Acclaimed Israeli film-maker, Yaron Shani admits that he took a big risk with his latest project, Love Trilogy. Following the success of his 2009 Oscar-nominated film, Ajami, which he co-directed with Palestinian film-maker, Scandar Copti, he says he chose not to go for a safe option and instead, “I went for something more psychological, more personal.”
Love Trilogy explores love, desire and sexuality and the various — often challenging — forms in which they may be expressed. Stories of friendship and the complexities of familial relationships emerge but the films also address the broader themes of power, obsession and gender violence.
Each of the three films: Stripped, Chained and Reborn are complete works in themselves and therefore can be viewed separately, in any order. However, as some characters and plotlines reappear, the combination provides a wider picture of the characters’ intersecting lives, told from different perspectives and at different times. The UK premiere of Love Trilogy will be screened at the UK Jewish Film Festival in November.
Shani’s risk-taking appears to have paid off. Chained won the Haggiag award for best Israeli feature at the Jerusalem Film Festival and, in September, Shani won the prestigious Ophir Award (the Israeli Oscars) for best director — also for Chained — and Eran Naim, who plays the film’s protagonist, received the Ophir for best actor.
The film examines the fine line between love and madness, focusing on Rashi (Naim), a conscientious policeman whose life spirals out of control when he is accused of sexual harassment and consequently suspended from duty. But he is also experiencing pressure at home which leads him to question his role, his sense of masculinity and, ultimately, threatens his marriage.
Shani was inspired to explore the subject of love after the birth of his two daughters, now aged ten and seven. “I felt that I needed to do something for them,” explains Shani, speaking on the phone from his Tel Aviv home, “something that was not about selling tickets and was not about art. I wanted to try and get as close as possible to the life experiences of real people. To understand what it means to be alive, to be deeply connected to another person.”
In order to achieve this in the most authentic way possible, Shani looked for non-professional actors whom he felt had some form of connection to their roles because of their personality and/or through personal experience. Eran Naim, for example, was a former police officer for 16 years, who had been forced to leave the force following an inquiry. “So, he knows what it means to be under investigation and what it means to lose your job in a way that I can’t even start to imagine.”
Actors had to be prepared to live the lives of their fictional characters for the duration of the year-long shooting period and, although Shani had written a script, his cast were not given a copy. “When I decide that somebody will play a character, they never receive a script. They don’t know anything about what’s going to happen, unless it’s very shameful and violent,” he says.
Ninety-nine per cent of what is shot is improvised, Shani explains but, prior to filming, actors went through a preparatory process which included workshops, discussions with Shani, meetings and improvisations in their homes with their families and at work. “I get to know people very well so I know what to expect from them during the shoot,” he says. In Chained, when Rashi is questioned by internal affairs investigators, Shani found two professionals to carry this out, in the same inquiry room where Eran Naim had undergone investigation years earlier.
“The officers didn’t know if Rashi was guilty or not but they knew about the case because I had [created it] with them. What they had to do was to try and break Rashi and there he was, defending himself.”
Shani does acknowledge that drawing on his actors’ real-life experiences for the films’ narrative purposes could be a risky approach. Trust is essential, he says. “I’m always trying to detect how they feel and how far they can go. If it becomes too much, they can back off.”
In the trilogy, love is far from straightforward: it can be brutal and disturbing, such as in the stories of a daughter caring for her abusive father or a serial rapist on the streets of Tel Aviv. The simple, joyful aspects of love are largely absent. “I’m not an entertainer,” Shani responds. “I’m not trying to dance in front of you and make you feel good. I want to go directly to what life is about.” Love is commonly perceived as purely positive, he explains, but it is paradoxical in many ways. “Intimacy is based on exposing ourselves — physically and emotionally, to the other. The experience of bonding with someone else and losing all our inhibitions is wonderful but sometimes it can be horrifying.”
Being in love and dependent on another person is amazing, too, he continues, “but if one person tries to control the other to ensure they don’t change, a relationship can escalate into very troubling areas.”
Throughout the series, Shani has chosen to blur the body parts, in particular faces or genitalia, of certain characters. “I understood that, because I tread the line between real life and fiction, I had to have a different sensibility. If I shoot in a hospital which has patients with dementia, as in Reborn, I can’t expose their identity, whereas if it’s a purely fictional film, they’re all extras so it’s no problem.
The same goes for prostitutes. If they’re real, I have to use blurring.” But Shani also wants viewers to think about nudity in films. “We’re living in a pornographic culture where we see naked bodies all the time in film and on tv, but I’m poking your eyes saying: ‘You want to see it but I’m not letting you.’”
The whole ambitious project took seven years, two of which were spent editing 350 hours of material. Making it was a huge sacrifice, yet Shani says he is both happy and indifferent about receiving the awards. “As a professional, when something I do gets acknowledged, it makes me feel OK, maybe I can make a living doing this, so that’s good.
“But, at the same time, I’m not making films for people to love or acknowledge me. I’m just trying to make the most profound thing that I can do.”
‘Love Trilogy’ is screening at the UK Jewish Film Festival on November 16, 17 and 20. There will be a Q&A with Yaron Shani following ‘Chained’ on November 16 and ‘Stripped’ the following day. www.ukjewishfilm.org