In July, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival presented a special programme titled “Close Up on Nurit Kedar” and screened three of her documentaries: “Borders” (2000), which takes a personal look at the political, social, and geographic boundaries and restrictions faced by the people living along the Israeli border; “Lebanon Dream”, the intimate story of a Lebanese businessman who profited from importing goods across the Israeli border during Israel’s 18-year occupation of Lebanon and what happened to him when the Israeli army withdrew; and “Wasted” (2007), an unflinching glimpse into the life of Israeli soldiers who recall their experience at Beaufort Post in southern Lebanon during the Israel’s withdrawal from that country in May 2000. In between the interviews of “Wasted” are brief yet startling scenes choreographed by Ohad Naharin that show male dancers moving in ways that echo the words and emotions expressed by the soldiers.
During the interview, Kedar also discussed her 2004 documentary “One Shot,” which she says was the first time anyone had received permission to film the snipers of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Most of the footage was shot by the snipers who had small cameras attached to their helmet or knee. “People in Israel really yelled at me after the screening of “One Shot” and after the screening of “Wasted,” says Kedar. “It was terrible. They really attacked me, saying ‘What do you want us to do? We have to take care of ourselves. The army is doing what it has to do.”
And Kedar is doing what she feels she must do. “I criticize society,” states Kedar. “I know that I always tell this story that makes you uneasy in your chair. That’s what motivates me. I want you to feel uneasy.”
DOX: Wasted was based on Israeli author Ron Lesham’s novel “If There Is a Heaven” about Israeli soldiers during the occupation of southern Lebanon. How did you end up making this documentary?
NK: I read the novel and I knew that a feature film, “Beaufort”, was being made from the book. The feature film is about being trapped in this mountain and the bombing and the killing. I called the producer of the feature film, David Mandil, who I knew, and told him that if he was going to do any documentary, he would have to call me because I did a film on Lebanon. I told him there was no way he was going to do a documentary without me.
Three weeks later, they called me. I was told that Ron Leshem and Joseph Cedar, the director of “Beaufort”, asked for me because they really loved “Lebanon Dream” and they thought that I was the only one who could make the documentary. They didn’t want to make a behind-the-scenes film. They wanted a pure documentary. When I came to the meeting, they asked me for a script but I didn’t have enough time to write one because I hadn’t done the research yet. I told them I wanted to make something like the television series made by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, “Band of Brothers”. I wanted to make the real story and shoot it in the same location as the feature.
They brought in a researcher who searched all over Israel and found 58 soldiers and out of the 58, I took 28 and brought them to the feature film location, which was on one of the biggest mountains in the north of Israel and looks like Beaufort Post. They had these long underground metal tunnels where they lived. They got the materials from the army because the army still uses them up in the north. When I brought the people there, it was February and it was very cold. They came in, they saw the structure that was built for the film and they were sure that they were back at the post. You could see the view of Lebanon from this mountain. It was like a tunnel of time. I interviewed each one for three or four hours, eleven of the interviews are in the film.
DOX: The novel was based on the true stories of the soldiers?
NK: In the novel, he didn’t use the real names. I brought the real ones. The feature film doesn’t get inside those soldiers; it’s only the documentary that really tells how the soldiers feel. When I put them inside this tunnel, they were sure that they were back there. And that’s how everything would come out. I didn’t know that it would happen like that. I just started with one question: “If I say the name ‘Lebanon’, what are the smells? Give me the smells.”
DOX: How did you feel when you interviewed the snipers for One Shot?
NK: It’s the same feeling that I got in “Wasted”. I got the feeling that they had been waiting for me for years. Because they don’t speak, they don’t say a word, not because they’re not allowed to, but because nobody is interested in this story. Their wife or girlfriend, they don’t say a word. So here I come and now they have this opportunity. Some of them told me, “Thank God you came. We’ve been waiting for you.” They didn’t know me before. I came right at the moment they wanted to talk. One even called me two days before and said, “Please, do me a favour, come over. I want to talk. I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. I just want to talk.” The soldiers in “Wasted” didn’t think they would sit and tell everything. They were really amazed that they could speak to me, a stranger.
DOX: How did Wasted evolve in the cutting room?
NK: First, I edited the piece and then I knew for sure that I’m not going to use archive [footage]. I have a lot of material of Lebanon but I knew I was not going to use it because I had to do something very different. When you edit, you listen to them so many times, and because they seemed to be broken, talking about death, the wounded, I thought that maybe I’m going to show something that would be whole-a whole body.
I had a clip of ten seconds of movement by a well-known choreographer, Ohad Naharin, and I put this ten seconds between the interviews. And the editor and everybody said, “Wow. It does something.” I had never met Ohad but I knew his company [Batsheva Dance Company]. I had the producer set up the meeting. He saw some part of the interview and he said “I’m with you.” But I had to finish the whole film first and then tell him where I wanted to have these people.
DOX: Borders covers a range of different stories about people who have to deal with borders everyday. How did that film happen?
NK: I started to make my own films in 1999. We are so used to borders in Israel. I heard an interview with some lawyer about how borders were made in different parts of the world. So I took my car by myself and I went to see the border. I went to the borders of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan. I was looking and I was amazed because Israel at that time was 52 years old and nobody understood what is going on at the border. I asked my cameraman if he would like to come with me and we started to find the stories. I didn’t have any money. Everyday I came to the border of Lebanon to see what’s going on there. The same I did in Syria, Jordan, Gaza. That’s one part. The other part was “Lebanon Dream”– two years before they pull out from Lebanon, Barak, who wanted to be the prime minister, before the election promised to pull out from Lebanon. I knew this guy [Samir Farhat] from “Borders” and I asked to follow him around until the end. And he said, “Why not?”. He was sure, at that time he was on top of the world, but at the end, he was down.
I have this patience to go a long way. I didn’t know if the pullout would happen. Nobody knew it. One week before the pullout, I took a Lebanese cameraman, he did all the shooting inside Lebanon. Because of the shooting and everything, the army didn’t let any journalists into Lebanon. I was the only one there. I had seven crews all around.
DOX: You deal with subjects that make people uncomfortable. What motivates your editing decisions?
NK: I’m always looking for the hard way. It’s very important to me not to give you, as a viewer, everything on a spoon. I want you to think, to have a dilemma. I’m not giving you any solutions. I’m giving you many aspects in music, in editing, in the frame. I’m not in my films. So when I meet an editor, that person will be very independent. I can’t work with a weak editor. He can be a great editor but I need his reaction, I need him talking to me, I need this discussion. Making films means being alone. It’s very lonely. You have to make your own decisions and by making your own decisions, you have to stand very firm, against your producers, against the broadcaster, against festivals, against whomever. So that’s why I need an editor.
When I screen my films for others I can see what’s wrong. When I screen it for myself, I don’t see it. When I screen it for somebody else, I don’t look at the film, I look at the reaction and that’s how I catch it.
In “Wasted” I was sure of the offline before filming the dancing part. I went to New York and on the way, I thought, it’s not my film, something is wrong in the editing. It’s too linear. I’m not a linear person. I remember I landed in New York and I told the editor, “We’re going to change the film upside down. Everything that was in the end will be in the beginning.” He was shocked and called the producer. Five days later, I was back in Israel. I came to the edit room and, after four or five hours, after we started to move everything, I said I love it. Then we called the producer and the produced watched and said, “It’s a great film.”