A doc that feels like a thriller: talking to Shlomi Elkabetz about 'Black Notebooks: Ronit'

More than just an homage to a beautiful, inimitable woman, Shlomi Elkabetz's film about his sister and collaborator Ronit is a journey to the heart of cinema and a fantastic treasure hunt which, if followed through, brings us to the perfect depth of our human connection.
A doc that feels like a thriller: talking to Shlomi Elkabetz about 'Black Notebooks: Ronit'

As soon as you get sight of Ronit Elkabetz, in the first shot of the Black Notebooks: Ronit, waking up in bed, wearing a black long sleeved t-shirt and submerged by a giant white duvet, you can't help but think "what a beautiful woman!" Even first thing in the morning, no make up, away from the limelights she enjoyed as a world-renowned actress, Ronit is stunning.

So understanding how important she was in her filmmaker brother's life isn't very hard. Their relationship transcended work colleagues, it surpassed typical brother and sister relationships and went beyond, way beyond. Which is why Shlomi Elkabetz's Ophir winning documentary Black Notebooks: Ronit is such a wonderful and, at the same time, heartbreaking watch. I write about Ronit Elkabetz in the past tense, because she passed away in 2016, leaving the film world shocked at her early departure, at age 51. It's almost incomprehensible what her passing must have meant to her family and friends. Ronit was a force of nature, a born thespian with so much elegance and class to fill a nation. Maybe even a continent, no, make that a world.

Black Notebooks: Ronit, currently part of a diptych, which Shlomi Elkabetz admits will eventual be one of three films -- "Viviane and Ronit are pre-mortem films and I want to make a third part which is postmortem," a film containing "everything that happens after this" -- will enjoy a limited release in the US, starting with LA on the 4th of November. There will be a preview on Thursday, November 3rd at 7pm at the Museum of Tolerance, before the film moves on to NYC on November 11th. 

This is a necessary watch, to get to know an extraordinary woman and her talented brother, and if you know them already, on the big screen or in real life, reconnect with their magic. Because what they did together was, is, will always be magical.

My own memory of the Elkabetz duo goes back to Cannes in 2014, when I emerged from the screening of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem gasping for air. Held in the theater under the Marriott hotel, this film about the excruciating journey of a woman trying to obtain a divorce from her husband (a "gett") in the religious court in Israel was so intense, so perfectly shot and so beautifully acted that I felt like I too was chocking inside Viviane's unhappy marriage. Her abuse was my abuse, her anguish felt personal. I could not get up the stairs and onto the light of the midday Croisette fast enough. Few films remain so deeply entrenched in my very being as the Elkabetzs's masterpiece.

Looking at the whole picture

This week, I got to speak to Shlomi Elkabetz on Zoom, before he went to LA to introduce the film to American audiences. I asked him what it is like to be on the other side of the camera, making those films that take over our being. "I think that when I make a film at a certain point of the making or when I have an idea or when I start to shoot it, there is this point where I'm possessed, and if I don't feel it a certain point of the process that I'm possessed by the film and the film owns me in a way I think to myself, alright, maybe it's not a good film for me for me to make." Elkabetz admits, speaking from his Paris apartment.

"I want to feel that they live there and the deeper I go into making it, I'm kind of losing myself in my work, but I'm using two eyes," he continues. "One eye is the eye that is in the film, it's completely devoted to the being of myself as a director, as a creative in the film. And the other eye is watching outside. I mean, I'm totally there but I need my other eye. It's like shooting with a camera and one eye is in the viewfinder. And the other eye is looking for something else that you might want to document but also looking at the whole picture."

Also fascinating is what Shlomi says next. "I'm not a director who needs the camera to talk with my characters. I'm not being protected by the camera when I'm shooting a documentary -- it's not about this." He explains further "when I'm shooting I'm just creating another layer of time that is parallel to where we live, and I gain time by using my camera. And this is why I shot over the years, because I shot Black Notebooks in total for over thirty years, mostly shooting things that are very banal." Those banal things include, "if you really look at it and you say alright, what do we have in this film? And you start to count the shots" Shlomi elaborates "you will see we have 20 shots of people going up the stairs, another 50 shots of people going from point A to point B in a taxi. We have them in a plane another 20 times, we have them eating, drinking a glass of water another 15 times." And yet as a viewer, we can't get enough of it all.

Changing the outcome through film

Black Notebooks: Ronit envelops the viewer in the world and life of Ronit Elkabetz during her final years. We watch her getting diagnosed with cancer, though it seems the "C" word is never used. And we watch her go through treatment, and as the disease appears to go into remission. What is extraordinary is that we know the outcome of the film, and yet Shlomi has made the story into a thriller, complete with Hitchcockian music by Bernard Herrmann. But more on that later. At one point during the documentary, as Ronit and her family are on vacation in Tuscany for the summer, playing in the pool, we feel as if this is all going to turn out OK after all, as if Shlomi's film could change the outcome, give us a different ending from the inevitable one we should expect.

"From the perspective of time, I realized when I was watching the materials that what I really saw on the set was not what was really so," Shlomi admits, about shooting Gett, continuing. "I still see the acting and fighting the fight of this woman who wants to be free; but really there was a secret battle behind the scenes which we were not aware of. Now, looking at it with the two eyes I mentioned before, there is this huge drama and conflict of staying alive." He elaborates further, "in that sense, of course it was amazing to see the material shot, but I think one of the most important decisions that I took in making the movie is at a certain point in the editing room I said to myself, 'That's it. I'm not at all watching, not the materials of somebody who shot the film.' And also I'm not watching something from my past. Whenever I go into the editing room, I'm going in to the present. And since I know what's going to happen, I'm coming from the future. So I'm traveling in time to this point where this brother and sister shot a film with the knowledge of what will happen to them and with the advantage of being one of the characters and at the same time on the set."

"I don't talk to the dead!"

The creative process for the Black Notebooks changed, as usually Shlomi and Ronit collaborated on co-directing all their films. And perhaps this dramatic shift was most felt in the editing room, I suspected. With editor Joelle Alexis, who has edited all of the Elkabetzs's work, it was now a duo doing the edits, not the usual trio. How was that? I ask Shlomi. "When I started the work It was very, very strange because we are used to be a threesome that supports the process there. Each one had a role, but over the years of work -- over more than 10 years of work together -- it was never defined. At one point Joelle asked me, 'What would Ronit think?' and I told her immediately, 'I don't know I don't talk to the dead'." But then the filmmaker went home and thought about his outburst. "I asked myself this question because Ronit is present, in so many ways, she is with us in the room because we are seeing her in front of us throughout the whole process. And I asked myself, can she talk to us? She's a partner in this film. Can she talk to us?" The answer Shlomi came up with? I inquire further, "we cannot talk like you and I are talking now. But it is phantoms on the screen, we can have a very deep conversation, a real conversation which is only possible on the screen. Only in this present time that is the screen." I feel shivers at the thought, but it is true that those we love continue to communicate with us, even after they are gone. And not in a hocus pocus sort of way, but in our thoughts, through the photos we took together, in their messages to us before they left.

Shlomi confirms this by explaining, "because Ronit was such an amazing performer not only in the cinema but whenever there was a camera -- she could tell something to the camera and it didn't matter if it was on my iPhone or a 35 millimeter camera. She always projected her thoughts and feelings. And because of her very unique talent she participates in the process of editing. The three of us had so many conversations in the editing room, when Ronit was here. We sometimes would spend hours just talking in the editing room and not even editing. And we used to talk about cinema, about art, about life about love, about kids, about food, about everything. We also would laugh a lot in the editing room, the conversation was there all the time, even without words and therefore, why wouldn't we be able to continue this conversation in that sense?"

Scoring a documentary to feel like a thriller

Music is powerful. We all know that. Unseen and yet it can alter our emotions and change things around us. So how did Shlomi make a documentary that feels like a thriller? He managed the impossible, by scoring his Black Notebooks: Ronit with the iconic music from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. The Vertigo Suite score, which sets the tone of Black Notebooks: Ronit along with Maria Callas singing from Bellini's Norma, Verdi's La forza del destino and Un ballo in maschera, as well as the atmospheric Mahler's Symphony N. 5 in C minor (which Ronit jokes about sounding very "Little House on the Prairie" as a score for their film, in a particularly funny moment in the documentary). Shlomi explains how the thriller aspect came about "musically, we were in the editing room and and understood at certain point that we did have a thriller on our hands -- because in the film there's chases, and we wonder will time catch them, with time be ahead of them, will they win, or who's gonna die? Who is going to kill who? So this thriller feeling, we wanted to keep it alive, and I I think when people see it, they are not sure she's going to die the end." Exactly! We all know the outcome and yet can't help hope for a different ending, that's the brilliance of this film.

"We were looking for some reference music and they just said what about Bernard Herrmann, which is classic Hitchcock music." But, Shlomi continues, "we figured we would never be able to get the release to use the Vertigo music in our small documentary film, and we don't have the money for that." Yet researching the music, they found that Herrmann's classic sounds are out there, in small pieces, each scene with its own name. "It was just sitting there, as if it was waiting for us!" Shlomi admits, enthusiastically and "something amazing happened, beyond the fact that this music really suited the scenes. This documentary, the documentary material became completely fictional -- the music gave it in a sense a fiction." As Shlomi simplifies the story, "Vertigo is about a man who is obsessed with the death of a woman he lost. And now he's trying to give her new life with the body of another woman, through the body of another," which in a way is what Black Notebooks: Ronit also tries to do. Give life to a woman gone too soon, so we may all remember her forever. Out of 27 minutes of Herrmann music, Shlomi and his team made a score, which "we went and recorded it with the Philharmonic in Tel Aviv, we just recorded the whole music of Vertigo again," he confesses. "And it was from me, beyond everything, it was the experience of recording Herrmann with a live orchestra of 100 players in front of the film, was amazing -- it was like traveling in the heart."

Making one's first film, again

So what is next for Shlomi Elkabetz, whose work is so intrinsically tied with his sister's work? "As a director, I'm working on a new film I'm hoping to shoot it this summer. It really excites me, a fiction film." Plus there is that postmortem third chapter of the Black Notebooks which he talked about before. And, Shlomi says, "I have a TV series that I'm doing with ARTE in two years from now. There are a lot of new ideas and scripts, I'm writing."

"After the death of Ronit, I did a few things -- Black Notebooks is my main film but I also discovered acting," Shlomi admits. "In 2019 I did an HBO series, it's called Our Boys. It was an amazing experience for me, also a way to reconnect with Ronit, as I never wanted to act and I was offered the lead role -- a big responsibility. It was amazing." More acting in his future? "In the last two years I had a few offers worldwide and picked two films in which to participate as an actor -- one is a French film and the other is an Israeli-Moroccan film. They are both going to be shot at the start of 2025. I took these two beautiful scripts and I really like the directors who are going to be doing it. I'm also producing, I mainly produce women directors, the last one I did was Maysaloun Hamoud's In Between." Along with the beautiful, archival doc Je t'aime Ronit Elkabetz, by Moran Ifergan, which we reviewed here on MIME.

"For the first time I feel like I have a new space in me, how I see cinema, what I want to do in cinema. I have this rare opportunity to make my first film again." Inshallah.

For more information and to see where Black Notebooks: Ronit will be playing near you, check out the Panorama Films website.

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