There is a haunting line in Asaf Saban perfectly made feature film Delegation ("Ha’Mishlahat") which could explain the current situation in Israel and the West Bank. But also, overall, the unrelenting patriotism that is evident in the contended land, which makes finding a solution that doesn't involve addressing it, as well as the intertwined identities of the Palestinians and the Israeli Jews, impossible. As a delegation of Jewish students in their late teens traveling on a school trip through Poland visit the tragic reminders of the Holocaust, stopping in yet another concentration camp museum, one of them says something that should stop politicians in their tracks. I paraphrase of course, as I didn't write it down word for word, but it's basically "nothing like this could happen today, because we have the army to protect us."
When I sat down to talk with the kind, intense Saban, during this year's Berlinale, where the film world premiered, when I mentioned the line, he told me that the phrase "is a very common thing for people to say, and the reason why it's located in that moment in the movie, is as a kind of wake up call." I asked him if the trip is used by the government to motivate youths to go into the army and he replied, "of course, it’s not a coincidence those kids are being taken on this trip the year before the army." However, Saban also explained "I’m much more interested in why the kids want to go there. The educational system and its ideology is too easy a target for me. I’m not interested in creating a didactic kind of essay. I find it less interesting. At 17, my own political conscience was close to zero — I was much more interested in girls and in my position on the social map."
The initial inspiration for Saban, he explained as we sat together in a back corridor inside the Hyatt in Berlin "comes from my own experience of growing up in Israel. My first visit to Poland was when I was 17, on a school trip with my friends, coming to those places, all of those memorial sites." He elaborated further that "in Israel that is a mutual experience for many, many people, regardless of the fact that it’s very extreme, awkward, complex, it’s also very mainstream. Every year, about 30,000 kids go to Poland, so through the years it’s one of the most common experiences and it comes at a very fragile age when you’re constructing your identity."
The delicate process of creating one's own identity is one Saban explores often in his work. In Delegation, the story focuses on three characters: shy boy Frisch, aspiring artist Nitzan and class heartthrob Ido as they deal with issues of love, friendship and politics against the backdrop of concentration camps and memorial sites. Saban told me the trip was "a pivotal moment in my own kind of experience of growing up. It don’t feel post-traumatic, or that I dealt with it daily, but when I became a film student and I was thinking of what should be my first feature, I thought of this. Also because it fits into two genres I completely love — one is coming of age, and the other, the road trip. It perfectly fit." He concluded "I was also interested in dealing with those very complicated subject matters with a different approach, which those film genres allowed."
His characters are ordinary Israeli kids, also a conscious choice by Saban because, he said "it's very exotic these days to pick the extremes, like sex, drugs and rock & roll, when actually most teenagers are just ordinary kids, dealing with ordinary issues, and this was important for me, to create a challenge for myself." He didn't want to compete with what he called, "the volume of the drama of history, or the volume of the drama of the political issues and debates in the media, and the way politicians use that -- I wanted to speak silently, where everyone is kind of shouting." Witness the birth of the quiet masterpiece that Delegation turned out to be for this writer.
Saban also generously shared with me a link to one of his previous projects, a short film titled Paradise. In Paradise he explored the idea of being Arab, or more precisely Palestinian in Israel but then also being Israeli outside of it, in the Sinai region of Egypt more specifically. Paradise is a piece of filmmaking that in less than half an hour, explains so much about identity, it should also be required viewing for all politicians and aspiring peacemakers in the Region. In the person of his lead actor, Ala Dakka, Saban has packed a whole country, two heritages and quite possibly the solution to finding, or avoiding, peace in the Region. But he does it quietly, masquerading the mammoth task as a simple story of a young man's visit to the beaches of Sinai, to decompress after a traumatic return home while nursing a broken heart -- and the little white lie he tells just as he's getting there. Which, for a Palestinian, could never be "little" or "white" and discloses a whole tradition of abuses and diminished human rights.
I wanted to know if Saban, when working on the script of Delegation, wrote any of the characters based on himself and he told me "not consciously, but I guess there is a bit of me in each of those three -- Frisch, Nitzan and Ido. But on the other hand, I collected a lot of stories, in the long years I’ve been working on this script." In fact, he would often be told, "you'll never believe what happened to me in Poland!" when he asked people their own recollection of the trip. "Many of the storylines, the little things that are taking place in the film are actually based on things I stole, I heard and made mine." In the film, at one point Nitzan (played perfectly by Naomi Harari) steals an old shoe from the cages of mismatched footwear left behind by the mass extermination, and I imagine Saban almost as quietly, and a bit guiltily doing the same with the stories he's heard.
Along with Harari, the rest of the cast are also brilliant, in the way they allow us, the audience, to feel like we are a fly on the wall of their intimate conversations. "It was very very important for me to create a certain spontaneous feeling and to capture the energy of being that age," Saban admitted. This was so he could create what he called "a force, that would not necessarily compete but balance the background, with the history." This energy and "this smells like teen spirit," he calls it, tongue in cheek, was very important to the filmmaker. Although the film's dialogue feels very spontaneous, Saban admitted "there was very little improvisation," and the casting took him, and his casting director Rutie Blum, a long time, "partly because I wanted to have fresh faces and people who still have that quality and also because in the end, you cast not only them, but you also cast the relationship between them."
The chemistry between them, Harari along with Yoav Bavly who plays Frisch and Leib Levin as Ido, was very important, as Saban pointed out and makes the story work so perfectly for the audience. While the casting choices were important to make the story believable, there were also long rehearsals, "talking a lot, experimenting with the scenes, they brought a lot of their own experiences, moments they came up with," Saban explained, "when I say it wasn't improvised it's because I went and rewrote certain scenes according to what I heard from them -- I did a lot of fine tuning."
Once the long preparation process was done, and they arrived on set, Saban then gave his actors a lot of space, and told them to "almost forget what we did, trust it guys and now explore, which was frightening for them."
As my typical final question, I asked Saban what he wanted his audience to take away from the film. "Ah, whatever they wish, honestly -- as a viewer I prefer not to be told, how should I think, what should I feel. And I try to respect that and give that space to the spectators." Saban admitted that he would be very happy and feel like he achieved his mission if two people watching it walked away from his film with two completely different opinions. "Not to physically fight each other, of course, but if they would argue amongst them about the meaning of a certain scene, just because of how they projected their own life experiences or ideals, this is something I wish would happen."
All images courtesy of The PR Factory and Berlinale, used with permission.