In times of crisis, it can be easy to stand still and do nothing. This has been the choice of many Russians in light of the invasion of Ukraine, avoiding uncomfortable conversations and wanting it to simply blow over. Nonetheless, if anything is going to change at home, resistance to the regime might be crucial. With Everybody Knows, Russian Director Daria Geller – last seen on DN with fractious relationship short Him & Her – counts the tragic cost of complacency, reducing everyone to a victim eventually. Shooting in a disused, brutalist-looking care home in Tel Aviv, her group scenes thrum with tension, warm 16mm images showing the mixture of emotions playing off idle, unspeaking rubberneckers. Featuring a new cover of Leonard Cohen’s classic song, it shows how the horrors are known by everyone, and how it can easily get worse if people refuse to speak up and make a difference, despite any personal pressure they might be under. We talked to Geller about shooting on film, being part of an expat community in Israel and tackling the vocals herself.
Pardon the pun, but everyone knows Leonard Cohen and this song. What attracted you to using the classic track and how do you think it fits the current situation in Russia and Ukraine?
This past year, since the outbreak of the war, it has felt like every song and every work of art is about Russia, like that feeling you have after a breakup when you’re sure that every song is about you. At first, I looked for an artist who would take this concept for a song on their own, but with no success. Then I heard Leonard Cohen on the radio and I knew immediately that this is it. It’s right there: “Everybody knows the boat is leaking, everybody knows the captain lied.”
Were you involved in the re-arrangement of the music? What kind of tone were you going for in the way you approached the cover? It’s quite different from the synth-heavy version from Leonard Cohen!
The cover is composed by my friend Roi Keidar – an amazing musician. He also created the score for my short film Him & Her so I knew from the start that it had to be him and no one else. My direction to him was to create a version that would be more poetic but at the same time not too emotional. To show the desperation. And with this, Roi went into the creative search on his own. Once he found the sound, we worked together on additional effects.
I heard Leonard Cohen on the radio and I knew immediately that this is it.
The violin is played by a talented Russian violinist, Alina Maslennikova. It was quite a journey for her as she couldn’t touch her instrument since the beginning of the war. She and Roi met for the first time at the recording studio. Like in good movies it came out take after take in the last minutes of the one single hour we were given. I’m so happy it worked out; I really wanted it to be her.
The last challenge was my vocals. I like to sing, but am only able to do it alone or in front of very few people. With help from Roi on a video call and my neighbour Ben, who just pressed a record in his home studio and left me alone in the room, I was able to do it. This original song is timeless, of course, but I’m happy we could give it a different feeling and the journey of creating it makes it very special to me. I hope it will speak to others as well.
It’s also interesting that you skipped the first verse. I guess the mention of the war being over wouldn’t have made sense! But talking of the current situation, what do you think the responsibility of Russian filmmakers is at this moment?
Yes, this is exactly why we skipped the first verse. It also said: “The good guys lost.” We can’t allow this, can we?
I believe that the responsibility of any artist, let alone Russian artists, is to search for the truth. This means welcoming uncomfortable dialogues, with others and with yourself. There is a deep-felt belief among Russians that “Nothing is clear” and this allows people who have the privilege of tuning everything out to say, “We have to get on with our lives” or even: “The news makes me sick, so I tune it out.” (These are all, by the way, things Russian people have said to me this last year). But I think if we have enough privilege to know better, there should be a red line at which we cannot afford to ignore what is happening in our name. I know that one person alone can’t change anything but I believe if stories of this war will be heard from every corner, it’ll make people think and talk. And this is what is missing today: people who think and talk. It’s as simple as that.
There should be a red line at which we cannot afford to ignore what is happening in our name.
I found this location fascinating, with brutalist architecture that also has a certain Romanesque element. What was it like finding the location? Did you have to adjust anything in post?
The location is an old funeral home in Tel Aviv that’s overlooking the Mediterranean! The story goes that it was too far from the nearest cemetery, so it was neglected very quickly. None of what we see in the location is done in CG; this is just how the place looks. I had it in mind straight away in fact, as the hole in the ceiling is what made me think of the concept in the first place!
The grain of the picture gives off a warm look, allowing us to really see into the characters’ faces — something rather important as they don’t speak. Was it shot on film? What kind of camera setup did you use to pick up these tones?
It’s shot on 16mm film. Arriflex SR3 with ELITE Super16 OPTAR Primes Set. Everyone thought it was a crazy idea since the project is independent and there is no film development lab in Israel but I knew that it had to be done on film. The film was graded by a beautiful Belarusian colourist, Andrey Garny, who was very involved and helped me to find the final look.
None of what we see in the location is done in CG; this is just how the place looks.
What was it like finding the right cast and also making the man stripped down in the middle feel comfortable with having all these people staring at him?
The moment I thought of this idea I thought of this actor. It is a bit of special luck that I have – he happened to be in Israel and available and loved the idea. He was the sweetest, bravest and most polite actor and was very professional. Many people stared at him – if only because he is gorgeous and was lying naked the entire day – but it never felt awkward. The crew took really good care of him. It felt like a community of artists who came together to create rather than stare.
To me, it’s all about the small gestures in the way people are looking and reacting. There are a lot of mixed emotions there. Did you have very specific directions as to how they should act?
I wanted to show the mixed emotions of a nation that has been manipulated for years: the confusion, the giving in, estrangement and ignorance, but also interest and curiosity. Most of the actors here are non-actors taken from a growing community of Russian-speaking filmmakers who have immigrated to Israel since the outbreak of the war. To see them commit like this and show up at four in the morning for this crazy idea was nerve-racking. The early morning call and tiredness already helped their mood.
The main actress in the crowd is my brilliant friend Anna Pereleshina, an actress from Moscow, who was also the casting director of this project. Her character has a more complicated journey as she is perhaps the only one who finds the situation problematic but still fights against her feelings in order to stay in line. Throughout the video, she experiences a devastating revelation about herself and what the system does to her.
I believe when you talk about serious subjects through a popular medium – it gets your message further.
You have to tell me about how you did the hand effect at the end. Walk me through the process!
The shot is done by composing the actor’s hand, shot on a green screen on location, with the background of the location. The truly hard part was the light change. We had four people holding a rope attached to the four sides of a giant black cloth to cover the seven-meter hole in the ceiling. Boris Lutsiuk, a Russian VFX artist based in LA, supervised from afar. We still made some mistakes I think, but the main thing is that the story works!
So you’ve created a community for filmmakers in Israel? As far as I understand there are a lot of Russians and Ukrainians living in Israel, both from after the Soviet Union ended and now today. What is the atmosphere like there for filmmaking?
I wouldn’t say I created the community. It created itself really. But in the last year me and my life partner, Yuval Orr, made several events for filmmakers and artists that immigrated because of the war. We wanted them to meet each other and introduce themselves to local filmmakers who could help them to break into the industry. There are a lot of newcomers, mostly Russians but also some Ukrainians and Belarusians. The country is small and although Israelis are actually very welcoming it’s not easy. It’s the Middle East – a completely different culture, language, problems. It’ll take time for them to integrate but these are a lot of very professional and talented artists we’re talking about, which I think is amazing for Israel in the long run.
What are you working on next?
I would love to create more videos like this, maybe for Russian musicians. I believe when you talk about serious subjects through a popular medium – it gets your message further. Besides that, I am building an art residency in Italy with Yuval through our production company, No Man’s Land, and writing a feature film that expands on the themes of this piece with my Co-Writer Katrin Tublin. In some ways, it feels like maybe now is not the time for this kind of content, but I was raised in Russia and have an urge to reflect, to learn how we got here and why.