'Woman Alive': an interview with Macabit Abramson and Lihi Zemel

The real life mother and daughter duo behind the film open up about working together, how the character of Shlomit grew out of their personal experiences and cinematic inspirations.
'Woman Alive': an interview with Macabit Abramson and Lihi Zemel

Portraying a character plagued by depression on the big screen is probably one of the biggest cinematic challenges. For a filmmaker, it requires a well developed script full of nuances to keep the audience from getting bored, and for an actor, an active performance, one that keeps the person she embodies from becoming morose -- and simply unwatchable.

Macabit Abramson and Lihi Zemel, mother and daughter in real life, manage to find that preciously fragile balance in Woman Alive, a film which is playing now during Cinequest Film Festival's virtual edition CINEJOY. The story of thirty-year-old mother and wife Shlomit (Zemel) who leaves behind the sheltered life that she shares in Jerusalem with her husband Eithan (Iftach Rave) and young daughter Noa and embarks on a dark, wild and soul-searching journey through the slums of south Tel Aviv could easily have gone wrong. But Zemel is spellbinding to watch and Abramson so well suited to capture the real grit of Tel Aviv, along with the nuances of a woman in crisis, that Woman Alive makes us, the audience feel alive as well. And keeps us interested in the story from beginning to end.

Filmmaker Nadav Lapid agrees and said about the film: "From the very first second I felt the truth. I felt the sincerity. I felt that I'm watching a courageous piece. At the end there is nothing more powerful and moving than feeling that someone is talking to you from the depths of their soul." It is in fact the honesty of the storytelling here, as well as how bare Zemel makes herself in this role emotionally that really sells the film, wholeheartedly.

I caught up with the creative duo via email and at times, hearing the background story of artists can turn out to be an added bonus after watching their work. This was one of those moments.

Was there a moment when you both thought it would be difficult to work together on such a film? 

Macabit Abramson: Everyone warned me against working with my daughter on this film. But she's an actress and a very good one, and to a large extent I saw this movie through her eyes as a 30-year-old woman. I wanted the two of us to work on this movie together. Now that the movie has started screening at film festivals, I realize some people may ask how can a mother let her daughter participate in such a violent and sexually daring film. I can hear the criticism, how I as a mother could expose my daughter to such darkness. When I think about this, my feeling is that in a paradoxical sense, this is my way of protecting her. I felt that if she could experience and get through all of this while playing a role in a movie, then she wouldn’t have to experience it in real life. 

Lihi Zemel: I think there were a lot of hard moments where I felt like I wanted to protect my mom. Most of the crew members were very young. My mother was directing her first narrative feature film, and because of this I felt the need to protect her constantly. I was always on alert, wanting everything to be as precise as it could be. So if someone did not deliver 100% on set, I just couldn't stand it. I felt extremely sensitive to everything going on around me. 

What was the advantage of your close relationship when shooting and what was the downside?

Abramson: Lihi is my great love, both as my daughter and as my muse. I love taking her photos. Her face fascinates me -- sometimes showing light and supreme happiness, sometimes a deep sadness and pain... a constant change of emotional nuances. It was like filming a mysterious woman’s beauty, which I wanted to document with all its lights and shadows. 

It was easy for me to work with Lihi because I really trust her artistic eye, and her ability to understand and express minute subtleties. She is an actress with substantial depth, wisdom, and fascinating physical abilities. We had many arguments during filming, because we have different preferences due to our generational gap. I love the culture of the past, while she likes the simplest words and speaking from her gut. In the end we typically shot two options to satisfy both our preferences, and in the editing process we often ended up choosing what she liked the best. The editors usually sided with her. 

The difficulty in this film was with the sexual scenes - not just in terms of the shooting process, but also for Lihi to act with these men in such intimate scenes. It was not easy for Lihi, and I treated her like an actress who had to go through something to reach a goal. This is the “danger zone” of the film, as the protagonist embarks on a dark journey so as to break free from the violent fantasies that dominate her, to discover that she has an inner demon that demands that she herself creates and not let the man control her. As with any journey, in the film, we had to go over the cliff to see the Promised Land beyond...

Zemel: Mom and I have been working together for many years. You could say that ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been looking for her whenever she disappeared while shooting her movies. I was jealous of the time she devoted to her work, time that I felt was taken away from me. I wanted me to be “her movie”. We had previously worked on a theater show, and the other actors said she was the toughest with me, and I got the harshest criticism. But I was never offended by any of this. I always felt that she was trying to bring out my best performance, to make me more precise. 

While working on the script I had constant criticism. I often found myself not being able to connect to some of the dialog in the script. I wanted my lines to be more simple and down to earth. As a result we had our share of fights! I ended up telling my mom that I was not going to say the lines the way they were written in the script because it just was not me. In rehearsals we inserted constant changes in almost every scene, which led to major delays. My mother continuously polished the script, while always considering what she felt was the inner world of the actors as the shooting proceeded. I also received some criticism during our scene rehearsals, as I wanted to do things a bit differently. But I enjoyed interacting with the other actors, and discovering who they were. 

Unsurprisingly, the scenes with the painter were very challenging for me. My mom pushed us to redo them again and again, which sometimes would make me quite angry. The dynamic with the painter was complex. He painted me for very long hours, and the scenes of intimacy between us were not easy. I did sometimes get upset that the process was taking too long, and I felt that she put me in a position that was difficult and unpleasant at times. Making things easy for me was not her way. But all in all, I felt that my mom gave me a lot of space and trust, and that boosted my confidence. 

Macabi Abramson

Macabit, what made you decide to shoot this as a narrative, with your focus usually on documentaries instead? 

For me, it almost felt like I was making a documentary about the soul of women who feel differently than most women around them, because they are creators, and they need to get acquainted with the inner demon that drives them, to understand why they cannot live a normal life. They have to choose their own way, but they are stuck, because they have so many duties to others, because this is how they were raised. So they have an existential dilemma, which requires them to undertake a journey like the protagonist is taking in the movie. “Woman Alive” is, in my view, the story of many women who do not have the right words to express themselves. So yes, it is a narrative feature film, but it is also a sort of a documentary, about women who need to choose between their passions and their family obligations as determined by society. 

I love the documentary genre as the source and inspiration behind every film. The story of this film was burning inside of me, and it is actually directly related to my PhD which was called: "The New Psyche in the Movies: Journey against a Dark Man." It focused on the myth of "Eros and Psyche" in classic and contemporary films. My Doctorate analyzed the common theme of the gentle feminine character who embarks on a journey to the beast, as in the Beauty and the Beast. She is different, she seeks to create herself in an original way and therefore she has to leave the home that oppresses her, the home where she cannot know who she is and what she really wants. She cannot think independently, and she goes to a foreign world that changes everything she thought of herself. The myth and the films I have researched describe this archetypal story and now my contemporary film brings it into the world: The journey of the gentle woman (beauty) to her own inner beast-- her creativity. 

And Lihi, what was it like to embody such a complex character? Where did you find your inspiration? 

At the time, I was in a complicated period in my life. I actually lived in south Tel Aviv where my character Shlomit chooses to make her journey in the film. I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with my husband, whom I’ve known since the age of nineteen. That year, I started to feel the demons inside of me. I had an urge to explore, to feel, to experience... At the same time, I felt great anxiety and sadness about my ability to destroy everything, once I let myself go. The profession of being an actress was also beginning to take its toll on me. Auditions are the only way to get a job, and with each negative response I felt humiliated and depressed that I had no way to express who I am as an artist. My husband at that time wanted us to have a child, and I feared that having a child would stop my life, not allowing me to bring out my true self. I felt as if life’s reality was putting me under siege, and that I had to be very careful. In a sense, playing the character of Shlomit allowed me to be her without actually doing what she did.

And finally, for each of you, what are your cinematic inspirations? Particular films that were important for your cinematic upbringing, etc.? 

Abramson: My cinematic inspiration for this film include: Lars von Trier’s Dogville, Melancholia, Nymphomaniac, Pasolini -- who is my favourite director with all his extraordinary films and in his writing about poetic cinema. Also Antonioni’s Il deserto rosso –- he really is a poet of cinema and the character of the woman suffering, her mental landscape reflected in the industrial background has influenced me in my film that seeks to express a mental landscape of an unconscious, passionate, alienated woman. Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 -- her curiosity for the face of the sad woman who can't experience love because everyone (her agent, her lover, the musicians) treat her like a beautiful doll and Raja Amari’s Satin Rouge -- the traditional woman who finds her inner fire as a belly dancer, and many more.

Also films that illustrated the story of the "Beauty and the Beast" which were the subject of my research in life, in cinema, in theory –- The Phantom of the Opera, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, King Kong. Films about a woman's journey to the lair of a dark male animal (Kong, the Phantom, the Beast) and it is there that these women find their inner male beast that allows them to discover their original perspective that substantially differs from that of society. 

Zemel: I'm very influenced by Roman Polanski's movies. His ability to look at female characters in a very honest, exposed and very dark way speaks to me. Two films that have particularly affected me are Bitter Moon and Repulsion. Bitter Moon presents a dark sexual relationship in which the woman, to own her man, cripples him so he depends on her every way. Repulsion where a young woman who works in a beauty salon and lives with her sister sees the world in a menacing way. The film reflects the reality of her world. Men look dark and intimidating until she finally kills them. Both films focus on the inside lens of women to experience reality. 

I think one cannot understand Shlomit, unless one has access to her inner world, to her very specific perspective, and her experiencing reality in unsettled, dark and creative ways.

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