[EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE is publishing two interviews daily with Sundance ’07 competition filmmakers through the end of the festival later this month. Directors with films screening in the four competition section were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview, and each was sent the same set of questions.]
Veteran Romanian/Israeli director Shimon Dotan‘s doc “Hot House” is described by Sundance as a “brilliantly constructed, disturbingly provocative film [that] is both a humanizing force and an alarming wake-up call.” The doc spotlights Israeli prisons and how they have become a breeding ground for the next generation of Palestinian leaders as well as a hive for future terrorists. Granted unique access to the prisons, Dotan interviews inmates who are committed to engaging Israel in negotiations as well as others who feel no remorse for their participation in suicide bombings. “Hot House” will screen in the World Cinema Competition: Documentary section at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival.
Please introduce yourself…
I was born in Romania. When I was ten years old, my family and I moved to Israel, where I grew up in a moshav (agricultural cooperative). After five years of military service, I worked as scuba diving instructor and as General Manager of the Israeli Diving Federation. I got my BFA from Tel Aviv University in 1976. Since then I’ve been making films and teaching filmmaking in Tel Aviv, Montreal, and New York.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
As I was finishing my military service, I wasn’t sure if I should study medicine or psychology. As I was debating between the two, I heard that Tel Aviv University had just opened a film department. I was curious about the arts, but wasn’t talented in anything particular. I didn’t know much about films either, so I registered. Film directing seemed like an artistic occupation that could be done without any specific talents–just tell all the other talented people what to do. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
How did you find film school?
I earned a BFA in film and philosophy from Tel Aviv University. I taught filmmaking at Tel Aviv University, Concordia University in Montreal, NYU and at The New School University in New York. I encourage aspiring filmmakers to go to film school, but also to study and experience subjects that are not related to film. I consider filmmaking the art of the possible—you don’t wait, you just do your best with the elements at hand.
Please talk about “Hot House,” and how the initial idea come about.
I explored the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in fiction form in my second feature film, “The Smile of the Lamb.” At that time, I felt that the only way to approach such an emotionally charged topic was through fiction, so as to remain as far as possible from the daily onslaught of news and media coverage. However, over the years, I came to realize that the news and media coverage is in fact mostly fictional. In seeking a way to come in contact with the very essence of the conflict without the filters of fiction and the manipulations of news media, I employed the documentary lens. In “Hot House” I tried to structure a narrative based mostly on conversations with Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. This process has strengthened my belief that nothing is as it seems to be.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
I was very curious about exploring the motivations and experiences of the perpetrators of terrorist acts, in the context of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. For many years, I have been preoccupied with the concept of a ‘Just War’ and the question of who is entitled to claim such a title, if anyone at all. Reflecting my own experience in making the film, I think the audience will leave with many questions and a few answers.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?
As hard as it is to get out of prison, it is equally hard to get in, especially with a camera and crew. One of the biggest challenges in making “Hot House” was getting access to the Palestinian prisoners in the Israeli jails. All of them are in maximum security prisons, and many of them are sentenced to multiple life sentences. Be it rational or not, it was initially unsettling to be in a small space with people who are incarcerated for killing scores of Israelis. An even greater fear though, was that as I grew to know these people, I’d like them.
What do you hope to get out of the festival, and what are your own goals for the experience?
It would be nice to get a US theatrical distribution. Also, not that I believe in prizes, but if they do give prizes, I’d be happy to get one.
How did you find out you were in Sundance, and how did you react?
I was in Beijing wrapping an action-adventure film I had just been shooting in Inner Mongolia. I checked my email looking for a confirmation for the flight back home, and found a confirmation for a flight to Utah instead. I forwarded the invitation to my partners in the film, “Arik, Yonatan, and Dikla,” and then ran to tell my wife and call my children.
What is your definition of “independent film?”
Independent film is another term for an orphan film, one that is constantly seeking adoption.
What are some of your favorite films and why?
“The Battle of Algiers“–not only fascinating from an historical point of view, it is a masterpiece of filmmaking.
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