Set in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem, Tikkun gives a unique glimpse into a highly reclusive world where tradition and religion dominate private lives. With its haunting imagery and thought provoking subject matter, Tikkun left me a lasting impression long after I left the theater. I had a chance to talk briefly with its fiercely cerebral director Avishai Sivan when he was in town for the New Directors/New Films series in March.
There seems to be a theme going on here, with your first feature WANDERER and TIKKUN, both featuring the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem. Is this because of your background? What’s your fascination with the community?
It’s not my background. But I am interested in those communities, I think, in an almost romantic and stupid way, because they have this strict way of living. They dedicate their whole lives to a simple way of belief. I think you can find this belief not only in Judaism but it can be found everywhere - seeking and exploring. As a filmmaker and an artist, I try to reach that sublime of next masterpiece in films or fine art. Sometimes I have this inner battle, like the theme of this film Tikkun - the battle between mind and body…
What does TIKKUN mean in Hebrew?
It means to rectify, to fix something that went wrong but in Judaism, it has a deeper meaning: when a person dies and something went wrong in his life, his soul needs to go back to his life to fix it. Tikkun is the act of doing so, crossing over to the other life as a true believer of Jewish faith.
It’s interesting. I live in the part of Brooklyn which is a predominantly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Even though we are living right next to each other, I feel they are living in a very different world. What was the reaction of the community when it came out in Israel?
Had several screenings in Jerusalem Film Festival last year. It won almost all the awards there (Best Film, Best Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay) and also small festival in Tel Aviv called Utopia, but that’s about it. It will be out in September in Israel. Those film festivals attendees are film geeks, so I don’t think they (the Ultra Orthodox Community) had a chance to see the film yet. I am assuming they will see it in the future when its widely distributed. And am also assuming their reaction will be not good. (Laughs.) But I’m not doing films to please anybody.
How did you find Aharon Traitel, who portrays Haim-Aaron?
He’s not an actor.
Right. How did you get to cast him?
It took almost two years to find him for that role. It’s not like you can call an agent or find someone who wants to act. Usually the people who come out of religion are very vulnerable and don’t really want to expose themselves. They are also wracked with guilt - usually they left their family and the family is understandably angry with them.
I advertised Haim-Aaron’s role in this on-line community of people who left the religion. I think he was the only one who answered the ad and luckily he was the only one that fit the role.
The film is shot beautifully. I understand your background is in painting and video art. What made you to decide to shoot film on black and white? THE WANDERER was in color.
When I was writing it, I knew instantly that it would be in black and white. From that point on, I tried to reach the vision in black and white. The story is about life and death - the big battle/contrast. I tried to investigate that grey area in-between. Color wouldn’t have worked in that sense. B&W matched perfectly with the big theme of the film.
Haim-Aaron’s journey - his faith is shaken after the near-death experience. It struck me as the story of Golem - the undead. Does he think he is a dead person? Is that why he has a freedom to explore the outside world? Or is he looking for regaining his faith?
I don’t think he is looking for regaining his faith again. I think he wants to deepen his faith after he was re-born. All of sudden he can see much better than before. His physical experience is getting much more vivid. And he is feeling like God is testing him. He is a bit confused and trying to find his way. He is still sticking with his community. He is not shedding his clothes or anything. He is trying to find his true path within himself- how he is supposed to act as a believer, even in these radical, extreme places that I put him in as a screenwriter.
One of the most interesting aspects of both your films is the father-son relationship: how they see things differently. It was his father who revives him but also feels guilty that he did something against God’s will. Is this relationship an important theme for you?
Yes. It’s a not so sophisticated, not subtle way of seeing my relationship with my father. Because my father is a very enigmatic character. He speaks very little but he is...a very good person. He can break your heart with how good he can be. He is that kind of person. At the same time he is not very communicative. So his goodness can be seen as problematic.
You mean for you.
Yeah. This element is strongly reflected in Tikkun: he is trying to give his son love but in doing so, he is causing more and more problems. At the end, the accident happens by one of the cows he releases. He is inadvertently causing all the negative things that happens in the film.
That’s very interesting.
Your art and the elements of your films are sexual in nature. Can you tell me a little about that?
It’s human nature. What more can I say? It doesn’t matter what kind of background or environment you are living in, it’s still all there. I just reflect what’s already there.
I also saw some of your drawings of Jean-Luc Godard pleasuring himself on your website. I don’t know what to make of them since I am a big Godard fan.
I have more drawings of Godard. I’d love to compile them as a book and present to him!