Tackling the Nightmare World No One Wants to Discuss

Keren Yedaya’s new film, 'Away From His Absence,' deals with a subject society does its best to avoid.

My visit to the set of Keren Yedaya’s new film, “Away From His Absence,” continues to evoke troubling thoughts even days later. Although the atmosphere there was calm and pleasant and everything seemed to be going smoothly, I started to get an unpleasant feeling. Maybe it was the apartment crammed with cheap, tasteless bric-a-brac or the dim effect caused by the brown furniture and drawn blinds. Maybe it was the knowledge that in the film’s universe, a father and his daughter live in a situation that is hard to imagine and digest: as a couple.

This is where the monstrous idea takes on a place − an apartment in downtown Rishon Lezion − and a face: those of the actors Tzahi Grad and Maayan Turgeman, who play the father, Moshe, and his daughter, Tami.

“Away From His Absence” is based on a novel by the same name written by Israeli author and poet Efrat Yerushalmi, who writes under the pen name Shez, and was published by Am Oved. Shez sent the novel to Yedaya, a director who has been dealing for some years with women characters exploited and oppressed by society and their circumstances, and whose sensitivity to the issue is well known. Her first feature film, Or, which told the story of a prostitute and her adolescent daughter, won the Camera d’Or award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. When Shez sent her novel to Yedaya, hoping that she would turn it into a screenplay, Yedaya was completing her second film, “Jaffa,” and says she knew right away that she had to make it into a film as quickly as possible.

The first part of the filming day was devoted to a rape scene that takes place in the bedroom. Since the film describes an ongoing incestuous relationship between a father and daughter who live as a couple in every way, the director and the actors had to deal with the question of how to differentiate the rape from other “ordinary” sex scenes involving them, which occur fairly frequently in the film. At the end of the first take, Turgeman felt she had not grasped the difference between this moment and many others in the bedroom, and encouraged Grad to be more violent during the scene.

During the lunch break, Yedaya had time to answer a few questions. She said that the reason she connected so quickly with Shez’s novel was its extraordinary nature, and also because it dealt with a subject that society usually avoids dealing with − the victim who falls in love with her attacker, and the fact that the woman involved is not a helpless child but an adult who seemingly could have changed her life long ago. It is this morally blurred situation that Yedaya seeks to sketch in very clear lines.

“Love and desire for the attacker are actually what prevent the victim from leaving this situation. This is why it is so difficult for her, and for society, to deal with the situation. There’s something gripping, cinematically and politically, in dealing with a woman who is truly adult. That’s exactly what I like − to take a story all the way, where it will seem as gray as can be, and from there create something as black-and-white as can be. It’s a confusing story. People are also confused by the fact that a 10-year-old boy or girl who is raped may sometimes experience orgasm. People don’t talk about it because they don’t know how to deal with it. But actually, it’s not confusing at all. It only makes the story worse. It makes no difference what they experience physically − and that is what the framework of the novel made possible.”

Yedaya says there is real desire between the father and the daughter in the film. “That is the heart of the novel. Still, it is the cruelest kind of rape there is. The desire is there, but it has no significance. It is still the worst kind of rape there is, and it started at a very young age. She is used to something; he brought her up to it, and he ruined her life to the point of death. Many women who go through it commit suicide. It doesn’t matter that once in two years, she experiences orgasm because he is the only one who is intimate with her. It means nothing, but she is utterly in love with him.”

Why did you ask the actress to cover her body with a blanket?

“There is no nudity in the film at all. There is lots of sex, but no nudity. I realized in this film that the whole deal with nudity in the movies is one ongoing masculine cliché. It’s simply unnecessary. They don’t know how to film desire, so they go with nudity. That’s nonsense. There’s no need for it. Complete acts of intercourse take place under the quilt, in half-darkness, with no problem at all. If there is desire between the actors, it works. I tell directors: Work harder and stop undressing the actors. I have a tough time with nudity; the older I get, the tougher it is for me. In my first films, I undressed actors here and there. Today I can’t do it. Even if the actors agree, I don’t want it anymore.”

The audience in a bubble

Yedaya’s work style requires the producers and the crew to have strong nerves, since changes take place all the time during the shoot. The screenplay includes several options for each scene, and several options for each sentence the actors utter. Yedaya stops before the next scene to think about it once again and decide where in the apartment to film it. She discusses the issue with Laurent Brunet, the cinematographer, and with the actors, Grad and Turgeman. She says she has no fear of trying cinematic experiments, and does everything with a sense of celebration and pure enjoyment that directly contradict the bleak subject matter.

“When I’m on the set I celebrate it and enjoy it, and the atmosphere is always good,” Yedaya says. “Here, the celebration is almost cheeky. One day, we decided to try to shoot like Ingmar Bergman, with lots of close-ups. We took a few hours and shot the scene as if it were a Bergman film. We tried to understand how that genius worked, how he drew one face on another so that the faces mix together, how that is done. We said that if it didn’t work, we would throw it away. That’s a kind of work entirely with acting, a kind of work that’s the opposite of mine, since I work with actors from such a liberated place. My agenda is totally natural, no cuts, and it was the opposite with Bergman. Suddenly they have to stand still, not move, and everything is fake. It was as if we had come to hang out.”

One of the most prominent things about the film’s visuals will be the frequent use of the zoom, where the camera approaches close to the subject without actually moving, since the approach is done via the lens. This use of the zoom lens, which is done mainly in television melodramas, grabbed Yedaya in her previous film, “Jaffa,” where she chose to use it as homage to the aesthetic of Arab films. Yedaya says that in this film, the zoom has a different meaning.

“When we spoke with all the experts on incest and pedophilia, one of the things we talked about was that if it’s between a father and daughter, there is always a code word, sentence or syllable through which they enter a different world, as in: I am not your father, but your lover,” Yedaya says. “It can be a phrase such as ‘Go to bed’ or ‘Come to the shower,’ or a certain look or caress. Here, Tami and Moshe no longer need that gesture because they live only the nightmare, the bubble. I looked in cinematic language for something extreme that was something we are not used to seeing, something that would show us that we were inside a bubble, inside a different film. I realized that even in this film I’m not in the position of an observer, but that I enter the souls of the characters. The zoom allows me to come close and do close-ups without having to stop the scene, and I can film continuous shots and let the actors act.”

David Bachar
David Bachar