Interview with Yaniv Berman, director of PÖFF film 'Land of the Little People'
Helina Koldek of culture.ee interviewed Yaniv Berman, director of 2016 Israeli film "Land of the Little People," one of the films featured in the 2016 program of Estonia's Black Nights Film Festival (PÖFF).
Tell us something about your background and how you got into filmmaking.
From an early age I wanted to be an author, and I’ve tried writing and I’m doing so to this day, but I’m a little bit ADHD, so for me it’s very hard to sit and write for days and days. So when I was in high school I started making films with my friends, and I've continued doing films with my friends up to this very day. Filmmaking takes the storytelling and dissects it into many fields of art, and it enables working together with many talented people, combining forces and making something great together. Very similar to making children and raising them, it begins with an orgasm of ideas and a story, continues with a very long process of quiet and intensive script-writing and pre-production (pregnancy), a very painful stage of filming (labor) and then the long term of post-production, which is like raising a child from infancy to adulthood. And in filmmaking, like being a parent, you don’t do it alone, but with partners who contribute their creativity and knowledge.
After my army service, which had nothing to do with art or movies, I went to Tel Aviv University where I studied film and collected more talented partners in crime.
In 2002, while I was at the university, a war began in Israel and my company in the army reserve was drafted. This was the beginning of making the documentary "The Alpha Diaries," which told the story of what Israelis do when they serve in the army. I shot it for five years and edited it for two. While doing this, I made the short film "Even Kids Started Small," about children taking over a school and fighting the teachers for no apparent reason. I think that the stages of growing up are very violent and I’ve got this urge to tell stories about it. I think we know it as kids but we forget about it when we grow up.
What sparked the idea for "Land of the Little People"? What is it about?
"Land of the Little People" is taking these themes of children and soldiers and combining them together. It tells a story of militaristically influenced children meeting child-like soldiers. They are all children — the soldiers and the young kids — and they are all playing with violence as a way of getting things. And that is the truth about our society: we gain power with violence and we solve problems with violence.
But I also wanted to tell an interesting story: four children fight for their territory. This place is the only place they’ve got, and they have a bloodthirsty god which drives them to fight with a cause. This is the story of my land and my people. We fight and sometimes die for a very small territory. We’ve got a bloodthirsty god and when we fight, we believe it is the right thing to do. We believe God is on our side and that we are the good people. And when you are used to thinking that way, you can hurt people on the other side and feel OK with it.
What’s the story behind the filming location of "Land of the Little People"?
It all started with this location. In 1990, an army weapon factory blew up. It was deserted a few years later, and I’ve been travelling there for the past 15 years. I wanted to make a film there because for me it’s the essence of the apocalypse. I can see there what life without humans looks like and what the real force of nature is.
Of course we weren’t allowed to film there and we had to sneak inside. We got caught twice during filming and I almost found myself in jail, but I knew it had to be done there; it’s where it all began. It’s the origin of our ancestor’s sin — taking the land from the natives, contaminating the land with chemical waste, manufacturing weapons, selling it, using it, and then we also die and nature comes back and the cycle is complete.
How did you find the wonderful child actors? I’m especially happy about the very interesting female character!
Finding children is one thing — finding parents that will allow their children to participate in this kind of film is another. It took us a long time, and we went all over Israel. Michel, the girl that plays Tali, lives very far from where we shoot the film, but she fought for the part and I knew she would do it, even though she was young and it was very difficult for her.
When we started shooting, a real war began (Tzuk Eytan, 2014) and it wasn’t clear if the parents would allow us to keep shooting with the kids, since we were shooting it in open spaces with rockets above our heads and no shelter. It was a real miracle that the mothers allowed us to continue. The children were great and I know they had a wonderful time. They didn’t know the whole story of the movie, and I only told them little at a time. We didn’t rehearse the real scenes, but when we shot they were familiar with what they had to do, since we played with similar materials.
How did you finance your film?
For more than 4 years we tried to get money from local funds but couldn’t find enough support. We launched a Kickstarter campaign where we managed to find some private investors. We didn’t go through with the campaign, but we did keep some of the investors with us. After that we went to the bank and took out a loan. Most of the crew were friends so they volunteered to work for free or for lower rates. With all the problems we’ve faced, it’s a miracle this film is complete. But with good energy and positive forces we’ managed to do this film with very little money and still keep it high quality.
In post-production, two funds gave us some money, and with that we were able to finish the movie, two years after it was shot.
Movie-making costs a lot, and it’s very hard to make a low-budget film that doesn’t look like it. We worked very hard in order to make this film with the little that we had. I know that with money, this movie could have been a lot different — some of it for better, but some of it for worse. I believe, or I want to believe, that in making this film this way, made it better. I’m sure that if we had a bigger budget, we could have never shot it at that location. Bigger producers or financers would have never let us take the risk.
Who is behind the music in the movie and what kind of atmosphere did you want to create with the music?
My first partner in filmmaking was Gad Emile Zeitune. We lived next to each other and studied together in high school. We are "Royal Rat Productions." Gad is a talented composer living in LA and he contributed the score for zero money, as only a future investment. I owe the fact this film is alive and kicking to Gad and to many others.
When we dreamed of this movie, we wanted it to be like a spaghetti western score, but the early music tests didn’t fit, and we understood the score couldn't be orchestral and melodic but rather smaller and disturbing. It took us a lot of versions to find the right fit.
Could you tell us about the reception of the movie in Israel?
We’ve screened the movie at two film festivals in Israel. I don’t think it’s enough to open a real discussion on the matter. I hope we will find real distribution for it and then face the people. From what we’ve seen thus far, I know that some will welcome the film and what it has to say, but the greater part of the audience will probably fight against it as some kind of a disease.
When you are so used to suppression it’s very hard to open your eyes to new, rule-breaking ideas. But making the audience shout is what I want. Let them hate it and let them engage in it — maybe some of it will get stuck in their mind and won’t let go.
Are there any specific films or directors that have influenced you?
I’m going back to the Italian golden age of films made in Italy for the American audience. My favorite films are made by Sergio Leone, Lucio Fulci, Ruggero Deodato and other directors from that time and age.
I wish I could be there with them, because I think they had that freedom to create with passion and almost no boundaries. Today we are being tamed to make the same dramas again and again, and it’s very hard to find a crack to sneak through in order to make that crazy film.
What is your all time favorite movie?
"The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." I tried to implement some of my favorite parts from that movie in "Land of the Little People," like the part when one soldier abandoned the other.
What’s next? What are your plans for the future?
I’m researching some stories. If I want to make another feature, I have to think about raising money, so now I feel I can’t only go with my own fantasies but search for broader materials.
As a final note, is there anything you want to say?
I want to say that making films, like life, is a journey — you have to find your companions, you have to enjoy the ride and you have to follow your instincts and never look back.
I believe we have to raise all the difficult questions and never be afraid to shout against the evils that surround us. Today in Israel, most people find it easier to repress what is going around them — the occupation, for example. But what happens is that it haunts us from within and slowly eats our souls. We should face the reality and not be afraid to engage. That’s life and there is no other way around it.
I also wanted to talk about the producer of the film, my friend and partner Tony Copti. Tony is a Palestinian producer based in Israel. This film shows that the people are working together, and there are no real borders between us. Only governments build walls and plant fear in the people.
The final screening of "Land of the Little People" during this year's edition of PÖFF will take place on Thursday, Nov. 24 at 17:30 at Apollo Kino Solaris in Tallinn.