Israeli Cinematographer Brings Poetry to the Big Screen

Shai Goldman has left his mark again - this time, on 'The Exchange,' which opened in cinemas last week.

In "The Band's Visit," members of an Egyptian band wearing blue uniforms line up against the backdrop of a sprawling desert. In "The Policeman," a brawny man with a focused,determined gaze, huffs and puffs as he cycles up a hill, looking like a frightening, muscular machine. In "The Wanderer," a lean ultra-Orthodox man, slightly stooped, wanders along a dark Jerusalem street wrapped in a heart-wrenching existential loneliness.

These are just a few of the frames captured by Shai Goldman's camera that have become enshrined in Israeli film. Apparently there is something about Goldman's photographic style that manages to refine the Israeli reality into stylized, clean, different images which are taken here but also contain a sense of faraway places. In his frames, Goldman submits to the strong and aggressive Israeli light, but still manages to include a certain surprising softness.

Over the last few years, Goldman has established himself as a leading cinematographer who is leaving his mark on the films he is involved in. "The Exchange," Eran Kolirin's new film, which hit the screens last week, provides another opportunity to see Goldman's work. In this film, much of which takes place in an apartment building, stairwells, basements or offices, the hero stops to examine his life from the side. Goldman's camera accompanies him on this introspective process, revealing a choking reality that traps the hero in a series of frames from his bourgeois and urbane life. Together with him, the camera strives to leave these frames for a moment.

"It was really important to Eran Kolirin that we feel the box he is in, the ceiling, and for me this was a very interesting experience. Usually, the lighting is from above," explained Goldman in an interview this week. "Eran wanted the film to feel sort of like an aquarium, of this square inside which we live, of boundaries. That's why during the shooting we were careful about having straight lines, and maintaining this feeling of being closed in."

The hero of "The Exchange" is a doctoral student in physics at Tel Aviv University (Rotem Keinan ), who one day returns home at an unusual hour, and to his surprise, everything suddenly seems different, unfamiliar to him. As a result, he decides to reassess and reconsider his life and to try new things in the course of the familiar everyday routines. Kolirin and Goldman have produced a film that does not hesitate to linger, a film that practically demands that the viewer also ruminate.

"In this type of film, when the shots are long, you have a chance to linger and experience the moment," says Goldman. "There isn't the sharp cut and there's no rushing to narrow the frame on the character to see what he is doing. For example, when the hero comes out of the elevator and caresses the walls, sometimes it seems as though a lot of time is spent on this action. However, this enables the viewer to ponder, to consider the details, really just like when shooting stills. It's fun when there's such a long shot; as a viewer it may be demanding, but it provides an opportunity to be introspective, to see what's happening inside the frame."

A fateful bus ride

Goldman was born in Haifa in 1964 and as a high school student attended a stills photography course given by photographer David Maestro at the Technion. "My parents saw that finally there was something that interested me so they bought me a camera," he says. After his army service, he enrolled in a photography course at Hadassah College in Jerusalem, and after completing his studies was the assistant of assorted still photographers. One day he heard that they were looking for an assistant to work on an Israeli film.

"At the time, I wanted to do artistic stills photography, but it was obvious to me that you can't earn a living from that," Goldman explains. "So I thought maybe of at the same also working as a television photographer, in the studio. I thought that working on this film - it was Gidi Dar's 'Eddie King' - might be an opportunity to move in that direction."

Yet that cinematic episode did not have an immediate effect. Goldman moved to New York for two years and shortly before his return to Israel, a random event determined his fate. On a bus ride, a good friend of his met the director Joseph Pitchhadze, and offered him Goldman's services as a photographer. "He told him, 'listen, I've got a friend, a terrific photographer who came from New York,'" laughs Goldman. "Luckily for me, Pitch was about to shoot 'Leneged Einayim Ma'araviyot' ("Under Western Eyes" ) in black and white then, and I, because I was coming from stills work, saw the world in black and white. We met, and just from a conversation, without him even seeing anything I'd done, Pitch realized there was something here that could be of interest. Then he taught me everything."

From that point, Goldman's film career headed in the right direction. Pitchhadze's 1996 film was in the official competition at the Berlin Festival, and the two collaborated for a second time four years later on "Besame Mucho." That film earned Goldman his first nomination (out of four so far ) for an Ophir Prize (the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars ).

Working with Pitchhadze was the first in a series of projects with directors who took note of Goldman's talents and came back to work with him again. He filmed the television series, "Florentine" and "Haburganim" ("The Bourgeois" ) with Eytan Fox and the film, "Ha-mangalistim" ("The Barbecue People" ) with Yossi Madmoni and David Ofek and the new series, "30 shekel l'sha'a" ("30 Shekels an Hour" ), which will soon air on Channel 1. He also worked with Dina Zvi- Riklis on two films:"Three Mothers," which earned him an Ophir Prize for best cinematographer and last year's "Be-rakia ha-hamishi" ("The Fifth Heaven" ).

Yet his most fruitful collaboration was with Eran Kolirin, with whom he has already shot three films: "The Long Journey" (a television movie ); "The Band's Visit" and "The Exchange." In addition to these projects, Goldman's resume also includes Tzahi Grad's "Foul Gesture" and "Hakol Mat'hil Bayam" ("It All Begins at Sea" ) with Eitan Green, and "Mrs. Moskowitz and the Cats" with Jorge Gurvich, and Lior Har-Lev's "Anachnu Lo Levad" ("We Are Not Alone" ). The judges at the Jerusalem Film Festival have so far awarded him the best cinematography prize three times: for "Three Mothers," "The Wanderer" and "The Policeman."

"Goldman is one of those guys who can take a banal situation and turn it into something different," says Kolirin of his regular cinematographer. "He always looks for the simple things, doesn't want to change the place where he is shooting, but always manages to take a genuine Israeli place, extracts its essence, cleans it, and in that way comes up with something new from it."

Director Eitan Green believes that Goldman knows how to take an artist's personal story and make it accessible to the public. "The private and the personal can sometimes be banal or obtuse, but Shai's cinematography takes the story beyond its limits and imbues it with an energy that will also work on others," he says. "The tool that enables this transition is poetry. Without poetry the private could not turn into the public, nor could the personal experience be made into a film. And poetry is a clear form and practically natural for Shai Goldman."

The first and last frame have to be perfect

Goldman acknowledges that when he first started working in film, he still thought like a stills photographer. "My biggest worry was over how the characters could move from place to place and keep the light on them. I didn't know how to do that," he smiles. "And I also focused a lot on the isolated frame. It occupied me a lot more than the continuity. I would move from one frame to another. Today it's less like that, but once, in every dolly (a shot where the camera moves on a cart ), I would say the important thing is that the first and last frames be perfect, and then everything in between will work itself out."

Later on he learned to look specifically for the similarities between stills and movies. "I try to focus on the ability to see things, to consider every frame and understand whether it is photogenic or not, if it says something to whoever is watching it. Even when you are telling a story, you still shoot a given reality and not another one. Even when you shoot a documentary in stills, the angle you choose and the place where you are can tell a different story, your personal story, about what you see. Opinions are always expressed in photography."

The big difference between stills and film, for him, is in the length of time the viewer is in front of the image. "In film, this moment passes in 24 particles of a second, but in stills you can observe a photo for as long as you wish. So in film, the challenge is to create an image that will manage to reach the observer in the short time available to you. But apart from that, the language is exactly the same."

Working on a film starts for him with some thought devoted to how the script, the written word, should be translated into a visual image. "Every photographer comes with his own baggage. You come with your children, with your past, with who you are, and then you encounter a written text and find in it things that you relate to, just like the film viewer," explains Goldman. "You meet the director and from that moment the hard work begins, of how to create the perfect image of the film. Where will it happen, what will it look like, what colors will dominate in it."

The most important element for a cinematographer is location, he says. "I choose the place where the actor will stand, where he will move. If, for example, the script, says an apartment, you can go and look at hundreds of apartments. But when you find the right apartment, which is the job of the cinematographer, director and art director, then half the work is already done, because the location dictates the frame and the potential hidden in it."

In "The Exchange," he relates, he traveled all over Israel with Kolirin in search of the building where the film would be shot, where the hero would reside. "The screenplay indicated a bourgeois couple that lives in a large apartment building like in Modi'in. We went to every possible city, considered every option. In the end, you fix on a place that excites you and we chose to shoot in the old Ramat Aviv, in a place that is not completely new, because there was something moving in the mild dilapidation in that place and in the materials there."

As this film is a co-production and part of it had to be shot in Germany, the team decided to film all the interior shots there. But this operation turned out not to be so simple. "We chose an apartment in a building, we filmed it, and then a German art director showed up. While we were shooting the film here, she measured the apartment, drew it, and copied it piece by piece and took it to Germany. There she rebuilt it except she made it slightly larger so it would be comfortable for us. This was the first time I shot something in a studio that connected to realism, to an existing physical place. It was stressful because the result is that in the film they come out of the door of the apartment in Germany and enter an elevator in Tel Aviv."