By David D'Arcy
Jellyfish was written by Shira Geffen, Etgar Keret's wife, and the two co-directed their first feature, which won last year's Camera d'Or at Cannes, yet the film feels like an interweaving of the short stories that have made Keret something of a literary star. Pretty and lonely Batia drifts from one lowly job to another, the latest as a wedding waitress, stumbling in and out of a pivotal event in some family's life, and when she's fired, she finds a young child, wearing a life-saver tube, who has been abandoned by her parents at the beach, all of which doesn't perturb the police too much. Other colliding stories involve the wedding couple, forced to spend their honeymoon in a faceless concrete hulk in Tel Aviv, because the bride breaks her ankle climbing out of a toilet stall in which she's trapped during the reception. Her new husband seizes the opportunity to get acquainted with a woman who lives upstairs in the hotel. Another narrative tendril involves a Filipino home attendant calling her son back home on a pay phone as she cares for an old Israeli woman whose distant daughter is an actress. There is a lot of silence, a surprising amount, given the brevity of the sequences and the terseness of the writing, and a lot of quiet pain - not too much magic and wonder in these scenes.
Keret's world takes the observer of Israel away from the political and into the ordinary - no soldiers, no army, no Arabs, no weapons - just people pushed back and forth, as the title implies, by the tides that go in and out of their lives.
For Keret's most recent meditations in this vein, his collection The Girl on the Fridge is just out. I talked to Keret about making his first film and about "overrated reality."
Was the division of labor in this film that your wife, Shira Geffen, wrote the script, and the two of you directed it?
Was the text adapted from something else?
My wife wrote the short story that was all about the experience of the little girl being left by her parents on the beach, wearing a lifesaver. From that, she started writing the screenplay. And basically, when the screenplay was done, we looked for a director to do it. We showed it to a few directors, but none of them was interested. They didn't like the screenplay. They felt that it was unclear, that the plot wasn't strong enough. So at the point then my wife was getting ready to have a film done of it, I said, "Why don't we just make it ourselves?" We know how we want it to look, so if nobody else will make a film of it, we could just do it ourselves.
Yeah, but then you need 400,000 Euros to do that.
I'm well-known for my fiction in France, and most of the funding was French. They liked the screenplay, and they liked my work, so they were adventurous enough to gamble on this film.
How unusual is that for an Israeli film?
This is far from being a typical Israeli film. Most Israeli films are hyper-realistic. They usually take place in a certain moment in Israeli history, and they usually deal with big social topics. It could be the conflict, it could be the kibbutz, it could be the Holocaust, but you don't have any surrealistic films, and there are very few fable-like films or films dealing with personal topics. Beaufort, for me, is a typical Israeli film. It takes place on a certain day, in a certain place, it suggests something about a political situation or a social situation. This is usually how we make films in Israel, so when we made our film, it was completely outside this tradition of filmmaking.
When we were making it, among the people in the Israeli industry, it was called the "French" film, because, to them, it didn't have the sensibility of an Israeli film. When we finished the film, even after we got accepted into Cannes, no Israeli distributor wanted to distribute the film. They just said, "Wait until after Cannes." It was just another way of saying, "Don't call us, we'll call you."
You did get some help from the Israel Film Fund.
Shira and me, we already had a reputation - she as a playwright and theater director and me as a fiction writer - so they gave us credit for that, even if they couldn't be sure of exactly what we were going to do. The Israel Film Fund, and personal investors, they allowed themselves to gamble more.
Was Jellyfish the title in Hebrew?
In Hebrew it's called Medusa, which also brings in an exotic context. A jellyfish is an animal that can't control its movements, and is being taken by the current. So that has to do with the situation of our characters, who are all kind of jellyfish who at a certain point in the movie try to become fish, and try to go upstream. Some of them don't, but there's a feeling of totally floating around, and being swept somewhere that you didn't plan to go. Shira wrote the original short story about the little girl who was left at the sea in a lifesaver. We thought this was something that all of the characters had in common. The lifesaver is what keeps her afloat in life - without it, she'll drown.
How did you find the little girl who played that role?
We tried looking for six-year-olds who looked younger. We couldn't find any. The girl we found, who finally did it, was four years old. There was something about her. When we were auditioning, most of the girls who came were little girls who wanted to be stars. This girl wasn't all that interested in being in the movie, but she wanted to please her father, because her father liked the film. This also gave her the opportunity to be cool, because we wanted to project that emotion. We didn't want her to smile or try to be cute. Now the little girls who go through these auditions, that's usually what they try to do, even if you tell them not to do it. So she was special, and shooting the film was like doing her homework. It as something that she did to make her dad happy.
The image had a striking clarity. Did you shoot on an HD format?
Our DP was Antoine Heberle. He shot Paradise Now and Under the Sand, the François Ozon film. He told us that he really loved working with first-time directors, because it's dealing with an original interpretation, bringing an image in our mind to life. It was something that was completely not technical, just because we did not know how to do it.
Many times we would show our DP a painting for which we tried to show what we were thinking about. The best example, I think, would be the stall shot of the bride [in which a bride at her wedding, trapped in a toilet, climbs over the door and falls, breaking her leg, forcing her to spend her honeymoon in a cheap hotel in Tel Aviv instead of abroad]. When she's trying to escape, and not to drown in the toilet, we showed him a Magritte painting of a huge rose in a very small room. We wanted to have the feeling that the dress is too big, that you can suffocate in this wedding thing. We tried to be creative and explain what we were aiming at, and it was a very pleasant experience for both of us. We, of course, learned a lot from him. We talked a lot from the artistic, poetic emotional point of view, and he offered that interpretation to the image.
Framing was something that was very natural for him; because I have written for graphic novels, and many times when I write for graphic novels, I actually try to suggest some sort of a frame. This was something that was good for us. The framing was very natural for me, but dealing with the light was something that my wife and I were confronting for the first time.
The script was minimal, to use an understatement. For writers, there is very little writing in this film.
I'm a minimalist writer. I write short fiction. Most of my stories are three or four pages long, and my wife began writing poetry. Most poems are short, they're not novels. We don't like people talking too much. We don't like people talking more than needed. There was this thing about the screenplay, which was much longer than the finished film. Our rough cut was 40 minutes longer than the feature. But basically, we saw that we didn't really need many things that existed in the dialogue, because you saw them in the image already, so we just cut them out.
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