Act naturally and fall in love
There are 262 films listed on the Danish Web site Dogme95. It opens with Thomas Vinterberg's 1988 production, "Celebration," followed by Lars von Trier's "The Idiots," from the same year. After them come dozens of films, all of which fit the group's criteria. The first Israeli film does not appear until one scrolls all the way down to #143 - "Strangers," directed by Erez Tadmor and Guy Nattiv. This film, which starts screening in Israel today, complies with the filmmaking rules dictated in the 1990s by the group of Danish directors headed by Vinterberg and von Trier. They undertook to create basic, minimalist, films, shot with a handheld camera, on location. They also avoided special effects, lighting and other artificial elements.
In the summer of 2006 Tadmor and Nattiv went to Berlin, bringing with them a very limited team: actor Liron Levo, photographer Ram Shviki and an executive producer who also had to serve as the sound man (Shai Michaeli). They planned to meet the sixth and final member of the team, actress Lubna Azabal, in Berlin.
The other team members had seen Azabal, a Belgian native of Moroccan descent, in "Paradise Now" and "Exiles," and had tried to convince her, in a telephone conversation to her home in Paris, to join their adventure.
"We phoned her and all we said was 'two actors, one camera and the World Cup Soccer Championships. That's all. No screenplay, only a synopsis, and we want to flow with it,'" they recall with a grin. "There was a long silence. She didn't speak. We heard an ambulance in the background, and still she said nothing. Then she said, 'Okay, I'm in.'" The two directors knew that the film would tell the story of an Israeli boy and a Palestinian girl who meet in a Berlin subway and fall in love over the course of the few days they spend together during the World Cup games. They also knew that the girl, who lives in Paris, would be concealing some sort of secret. That's it. They did not know much more about the filmmaking experiment on which they were embarking.
Tadmor and Nattiv wanted to make a whole film that was improvisation.
"Two weeks before the World Cup soccer finals began in Berlin, we told our producer, 'We have an idea. We want to make a feature film that will be the expansion of a short film we made,'" the two continue. "We wanted to see what happens when we put two strangers, who have never met, in a common situation."
The two directors decided to allow the actors to improvise their lines without being bound by an official screenplay, and to let the relationship that would develop between the characteristics dictate the flow of the plot.
Jew and Arab flee on a train
Their daring is surprising, considering that "Strangers" is the first feature-length film for Tadmor, 34 and Nattiv, 35. Perhaps their success with the short films they had directed until then, together and separately, gave them the courage to go on this adventure. Their student films (Tadmor's "Moosh" and Nattiv's "The Flood") had gained acclaim at festivals around the world; their first joint film, also called "Strangers," won many prizes These include the Wolgin Award for Best Short Film at the 2004 Jerusalem Film Festival and the Online Film Festival Viewers Award at the Sundance Film Festival. Their second film, "Offside," won first prize at the Manhattan Short Film Festival.
They met in high school and later attended the Camera Obscura School of Art, one year apart. Their first joint project was born thanks to Fox Searchlight Pictures (a branch of 20th Century Fox), which was delighted with their films and offered them jobs to write scripts for more films. Tadmor and Nattiv decided to accept the challenge and began working together on the short film "Strangers," which is about two young people, a Jew and an Arab, who flee together on the subway in France, after being threatened by a group of skinheads.
Tadmor and Nattiv explain that "Strangers" is not only the starting point for the longer film of the same name, but is also the first installment of a trilogy of short films with an equally experimental premise: they are all about a Jew and an Arab who must work together and are all filmed without scripts. The second film, "Offside," portrays a meeting beside the security fence, where two Israeli soldiers and two Palestinians are glued to a radio broadcast of a soccer game. The third film, "Birthmark," will soon be filmed and will follow two young men, a Jew and an Arab, who are both waiting in the corridor outside the delivery rooms at a hospital. Thanks to the international success of the two short films and the longer "Strangers," Tadmor and Nattiv have a full schedule for the next few years. They have both left their previous jobs (Nattiv worked in advertising and Tadmor at a film distribution company) to concentrate on filmmaking. Tadmor is currently busy editing "Big Story," a feature film directed jointly with Sharon Maimon. In August Nattiv will start shooting "The Flood," a feature-length film based on his own childhood, in which the main character is a 12-year-old boy. After that Tadmor and Nattiv will team up again to film "Birthmark," and immediately following that will shoot their next joint feature film, "The Son of God," after which they will start shooting their first American indie film.
Then war broke out
The two directors recall the first meeting between Levo and Azabal, in the Berlin subway, in front of the camera, which did not leave them for a moment.
"We knew right from the beginning that if nothing interesting happened between them, we would take the camera and go home," says Nattiv. "But we saw things were going great, that they really clicked, that she liked him."
For the next five days Tadmor, Nattiv and their camera followed the two actors, capturing the relationship that developed between them on the background of the colorful flurry of activity around them due to the World Cup games. Occasionally the actors were prompted to lead the plot in a certain direction, but they were mostly left to contribute their own ideas and dialogue to this improvised work.
"From the moment of the meeting on the train, we saw the intimacy created between them, the connection being built, day after day," continues Tadmor. "Very quickly we realized that this is what we want, that it would be a love story film, that's all. At a certain point, however, without our planning it, just like the reality in the Middle East, the war entered the picture."
Tadmor and Nattiv claim that at first they thought about ignoring the Second Lebanon War, which had just erupted, but reality forced their hand.
"We were engrossed in the World Cup atmosphere, everything was 'happy, happy, joy, joy,'" recalls Nattiv, "and then suddenly, war. We did not know how we would carry on. We didn't have a clue what we were going to do, but we saw Liron's character continuing to talk with Lubna's so we decided to keep going. We wanted to focus on their relationship and ignore the war, but we quickly realized that that was impossible, because everywhere we went there was a television, and the war was there."
As a result, the sweet love story was soon marred with the political differences of opinion that emerged between the couple falling in love and among the people all around them. Thus the intriguing authenticity that improvised acting gives the film, the pleasant simplicity of the plot and the beautiful photography on the background of the bustle of the giant soccer festival in Berlin are disrupted at a certain point by the televised news bulletins and references (sometimes simplified and banal) by the characters to the depressing Middle Eastern conflict.
At the premiere screening at the Jerusalem Film Festival last year, where "Strangers" competed in the Wolgin Competition, the local critics offered relatively cool reviews. Even though Azabal won the Wolgin Award for Most Promising Actress, the film otherwise did not arouse any special enthusiasm. Across the ocean, however, the film's reception was totally different. "Strangers" was accepted to compete in the last Sundance Film Festival, and a particularly rave review appeared in Variety, the American film industry magazine (critic John Anderson predicted that the movie would be a hit and crowned the work a "victory").
At Sundance Tadmor and Nattiv befriended Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova, the musical acting duo who starred in the Irish film "Once," and they agreed to record the theme song for "Strangers." A week after the pair recorded the song in a studio in Europe, they won the Oscar for the music they wrote for "Once," and the Israeli artists hastened to integrate the new song into the film's sound track. It was not long before "Strangers" was invited to participate in the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
The Americans loved the Israeli-Palestinian love story, which was produced on a modest budget of $200,000-$300,000, but with great excitement and dedication. The William Morris Agency for actors and artists quickly signed the two young directors, and they were sent off to start work on their American indie film. Recently IFC Films purchased the rights to distribute "Strangers" in North America.
Tadmor and Nattiv make it clear that they do not always work together, that each is an independent director, and that in their future films they will abandon improvisation for conventional filmmaking. Even so, the will likely find it hard to detach themselves completely from improvising.
"Even if we shoot our next films normally," says Tadmor, "we will probably leave extra room for improvisation, and let the actors have some fun. We will shoot a few planned takes, and one more at the end, when we will tell them, 'go for it, now add something of your own.'"