Remains: Interview with Yotam Ben-Davidby Joy Bernard | 18.09.16
Itamar and Thomas share a bed, walls, an apartment and electricity bills. Thomas commands, manages, and criticizes; Itamar is silent and listens. In the face of the couple’s confinement and abysmal feeling of suffocation, and in the face of the power struggle that permeates their daily conversations, Itamar will be forced to take action – an action that will briefly allow him to feel things through his own body and through the concrete world.
We had a talk with director Yotam Ben-David who spoke to us about Film, love, intimacy, relationships and everything in between. So Yotam, I would love to learn more about you.
Yotam: “I’m 29 years old. I grew up in a moshav near the Valley of Elah. I studied Film in an Arts-oriented high school in Jerusalem, and went on to study Film at the Minshar school for Art in Tel Aviv. I always wanted to be involved with Film, and much before I could define what it was, I was occupied with things that later revealed themselves to be part of the directorial process.
As a child, it was difficult for me to understand what direction is and how it relates to the strong urge to make up a story, tell it and play with it. One of my first memories is of myself in my childhood bedroom–I’m standing behind a closed door and explaining to my toys and to imaginary characters exactly what they should be doing.
As a kid, I would wake up very early on the weekends and climb up the stairs to my grandparents’ apartment. They lived right above us. My grandfather, who was the only other person awake at those hours, would let me into the utter silence of their apartment. After watching him shave and groom his mustache, I would sit with him, for the umpteenth time, and watch the same VHS tapes that were worn with use. My favorite two films were “The Wizard of Oz” starring Judy Garland, and Disney’s “Little Mermaid”, and there on the couch my identity as a gay man and my identity as a filmmaker began to emerge and intertwine in the fantastical connection that binds them together.
These days I live in Paris with my partner, where I’m learning French and working on several films. Two of them are short films, and another is a script for a first feature that I have named “Over Time and Distance.”
Telavivian Cinema has been up and running for a while now, so I can attest that a lot of the films that I find myself drawn to, consciously or not, revolve around the two subjects of identity and relationships. I managed to identify with the intimacy as it was portrayed in the other films we screened here–it moved me, it made me happy as well as wistful, it got me laughing in relief and allowed me to eventually move on.
But the relationship you presented in your film “Remains”, or more accurately, the experience of watching this relationship unravel and derail, made me feel very uncomfortable, it even evoked some antagonism. Maybe because it touched a raw nerve in me. What were you trying to describe through this relationship? What kind of process were you aiming to show?
Yotam: “I wanted to describe a relationship that has reached a dead end. It was interesting to me to expand on that state where you’re just stuck and there’s no solution so you simply stay frozen in place. In Hebrew, the film’s name Hisharut literally means staying, and possibly hints at the choice to stay in that place. Whereas in English, the film’s name is “Remains”. This name contains the fragments of ruin and ongoing disintegration of a relationship.
These contrasts and questions were intriguing to me and I wanted to test out these fine lines between great attraction and the ongoing moments of intense suffering filtered by routine and habits.
It’s a liminal moment in a relationship–that phase when it’s not over yet but kind of is, and I wanted to explore that grey area.
Most of the films I know that do deal with relationships that are stuck in place, or have a violent element to them, expressed that through the traditional cinematic medium that seeks to discuss movement and progress while implying that there is hope for change.
But I felt that if I were to imply that there is hope, I would not be properly describing that kind of relationship in which there is no room for a loosening or an easy way out.
The deep experience of being in that moment relies on the fact that there is no solution, there is no way out and that becomes the most dominant part of your day-to-day life. I wanted to use the viewer’s hope for a solution in order to amplify its absence.”
The ever-widening gaps between the couple in your film are expressed in several ways. From the physical difference between the two (Itamar is lean, slim and small as opposed to Thomas who towers over him) to their different mother tongues that make it difficult for the pair to communicate, to their contrasting perspectives; Itamar is forever apologetic, quiet and curled up into himself whereas Thomas conducts himself as a person who demands to impose his order in the world, someone who appears to think that he deserves everything.
Why did you place the two together there? How do you think that such a symbiosis is created? And why does a person who is clearly suffocating not set himself free?
Yotam: “As the cliche goes, opposites attract. I don’t necessarily believe in that, but I do think that we choose people who get under our skin, step on our most sensitive spots and stir something up. That something can be good or bad, and I think that in Itamar’s and Thomas’s case at the point where we encounter them they’re actually delving into each other’s most hurting and painful spots, where they deeply hurt and undermine one another. When you’re that deep under someone else’s skin, the differences in perspective and the physical differences become the most lethal weapons in the framework of the daily couple’s routine.
The [private and social] discussion about passive and active identities in gay men is an ancient one that dates all the way back to Ancient Greece and Plato’s feast. It’s interesting to me because it touches on our most personal issues and the way in which I see the world and deal with it, but these identities are also interesting because they relate to everyone in one way or another–to how we cope daily with authority, control or devotion.
When I was writing the script, I kept trying to skip between Itamar’s and Thomas’s viewpoints and understand where the other is standing. Thus, when the film begins it’s very clear where the power is: Thomas controls and imposes his routine and Itamar obeys quietly, seemingly accepting his fate. But as the film advances, we discover cracks in this order and Thomas’s weaker sides come through. The fact that he’s an immigrant who doesn’t speak the language helps explain why he craves control so much; and in Itamar we see the first signs of resistance and it appears that his power over Thomas is actually based in his silence.
The contrasts and tension between the pair enabled me to ask questions about action and its lack thereof, and what each of these courses of choice prevents and allows. Perhaps underneath the surface, behind the will to control, hide fear and insecurity? Maybe Itamar’s surrender and insecurity are merely an expression of his deep stability, which allows him to totally and silently contain his partner?
I believe that their actions in the film have more than one meaning–Thomas’s preaching has an element of fatherly concern and the need to protect, Thomas also functions as a guide or a teacher for Itamar; and Itamar, who is younger than him, becomes a student, thus his silence allows him to take in his lessons. The film doesn’t answer all of these questions, but I hope that it does make the viewers ask these questions while watching it and after.
To trace back my steps, I think that all of these elements are what binds my two characters together in their shared fate and doesn’t let them leave or let go. The unsolved conflict becomes a gravitational force that pulls them together. Itamar does begin to find his way in the film, and if it’s not a way out at least it’s some movement in a closed circle. But like I said, my film is not about breaking free–it’s about staying in place, and so is its ending.”
Lately, as part of all sorts of processes that are happening in my personal life and outside of it, I find myself thinking a lot about the term ‘relationship’. I find that it’s an outdated, decadent term that mostly annoys me and evokes a claustrophobic feeling. Maybe because this word illustrates everything I hate about the shared couple’s life: the sex that stops being sexy after a while, the burdensome talk about bills and cleaning duties, the interpersonal, petty bureaucracy.
What do you think about this term? Do you believe in romantic relationships?
Yotam: “I don’t believe in a relationship as a simplified, unified term, much like I don’t believe in bachelorhood as a term. People are different and the encounter between them always gives birth to something specific that’s relevant to those two specific people and the actions that they’re willing to take in the given situation.
There are so many models of being together, in sex, in friendship, in an open relationship or in a monogamous one, as two or more–and all of these models are good in my opinion, as long as you use communication and partnership in order to do good by the other and deal with the chaos of the world together.
There were times in which I was single and they were deep and fascinating periods of my life in which a lot of unpredictable things could happen–I dared to do things in that open space that I wouldn’t necessarily have done in a relationship.
On the other hand, today and in the past three and half years I am in one of the deepest, bestest, most exciting relationships I have ever been in and I’m learning from it and in it, dealing with things that I didn’t think I would dare deal with.
Both periods (as a single man and in a relationship) were very rich and brought with them new things as well as hardships and frustration, and in both periods I felt lonely at times. There’s an element of luck in finding a partner who answers your expectations but also dares to undermine your basic assumptions when it’s necessary or insist on them where it matters.
The way to learn how to do that practically is through day-to-day life and also through painful experiences. As long as you don’t stay stuck in place and continue to ask questions honestly and attempt to answer them and as long as you patiently dare and try all sorts of things, there’s no reason to feel the feelings that you’re describing.
Our society, and especially straight societies, puts a lot of pressure on people that are not in a relationship–and mostly on women–to enter one and from there to carry on down the hetero-normative path, to get married and have kids. The way I see it, that’s a dangerous thing. Social pressure is the worst reason to enter into a relationship and it seems to me that a lot of people feel a mounting frustration and resentment for each other, because of that.”
One final question – what does the future have in store for you? What are planning to create next?
Yotam: “Right now I’m working on two short films and each of them is sort of an experiment, so it’s too soon for me to talk about either one of them. At the same time, I’m developing the script for my first full-length feature film, named “Over Time and Distance”. It’s about two characters,a mother and a son, who are each trapped, both in their own ways, by their longing for a loved one who is far away from them.
This film continues to pursue, in one way or another, my occupation with relationships, but also expands them to the family unit and focuses on the imagination that distance and absence create and expand.
This film is really exciting for me, because it takes place in the area where I grew up, in the villages and forests of the Valley of Elah; also because it includes, within the protagonists’ stories, the historical stories of that geographical space that’s so full of loss, absence and longing throughout. It’s interesting to me to continue to explore the utter and uncompromising commitment to the present tense, but to expand it and see how the past and the future, both real and imagined, find their way up and over the surface.”
I’m looking forward to see it, then. Thank you Yotam!
Watch Remains on Telavivian Cinema.
Telavivian Cinema is a project which will unveil work of cinematic art crafted by local directors.
From animation to drama to comedy, Telavivian short films will be streamed weekly and accompanied by our conversations with the their talented makers. Make sure you stay tuned for the screenings, as the films featured in the magazine will change on a weekly basis.
Telavivian Cinema is curated by Joy Bernard.