Five years ago Israeli filmmaker Shahar Cohen lacked a resume, romantic prospects and career recognition beyond "bum" when he set out to retrace his father's World War II campaign across Europe six decades prior. Cohen père, Sleiman, had fought with the Jewish Brigade, the British Army battalion that trumped the Nazis in the war's waning months, and later smuggled refugees and survivors to Palestine and formed the Israel Defense Forces. At Sleiman's suggestion, the thirtysomething Shahar — who'd had a peripatetic career as a musician and actor, dabbling in screenwriting and film editing — began considering a documentary about those real-life "inglourious basterds."
It didn't fire him up, though, and despite his lingering underemployment, Shahar wasn't particularly jazzed to make that film. But then he learned at a Brigade reunion that he may have half-siblings — "souvenirs" of Sleiman's service — in Holland. With co-director Halil Efrat, Shahar crafted a road movie of father and son's spirited ribbing while hurtling down memory lane of both asphalt and bonding.
Suvenirim (English title: Souvenirs) took Best Documentary Feature at the Israeli Film Academy's 2006 Ophir Awards, Best International Feature at the American Film Institute/Discovery Channel's 2007 SilverDocs Festival and the Golden Gate Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2007 San Francisco International Film Festival, among other laurels. FilmFestivalTraveler.com reached Shahar in Jerusalem on the eve of this year's Ring Family Wesleyan University Israeli Film Festival (January 28 - March 4, 2010), where this interviewer is a guest speaker.
Q: First things first: How's your father?
SC: Okay, but he wouldn't have the strength to do the trip today as he did four years ago. He turned 87 in November. He no longer has his balance, and needs to be steadied. I see him every day and take care of him. Suddenly he became a sort of celebrity. He walks down the street and people recognize him.
Q: You were blasé about doing a film on the Jewish Brigade until learning at a Brigade conference that your father may have left a "souvenir" behind. What was the exact "aha" moment where you realized you had a story to tell?
SC: It was clear to me that the conference wouldn't lead to a film; it was just a bunch of old people. But then I found out about the pregnancies and thought it was a solution to the nagging issue of grandchildren.
Q: It's almost hard to believe that the camera was there to capture Sleiman's revelation.
SC: I was really surprised at the conference. This wasn't the first time I had heard [about his WWII philandering], but I had never fully believed him. It was as if he was waiting to talk about it till the moment it would be filmed.
This wasn't necessarily a conscious thing on his part. The presence of the camera, and the fact that his son was doing a film pulled other things out of him, and led to a degree of exposure. The camera does something to people. So he must have felt it.
Q: So hearing actual names of past girlfriends was what crystallized the project for you?
SC: Now for the first time he mentioned names. Without talking about the girls, there was no inciting event. They provided the pretext of the film. It wasn't enough that dad wanted me to do a film on the Jewish Brigade.
Q: Though your film is a documentary, it's structured like a fiction narrative. How did you get reality to cooperate so smoothly?
SC: I don't come from the documentary world, neither in my studies or otherwise. I was always much more interested in feature films. That may also explain the structure of Souvenirs. I even wrote a script with dialogues for potential sponsors and also with the idea of understanding what we were going for — and which topics we would explore — in each of the places we would be in.
Q: Can you give an example?
SC: For instance, when we're going to meet Anne-Marie Zwart at the end, we already knew she was the girlfriend we were looking for. And when I tell Sleiman that another woman, Maria, had died early, that was just to give a fake ending, to mix in the technique of the preplanned script. We knew she was the wrong person. Things were very planned, though there was room for spontaneity.
We always managed to wrest humor from the scene. I know my father very well and could anticipate what sort of thing he'd say. We didn't bring the script with us, but we tried manipulations.
Q: Talk about a theme you wanted to highlight that took some engineering.
SC: The idea that he wasn't such a hero, that he had tried to get out of active combat in the field.
Q: And how did you stage this?
SC: I knew we'd be in the Senio...
Q: As in the Senio River Valley, the Italian Front where the Jewish Brigade faced down the German Army in late winter and spring of 1945, correct?
SC: Yes, and I knew that we'd have something of a fight in that I'd criticize him for not really fighting. That provoked his criticism of me, to stimulate the tension between us. It kicked up his feeling of, "Who are you to criticize me?"
Q: Meaning, you who had gotten out of army service?
Q: Yet even though you left the service, you prized the idea that your father was a war hero. What was it like for you to pop his warrior hero myth?
SC: In his heart of hearts he doesn't think he's a hero, but that he was part of a period, linked to a certain situation and did his little role.
Q: Still, was it hard for you to reconcile the "souvenirs" of embellished memory with historical truth?
SC: There's a certain duality in the film. I try to confront my father's past as a hero as I saw him as a child, and to square it with the fact that he wasn't such a hero after all like I thought. It partly disappointed me, but I also discovered that we're more alike than I thought. He too is a man of freedom who didn't go to the battle. Both generations have a different kind of consciousness.
Q: How did the film change your relationship?
SC: To some extent it was about function in situ. The director is the one who decides, so that power game prevailed throughout. He wanted to be the good soldier who did what was required. He had an awakening to cinema. There's something very mysterious and compelling about it.
Q: So the role reversal came as much from the myth-busting as from your billing as director?
SC: My father didn't come from the world of cinema, and somewhere the authority I had in my hands brought about a reversal of roles. Here he couldn't argue with the fact that I had a language that he didn't speak. He gave me a lot of credit and respect in this, and it created a reversal in our balance of power that continues till now.
That's something that transcends cinema, and exists between any son and father. Some of the resonance of the film is that every son in some place takes over the role of authority. This is the crux of the film's father.
People have come up to me with tears in their eyes after screenings and said, "What a privilege that you managed to do with your father what I didn't get to do with my father." The film manages a kind of closing of a circle that every son would want to close with his father.
Q: Did you set out to close this circle?
SC: Yes, it was an issue to give him the power to continue onward. Even with healthy older people, the moment they lose curiosity, and don't have the coach of life, this can begin to bring them down. I sought something that would give my father life.
Q: And vice-versa?
SC: Yes, he gave me the push in my professional career. I was pretty unemployed in the beginning of the film. His perspective at the end of the film changed and he saw that I could do something. The most important critics and awards very much made him believe in me. He trusts me more now.
Q: Isn't it ironic that it took your "manipulations" to enhance his trust?
SC: Most of the tension of the film is that my father is doing a historical film but the detective film is hidden from him. The film works because of this twist. In a certain sense I'm betraying him, duping him. But it let him free himself. He wouldn't have allowed himself to do it had he known I was searching out the relationships he had left behind.
He, out of sacrifice for me, gave all of himself so that I would succeed in the film. He wasn't even necessarily aware of this issue not being closed or resolved in his life. He actually never really dared to talk about it beyond the opening scene.
But I think he is full of gratitude for it. He won't say it in plain language, but he does say it was a dream for him to return to those places of war. It's tough for him to talk about intimate things. He's pretty closed.
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Q: And you? Were you comfortable as an on-camera protagonist?
SC: Personal exposure is very hard for me. At the beginning I thought I'd only film Sleiman. But slowly with the evolution of the film we understood that the interaction between us would be the backbone of the film. It required entering very personal areas.
Q: Why do you think he broke down at the sight of the Jewish Brigade memorial in Italy?
SC: It was especially about longing. The memorial was like a seal, a stamp of his youth. He was a very formal man — a sports instructor and an educational figure who raised generations of Jerusalemites. When he sees something written, it's a proof for him. Suddenly he saw something written in Hebrew in Italy, and it was authorization that they were there: the thing actually happened.
Sleiman is a Yemenite Jew, and he brings to bear a particular sensibility and tradition that may be different from the European Jewish experience. His grandfather arrived 130 years ago in Israel, but he still identifies as a Yemenite.
Q: What was the biggest challenge for you in making the film?
SC: Finding the balance between being true to the film and its success on the one hand and between my place with my father and how much I'm willing to sacrifice on the other. It was very hard to come to terms with the possibility that we'd find a family member like a brother. It was a big risk.
Q: Was probing into Sleiman's relationship with your absent mother a risk?
SC: More than anything it's a film about a father and son — a father who stayed with his son after divorce, which isn't typical since usually kids remain with the mother. A very specific set of relations developed with me and him, so it was very natural to enter into the issue of the mother. We shot scenes with my mother before the film and intended to shoot more afterwards. But when we came back from Europe, we saw that we had the material we needed and there was no room for more.
Q: The film opens with the car that would accompany you on your journey. Talk about this 1981 Autobianchi, and why it was such an important character.
SC: In the beginning you see that the car is full of dust. Though I call it my "bonboniera," it was a sign of humiliation. I take her and make of her something that we can look at.
Sleiman was embarrassed about his car. But the moment he saw it renovated in Italy, which was where it was from, he understood that actually the car both symbolized our relationship and his situation. He often said the car looked like him.
My resurrecting it made him think that the car's story returned to the road and was younger, just as he too returned to his youth and became full of energy. So he returns to the place where he was during his peak, and the car returns to its original home. It has a new engine just like he has a new engine.
Q: Now that we're on to your technique of goosing the narrative, I wonder: did the car actually stall back at Sorek Brook?
SC: Okay, it didn't actually get stuck. Halil Efrat, my co-director, warmed up my father. He said, "I told Shahar not to use the car," so my father would get angry at me. Halil and I met in kindergarten, and our relationship is very familial. He fulfilled a very important role with my father. He's more responsible and he found his place in the world faster than I did, so for my father he's more of an authority. We exploited this to get things out of my father.
Q: You and your father sing a favorite Jewish Brigade song at Sorek Brook, with the lyrics, "daddy is kicking out mommy." The tune echoes throughout the film. Is this a musical wink to the Brigade kicking out the Nazis?
SC: The whole story of my mother conflates with the story of the film. The moment my father brought the film to Sorek Brook, I connected with (composer) Shai Bachar, who lives in New York. We told him to write a bunch of variations on the theme. I love it when source music mixes together with the soundtrack, and that's how we worked. I even played the flute in the film.
Q: What's the update on Anne-Marie? Are she and your father in contact?
SC: He would like to stay in touch with her. Just now we have a friend from Holland visiting. She saw the photograph in the newspaper about the premiere of our film, just like Anne-Marie had seen our photograph in the newspaper. She came to the screening. Now she's here; she arrived yesterday.
Q: So maybe you, too, will have a Dutch girlfriend?
SC: It's an option, but now we're in an encounter to see where things could go.