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Siblings for Change: Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz on “Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem”

Interview: Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz on “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem”

Shot entirely in the limited space of a courtroom and using uniquely subjective visual aesthetic, “Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalemis Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz’ third feature film as a directing team. While most audiences might not be
aware, this film is the third installment in a trilogy about Viviane’s struggles as a woman in Israel – the other two films are “ To Take a Wife” and “7 Days.” Unable to decide over her own life, Viviane is at the mercy of her husband’s willingness to
grant her a divorce. Her freedom is at the center of a trial in which she has no voice. Sharing directorial duties with her brother Shlomi, Ronit Elkabetz
also stars in the film as Viviane, a character they developed based on their mother’s life.

Gett” is an extremely important film for Israel.  While it was made as a work of art – and it has succeeded very well — Katriel Schory of the Israel Film Fund is emphatic about the film’s other purpose which is to make people aware of the extreme inequality of the divorce law in Israel.  The process by which women must get divorced favors the man in an untenable way.  To see the film is to become incensed by the humiliation a woman must endure as three orthodox rabbis decide her fate.  The cruelty of the law shows that Israel must change the law to allow women equal rights…the closed door deliberations of three rabbis must be made public and there must be a way to appeal decisions which favor the man.

Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” has received widespread success after screening at Cannes earlier this year and it’s
now Israel’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. The film has also just been nominated for a Golden Globe Award as Best
Foreign Language Film.

Music Box Films will released the film theatrically on February 13th, 2015.

Carlos Aguilar met with the Elkabetz siblings recently in Los Angeles. Here is what they had to say about their latest outing as creative team.


Aguilar: Tell me about your experience developing this story together. What sparked the creative process for each of you and how did they come together
as a singular voice on the screen?

Shlomi:
The film is part of a trilogy that follows Vivian and Elisha in different stages of their life. We shot the first one about 10 years ago and the second
installment about 5 years ago. The first two were in Cannes and Venice, but this one is the first one to come to the U.S. We started working on this
trilogy 10 years ago, and it was conceived as a trilogy from the beginning. We knew we wanted to make three films, but we didn’t have the three scripts, we
just had an idea about what we wanted to say and how we are going to say it. Then, many things happened, not only did we change as filmmakers throughout
the making of the trilogy, but also, interestingly enough, the way the audience relates the trilogy also changed. The more each film becomes part of
Israeli society and part of the international cinematic arena, the more we perceived hoe the characters have also changed.

With each film we were looking for a new perspective. We started from a very personal place. The first film had some autobiographical elements. Vivian, the
main character, was inspired by our mother’s life and the story was similar to where we come from. The third film broadened the whole perspective in terms
of our focus on Women’s Rights in Israel. We came from a very private place, something that was very national, and it has evolved to become something much
more international.

Ronit:
Since we were children I always wanted to work with Shlomi, but we were separated when I went to the army. I was 18 and he was about 10-years-old, but I
knew that one day we would get to do something together. I didn’t know exactly what it would be but I had a feeling it would happen.

One day I had an idea and I started writing a script. Shlomi had been writing scripts since he was 14-years-old. Many years after I called him and I told
him that I had an idea for our first film, at that point I was only acting and he was in New York. I came to New York and in three weeks we wrote our first
script. It was very intense and very interesting, and I knew that after this experience we would have a new start in our relationship.

Since I was very young I was very aware and sensitive to the situation that the women around me had to experience. I felt that they were suffering, and I
was very aware about my mother’s wish for freedom and for a good life. She wanted a different life. This was something I wanted to understand. I wanted to
search for answers. We decided to write a story about woman looking for her freedom from life at home. When we met to write this we started to evoke all
these memories and emotions.

Shlomi:
The first film was something very personal.

Ronit:
It all happened once I was ready to search for my mother’s freedom through a film. We started writing, and suddenly we understood we had a lot of material
and that it would not fit in a single film. We decided to take our time and create three films. We knew that it was going to take us about ten years.
Viviane, the character, is someone very special for us.


Aguilar: Since you created this story, and this character in particular, as creative partners, were there any disagreements or conflicts because of
your individual ideas for the film?

Shlomi:
We’ve developed this character for many years. The inspiration to create this story was the same for both of us, so most of the time we agreed on what we
wanted for the character. We didn’t have many arguments or disagreements while writing the character.

Ronit:
It was very clear most of the time. However, everything was always seen from two points of view. Not only because Shlomi is a man and I’m a woman, but also
because we are brother and sister, two different people, two different egos. We saw everything from a lot of different perspectives.

Aguilar: You work as co-directors, but Ronit also stars in the film. How did this actor/director relationship work?

Ronit:
Knowing that he is in front of me behind the camera changed everything. For the first film I was running like a crazy woman between the camera and the
scene. I was acting but I also wanted to see what was happening behind the camera. Then, for the second film it became easier to do both, and for the third
film I wasn’t that interested on seeing myself on screen. I let go a little bit.

I like when Shlomi watches me through the camera. I feel very comfortable and I know that if I look at him he will tell if I did good just with his eyes.
Just by looking at each other we know if it was a good take or not. We don’t really talk. We take a lot of time before shooting to prepare the film.

We talk day and night during the months of pre-production. When we arrive on the set we don’t really feel like we need to talk, maybe a few words here and
there. When each of us talks separately to a certain actor, we usually tell them the same thing because we really know each other and what we want at this
point.

Shlomi:
We spend a lot of time synchronizing, not only for this film, but it has been years and years of getting to know each other and how we work.

Ronit:
Beyond the love that we feel for each other, there is a lot of professional appreciation.

Shlomi:
We appreciate each other’s opinions. When you are making a film with someone else, you really have to come to the point where both people like what you are
doing because you have to take mutual responsibility for what you shoot. We take joint responsibility for the choices we make. Every decision is always
made by both of us even if there is a little of back and forth. I’d say, “Are you sure?” And she’ll said, “No, are you sure?” Once we start questioning
each other it becomes very interesting because there is a dialogue happening between us.


Aguilar: [To Ronit] Viviane must hide her emotions and she has no right to defend herself. Creating this restrained performance must have been very
difficult for you.

Ronit:
It’s been a long journey I must say. I’m a person that works a lot when I’m preparing for a role whether it’s theater or cinema. I think this character
comes from all the questions that I want to ask her, the things I want to know about her. I would like to know where she came from? What her dreams are?
And what’s the main difficulty she is facing? I always try to work around a certain wound the character has and I try to find a way in which this character
can move forward.

There is always a struggle to win or to achieve something. For me it was always clear that Viviane knows that in this trial she has no voice. She knows
that she cannot speak. She knows that she needs to prepare herself for a very long journey. Her husband can refuse to give Viviane her freedom for the next
ten years if he wants to, and she knows this. I had to prepare differently for this character because I knew that in court, as Viviane, I have no voice and
I must just be there quietly.

It was like a being a long-distance runner trying to stay in that passive position for years until the moment that one couldn’t do it any longer. This is
very difficult for Viviane because she is a very expressive woman and her husband reiterates this all the time. He tells everyone that she shouts, that she
is difficult, that she always talks back. Being quiet and silent is the opposite of what she would have like to do, but she needs to stay focuses on her
goal. Whatever happens she must not lose her strength and continue until the end, until she wins.

I thought meticulously about every aspect of her story, you might not see this on screen but I thought about of every detail in this woman’s life. Creating
a character is like creating a film within the film, there is more to the story in me that what makes it onto the screen. There is the story in the film
and the personal story of the character that I have to create. I know this kind of women quiet good in Israel, and I could really feel them inside me. They
are part of me.


Aguilar: Vivian is legally denied her freedom and she depends on her husband’s decision over her life. Her individuality, her voice, is criminalized.
How did you approach the film’s political angle?

Shlomi:
In Israel both secular women and religious women are subjected to the same laws. Everyone woman in Israel is subject to this law, it doesn’t matter if you
are sort of religious, orthodox, or completely secular. It has nothing to do with religion. This is the law in Israel. Even though the story is about
Israel, it also became very international in many ways because women all over the world suffer discrimination in different aspects of their lives. Viviane
is suffering from this specific type of discrimination, which prevents her freedom in this way. Everywhere we screen the film, in Europe, Asia and even in
the US, women identify with this woman’s wish to be free, with her wish to determine what she wants to do with her life. She wants to wake up in the
morning and decide, “I want to go” or ” I want to stay.”

Ronit:
“I want to choose my life!” She questions herself all the time and that’s the question the film asks, “Who am I?” “Who is choosing for me?” It’s
unbelievable to think that nowadays a story like this can be a reality for more than 10,000 women in Israel who are waiting and who are often denied a
divorce, denied their freed. The big questions they are asking are, “Why do I need to be in this situation?” “Who decided I needed to ask someone for
permission to be free?”

Addressing this issue was something that was really important for us. At the end of the film Viviane demands, “Give me my freedom. Give me my freedom.”
It’s very difficult to understand how in our country, which is considered a democracy, something like this could exist.

Aguilar: Did you face any opposition from the government or religious organization in Israel given the film’s controversial themes?

Ronit:
No, the film was like a gift for Israeli citizens. There have been a lot of discussions around the film. Everyone wants to talk about the film. There has
been an overwhelmingly positive reaction towards the film, which means that it has touched everyone.

Shlomi:
We’ve received very strong reactions towards the film from diverse streams of Israeli society. The Israeli ministry of justice wrote a post on her Facebook
page endorsing the film and encouraging people to see it. Then we had rabbis encouraging the religious public to go see the film. They would say, “Maybe is
not the most pleasant film for us to see but we still must see it and rethink how we do things.” The film has encouraged dialogue around the issue.

For a long time everyday there was something related to the film on the news, on the newspapers, on the radio. The film was at the center of every
conversation for three or four weeks. Can you imagine something like this in the States? That’s what happened with this film in Israel.

Ronit:
We thought that maybe men would not like the film, but it was the opposite. Everyone, men and women, really appreciated the film. It was a very nice
surprise to see this reaction.

Shlomi:
We though men might feel threatened by the film in some way or that they might not like the way we portray the male character, but on the contrary, most
people think the film is an opportunity to create awareness about the issue. Who knows, maybe one day there will be a law preventing this and maybe they’ll
call it “The Elkabetz Law” [Laughs].

This law would liberate women all over Israel, that’s our dream. Our first dream was to make the films, our second dream was to show them in Cannes and
then all over the world, and now we hope that the film inspires change, maybe through a law.

It’s amazing that a film can create awareness, then this awareness creates a dialogue, and this dialogue could possibly create change. It’s incredible that
in Israel no one can attend a divorce case at a court. You can attend a murder case just to be preset, but no one can attend a divorce case. The film is
the first time the public gets to see what happens in these courts. We hope people see the film and form their own opinion.

Aguilar: There is a particular visual style in the film. It’s unusual but it works with this claustrophobic feeling that Viviane experiences.

Ronit:
We thought about this a lot before because we wanted to find a visual language that would be loyal to the story. There are no master shots in the film from
the director’s or outside perspective, everything is from the characters’ points of view and how they see each other. Only the last shot is from our
perspective, the directors’ perspective.

Shlomi:
In our mind we think that a courtroom is an objective place, but it’s not. As a director you can’t really shoot “the law, “ you can only shoot how the law
affects people. We shot behavior and tried to understand what was happening according to how this affected the trial. We thought about what would happen if
we shot the whole film from only one point of view by putting the camera in a character’s place for the entire time, maybe this way we could deconstruct
the room. If I shoot Ronit talking to you, her attention would be divided between you and the camera, but if I shoot from her point of view, and then from
another point of view, slowly we would be deconstructing the whole space. The more points of view you have the more details you can see in the story. This
way we were able to create more suspense, more humor, more varied sensations.

Ronit:
It was very interesting to shoot this way because we didn’t know if this language would work for us or not. We tried it for a couple days and after editing
we though that it was something very special. We liked it and we went with it.

Shlomi:
People working with us were afraid. The DP, people from the film fund, other people from the production, they were all afraid. They asked us, “How will
people know where they are if there are no master shots? They need to understand the geography of the room” Our answer was, “We can create a new
geography.”

Shooting the entire film in one room was a radical decision. We wondered what effect would shooting in a conventional way have on our radical decision to
make it in one room. In order for our radical approach to work we had to match every shot eye to eye with the next one. We had a piece of tape on the lens
right where the actors needed to look. For every scene they needed to look directly into the tape on the lens. It was risky to shoot this way, but when we
discovered it was working for us we went all the way.

Aguilar: How did this decision change your actors’ performances?

Shlomi:
Every actor had to wait for three or four days before it was their time to shot their scenes because we had to shoot all these different points of view for
every single since.

Ronit:
But even if they were not being shot, we would ask them to be there in full costume and in character so the ones that were actually being shot could feel
the emotion and could add based on that intensity. It was very difficult for them and it involved a lot of repetitions.

Shlomi:
Since we were doing so many takes of the same scene to get different points of view, the actors heard each scene hundreds of times. We could spend 6 or 7
days on one single scene. All of us heard every scene hundreds of times.

Ronit:
We had so much material

Shlomi:
To shoot all the points of view in a scene involving 7 people you need at least 50 shots. Since we couldn’t spend so much time in each one we had to choose
while shooting. We probably did between 10 and 24 shots per scene.

Ronit:
It was very difficult for the actors, but they were so excited by the idea because they had never worked in this manner. They were always excited, and we
were always thankful because we knew that what we were asking was difficult. We definitely had a very special experience making this film.

Aguilar: Tell me about your experience in Hollywood with your film representing Israel at the Oscars.

Shlomi:
It’s an amazing experience. We always want to get our film out there as much as possible for people to see it. This film is very important for us because
the more attention the film gets the more people will talk about the issue.

The reactions are always amazing wherever we go. Sometimes I sit in the theater and I feel like I’m sitting with an Israeli audience because they all react
so strongly to the film. They seem to get all the jokes and the nuances of the film.

Aguilar: What happens to Viviane after this film?

Ronit:
I’m also interested to find out because it would mean making another film, another dream, but we will see if that happens. Now she has bought her freedom
with her freedom, but we still don’t know what kind of freedom she has. There is a big open window for us to dream. If we decide to continue with this
story I’m sure it would be a very special experience once again.

Shlomi:
It would be interesting to know what happens to this woman now that she is finally free. How does she cope with the fact that she has achieved her dream?
It’s definitely a very interesting question.

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