One fateful day, Haim-Aaron, an ultra-Orthodox Jew and a brilliant scholar, collapses from a self-imposed fast. The medics are brought in and declare him dead, but his father miraculously resuscitates him, snatching him from the jaws of death. What follows for Haim-Aaron is a physical, rather than spiritual, awakening that throws his father into a crisis that has him questioning the very act of saving his son. •Availability: Opens June 10 in New York City’s IFC Center and Film Society of Lincoln Center. Click here for trailer and local theater listings. •Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview.•
DT: Can you explain the concept of tikkun?
AS: Tikkun in Hebrew means rectifying something that went wrong, but in the Jewish community it means something much deeper than that. It refers to when a person dies and his soul cannot go to the next world because he did something wrong in the life he just left and he needs to fix it. After he fixes it, he can pass to the next world; the action of fixing is tikkun.
DT: How does the ending of the film relate to tikkun?
AS: For me there’s no tikkun. When I say “for me,” I leave it open to the audience, because I think this kind of theme gives the audience a lot of space for their own interpretation of the film. As the creator of the piece, I stimulate them with whatever I can and make a point of leading them without giving them any conclusions—but for me, this film mocks the idea of tikkun.
The protagonist, Haim-Aaron, is a kind of dead man walking. He’s seen his life again, and he needs to fulfill what was absent in the first part of the film: satisfying the physical being. In choosing death, he admits that he cannot do this tikkun thing. It’s too big for him. It’s a mission you can’t really do.
DT: Many of the settings and scenarios in Tikkun are similar to those in your first film, The Wanderer. As a matter of fact you’ve described Tikkun as an “escalation” of The Wanderer. Why revisit the same theme?
AS: The Wanderer was a very low-budget production, and I couldn’t put all the things I wanted on the big screen. There was a lot of material I didn’t really explore in the first one, so I needed another feature film. You can call Tikkun chapter two. This is the simple reason.
Every film I make is a test to play with cinematic language, even if it looks like the same piece. One of the Israeli film funds rejected Tikkun because they said it was the same as The Wanderer. You know, Marcel Proust said that every artist does only one piece in his life, but in different versions, so I kind of surrendered to this big effect. I thought, OK, I’m doing the same thing but in a different angle, and I didn’t resist that. It gave me a lot of freedom to do it again but much better.
DT: Let’s talk about casting. Aharon Traitel, who plays Haim-Aron, was formerly an ultra-Orthodox Jew, while Khalifa Natour, who plays his father, is a Palestinian Muslim. What kind of preparation did each of them have to do?
AS: First let’s talk about Khalifa Natour, because he’s an amazing actor. After I told him he got the part of the father, he kind of regretted it, because he’d seen The Wanderer and he was afraid of my cinematic approach, which is very hard-core arthouse. But he also understood that in this film there’s much more material to develop and play with. I called a second round of casting but didn’t find any actor who could do what Khalifa could, so basically I begged him to take the role.
For him it was very fascinating. He looked at it like a child that’s learning how to walk, how to speak. I took him to yeshiva, I brought him to meetings with an ex-Hasid who taught him Yiddish in the right accent. Khalifa prepared a long list of questions: How do I put on the tefillin [phylacteries used by Orthodox Jews in prayer]? How do I read certain prayers? Of course he did a lot of work with me, but from his side he brought to the table very deep research on how to access this character.
For Aharon Traitel it was a different process, because he left this [Orthodox] world. At the time that I asked him to do the film, he was a very wild, secular person. He had a lot of tattoos, which we hid in the film, and he used drugs and did a lot of crazy things just to be like the other secular kids. I worked with him much longer than I worked with Khalifa—about one and a half years—because he didn’t have any background in acting. I needed to teach him in order to get energy out of him. He didn’t need to be charismatic, but in the film he kind of holds it in. We did physical exercises like running early in the morning, even stupid things like hitting the wall—crazy things to give Haim-Aaron the ability to express himself and show his being in front of the camera.
Being ex-Haredi [ultra-ultra Orthodox], it was very traumatic for Aharon to relive it again. I sent him back to yeshiva to practice again how to read the text and how to do the ritual prayers. He told them he was thinking about going back to religion, and that’s why they accepted him. He took it very hard; every night he ran away from the yeshiva to drink like hell, then went back to the yeshiva in the morning. It was hard for him, because when he shifted his consciousness and left religion, it resembled Plato’s allegory of the cave. Aharon saw the light, and he couldn’t come back to the cave and behave like he didn’t see the light.
DT: When Khalifa was learning Yiddish with Orthodox Jews, was there any kind of resistance on either side?
AS: Khalifa was very afraid they would discover he’s an Arab. Their closed society resembles their own ghetto life, and they are all very racist. Not toward Arabs exclusively, also toward secular and Mizrahi Jews [Jews from Middle Eastern countries, as opposed to Jews from Eastern Europe]. They don’t allow Mizrahi Jews to study with their children or marry them, so Khalifa was terrified that they’d discover he’s an Arab. Mostly he listened and didn’t really speak. He was very sneaky and professional. He did it very nicely.
DT: You have very little dialogue in all your films. Why is that?
AS: Maybe because I’m a primitive in a good way. Cinema began in a very primitive fashion that spoke in the way of images. Also the comic relief in my film, like when they’re smoking at the window in the hospital, is kind of slapstick stealing from Buster Keaton and Chaplin. When I write a screenplay, I have two scripts: a script full of dialogue and a script that I’m eventually going to be shooting—the same thing without the dialogue. I’m doing an exercise on how to take this dialogue and deliver the same information without any dialogue.
DT: Can you briefly talk about Haim-Aaron’s final act in the fog?
AS: It’s a reference to Gustave Courbet’s painting The Origin of the World. It’s mocking both the piece of art and its title. I’m a cinematographer myself, and I also shoot stills and draw and do oil painting. As an artist, I hate art history. People always say that when you create something, you should think about art history and have a dialogue with the past. If you are truly an artist, you know when you need to kill the past and look only on the present and the future. So this was kind of tickling this painting of Gustave Courbet.
People can watch the end of the film and call me a chauvinist director, but that’s OK. Everything in life is material for me to make films. At one screening I was waiting outside the theater to go in for the Q&A, and I saw a lot of women leave when it got to this scene. I understand that, but I don’t think everything should be politically correct or have a political meaning. It can also be a purely poetic way of looking at life.
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