An Outsider Comes to Cannes

Avishai Sivan's website contains more than 60 rejection letters from film funds, film festivals and others he approached for funding or to show his films. They all politely declined.

Last April, this ritual suddenly shifted. A group of lectors watched "The Wanderer," Sivan's most recent film, and decided it was worthy of inclusion in the Cannes Festival's Directors' Fortnight program. Sivan had to drop his tormented artist veneer in exchange for an elegant suit, and walk down red carpets that most filmmakers only dream about.

Last week, a few hours after returning to Israel, he was once again wearing a plain t-shirt and faded baseball cap, his trademark. He seemed to be glowing with happiness.

Tomorrow, "The Wanderer" will be screened at the Film South Festival, which opened yesterday in Sderot. Sivan defines his filmmaking as experimental. "The Wanderer" is far from mainstream, and the Film South Festival seems like an appropriate platform. On Wednesday, Sivan will share with festival goers the trials and tribulations he experienced until he made it to the French resort.

Tilting at windmills

Sivan, 32, dreamt of being something else.

"Ever since I was a little boy, I thought I would be a painter," he says.

But then he began studying film at an Or Yehuda high school.

"At some point during adolescence, I caught some kind of bug, when I saw (Jean-Luc ) Godard's 'Breathless.' Then I announced that I was changing direction. His jump cut didn't surprise me. There was in his anarchism a kind of anger at the world," he says.

He enjoyed breaking conventions, and he and several friends created a magazine program for the community television channel.

"We made a lot of noise, because they were such anarchists. I remember that even the mayor invited us for talks to clarify some of the things we raised on the air," he says, smiling.

Ten years ago, he graduated from the Camera Obscura film school.

"I was 22 and I thought I would make my first film, like Orson Welles, by the time I was 24," he says. "I would constantly see the trucks of Dover [Koshashvili] passing through [Or Yehuda] and I would salivate. They told me I'm a Don Quixote of sorts, battling windmills, because it became sort of a gag that I love that they don't accept me."

Sivan made a few short films, directed and filmed "The Soap Opera of a Frozen Filmmaker," a seven-part documentary and diary he filmed over seven years that depicts his obsessive desire to continue to make films despite the rejections (one part of this diary earned him the Best Experimental Film Award at the Jerusalem Film Festival ). He also filmed and produced a documentary film about the porn industry ("Blue" directed by Maya Ne'emani ) and supported himself by working as a director of "Making Of" (films documenting events behind the scenes of various films, usually sold with their DVD title tracks ).

In addition to the above, he also continued to devote time to his other occupation, video art.

"I mostly photograph stills, take lots of Polaroids, and sketch and oil paint," he says.

Out of several feature film screenplays he wrote, he chose in the end to focus on "The Wanderer."

"I myself wander a lot. It helps me think," he notes. "Even 'Soap Opera' has sections devoted to wandering, and in my work in the plastic arts I also study this thing called the random, through walking. So I thought it's so me to do this kind of film. I set this platform within a religious family, because dramatically this seemed right to me."

The hero of the film is Isaac (played by Omri Fuhrer ), a 19-year-old yeshiva student and the only child of born-again ultra-Orthodox Jews (the father is played by Ali Nassar ). He wanders the city streets relentlessly, but an attack of intense pain one Friday night changes his life.

At first, the doctors diagnose it as kidney stones, but it quickly emerges that Isaac needs an operation and apparently has fertility problems. In the wake of this news, his faith wavers and his wanderings lead him to a series of personal trials.

The camera in "The Wanderer" is motionless. The fine photography by Shai Goldman ("The Band's Visit" ) helps to create a tense, serious, severe and also poetic atmosphere, and there are numerous silences, few dialogues and stylized frames. Sivan presents a cinematic experience that demands dedication and patience from its viewers. He does not present them with a Hollywood-ish product that is easy to digest, but an ethical, thoughtful film far from the local cinematic mainstream. In reviews in the international media after the film's screening in Cannes, opinions were divided. Some called the film "an excruciating exercise in boredom" (The Hollywood Reporter ) while others said Sivan is presenting "a peculiar but memorable calling card" (Variety ). Still others said "The Wanderer" is destined primarily for art film lovers (Screen Daily ).

With all the posturing

"The Wanderer" could also have ended up as another disc in a drawer. But this time, Sivan decided to realize his dream regardless of whether a film fund supported him.

"I decided to use all my savings to make a 16-millimeter film. I thought I would shoot the film myself and do everything alone, like I did with 'Soap Opera,' and I said I'm going ahead with it as a suicide mission. I could lose everything in life and I wouldn't care. I submitted a first draft to the Film Fund and they rejected the film. I took that paper and added it to the pile."

Except this time, at the bottom of the rejection letter was a handwritten note - all the lectors who read the screenplay liked its narrative core, and the fund would be happy to finance a rewrite. One of the lectors, Gur Bentwich ("Planet Blue" ), spoke with Sivan by phone and learned he was about to risk his entire savings - NIS 200,000 - to make the film.

"He asked me, 'If I persuade the Fund to give you that sum, will you be able to do it?' I said yes, and he really did manage to get that amount for me from the Fund," says Sivan.

Sivan enlisted his brother Redi Sivan, his partner at the time Keren Michael, and photographer Shai Goldman, who signed on as a fourth producer. Everyone who worked on the film did so for free, but the Fund money ran out quickly anyway. Help came from an unexpected source, the old brotherhood of anarchists.

"Oren Arzoni and Shmulik Avtalyon, who in high school made the youth magazine for the community television channel, and now have a high-tech company, really liked my earlier projects, so they invested another NIS 80,000 in us," says Sivan.

The preparations for filming were hell, he says. The producers had a hard time getting students and crews to work on the production, and discovered that the chosen locations required large monetary outlays. A week and a half before shooting was to start, Sivan nearly collapsed and needed surgery.

"With all the junk food I ate, I had an appendectomy," he smiles. "We had this running joke. When we would gather for a production meeting, everyone would look at the numbers and say we'd never be able to do it, that we're going into debt, that it's a suicide mission. And then I would drop my head, think and say, 'wow, you're right' and we'd all be quiet for five minutes. And then we'd go outside and one would say to the other, 'okay, so what time should I come get you tomorrow?'"

It took about a year to edit the film, and of course, the money ran out in the middle. The Fund refused to provide any more financing.

"They told us, 'listen, we don't believe this film will get anywhere, we don't really understand what this film is and we thought something different would come out. Only if you get into an A Festival [a select list of leading film festivals around the world, including Cannes, Venice and Berlin] will we consider investing the remainder."

Sivan decided to try his luck and submitted an unfinished version of the film to the Cannes Festival. "Everyone told me 'there's no chance.' Anyone who saw the film said it wasn't appropriate for Cannes. The Fund was very skeptical but they told me to do what I want. Only the crew and I believed all along that this film is suitable for Cannes Art House, with silences, and all the posturing necessary to be in Cannes, and we were right.

"The response from Cannes came in early April. I had one day to rejoice and really I was euphoric, but the next day the hell began. I had to produce a final version of the film, prepare a mix. I met with producers and I realized what a cruel jungle Cannes is and that you have to find a sales agent, distributor, do all the marketing and distribution and prepare posters and press kits. And I had to do all that alone, so basically until the Cannes Festival I didn't sleep."

The French distribution company Sophie Dulac took on "The Wanderer," and Sivan and his six-person team arrived in Cannes, excited. They had a hard time adjusting to the luxury cars, tailored suits, spotlights and the interviews.

The most exciting moment for him was the first time he saw the film on a giant screen during a test screening in an empty hall.

"I felt at that moment that I was becoming completed inflated with air. At last, it's happening," he laughs. "The hall was empty, I was alone in front of this thing and it was amazing."

Now he has to finish up another film, "The Uzbek Trilogy" - "an experimental documentary, in the style of Perlov's diaries, that tells of three generations of men in my family and their absorption difficulties in Israel," he explains. He acknowledges he has no idea what his life will be like in the coming year, and says he already misses anonymity and the creative freedom it provides.

And the next film? "I have a fantasy that I know I should drop, to make a Western about settlers. A spaghetti Western that takes place in a settlement, where this wandering visitor, John Wayne, comes out of nowhere and makes order. I would like to shoot it in black and white on film, and I'm desperate to have - I know it sounds a little outrageous and grandiose, but okay, we'll get past it - Takeshi Kitano play this role. But I know it's a really wild fantasy and that I really should drop it."