On Avishai Sivan’s website, the 39-year-old Israeli filmmaker has also posted almost two decades worth of the many rejection letters he’s received. It’s both a testimony to the extreme difficulty some institutions have had connecting with his provocative oeuvre and an impressive list of the most prestigious foundations and festivals in the world, including Cannes, Berlin and the Jerusalem film festivals, where his most recent effort, “Tikkun,” won the top prize for narrative feature in 2015.
The word tikkun means “rectification.” Sivan is not religious in any traditional sense, but he is definitely an artist wrestling with the uneasy balance between the sacred and the profane. The filmmaker spoke with Sheerly Avni about struggling to cast his young star, the taboos he breaks and the mixed blessing of having entered a phase in his career in which more rejection letters may prove hard to come by.
Sheerly Avni: You have made several films about the lives of Orthodox Jews. Are you religious?
Avishai Sivan: Not at all. But I was a full-time artist working alone in my studio and often felt like a yeshiva student: It was me on my own, struggling with the painting, reaching for the sublime. This was what drew me to the Hasidic community — not the religion per se, but rather a certain orthodoxy of the mind.
And yet when you came to casting, it was very important to you to find someone who had also been a yeshiva student.
I auditioned many talented professional actors, and something was always missing. I realized that to tell this story, I would need someone from the community, which was very difficult in itself, because the community is so closed. And when Aharon [Traitel, who plays Haim-Aaron] auditioned, I had doubts for a long time, even though he had once been a yeshiva student, because he wasn’t a professional actor. But we worked together for months. He helped translate the Yiddish dialogue, and I taught him basic craft. He has a lovely quality to him — like the melancholic side of Buster Keaton.
The film’s final act addresses a strong taboo, both inside and outside the religious community.
In the “taboo shot,” if we’re calling it that, I take my inspiration from Gustav Courbet. In the original script, that scene was much more extreme and bold. We even shot some of it, but then somehow in the editing room, I realized I needed something more delicate. I wanted to protect my protagonist from crossing into the realm of evil.
Did you have trouble shooting on location? Did you meet with resistance from the Orthodox community?
We did our preproduction in secret, and when it came time to shoot, they physically tried to stop us from filming several times. But we never engaged; we would just pick up our gear and move to another location.
Has the film’s success been a surprise to you?
I’ve been at this since age 16. I don’t think I was a great filmmaker at 16, and I don’t think I’m a great filmmaker now, but I do think that every movie I make is part of a larger structure or project. It feels very strange that this film in particular has won so much praise. This is my most straightforward movie so far – and hopefully not my last straightforward one either, because I’m hoping that this will mark the end of my career as a starving artist!