attempting to put these stories through the filters of a child, thus allowing grownup spectators as well to refine their emotions. Through this film I was trying to touch emotions of solidarity and compassion, to portray the moment when these strong emotions hit a young soul for the first time maybe.

Merin: How is your film stylistically distinctive?

Nechemya: The film was shot partly in a digital format and partly in 16mm film. The fantasy part of the film, Sinai’s dream, was shot in 16mm, on an old Bolex camera, and using a hand crank technique which gave this part its unique crispy look. We were looking for a specific look by testing different types of old, out of use cameras owned by Daniel Miller the DOP of the film. We also tested different speeds of the hand crank until we figured out the right one. The idea is to set manually and relatively randomly the frame rate of the shot, which gives the film the flickery and jumpy nature in the end. It was important for us to distinguish the two parts of the film aesthetically, on one hand, while on the other hand we initially intended to juxtapose them without introduction or refinement.
The realistic part of the film also combines a documentary style on the testimony given by Salem, the young Eritrean girl on the refugee-aid center. The significant part of her testimony was shot as a talking head, in an expressive close up, while she’s looking straight to the camera. Over and over we tried to crack the boundaries of the genre and create powerful images that correspond emotionally with the story.

Merin: How and why did you encounter and commit to the subject/theme of your film and to the main characters in it?

Nechemya: The summer of 2015 didn’t leave any doubt in our hearts – The world, and Europe especially, will never look the same. Thousands of refugees made their way from Africa and Asia to Europe and many of them lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea. Summer vacation was sad that year, as well as the one of summer 2016. In 2017 I wrote an assembly of short stories based on those summer experiences. The impossible collision between the images and stories that filled my head, and the vacation atmosphere left a mark on my consciousness. One of the stories had to do with an article I read in The New Yorker, about the trauma of facing deportation in asylum seekers children in Sweden that leads to a unique medical-mental condition most known as “Resignation Syndrome”. The children that suffer from the syndrome are also known as “the apathetic children”. One of the kids in the article was absent for A year and a half. When he finally woke up he told his family that while being absent he felt as if he was in the bottom of the ocean inside a glass box that was so fragile, that if he’d only speak or slightly move, it would break and let all the water in. The general storyline of the children and their disease, which is quite similar in most cases, along with that specific image of the glass-box, had a great influence on my imagination. Parts of the short story I wrote became a short script in 2018 that was finally shot in 2019.

The more immediate connection of the film to the place and time I live in, in Israel, came from the angle of the testimony given by the young Eritrean girl. The testimony was taken from a report that was edited by a very good friend of mine that worked and volunteered with refugee and asylum seekers in Tel Aviv for years. The report was published with the intention of bringing as many testimonies as possible from the children in those asylum seekers neighborhoods – stories from children’s point of view, about the way they got to Israel and their reception here, both by the society and the authorities. The report editors chose not to edit the kids’ language, and that in particular gave a really intense look into their condition and point of view. I asked to use one testimony in the film, given by a 13-year-old girl that fled Eritrea with her mom.

Merin: What did you learn about the subject/theme from making the film?

Nechemya: I had to research the subjects I was dealing with. In early stages I started looking for girls I could meet with, from asylum seekers families that live in Tel Aviv. I was trying to figure out the best way to approach this sensitive subject that can be an open wound for many. I met with the families and heard stories, and soon found out that almost none of the girls I met with speak their native language, a thing that was very important for the scene in the refugee-aid center. I wanted the kid’s attention to be distracted by the girl’s foreign language first, and only later for him to understand the meaning of what she said, this time from her translator.

In order to accumulate in the Israeli schools and society as fast as possible, these children had to learn Hebrew and almost deny their mother’s language, while their parents in most cases do not speak Hebrew at all. This itself is causing a generational rift and makes the children more responsible for the family’s survival in the new country, while their parents become more detached from the new life. As for the film, after choosing the girl who will play Salem, I had to take her to learn and practice the dialog in Tigrinya. It was a long journey.

Merin: What did you learn about filmmaking from making the film.

Nechemya: Before the shooting we tried to make sure I could see the frame by creating a ridiculous system of a Mini-DV camera that will shoot the viewfinder of the Bolex camera and broadcast it to the monitor. Finally, it didn’t work at all and I had to give up the monitor and direct with my eyes and intuition. It was very intimidating in the beginning since as a director I’m so used to relying on what I see on the monitor, but once I let go of the fear it was actually an amazing experience. First I approved each shot by looking in the viewfinder, while also learning the frame boundaries, then I looked at the actors during the shot, and learned to fully trust my DOP and to be entirely devoted to the actions of the characters in real time. It was refreshing and invited a different directing method and thinking.
In general, this film allowed me to sharpen many of the filmmaking tools I started using in my previous films, like for example the deconstruction of the dialogue from the picture by using voice over; or creating a fantasy layer that co-exist side by side with the reality of the story. It was a great playground to experience more with these tools and to stretch the boundaries.

Merin: What were your biggest challenges in making the film?

Nechemya: The biggest challenge for me was the tiny budget I was working with, that was the opposite to everything that film needed to begin with. It was really a suicidal situation. I don’t know how we managed to do that in the end, but we did. I had an amazing producer (Omer Harel) who walked with me into the fire and helped me reach out to more people who were willing to partly or fully volunteer for the film. I was lucky to work with great talented Colleagues that were passionate about the project and helped me to bring life and color to it.
It was especially challenging when we just started to search for the tone and the aesthetic for the fantasy part. The budget was such a huge obstacle, but it forced us to be more creative, and to turn to manual solutions that in many cases came from the children’s world. Once we figured that out, the art department became very creative and free. Together with the Art Director Kobi Vogman and the Costume Designer Lina Tsivian, we designed an artistic language that brings together Swedish and Syrian folklore, for the Syrian family of asylum seekers who live in Sweden. The challenge was to make it authentic and impressive on one hand, while still making it as simple as possible. It forced a very well-planned operation, with clear sketches and models.

Working with children was no picnic as well, considering the long shooting days, the limited time we had for each scene and the fact that half of the film was shot with a limited supply of 16mm film material. I had to prepare the kids perfectly for each beat they had in the scenes. The rehearsals with the main character of the film, Sinai (Nuri Keidan) lasted weeks and were intense.

Merin: What are your plans for the future?

Nechemya: My next project is a short film by the name If It Ain’t Broke, and for which we completed the shooting in the beginning of November 2020. It’s a drama about female friendship and feminine passion in the face of the transition to motherhood. I’m very thrilled about this film, it is a very intimate and personal project. The shooting was incredible and I’m now editing with my long-time editor Guy Nemesh. This short will be the opening film of the Tel Aviv International Student Film Festival in June 2021. I’m also currently working on my feature debut ISLAND, about a woman who moves with her family to a middle-class building complex on suburbia and gets into a bizarre sex game with the other tenants that awakens her passion in the most unexpected place. The project was selected for the 9th edition of The Jerusalem International Film Lab, which starts in December 2020 and will last for nine months.

Merin: Who are the filmmakers whose work has inspired/influenced your own?

Nechemya: The list is long… One of my favorites is still Lucrecia Martel from Argentina. I love her tempo, her aesthetics, the way she creates the atmosphere in her films. Her cinematic world is filled with passion and fear that crawls underneath the surface of the storyline and undermines it all the time. Her film “The Headless Woman” (2008) is a great example of how her cinema is absolutely genius – It’s an existential film about a feminine condition, and in a different level about classes in Argentina. A woman hits something or someone with her car and loses her memory. Learning about her life again is becoming a disturbing experience, both for the heroine and the spectator.
John Cassavetes is another filmmaker I never cease learning from. His cinematic scope of creation is incredible. He sees very deep into the human condition and he is very good at choosing the angle from which he is going to observe it in each of his projects. He uses a very free and dynamic camera operating and acting methods, and creates a sensual and vivid world inside his films. His characters became a part of me with the years. They are like old friends I lost touch with, but we share a history together that could never be erased. How does he do that?

Merin: What advice do you have for other female Filmmakers who are trying to make their way through a still male-dominated industry?

Nechemya: From my point of view, women’s voices in the film industry today are highly requested and for a good reason. For a long time these voices were too weak. Female narrative and female gaze were missing (even though there were always incredible female directors around), but finally it is here to stay. I believe we will see it reflecting in the statistics with time, but we must be patient and focus on the important things – Telling a new narrative and changing the perspective, without compromising the quality. And another thing – don’t compromise at all and take as much as you need. And hire as many women as possible to your creative team.

About Elinor Nechemya

Elinor Nechemya is a filmmaker based in Tel-Aviv. Her 2020 short film “Our Hearts Beat Like War” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, as well as her 2017 short film Everlasting MOM, which also screened at the Locarno, Sarajevo, and Palm Springs film festivals. Director of six short films, Elinor is now working on her debut feature film Island. Alumna of the 2016 Berlinale Script Station and the 2018 Locarno Filmmakers Academy.

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