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Archive: Talya Lavie on Her Short, "The Substitute"

Tribeca Film Festival

Tayla Lavie on Her Short, The Substitute

From November 18, 2006

Danny Peary chats with Israeli director Talya Lavie, whose short film "The Substitute" made a big splash at this year's Tribeca Film Festival
For film critics, one of the pleasures of attending film festivals is to be able to watch shorts and discover those talented directors who might be making great features in the near future. The short that really impressed me at the recent Tribeca Film Festival in New York City was the 19-minute “The Substitute,” made by young Israeli filmmaker Talya Lavie.

It was made with polish and wit and has an unusual storyline—a female soldier who does endless, mindless clerical work wants desperately to leave a remote outpost but is ordered to stick around and look after her suicidal substitute. My enthusiasm for the film was justified when it won major awards at recent festivals in Tokyo, Barcelona, Palm Springs, and Melbourne. So I interviewed her by email...

Q: Before we talk about your prize-winning “The Substitute,” I’d like to go back a little. Prior to doing graduate studies as the prestigious Sam Spiegel Film & TV School in Jerusalem, you went to the Bezalel Academy of Arts & Design in the same city to study animation. Did you want that to be your field or did you want to go on to make narrative films?

Talya Lavie: I wanted to be a “filmmaker,” and at a certain point I decided that I didn't want to restrict myself to animation--especially since my animation skills are very limited stylistically. However, it’s still one of my favorite realms, so I’d really like to work in animation or at least integrate it into my work.

Q: On your showcase CD, along with “Sliding Flora” (2003) and “The Substitute,” you include a brief but amusing and visually dazzling animated short called “The Waitress” [watch video]. Was it a school project? And did you show it locally or enter it into competition?

 It was made as part of my studies at Bezalel Academy and was never shown in a competition or other framework (but it, like “Sliding Flora” and “The Substitute,” can be viewed online at

Q: Talk about the animation and design. I like how you make it seem there is a cameraman filming at the restaurant, and employing various angles and altering distances; and how in your final shot there are three planes—foreground (where a car moves past), middle, and background (the cafĂ©), like Disney would have in his classic cartoons.

 This animated film was created almost entirely by hand. I drew each layer of the animation separately, and then transferred the drawings to a basic computer program that merges the individual layers. The characters were drawn and colored via computer, and the backgrounds are collages composed of acrylic paintings and newspaper clippings. That's a 1932 Fiat that drives by---straight from a book I found on the history of automobiles.

Q: “Sliding Flora” was shown at about thirty festivals, won seven international prizes, and had a screening at MoMA. Where did you get the idea for a film about a klutzy waitress who must deliver her trays down a slide?

 "Sliding Flora" was filmed at a statue called “The Monster" that was created by the French artist and sculptress Niki de Saint Phalle. Ever since she fashioned it in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 1970s, it's been a very popular park for children. At one time I was living in the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood of Jerusalem, and every day on my way to the bus I'd pass the statue and think how neat it would be to make a film there. I should mention that at the same time I was working as a waitress (not a particularly talented one). The two factors converged, and the idea for "Sliding Flora" was born.

While I was working as a waitress, I always thought about how waiting tables was actually a metaphor for something else, for an emotional state where you work to please people of nondescript identity. At some point you appear before them as if before an audience, in a role you've created for yourself, and you act as if you really care about them. The waitress in the film must meet daunting acrobatic challenges that are intended to be nightmare-like. But her thinking is so influenced by her desire to excel in her performance and be admired and valued by those around her that she doesn't even see the absurdity of the situation.

Jerusalemites react quite enthusiastically to the film. The "Monster" is an indelible part of their childhood memories, and they can't believe that they're seeing it as a coffee shop in a movie.

Q: I think it’s totally original and comical, and your lead actress, Shiri Ashkenazi, is a find.

 First, my thanks. Shiri Ashkenazi is indeed an outstanding actress. I met her during the auditions for an actress to play Flora, and we became very good friends. Subsequently, the role of the dejected woman soldier, Libby, in "The Substitute" was written with Shiri in mind.

Q: Again I am impressed by Shiri in “The Substitute,” and you also got a strong, “real” performance by Dana Ivgy as Zohara. Tell me about her and how you got her in your movie.

 Dana is a well-known, highly-respected actress in Israel. I had tried for the longest time to reach her, but somehow never succeeded. And then I sent the script to an acting student who I thought could play the role of the medic. He turned out to be Dana’s boyfriend! She read the script and called me to say that she really loved it and wanted to play Zohara, and that was the first connection between the two of us. Later the production was delayed because of various issues, and Dana became extremely busy. So again I found myself with no lead actress with just a short time before filming was set to start. Out of total despair, I decided to stalk Dana everywhere…until I found myself in her house. She made some phone calls and turned things upside down in her schedule in order to make herself available for the period of the filming.

Q: Were you comfortable directing a star?
TL: The fact that Dana’s such an experienced actress was perhaps a bit threatening at the beginning, but that passed very swiftly. It was wonderful to work with her and the rest of the cast. They were all extremely talented, modest, and prepared to work their hearts out.
Q: You say you connected with Shiri and she inspired you to make “The Substitute.” When we talked informally about the film, you described Libby as “a problem.” Can you explain what you meant by that?
TL: I knew that I wanted to do a film about my army service and I had a general idea about the locale of the film and the characters, but I still lacked a storyline. I knew I wanted Shiri to play one of the parts, and I kept imagining her as being “somebody’s problem.” We created her character primarily from body language and facial expressions, and chose to leave her personality unresolved, yet quite comprehensible to her own self. In essence, the role of the protagonist, Zohara, and other characters were built around her.
Q: Your film is about women in the Israeli army, far away from any fighting. Talk about how your own two years in the army relates to your film.
TL: Most of the military films I've seen placed men at the focal point. For a long time I had wanted to make my own army film. A film that would take place in an atmosphere charged with intensive combat and battle missions, but would place the most lackluster, least heroic characters at the forefront of the story. We tried, via small hints, to give the impression that important, fateful events were taking place behind these characters, but they were occupied with no less dramatic matters.
The story is fictional and scripted, but the one thing that is completely autobiographical is the life of the army clerk. Zohara’s role was identical to the one I played during my military service. Beyond that, I drew inspiration for creating the characters and the atmosphere from my own army stint. The movie was filmed at the exact base where I served, and since the story is quite extreme, we were careful to pay attention to the authenticity of small details—the set, the uniforms, the language.

Q: I laughed at the beginning when Zohara instructs Libby that she can vary what she will be doing as an army clerk—either opening all the mail at once or one at a time. A numbing routine.

TL: That segment just accentuates the appalling waste of time the work really is. And that a monkey could do it just as well, or, best case, maybe a computer. It was important to me that this text be spoken seriously, not cynically. That’s because the absurdity is even greater when we the viewers see it and the characters don’t because they’re so used to thinking that this is what they're good at. Also—this may sound strange and contradictory—I sincerely believe that you must not belittle any work that you do, even if it’s stupid.

Q: You told me that the movie depicts “humiliations” that you felt at that outpost. Talk about the line said by the young medic to Zohara when he’s trying to seduce her: “In the desert, every thorn is a flower.” Is that a compliment or a humiliating line?

 This is a line that’s usually part of a men’s joke. It’s never been casually used by a man trying to make it with a woman. The fact that he utters this sentence in a complimentary tone confuses Zohara about how to respond and what to make of it. She pegs the medic as a problematic type, yet a specific one with his own, not necessarily “bad” personality.

Q: Talk about your Israeli film title, “Lonely Soldier,” in relation to the characters, including Libby, who says she feels she doesn’t exist, and Zohara, who seems to have had no friends before Libby. The other women do nothing of consequence and seem to be living like prisoners. I think you’re saying that female soldiers in remote posts feel that way because of loneliness, isolation, and doing unnecessary tasks.

 My first night at that base felt like my first night in prison. Eventually matters improved, but even after a year-and-a-half of serving there and things looking different, I was still engulfed by that “prison” feeling etched in my brain. Through the character of Libby, the new soldier, I wanted to convey that feeling in the girls’ barracks, which even architecturally resemble most of the prisons I’ve seen in movies.

As for the title, in Hebrew it’s “Lonely Soldier,” which in army terminology refers to a soldier with no family in Israel—or at all. It’s a very common and cold term, but I’ve always felt that it’s a poignant juxtaposition of words. I adopted this for the title of the film because despite their being no information in the script about the girls’ families or backgrounds, there’s a pervading feeling that they are quite alone.

When translating the film to English (which, by the way, was quite complicated), we decided that the literal translation “Lonely Soldier” didn’t express the same sentiment as the Hebrew (where, as we said, it’s an army term). Somehow in English it had the sound of a Vietnamese war movie. So we decided to title the English-language version “The Substitute.” This name we also deliberated over a great deal. We were afraid it had the connotations of a substitute teacher, but a friend who’s a native English speaker convinced us that this definitely was not the case. If you disagree, take it up with him….

Q: At one point the women, who have little recreation, watch a political puppet show. You had puppet imagery at the end of “The Waitress,” so can I assume you have an interest in puppets?

 The truth is that I wrote a short skit for a puppet theater and I really wanted to put it in a film somehow. What the puppets give "The Substitute," beyond fulfilling my desire, is a way to reveal feelings that the characters themselves can't express. The puppets can weep aloud, shout, cry out to God. I love the segment where the officer shouts that she's lonely: In the play that’s just the beginning of a stupid joke, but from the expression on Libby's face, you can see that this is her genuine feeling.

Q: Do you think Libby has attempted suicide before arriving there? When she and Zohara bond does Zohara think she will be happy and never commit suicide again?

 While the army did not trigger Libby’s deep depression, it certainly exacerbated it. When I was writing the script, I used to monitor internet forums for soldiers suffering from depression (and it turns out that there are quite a few). I think that an acute depression leading to suicide begins at a much earlier stage, but army service frequently brings it to the fore.

From the beginning, Zohara never believes that Libby wants to commit suicide. She, personally, is so self-centered that she assumes everyone else harbors selfish priorities. She is sure that Libby is feigning suicide in order to get released from the base, which is exactly what Zohara would have done.

Q: Do you like Zohara or Libby, and do you relate to them?

 I’m very attached to both characters. I think that they’re quite similar, yet they represent two contrasting options for relating to life. Each of them lives in her own world, without much awareness of her surroundings. I identify with them both, despite their differences, and I think that I succeeded in expressing myself through them.

Q: Will Israeli women relate to your film more than anyone else? Do you think there are universal themes?

 It’s hard to answer that. While I was writing the script, I imagined an audience made up of people I know who are somehow connected to me. And they’re Israelis, of course, mostly IDF veterans (it’s important to note that the army is a very individual, different experience for each soldier). Naturally I had no intention of focusing only upon the very limited audience of Israeli women soldiers. So not everything in this movie necessarily relates to army service, and the military is in some ways an excuse to talk about other structures in life.

Also, I never considered that the film would be screened in many places outside Israel, nor could I know whether its themes would be understood internationally.

I still contend that it speaks differently to an Israeli audience who understand the army culture from up close and can catch details and codes that are transmitted to those in the know. However, of course I’m delighted that the film is being shown in places across the world I’d never imagined, with positive reviews.

Q: With your camera placement, you made some interesting choices. What were you thinking in regards to a style?

TL: The decisions about the filming style were shaped by loads of restrictions. The film was extremely low-budget, with serious time constraints. We couldn’t afford the luxury of having complex camera movements or complicated shots of any type. But I actually like these kinds of limitations---they arouse great creativity. We attempted to keep to a limited spectrum of colors in the film and dim lighting, to set the proper atmosphere. In essence I think that this is the type of film whose simple filming style doesn’t attract attention, leaving the stage to the actors’ work.
Q: Do you think your film is political?
TL: I think that it’s indirectly political. Through a story that doesn’t touch the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in any way, we get a glimpse of the place where decisions affecting human life are made by people too young, sometimes unable to comprehend the extent of the responsibility on their shoulders. This, as well as cases of different sorts, can lead to tragic consequences.
Q: Before your film played at the Tribeca Film Festival, it already had won the Audience Award in Berlin. Since Tribeca, it has won several awards including being chosen Best Short Film at Barcelona and the Melbourne International Film Festival. At Palm Springs, you were named Best Emerging Film Student. You have had amazing success at festivals, so tell me your overall impression of them.
TL: They are all great experiences. I especially enjoy the vibes and the special energy of big cities like New York. Besides that, a lot of people talked to me about the film and were interested in my work, and I usually have some interesting meetings. I never know if showing my film at an event will lead to anything in the future, but I don't think that is the main reason to go to festivals. At Tribeca, for instance, I had conversations with interesting people, getting to know different points of view, and saw films that I couldn't see anywhere else. It was very fulfilling and a lot of fun and I hope to be invited back.

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