White Eye grabs you from its first frame and simply doesn’t let go. Telling the story of a man who spots his stolen bike on a Tel Aviv street, its twists and turns are elegantly captured in a fantastic one-take that examines the dark underbelly of the small country’s society, commenting on entitlement, the plight of migrants and its multiple layers of privilege. Currently shortlisted for best live action short at the Academy Awards, we spoke to director Tomer Shushan to discuss the inspiration of Bicycle Thieves and Béla Tarr, the true story behind the film, the difficulty of capturing it in one shot, and using the short story form to investigate the role of migrants within Israeli society.
Your film has similarities with the neo-realist classic Bicycle Thieves, both in content — a man loses his bike — and its complex view of morality, especially with the ending. Was this an inspiration at all?
I made this film from personal experience. This story happened to me: while it happened, I could sense that I was doing something wrong. I wanted to show in this film how the person will do everything to get his bike back, even though it’s going to ruin someone else’s life. I also really wanted to put in compassion for the hero of the film. Bicycle Thieves is a film that I really liked at film school. When I knew I was going to make this film, I knew I should watch it again and again. I got lots of inspiration from this film.
When you do it in one shot you have already edited the film.
How did the original situation end?
In the real story I managed the police and convinced them that I would solve it with him. He got so scared and didn’t understand that everything was OK. I paid him the money and took the bike but he couldn’t stop crying on the street. Then when I rode my bike I started to cry like crazy. I felt that I didn’t want the bike anymore. That feeling made me choose to cut the bike in half.
What is the situation in general in Israel towards African migrants?
African refugees in Israel are pushed to the side of society. They work in horrible jobs. They earn little money and no one cares about them. Israel is a place with a lot of culture and religions and people from all over, but they are in the bottom part. I think most people hate them and it’s horrible to see from their side. This was always something that I wanted to talk about as a filmmaker.
White Eye has this sense of inevitability due to the way it’s shot. Why did you feel like it needed to be told in this epic one-shot?
This character is working from his instinct. He doesn’t really have time to breathe and stop for a second to understand if his actions may harm someone else. I felt that the audience should also have this effect, so they won’t be able to breathe; they won’t have any cuts to see what happens and will connect more to the main character. I decided that a one-shot is the way to approach the audience and make them feel that they don’t have air like the main character.
Walk me through the set-up.
When I thought, “I’m going to do a one-shot film” I decided it’s all about timing. We understood that we need to build choreography for the crew members, for me and for the cameraman. I actually worked with a timer, because I felt that when you do it in one shot, you have already edited the film. There is no edit after this. I actually broke the script into scenes, and we shot each scene separately before we made the film. We did it in the rehearsals, and then I could put them in the editing program to know what times to have, the rhythm of the film and how it’s supposed to look. That really helped me to go to the main shooting day and to know about all the timing and the cues. So it was very easy for me to edit it as a director in one shot.
African refugees in Israel are pushed to the side of society.
What camera did you use to create this sense of fluidity?
Because it’s one shot and the Steadicam operator carries for twenty minutes each time, we needed something very light with high quality at night so we used an Alexa Mini. The camera is much lighter than all the others with this high quality. After every take though he needed to rest a bit and someone needed to come and massage his shoulders. It was a crazy challenge, he did it all night!
How many takes did you have?
I think eight full ones in total. We only had money to make it in one night. We started shooting at four pm and the sunrise was at five am. We only finished the first one by midnight. It was very stressful because up until midnight we didn’t have anything and I thought maybe it was going to be a big failure. But then it worked and we did another one and another one.
And what was the challenge of finding the right take?
You have eight full ones and you need to see what each one gives you: one gives you a really strong moment in the beginning, but later it has less energy. You need to choose what to sacrifice. It was very important that the scene in the end with the fridge would cut like a knife. I choose this shot even though other takes had more of an intense rhythm. I remember when I directed it and saw this moment, my heart shrank and I knew it was going to be the take. I think that it was the first one that I watched.
I decided that a one-shot is the way to approach the audience and make them feel that they don’t have air like the main character.
Are there any long take masters that you look up to?
My idol is Béla Tarr. I really like his films and take a lot of things from him. I also watched Irréversible by Gaspar Noé, made in five or six one-shots. There is one shot in a party that really helped me to go between spaces, between outside and inside; it’s something I really needed. I really wanted to watch films that are really one-shots, not something with hidden cuts or something like that. Like the film Victoria, which I really liked. I felt that my film is similar with the urban late night setting where these side characters come and go.
Your film won the Jury award at SXSW and has also been shortlisted for an Oscar. How has the reaction been for you?
It’s been great. Since SXSW it took part in more than 80 festivals and won 25 awards. I didn’t expect this tremendous success at all. Even though I didn’t experience a single festival as they went online due to the pandemic, it gave us filmmakers the chance to present our films. When I made it to the shortlist it’s just unbelievable; as a filmmaker I feel very happy because it means that this film has touched lots of hearts and souls.
What are you working on next?
I’m developing White Eye into a feature film. I want to make a film about these characters that meet in some situation like in White Eye that explores the levels of society. I’m also working on a TV series which is a holocaust survivor revenge story.
Wow. What does that entail?
I used to meet a holocaust survivor and help him. Before he passed away he told me about some Nazi woman that used to torture him. All his life he planned about how he was going to have his revenge. After he passed, I thought that he didn’t have the chance to succeed so this TV series will take his character on a journey of revenge, as he couldn’t make it.