The price of violence: '1341 Frames of Love and War' at Berlinale

Filmmaker Ran Tal talks to MIME about his haunting documentary portrait of war photographer Micha Bar-Am, world premiering this weekend in Berlin.
The price of violence: '1341 Frames of Love and War' at Berlinale

What is the true price of conflict? 

If you are a war photographer, born Jewish in 1930's Berlin, then transferred along with your family to a land where the battle simmers constantly between its two main populations, the price of conflict becomes your sheer existence. And that could be the condensed story of Micha Bar-Am's life.

1341 Frames of Love and War is the latest documentary written and directed by internationally celebrated Israeli filmmaker Ran Tal (Children of the Sun, The Museum, The Garden of Eden, What If? Ehud Barak on War and Peace) and a testament to the power of the image. The film is produced by Ran Tal and Sarig Peker, and is supported by yesDOCU. In 1341 Frames of Love and War Ran Tal takes us, the audience, through the life, work and archives of Bar-Am along with his wife Orna, as they narrate their story in a spellbinding work of cinematic art. It is the questions that remain within us, more than those which are answered in this film that make up its genius.

Ahead of its world premiere at this year's Berlinale, where the film screens as a Berlinale Special (and is thus still under embargo) I spoke to Ran Tal about Micha Bar-Am, the photographer's unparalleled point of view and the challenge of creating a complete, watchable film where no organic sound exists.

I wanted to start from paraphrasing a sentence that your subject says in the film, about how he hoped he could make the world a better place with his images — “but I no longer believe that,” he ends up admitting. Do you think that cinema is a way to make the world a better place?

I don't think cinema makes change. Maybe it changes some perspective of people about reality and then in some ways, maybe it changes the political way they view the situation — in environment, culture, ideology and so on. 

But cinema is just another factor in so many factors that influence people. Because I don't believe it is a key factor that changes something in people’s lives, I think people need art in order to understand humanity, to understand reality, to understand existence. But to say that one picture, one show, one book, you know, can change history, I don't believe it.

Any one piece of art cannot have so much power, but maybe a large quantity of pieces of art, of documentaries, fiction, whatever, I think could make people understand other people. And maybe this is quite important, to be able to see reality through the eyes of “the Other.” And I think this is a good start, maybe to change your mind, maybe to embrace some compassion and not see “the Other” in stereotype, or only as an enemy. I think this is very, very important in art, especially in non-fiction cinema.

Why did you get into documentary filmmaking? What was the “aha” moment for you?

I don’t think there was! It was a trial by accident. I had started something and then went to cinema school, but somehow I made my first documentary and I felt comfortable, confident. It was fascinating for me to learn new stuff every time, to research new areas, subjects and to meet fascinating people that inspired me and would give me the opportunity of observing them, which would then turn into a reflection about myself.

What would you have done if you hadn't been a filmmaker?

Psychology, I guess.

It's interesting to watch in your film the arc of this character. We watch him go from this self professed Zionist, enthusiastic Israeli young man, to this older, much wiser about the relationship between the Israelis and the Palestinians, kind of adult. Do you want to talk about how you managed to achieve that?

I think it came naturally. In the end, you need to create some kind of narrative, even if it's a collage like what I'm doing. And of course my narrative is just one narrative from endless narratives that you can create from his pictures and our conversation. 

And I felt what has happened to him happened to many Israeli who cannot see an end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it's difficult for people like Micha. So I felt it's a good way for me to describe why he gave up photography and why he lost his passion about creating art. It’s also of course, the age and you see so many brutal situations and how much can hold in yourself... So there's many reasons for that. He says that, I don't see any horizons, I don't see any hope because it doesn't go anywhere — it’s something that breaks his heart.

It's an honest narrative about his life and about the way he works and took photographs of the Israeli project. He grew up in Berlin and history flew him to Israel and he became a Zionist. The whole story has so many layers, about identity, art, photography, memory, post-trauma, it was very interesting for me to share all these elements with the viewers.

And how did you connect with Micha to do this project?

I just called him and said “hi Micha, I want to meet you.” He was very open and friendly, and of course with Orna they make such an interesting couple. And the minute I went to his basement, which is five minutes from Tel Aviv, and I saw the richness of the archive, it's like a treasure for somebody like myself! It’s more like an archive of his life and I understood that this is an opportunity for me to be there and try to understand the archive. Because this is also a film about archives as much as it’s about the photographer, about the meaning of archives and the questions this archive raises for me as a filmmaker or any one who wants to speak about history. So I just asked them if we can do it, and I was lucky enough that they allowed me and opened their house and archive for me to unearth.

Did you see a particular photograph of his that inspired you? Or was there a specific moment when you knew you had to meet him and make a film about him?

No, it was just an intuition and then I went there and I fell in love with the archive. I think it was an attraction to this huge body of work, you know. It’s very rare that somebody has been there, every day, into the streets of Israel, to the frontier, to the politicians, abroad, capturing all the diversity of Israeli society and has taken pictures for 50 years. You can imagine how many images you can find and only a small percentage of the archive was published. So it's fascinating,

But how did you know that you would find such a rich body of work? How had you personally been exposed to his photographs?

Micha was one of the members of the Magnum collective from the 60’s, he was the head of the photography department at the Tel Aviv Museum for many years and the senior photographer of the New York Times in the Middle East, and held many more titles. So he was very known and I knew his work very well. But when I was exposed to the archive I realized, I don't know anything!

What's also amazing is the part that Orna, his wife, plays in this, as she documented everything in writing that he experienced with his camera…

Yeah, I think there is no Micha without Orna. She's totally part of the project, she's behind the scenes yet the Bar-Am project is Orna Bar-Am and Micha Bar-Am. She is the eye, the critic, she catalogued everything and I really wanted her in the film. To make the audience know that she has had a huge influence on his career, I don't think he would have been able to achieve all this without Orna. 

At which point did you know she had to be one of the two voices in the film?

When I started to record the conversation, she was there and she obviously had very strong opinions about everything. And when she started to talk and she was so sharp and smart in so many situations, then the relationship between Micha and Orna came together. She’s lovely, beautiful, sometimes funny. I wanted her in the film, she helped so much to make it much more interesting in so many ways and levels.

You have a really interesting soundtrack in the film of songs that are very diverse, and eclectic. Can you talk about how you came up with that?

I think music for me, it's not an intellectual decision -- it’s more like intuition, what I feel is right for the film. And I really fell in love with Hildur [Guðnadóttir]. She's such a great composer, brilliant and her sound is amazing. So I had the chance to use one of her old albums from 2009. I felt this really gives the film the atmosphere I'm looking for. Then there is an Israeli song that belongs to the time when the scene is happening and White Rabbit [by Jefferson Airplane] I felt this was the right song for that particular place in the film. So it's more about the way I feel, it was the right sound in terms of music.

But we worked very hard to create the entire sound of the film because there is no sound in photos. In the film everything is about the relationship between the pictures and the sound.

What you wish people to take away from your film?

I don’t like to summarize a film of 90 minutes with one message but I think it's the price of conflicts… you know the price of violence. Like Micha said, there is no one photograph that can stop any war. But in the end, you see somebody who was a witness to so many bloody events, and the camera cannot protect you after a few years. And even though we are all now exposed to violence in the media, it's never like being there, on the spot as a civilian, as a soldier -- it changes your life forever. 

So I don't know if this comes across in the film, but I felt it very strongly, that he has all these ghosts around him. 

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