The Other Son – an interview with Lorraine Levy

April 21, 2013 by  
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French filmmaker Lorraine Levy directed “The Other Son”, a warm,  thought-provoking  and sensitive film on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is a film no-one should miss. She answers questions about the project.

In this spell-binding film Joseph Silberg undertakes his medical examination prior to the start of his national service in the IDF. The doctors are alerted to a problem when they discover his blood group does not match his parents. When Joseph was born, scuds were falling on Israel and the hospital in Haifa evacuated the babies in its nursery.  Yacine Al Bezaaz had been born at the same time in the the same hospital and the Palestinian baby had been switched with Joseph when they children were returned to the mothers. It was difficult to guess how this story would be resolved. The journey to the film’s ending is one which will stay with those who join it for a long time…

The film is wonderful photographed and the performances by its actors hard to fault. Do not miss it.

 

How did the project for THE OTHER SON come into being?

Lorraine Levy

Lorraine Levy

Lorraine Lévy – One day Éric Amouyal, the associate of producer Virginie Lacombe, brought her a synopsis written by Noam Fitoussi who’d had the great idea for these two children – one Israeli, the other Palestin-
ian – accidentally swapped at birth in the chaos during the bombardment of a maternity ward. Since Noam isn’t a screenwriter, Virginie called on Nathalie Saugeon to write a first draft of a screenplay with him. Once there was a version likely to interest both financiers and a director, Virginie sent it to me. It’s the first time I’ve received a project through the mail that really grabbed my attention. I immediately thought it was a story for me, because it relates directly to my own obsessions: the place we occupy in our own lives and in those of oth- ers, the links with childhood, parent-child relationships, and so on. From there, I worked with Virginie and Nathalie Saugeon, and then on my own, to shape the screenplay into the film I wanted to make.

The family was an important element in your first two films, and it is also one of the central themes in THE OTHER SON. Is that what attracted you to the project?

L.L. – The family is a microcosm in which lies the genesis of who we are. What does it mean to be a child? What does it mean to be an adult? Can we decide to remain one, or become the other? I like the definition given by Kenneth Branagh’s character in PETER’S FRIENDS: “Adults are just children who owe money.” Obvi- ously, in THE OTHER SON, we’re at the heart of this kind of questioning. The two boys have led such different lives that one has made the shift towards adulthood, and the other has yet to do so. Having left the family cocoon to study in France, Yacine is thrown into reality which forces him to be a man. Meanwhile Joseph, who lives in a very protected environment, remains a child. I wanted this difference to jump out, and for this gulf to be physically embodied by my actors. I wanted the traces of childhood to be seen in Joseph (Jules Sitruk), like a mask of softness, while Yacine (Mehdi Dehbi) projects a solid, mature image.

Family is a theme which is dear to you, yet you had to position it in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Switched

Switched

L.L. – That’s what tempered my enthusiasm for taking on this project. I thought I wasn’t capable of getting in- volved in an adventure like this, given that I’m neither Israeli nor Palestinian. I didn’t want to make a film that seemed to be giving any kind of lessons. For me, the only way to approach this subject was to adopt a posi- tion of humility from the outset, and first to tell the personal story. The wider historical context then serves to exacerbate the emotions and tensions. I certainly don’t feel as though I’ve made a political film. It may in fact be one, but that was never my intention. As for the screenplay, once we were in Israel for the preparation stage, my producers and I realized that in many respects, it didn’t correspond to the reality on the ground. Neither Noam, Nathalie or I live in Israel, and one has to live in a country to know the little things that become big things when they happen to you. We had to strip back the screenplay, deconstruct it and put it back together again to be credible. All the members of the crew – which was made up of Israeli Jews and Palestinians living living in Israel or the West Bank – at some time or another gave some input to the screenplay. I was very eager to hear these comments because they provided a level of veracity neither I nor my co-writers could have come up with. Each morning I took notes and every evening I reworked the scenes for the next day. The actors, who received the new or modified scenes a few hours before the shoot, all played along. All of that inspired me and helped me to get beyond the clichés. That’s what I was anxious about: conveying clichés in a naturalistic way.

Did you write with the actors in mind?

L.L. – I need to work that way. As soon as we started talking about the cast with my producers, I thought of Emmanuelle Devos even before starting work on the screenplay. Her participation was greeted with enthu- siasm by my producers and my co-writer. Emmanuelle has the immediate intelligence of emotion. She is cerebral and at the same time physical. She’s a paradoxical actress. I’d worked with Pascal Elbé before. He’s an absolutely sumptuous actor with a magnificent physique and a sense of mystery about him, as if he has a hid- den flaw. I thought they worked very well as a couple. They both came on board early on, which allowed us to go and find the other actors.

When you make a film about two children switched at birth, you have to find actors whose physical features resemble the two sets of parents. Did this necessitate a long casting process to find the right people?

L.L. – Mostly I needed to have great actors. You can work on the rest, including the resemblance. I came across Mehdi Dehbi in the TV movie on Canal +, L’INFILTRÉ. I thought he was remarkable, with just what I needed for the character of Yacine, who I wanted to be unsettling, elusive, and at once serious and lighthearted. For the role of Joseph, we had planned to find an actor locally. I needed an Israeli who speaks French, given that we had made a point of centering the story round a French family that had moved to Israel. I met some excel- lent actors over there, but none that really convinced me. I talked about it with my producers and started to look in France. Suddenly the problem was the other way round: we needed someone who speaks good He- brew! I met Jules Sitruk. I saw him come in for our meeting, looking shy, hesitant, fragile but very elegant. And after three minutes I knew it had to be him. He had to polish up his Hebrew, and work on the guitar playing, and he put in a lot of hours. Once I had the two boys, I felt on much safer ground. I just had to put together the Palestinian family.

How did that go?

L.L. – I had a local casting director for the Israeli roles and one for the Palestinians. I saw a lot of actors and actresses, and there were some very intense moments. I remember a great actor, Juliano Mer-Khamis, who was assassinated by an extremist Palestinian group shortly before our meeting. It was a terrible shock. Then I met Khalifa Natour, who I immediately found incredible. I’d seen him and liked him in LA VISITE DE LA FANFARE. I like his humanity, his dreaminess. I wanted the character of Saïd to be poetic. I liked his ques- tioning approach to the character, the thought he put into it. It was also a matter of forming a homogenous family. When I started casting the women, a bomb went off in Jerusalem, at a bus stop on a line that goes to the settlements. As a result, all the checkpoints were closed and lots of Arab actresses couldn’t come. Those who did come to attend the casting sessions in Tel Aviv had to get round the checkpoints on foot. Areen Omari walked for four-and-a- half hours to reach us! She had no idea how she was going to get back home to Ramallah. Despite her tiredness, she got through her test with grace and conviction. I felt great strength and beauty in her performance. I had found my Leïla, who rules over her men with love and guile. I wanted it to be a matriarchal family.

In the story, the two fathers are consumed in the maelstrom of what for them is an unbearable truth. They would rather flee than confront it. Their suffering paralyzes them. The mothers, on the other hand, very soon came to terms with it, which is not to say they didn’t suffer. But they quickly understood several things. Firstly, that the son they had raised continued to be their son. And secondly, that there’s now another son in their lives, and that there was no question of missing out on this, of not getting to know him and learning to love him. They also realized that if this meant holding out a hand to the other family, then that hand must

be held out as soon as possible. And lastly, they knew they had to convince the men that there was no other possible alternative. It’s a film which declares that women are the future of mankind, and that if women join forces, they can push men to be better.

How did you prepare for the film?

L.L. – In technical ways, but also ideologically. Although I didn’t want it to be a political film, it couldn’t help but be a film with an ideological character. For that, I took on some mentors. The first of them was Yasmina Khadra, who I met. I wanted to show him the screenplay, since it had been written by three French people, two of whom are Jewish, and I wanted the point of view of an intellectual and an Arab artist to know whether it was sufficiently balanced. Yasmina Khadra agreed to read it, and acted as consultant. He annotated the screen- play, adding some elements of dialogue which we then used. He brought his vision to bear. The second mentor is very symbolic for me. I never met him, and he didn’t even know about it, but I chose him as you would you chose a family. I’m talking about the great Israeli novelist Amos Oz, founder in 1970s of the Peace Now move- ment. His thinking guided my work. When I arrived on set, I gave each department head a little book entitled

“Imagining the Other”, a transcription of a long interview with Amos Oz. I wanted my crew to read it because this little book contains the same message of openness that I wanted the film to have. For Amos Oz, the only solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict resides in a historic compromise by which each side would get part of what they consider belongs to them.

Amos Oz was a sort of spiritual guide. That’s why I thank him in the closing credits. I also worked in a radio interview with him in the background of one sequence, and in another, Emmanuelle Devos is seen reading one of his books.

Was there for you, as a Jewish woman, a sort of political engagement in your wanting to make THE OTHER SON?

L.L. – I did wonder about that. My Jewishness is part of me. I’m not practicing, I’m an atheist, but I am Jewish and I can’t forget that because a large part of my family was exterminated in the concentration camps. So I’m Jewish but I’m not Israeli; they are two different things.

What is it like when a French crew comes to film in Israel, in this particular context. Was this a concern for you?

L.L. – Neither my producers nor I had any intention of showing up like conquering heroes. We arrived with genuine humility, with the aim of making this film and telling this story as a collective exercise. We wanted it to be a project that brought people together. I asked our Israeli executive producer to give a copy of the screen- play (translated into English) to each of the crew members.

It was very important to me that the electrician or grip working on this film knew exactly what he or she was involved in, so they could be on board with the project, in full knowledge. Beyond that, it was difficult in so far as Israel is simultaneously an open and closed country. People are circumspect regarding outsiders. And that’s legitimate, because that level of distrust is one of the conditions for the country’s survival. So we had to show proof of our good intentions, and on more than one occasion. It was a long process to become mutually accepted, but we arrived with such naivety that it generated a lot of positive energy. Loads, in fact.

What recollections do you have of the first day of the shoot?

L.L. – Strangely, it wasn’t the first day which left the strongest impression. I have a memory of the first day of shooting that was a mixture of excitement, of urgency to get started at last, but also of fear and misapprehen- sion. It’s the first time I’ve made a film in four languages (French, Hebrew, Arabic and English), and I only speak one- and-a-half! I wondered how I was going to get through it, how I was going to marshal my crew and communicate what I wanted. How I was going to work with the actors, how to suggest to them certain nu- ances. Then in the end, you just throw yourself into it and everything goes just fine.

Which day left the strongest memory for you?

L.L. – The one when we filmed in front of the wall. I’d been to Israel several times but I’d never seen a wall like that. Never. I found the spot where we built the checkpoint by chance. We were out scouting and suddenly, we found ourselves on this odd road in the shape of an “L” running the other way to the wall which stretched be- fore us to the horizon like an immense scar. And next to it was this nomad camp, which is a real nomad camp, and behind the wall is the Palestinian village. It was an incredible place, which said an awful lot in a single image. I knew right away we had to build and shoot here. At the foot of this wall there were some very intense moments, such as when we filmed the night scene in which Pascal Elbé heads off on foot in search of Joseph. It was one or two o’clock in the morning. The noise of the equipment and the power of the lighting meant peo- ple on the other side of the wall were starting to wonder what was going on. And while we were rehearsing, we heard some shouts and saw some things falling, so we looked up and saw some boys who had scaled the wall – I’ve no idea how, since at that point it’s six or seven meters high and covered in barbed wire! They were balancing up there to see what was going on. The Palestinians in the crew told them we were a film crew. I was aghast, because one wall evokes another, and certain images inevitably surfaced. Those of the Berlin wall, or even more disturbingly, those of the Warsaw ghetto.

Things calmed down, the boys stayed up there but kept quiet. We’d scarcely started filming before we were interrupted by the sirens of the Israeli police in Hummers. I was starting to wonder if we’d ever be able to film. And this time it was the Israeli members of the crew who went to talk to the police to smooth things over. And then finally, we got to film. At that point, I was asking myself, where is the movie: in what I’m experiencing here or in what I’m trying to tell? The answer is, no doubt, in both.

When you’re in a country where you’re confronted with such incidents, is there a tendency to be overtaken by events?

L.L. – In a story like the one I just described, in which real life is more compelling than the imaginary events, you can effectively lose your way. I think I was saved from that through discussions with my crew and my

actors who were continually filling me in on what I was seeing without always comprehending, or at least not always very clearly. I felt that in the space of less than four months I’d experienced a sort of crash course and I was more than ever a relay for events. In other words, I experienced emotions and shocks, and they imme- diately fed into my narrative. That’s also why we had to be re-writing all the time because more than ever the film was a shifting material. Leaving it static would have been dangerous.

Watching THE OTHER SON, one really has the feeling that your directing has evolved, that you’ve ma- tured as a director. Is that something you felt yourself?

L.L. – Two things: first off, this is my third theatrical feature-film, and my fourth film all told. Directing is something you learn on the job, feeding off your previous experiences. The more shoots you do, the more you feel free in what you do. At the start, for me – as someone who started out as a screenwriter – the strength was in the writing. But when you go behind the camera, you discover that the power is in the image. The tempta- tion was great in the beginning to use the screenplay not as the base material and a backbone, but as a whole piece to be filmed as it is. But the more you develop, the more you realize that you have to move away from it and that the power of the image mustn’t be rendered redundant by the power of the word.

Secondly, I’d say, it’s the first time I’ve felt so free. My producers had faith in me and backed me all the way, and that trust galvanized me. That said, we had a very small budget. We shot the film in 33 days, and we had so many budget problems that I had to renounce one day’s shooting on set. Despite that, we didn’t deprive ourselves of anything, and we got all the shots we needed. This confidence, this liberty gave me wings. I soon forgot all about constraints, and that inspired me to go to another level.

You may have filmed all the shots you wanted, but a film still has to be put together in editing. How did that go?

L.L. – People often talk about editing as the first stage of post-production. To me, it’s more part of the shoot. Sylvie Gadmer set to work while I was still filming, which was helpful because she gave me her impressions of what she was seeing. I had the informed opinion of the first viewer. A few days after the shoot was over, Sylvie showed me the first rough cut of the film. Then we started to work together with the aim of telling the story in the most fluid way possible, so that all the crossing paths were fed by the characters’ emotions and not by edit- ing tricks.

The music plays an important role in the film. How did you pick the composer?

L.L. – I’ve always put music to the fore. In THE FIRST TIME I TURNED 20, we worked with the composer weeks in advance so we could hear a version on set. During preparation for THE OTHER SON, I came across the music of Dhafer Youssef and it really struck me. He’s a very unusual musician, who studied at a Koranic school, was a muezzin, and who quit all that aged 19 to travel, spending time in Vienna, Paris and New York. He discovered Scandinavian jazz, plays the oud and has an incredible voice. For me, his music is a sort of primal scream. It fit perfectly with the film. So I gave his CDs to Sylvie with very precise instructions on the pieces I wanted to use. As I was filming, Sylvie put the music over the images and straight away sent me an email saying: “It works!” Once the first edit of the film was done, then we had to worry about whether Dhafer Youssef would agree to provide the music for THE OTHER SON. To my mind, if he’d said no it would have been a major blow. Fortunately, he said yes.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems endless. When you make a film that deals with this subject, is it hard to find an ending?

L.L. – It was extremely difficult! In the original screenplay, Noam had written it ending with a bombing. I didn’t want that because I thought it was a predictable ending and I was struggling to make a film that es- chewed commonplace violence, if I can put it like that. Nathalie and I thought about a better ending, but couldn’t come up with anything. I didn’t stop thinking about it during the shoot. I soon realized that we had to leave the adult characters to one side; that it had to happen between the boys, because the film is first and foremost telling the story of that generation. So I wrote an ending, and my first assistant, Sophie Davin said: “I’m sure you can find something better!”

The right idea came at the last minute. I’d planned to do a panoramic 360° shot in the ruins of a building overlooking a valley where Yacine comes to seek refuge. In the end, I did the same thing but through 180°. For the end of the film, the remaining 180° are seen by Joseph, who replaces Yacine in the same panoramic only reversed. Each of them is half of the other.

Have you already shown the film to the crew, and if so, what was their reaction?

L.L. – Yes, and it was a very moving moment. Unfortunately, not everyone was there because we did the screening at the Cinémathèque in Tel Aviv during the day, so some people were working. Those who could make it were pleased and moved; Khalifa Natour was overwhelmed.

Do you believe in the power of cinema?

L.L. – To do what? To change the world? No. To share, to pass on, to exchange; yes. A book, or a film, is a dia- logue with whoever makes the effort to seek it out. It’s a way of experiencing and understanding the humanity of the Other.

Interview by PATRICK FABRE

The Other Son is currently on general release

Comments

One Response to “The Other Son – an interview with Lorraine Levy”
  1. Bronwyn says:

    I saw The Other Son today and can thoroughly recommend it. It was very thought provoking and authentic. What an excellent film.

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