The city of Tzfat, located west of the Golan Heights, and south of Lebanon, is considered an important spiritual ground for the Jewish nation of Israel; a place of pilgrimage and spiritual knowledge. It’s perhaps not the place you’d expect two young girls, battling prejudice and the uncertainty of adolescence, to visit. Or perhaps, due to its uniqueness, it gives them a great chance, while still on the cusp of adulthood, to figure out their priorities. With a style of filmmaking closer to the subcultures of Larry Clark than contemporary Israeli cinema – more focussed on IDF narratives, dating misadventures and emigrant stories — casting director turned director Sarah Meital Benjamin’s debut drama short Arava is a fresh road trip that shows careful consideration for its characters and a meticulous cinematic style — all low-angles, constantly roving camera and subjective viewpoints. Ahead of today’s premiere we talked to Benjamin about portraying a different side to modern Israel, being inspired by her own tumultuous adolescence and keeping the feeling relevant to the modern day by working hand-in-hand with the young cast.
You say that this is based on a personal story. I would love for you to expand on that.
Yes! So far, I’ve only written things that are based on my personal story. I spent my teens in the squat community of Jerusalem and hitchhiked across the country through the early 2000s. The friends, adventures, losses and hopes from that time still live through my writing. It has been mostly a self-portrait of me and my friends – of me trying to grasp the magnitude of joy and heal the hurt from our adolescence spent in this universe that is both magical and unsafe.
If you are telling the story of youth nowadays, your cast members know what’s up way better than you.
I guess now you are in your 30s, you are somewhat removed from that tumult of youth. What’s it like to revisit it? Did you need to do some research to keep it contemporary?
I think about this a lot. When I started taking photos and working in casting, which were my first steps before directing narrative, I was still pretty close in age and condition to the subjects I was capturing. The years, material stability and professionalism obtained through my large body of casting work, and, of course, the years passing and the world changing as well, have taken me further and further away from my teenage self. Who I was on the outside and what I felt on the inside, of course also infused by the trauma of experiencing teen homelessness and other things, had developed a dissonance that I had to learn to recognise. With those changes, I’ve asked myself many questions about the morals of approaching a community you no longer belong to. I still struggle with those questions today – and make sure to constantly be in awareness and full transparency with the people involved in my projects.
As far as research and keeping up with the contemporary, I believe those elements should come from the cast. If you are telling the story of youth nowadays, your cast members know what’s up way better than you. I trust them to bring their own nuances into the project.
You wrote in the submission that you often don’t see all the nuances of life in Israel. What do you hope Arava shows that perhaps other films don’t?
I think, unfortunately, many Israeli directors have learned the rewarding system of feeding the stereotypical content of the international community instead of breaking stigmas and being critical of polarisation. Often films coming from our community touch upon the oppression of the Orthodox community, military or hook-up culture in Tel Aviv. Those stories are not interesting to me nor represent the majority of Israeli society. Arava deals with the ‘neighbourhood people’ and at-risk youth, and generally highlights communities that make up under-represented textures of Israeli society.
Many Israeli directors have learned the rewarding system of feeding the stereotypical content of the international community.
The film is about a kind of pilgrimage to the mystical city of Tzfat, close to the Golan Heights, Jordan, and Lebanon. Can you tell me a little bit about the city and what it represents for Jewish/Israeli people?
Tzfat is also often called “the City of Kabbalah,” as many Rabbis, Kabbalistic scholars and mystic leaders from various Jewish dynasties have written their bodies of texts there. It is considered a highly spiritual ground that embodies strong mystical powers throughout.
I’d love to hear more about the cinematography, which often uses unusual low angles or keeps moving in interesting ways to create liveliness in action. How did you think about the way you approached certain shots and what type of equipment did you use?
Our DOP Keren Bergman, also a brilliant director and a lifelong friend of mine, came up with it all. When we created the shot list, we kept reminding ourselves to film how things feel and not how they actually are. Keren is one of the most sensitive people that I know and I believe her heart allows her to see the world through a prism of various emotional landscapes and she can really feel for people. On set, she was moving naturally with the actors, with very little blocking – she felt them and they felt her. It was beautiful to watch.
We kept reminding ourselves to film how things feel and not how they actually are.
There’s a certain generosity in the way you approach the variety of characters on show here, as well as the use of road movie tropes. How did you want to be inclusive in your depiction here and how did you approach the supporting characters?
Thank you for saying that. It was very important for me to give representation to various communities inside of Israel including diverse ethnic and gender groups. Also, I really tried to capture (as much as I could in a 27-minute film) the complex belonging to different Jewish dynasties and faith groups as well as individuals on their path out-of or closer-to orthodoxy. Those are some nuances I was afraid only Israelis would understand but from my experience so far sharing the film with the international community, it seems as if we managed to communicate this aspect which makes me very happy.
There’s a certain spontaneity and lived-in approach to dialogue and character construction. I’m curious as to how much input the actors had in their characters and whether you did any workshopping on the script.
It was mostly improvised! The girls were so great and natural and just did their thing! We didn’t do a workshop on the script but I did work with an amazing story developer named Amir Nehoshet Schreiber who helped me build the skeleton of the story – character intentions, needs, hopes and fears, and how their journey infuses every decision in every scene. It was incredible to collaborate with all of them.
It was very important for me to give representation to various communities inside of Israel including diverse ethnic and gender groups.
To me, there’s a fascinating dichotomy between social norms – whether teenage mores, religious ideals or societal rules – and the yearning for individuality. What was it like to approach that?
Those very dichotomies live inside of me and are a profound part of my everyday life ever since I can remember. It was a self-portrait for sure.
You have previously worked in street casting. Was there a similar process in casting for your film here?
Absolutely! We worked with a lot of non-actors or individuals with some proximity to the characters in real life. It’s my absolute favourite way to work and I plan to continue this approach into my next feature as well.
And what can you tell us about that feature project?
I’m working on a feature that is not too far out in terms of tone and universe from Arava. Swell Ariel Or (Tzippi) is in it as well. The feature explores bisexuality and poverty in punk-scene Jerusalem amidst the backdrop of protagonist Shir Cohen’s ill and influential mother Gila.