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Yotam Ben-David

Yotam Ben David
A field at night. A man lying dead. Young boys staring at the corpse with eyes wide open, their torch glowing in the dusk. Night-time, a torch, a child’s eyes: such are Yotam Ben-David’s tools in his quest for the truth. In turns, a boy knocks on doors in the village and asks the women who open if they know that man. There are as many answers as there are women, as many narrative registers, as many alternative, successive or complementary truths. A mosaic of fates lying in wait for the villager: a historical anthropology of a village in black and flame.
(Nathan Letoré)

Interview with Yotam Ben David

Your film is built around a dead man and an investigation about him
led by a child. Why was it important to have the figure of a child lead
the investigation?
The whole film came out of very strange and random circumstances. When I was at FIDMarseille in 2018 my film “Thunder from the Sea” won the META foundation prize which was a 10 day residency to shoot a film in the small village of Slon in Romania. So far, all my films took place in the region I grew up in, in Hebrew and with my friends and family members as actors. As I’ve never even been to Romania and I’ve known it only through films, it was a whole new adventure for me. Given 10 days, we wouldn’t have time to get to know the region and the people, so I tried to do as much homework as I could from afar. So in a way it was almost obvious that the film would take the shape of an investigation of sorts.
As I had a few months in advance to prepare for this new territory, I started to develop a script with the little knowledge that I did have. But as I arrived there, I was told that the location I wanted to shoot in, the one I build the whole script on, does not authorize us to shoot there. So after several attempts to replace it or to rewrite it, I realized that I had to discard the script I’d prepared entirely, and to write something new – knowing that I’d have to shoot it a couple of days later.
During the attempts to still shoot the old script, passing from one yard of a house to another and speaking to old ladies, I came across Daniel – the lead actor of the film, with his grandmother. His expression and wise eyes fascinated me, and I knew immediately that I want him to play in the film.

Night and torchlight are fundamental to your film. Why did you choose
such a pattern of shooting by night, with fire as your main source of
Themes of light and darkness are dominant in some of my other films as well. I guess I am interested in this interplay between the hidden and the revealed. Specifically here – I wanted to make a film that talks about the process of interpretation, of making sense out of almost random elements. To me the whole film is about the act of telling stories, of how we find meaning when we add things up to one another, of the connections we make between two things laying next to one another.
I was interested in the effect this play of lights and shadows has on the viewer as part of this process of discovery. I liked the idea of lights passing in the village and how we try to guess what we see with every second passing. How the image changes each time revealing other details that make us understand we were maybe wrong a moment before. So we are always in the course of figuring out what we see, but also we keep doubting our own eyes which I found interesting. This is of course also a metaphor of sorts of my own questioning and my own presence and discovery of this new place I’m foreign to.

While the women answer the child’s questions on the doorstep, the
camera increasingly ventures in the different houses to show us their
interior, lit by torchlight. Why this decision?
One of the most beautiful parts of this short visit was talking to the people of the village, especially old women. We went from house to house looking for actresses and for local stories. While sitting in the small rooms that the grandmas of the village live in, I was interested by the décor of these humble rooms. Usually it had along with a single bed and a stove, a mix of hand made embroidery, Christian iconography as well as more modern and contemporary photographs and electronic devices. It felt to me that this mix is a very accurate representation of this village and the tension it holds between the traditions of the past and the influence of technology. It also touched the other main theme of the film – time. It’s a film about decay, about disappearing cultures and oral history and the continuous battle between tradition and modernity. In those homes you can really see these contradictory elements, in one corner there’s an ancient cross or a crown of thorns, and on the other an electric alarm clock – on a third corner a framed hologram from the 80’s, all these relics from different periods.

You show the child’s journey through close-up shots of places he
walks by, in which he remains out of frame. Why did you want to show the village in such a fragmented manner, with a few animals but no human
When I realised I had to write a new script very quickly, I started looking at all sorts of materials for inspiration, one of which was looking into old Romanian mythology. I knew I wanted to play a bit with the borderline between the real and the mystical and in one of the stories was a creature who would take the shape of a handsome man and would come up to girls at night to seduce them. There were many different variations of this story and different details, but one of the things that caught me was the description of this character as a ball of light or fire that comes through the chimney and then takes the shape of a man, only visible to these young women. So I wanted to continue this idea, to play with the shape and shapelessness of this child, that we will never be sure if he actually exists or if he is some mythical creator roaming the village at night knocking on doors, a boy or a floating ball of fire passing through at the heart of night.
I also wanted to show the village through small details. It is a place where people and nature mix and you have animals all over and fruit trees. It made me think of a dark reversed version of the garden of Eden, maybe after all the men were expelled from it. In general, I think I had a very strong biblical feeling there, maybe because of the presence of Christian symbols all over, maybe the medieval vibe of the houses and the local agriculture that still keeps the old methods, maybe also being a Jew in an area that haven’t seen Jews in ages – I’m not sure, but somehow the bible as an aesthetic set of ideas also played a role there somehow.
The ending breaks with the pattern previously established: why did
you want to end with this location?
The whole film relies on a very initial impression of a place as a very brief visitor. So much of what I worked with had to do with the sensual experience of the place. Most of the men and the young have either left the village to work abroad or they take the bus early in the morning to work in the big city. What’s left during the day are the tough women of the village who run everything and work in agriculture and the children walking around the streets a bit bored. But in the evenings each night there was loud music and parties resonating the valley, each time from a different place – musical instruments, dancing and drinking until the late hours of the night. This contrast between the decay and the livelihood was very strong and I wanted to bring these two extremes into the film. A film that starts with a very strong image of death and decay, but that ends with circular dance of life.
The whole film plays with circular and repetitive structures. Instead of as a short story, I thought about it more like a folk song – with repeating verses. I was thinking about these types of folk songs in which there is repetition that creates accumulation and that often at the end suggests the beginning again. The man at the bar suggests that maybe we are witnessing the beginning or that he came back to life. And then this dance – that we came across almost by mistake – is such a strong incarnation of this too, are we watching the events of time unfolding as linear as a line or rather a circle, a dance that repeats and repeats.

Interview by Nathan Letoré

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Technical sheet

France, Romania / 2020 / 15’

Original Version : Romanian.
Subtitles : English, French.
Script : Yotam Ben-David.
Photography : Ana Draghici.
Editing : Yotam Ben-David.
Sound : Flora Pop.
Casting : Adrian Dragoi, Daniel Manta, Vladut Manta, Ionut Manta.
Production : Jérôme Blesson (La Belle Affaire Productions), Eva Pervolovici (META Cultural Foundation).
Distribution : Jérôme Blesson.
Filmography : Thunder from the sea, 2018. Long Distance, 2015. Remains, 2013.