Fuck Buddies: Interview with Yotam Knispelby Joy Bernard | 14.11.16
This week’s Telavivian Cinema pick is Tel Avivian director Yotam Knispel’s Fuck Buddies—a bitter-sweet urban and contemporary take on the frustration and disappointment born out of unrequited love, or in Knispel’s words: “After six months of sex-only, it’s time to talk about where this relationship is going.”
In a little back-and-forth Q and A, Yotam and Telavivian discussed the perks and downfalls of modern love and its complications in the digital age.
Hi Yotam! Now that we’ve watched your film, please tell Telavivian a bit more about you.
Yotam: “I was born in Copenhagen, Denmark and raised in Israel. My affinity with cinema began when I was seven years old and passed by the TV while the film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was playing. I stood still and didn’t move until the film ended. That was the first time I realized that my real dream was to be a cowboy.
That didn’t really work out for me later on in life, so I decided to make films instead, as it made just as much sense as being a cowboy did. But while making films is an unnatural and dangerous choice in all aspects, it was always pretty clear to me that that’s what I was going to do.
I studied in the Film Department at Beit Berl’s Hamidrasha Faculty of Arts and my film Fuck Buddies was made as part of a direction and photography workshop taught by Shahar Rozen and Yoav Kosh.
These days I teach a course called Guided Viewing at the Hamidrasha Faculty of Arts, it’s part of a course regarding the History of Film. I show my students films that I pick and that have a crucial historical value in my opinion and I pass a lecture about each film prior to screening it.
I also work at the Third Ear’s DVD section, (an iconic record and DVD store based in Tel Aviv) where I get to watch a ton of films.
In between I’ve been occupied traveling abroad to film festivals with two other short films I made. One is called Drop and tells the story of a socially rejected young girl who gets her first period. It’s been screened in over 20 film festivals across the world and has also won several awards.
The other film, Bambina, is an Italian-language film that I filmed in Sicily in a pastoral and sickeningly cute little town. It’s also beginning to get recognized and picked up by festivals around the world.
I also directed two music clips this year, one for the Israeli band The White Screen.
In many ways I felt that your film was very contemporary, especially because the relationship it portrays that gets cut short very quickly began as a flirt on Tinder, the infamous known mobile dating application.
Having said that, the challenges your film addresses may seem more prominent in our digital age, but they have also been characterizing romantic and/or sexual interactions forever—the fear of getting hurt, the difficulty in communicating, conflicting wishes and desires, the need to be vulnerable versus the shame and anxiety intimacy brings on, the discrepancy between what you have and what you want to have, the challenge in making expectations meet—I could go on and list them all day long.
When you were about to start making your film, did you intend to emphasize the challenges that our modern means of communication (and life itself in the modern age) pose on the creation of a romantic or sexual connection? How important was this aspect for you?
Yotam: “In many ways yes, but your question refers to the so-called statement of my film, and usually I get to that stage much later on in the process of my creation, and not from the very get go. Usually, when I start I have no idea what I’m going to write about. I just get excited about a certain situation and unleash whatever feels right at the moment. My curiosity stirs my writing on.
Only if I have a dramatic base that I find interesting enough do I go into the depth of addressing its statement. If I do it right, the statement reveals itself to me without my having to force it on. But I try to start by finding an emotional trigger. Understanding what the emotion is that’s pulsing in the heart of a specific situation and finding out why it’s so interesting to me.
In this case I wanted to tell an intimate story, one location, two actors, sex. I wanted to create a film about romance with a twist because I probably had something to say on the subject or was looking for something to say about it.
I was attracted to this weird term, ‘fuck buddies’, because I didn’t see a lot of films that respectfully dealt with this type of relationship that’s becoming very common in our age. I was mainly drawn to this term, though, because by definition there’s an unnatural encounter between two elements that create something weird when brought together. In short—how could you fuck your own buddy?
I was curious to understand how we can maintain relationships that includes sex but prohibits emotional intimacy. There’s something about relationships of this kind that resembles the combination of water and oil—the two elements can float together in a bowl, but naturally, they never really merge into one.
That’s why the film also refers to relationships in the modern age—because while it takes place in our day, I think that it deals with something much more focused: the ‘definition’.”
I could tell the story of these fuck buddies by simply showing them having sex. Or by describing the moments of embarrassment that precede the sex. But I chose to place my camera at the door to the bedroom in that exact moment when one of the participants feels that it’s time to ask—where is this relationship going? How do we define it? Why can’t it be more than what it is now?
The way I see it, Rae wants black and Noga wants white. And that relationship stands in the grey zone where the limits between them are fading. That’s why it was clear to me that I wanted to shoot the film in black and white (also because I’m a putz who loves old films and wanted to make an old dream come true by directinv a film in black and white, in CinemaScope, and this project seemed suitable for that kind of experiment).”
During the exchange between Noga and Rea, the two protagonists of this short and slightly bitter tale, she offends him by saying that they were merely a match on Tinder. Hurt and affronted, Rea asks her not to call him anymore since he has already ‘played his part’ and also tells her that he ‘doesn’t want to be an instrument.’
In that sense, he brings to light the cold and slightly businesslike aspect of online dating but of relationships in general, the practical give and take through which people communicate. Do you think that the give and take spoil or hurt that kind of communication? Is your protagonist exaggerating in his expectations, or does he simply not know how to align himself with the interaction and with the spirit of the times? Is it even possible to have any sort of communication without that give and take?
Yotam: “I think that there’s no communication devoid of some basic form of give and take. And the question—how much do we give and how much do we take—becomes especially relevant in this type of relationship that is almost romantic but refuses to become one.
I think that ‘give and take’ is a term that existed long before Tinder or online dating sites entered our lives. So has the inequality in relationships that become ‘take and take and take’ with the other side not giving anything in return.
In that sense I hope that older people who have no clue what Tinder is can also relate to this film. And actually older people react to the film more fondly than younger people do; maybe because at its base, this is the simple and familiar story of ‘boy wants girl, girl doesn’t want boy.’
But I do agree with you that nowadays, a lot of relationships have something very practical, cold and decisive about them. More than ever. Probably because we’re a distracted and messy generation, because we constantly have to be in control and self-aware, and that self-awareness damages the possibility of going with our instincts and giving unlikely things a chance. I think that the give and take has become a form of negotiation between the sexes as part of an attempt to rein in the chaos.
I don’t think Rea’s expectations are over the top but I do think that in many ways he’s that classic idiot who talks about his feelings a little too late. Much like Noga is somewhat of an exploiter who likes to keep things as they are because it’s convenient for her. Even if they move an inch from the give and take that has already been established, it would confuse her. I also believe that she’s a character that has a hard time giving in to devotion. Even when she tries to prove to herself that she does need to give it a shot, she regrets it and withdraws.
Because nowadays, devoting yourself to someone all at once is borderline cliche (that’s why I chose to present it as a self-aware cliche at the end of the film with the music, and then I broke that by a rebuke that is almost an accusation.)”
To my despair, there’s a rather primitive notion that’s popular worldwide according to which men are capable and also interested in having many sexual relations bereft of emotional commitment, while women can’t have a sexual relationship without falling in love. Society has helped spread this notion by idolizing sexually active men and reprimanding women for the exact same behavior.
In your film it seems that you have turned things around—the girl is wary or uninterested in having an emotional connection with the guy with whom she’s having a sexual relationship, whereas he confesses having feelings for her from the moment they met, asks her to open her eyes and look at him during sex and wants to further develop their connection. Did you switch the common gender roles here on purpose?
Yotam: “Yeah. But it’s not like before sitting down to write the script I said to myself: ‘OK, so usually the guy is the player and the girl is more emotional, so I’m gonna do the opposite here.’
Not at all. I wrote the script as an emotional guy who seeks eye contact during sex and isn’t ashamed of it and who has grown tired, much like you, from that primitive notion that determines that women fall in love and men fuck around. Because much like you I, too, think that this is no longer the case.
The switching of roles stemmed from my wish to turn the spotlight in the beginning of the film on emotional guys, especially in this kind of sexual setting, because I think that there are enough guys like Rea in the world and films have yet to show us a lot of them. I also wanted to make a film that aspires for equality—to begin with the guy as the main protagonist, and without the viewer noticing, to turn the spotlight on to Noga as the main character. That’s why the scene of her on the stairs alone closes the film. I believe that every film that deals with relationships, and especially with the attempt to decipher their definitions, should display both sides separately.”
Your film also made me think about the way we define our connections with people according to the frameworks within which we first meet them. Meaning—if we meet people at our workplace then our relationship with them is limited in some way to that specific territory; if we meet potential partners through mutual friends we tend to view them in a certain way; and if we meet people on Tinder, the modern pickup scene, then we tend to perceive them only as potential hookups.
These frameworks are dangerous in my opinion, because they’re very limiting and atrophying socially and mentally. Is that what prevents Noga from letting herself try another kind of relationship with Rea? What does she regret in that moment when she writes him a note, leaves it in his mailbox and immediately withdraws and takes her note back?
Yotam: “I think that what holds Noga back from devoting herself romantically to Rae is her fixation and her inability to consider the not unlikely possibility of being happy with him had she only tried.
I know a lot of people who sabotage their own chances of being happy without even trying and then complain about it. We all do it. So do I. That’s why I made an effort, as a creator, not to blame her too much and even to try to understand her, although there are things about her that annoy me. Rea is also an annoying type. He’s righteous, a victim and suffers from a bad sense of timing. And she, in my opinion, is an exploiter and a coward who suffers from her own indecisiveness.
It’s the first time I wrote a script about urban characters that I was kind of repulsed with to begin with. Usually I try to write my characters from a place of love, but here it was an attempt to ‘understand’ the human elements that annoy me in each of them. I tried to understand both of them. I hope the viewers will too.
Rea has been pinned down as a certain type by Noga like you described—and I assume that it would feel foreign to her to try to get him out of that box and see him in a different light.
Maybe she’s just not interested in him because he doesn’t spark any feeling in her, and that’s legitimate. But then it raises some questions: why does she keep seeing him? Why is she fine with having sex with him but hugging him post-coitus is such a no-no? And there are only two people in the world who know what she wrote in that note. Carmel Kandel, the actress, and myself. It’s the little secret we created in our own bubble and I’d like to keep it that way.
The viewers are welcome to project from their own lives and decide on their own what was written, or not, in a note that was thrown in the trash either way.”
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