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I’m happy to make films about many, many people: Israeli filmmaker Yair Qedar

CultureI’m happy to make films about many, many people: Israeli filmmaker Yair Qedar

Qedar talks about his intricate filmmaking process, his film on the famous Israeli poet Yona Wallach.

Celebrated Israeli documentary filmmaker Yair Qedar is famous for chronicling the lives of Jewish and Israeli figures of the Modern Hebrew literary canon. His feature-length documentaries have premiered at the world’s most prestigious film festivals and have earned him several accolades and honours.
Qedar started as a journalist in the early 90s, but after studying 20th-century Hebrew literature at Tel Aviv University, he launched a project in which he makes biographical documentaries about writers and poets who are part of the Hebrew literary canon.
In this interview, Qedar talks about his intricate filmmaking process, his film on the famous Israeli poet Yona Wallach, which was screened in India earlier in the year, his upcoming film on Freud, and the importance of representation and inclusion as a gay filmmaker working in Israel.

Excerpts
Q. How do you choose your subjects for making films? How long does it usually take to fully realise a project, starting from the conception stage to the post-production stage?
A.
I started the first films out of a sense of urgency—as a young man, I met some older intellectuals, and the very conversation with them created an experience of a cultural treasure, of experimenting with a culture that is disappearing from the world. And I chose the first films as a way to document not only the characters I made the films about but also the interviewees I knew—as a way to document conversations with older and wiser people. And around literature, there are usually older and wiser people. At the same time, I chose to document the prominent figures in Hebrew literature, which is modern and fascinating. I chose not those who are considered central, but those who I thought were important to put in the centre. On the one hand, the national poet, the Ukrainian Jew Bialik, who wrote the important national poetry, and on the other hand, Leah Goldberg, the most important poetess, who wrote about emotions and inner worlds, or Yona Wallach, the radical poet, who went to the edge of human experience, then the list grew because of the characters I was able to get a budget for to make a movie about. And in what way do I think I determine not only who the characters will be but also my success in raising a budget? I am happy to make films about many, many people.
Q. When you are trying to capture the lives and works of these literary personalities, how conscious are you of making the end product more cinematic rather than literary in its treatment and appeal?
A.
The art of writing and the art of cinematography are two opposite arts—the first extends over space and letters or signals, and the second is based on light and time. The time and form of cinema contrast with the time and form of writing—literature and poetry. When I make a film, I don’t choose one of the arts, but I explore what can be created at the meeting point between the two. How can poetry be turned into the art of time and light, and cinema into space and letters? And I developed all kinds of ways to do it—breaking the song down into small units, using animation and music, narration, and texts on the screen. There are also internal rules; for example, you can put a word on the screen provided that the editor places it within an average reading rate of two words per second.
Q. Out of the various personalities that you have documented, which ones have had the most profound influence on you personally?
A.
All kinds of characters have influenced me in different ways. The first, Leah Goldberg, was a fascinating figure in the sense that she reached the height of recognition and success as a poet in the middle of the 20th century but suffered from a lack of self-confidence and feelings of worthlessness and depression. And it was a lesson in the limited power of art to heal life within the limits of the ego and a lesson in humility and modesty. Then, when I moved on to other characters, I could see how creativity was a powerful, obsessive, and uncontrollable force that should be surrendered to rather than fought, and it was a lesson in balance and perspective. But mostly, I learned how we have the possibility to get intimately close to people whose backgrounds and worlds are very different from ours. One of the most difficult was the film about Zelda, a Jerusalem religious poet who lived alone in Jerusalem for many years and did almost nothing. It was difficult to find a cinematic solution to tell her life. For most of her last years, she sat on a chair by a table overlooking a garden and a flower pot and did nothing. Then I saw a film about Andy Warhol, who at a young age was very ill and lay in bed for months without moving, and in front of him was a can of soup, which he stared at for months. Then one of his first big works was a pop art adaptation of this soup box, and it led him to recognise the power of long, meditative, deep observation, and I took that into a film that I turned into a film of observation and relative silence.
Q. Your film on the famous Israeli poet Yona Wallach was screened in India at the India Habitat Centre earlier in the year. How did it materialise? Also, tell us about your experience showcasing your work in India.
A:
I was very happy to screen two of my films in New Delhi recently. I came as a guest of the Israeli Embassy and especially of the cultural attaché, Reuma Mantzur, who saw importance in bringing examples of my work to the Indian audience. The screening was wonderful in my opinion, especially the opportunity to see how Israeli poetry succeeds in speaking to another culture and how Indian viewers, who I found to be particularly intelligent and charming viewers, held an interesting dialogue with me that taught me about what is universal and what is particular, what is human, and how a specific culture can talk to people in a place far away from her.
Q. Tell us about your upcoming film on Freud. When can we expect it to be out?
A:
My film about Freud, which I hope will be ready towards the end of 2024, is the biggest film I have made and is in partnership with three TV stations operating in ten countries. I found an original and interesting biographical angle to tell the story of the Viennese Jew, who is not only one of the most famous people in the world but who is probably the man who has been written about the most. At the same time, I found an interesting artistic angle that combines 3D gaming animation with 2D classical animation, and all of this creates a very interesting portrait of Freud. The process of making the film was and still is a fascinating Freudian process that has many objections, setbacks, progress, and complex and enriching processes. I am in the middle of it and hope that it will reach its climax in a film that will be interesting, exciting, and waiting to be watched.
Q. As a gay filmmaker working in Israel, how do you look at the importance of representation, inclusion, and diversification?
A:
At the same time as creating the literary and intellectual biographies, I also created queer films, which express my commitment to my gay identity and the struggle of the gay community in Israel for equality. I think that the attitude towards gays, lesbians, and transsexuals in every society is the litmus test of that society’s attitude towards freedom, tolerance, and acceptance of difference. In the twentieth century, attitudes towards Jews reflected this. And it is no coincidence that in any society where there is a problematic attitude towards the gay minority, it reflects a problem in this society that is related to basic human freedoms. So this is part of my loyalty—to this community, as well as to the Jewish community, the Israeli community, and the community of film people, the communities to which I belong—I owe them a duty of loyalty, and I always think about what it means to represent them, to be sensitive, and to be empathetic. It is part of the duties of my personality at this time, in this existence, and in this life. That’s why I, along with my fellow filmmakers, have been demonstrating for our freedom and democracy. Art and freedom are inseparable, and our human and civil rights are part of them. That’s why I am proud to protest with the pride flag in Tel Aviv. We will not give up on our right to express ourselves and film.

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