Pull Focus: Yoav Shamir
by Kafi Kareem and Lauren Donia
Tel-Aviv based documentarian Yoav Shamir is an accomplished award-winning director, producer and cinematographer in film and television. His work reflects his passion to probe and uncover difficult and polarizing subject matter through an observational lens, delivering penetrating and ethically challenging interviews with an accessible charm. “Even the most complicated sorts of theories can be accessible to everybody, There’s nothing that everybody can’t understand,” he says.
Shamir graduated from Tel-AvivUniversity with a Bachelor of Arts in history and philosophy, and a Masters in Fine Arts in Film. His work has been screened an international film festivals and broadcasted on internationally recognized channels, including BBC, the Sundance Channel, ITVS and Canal+. His latest film, “Defamation” (2009), explores perspectives on anti-semitism. Yoav joined the Center on March 31, 2011 as part of our Visiting Filmmaker series. We sat down with him to get an inside look on how he approaches his craft.
What makes you decide that a story is worth telling?
Yoav: Sometimes a producer will come up to me with an idea, and I’ll decide whether it’s interesting and take it or not take it based on that. But where I live is a place full of events and full of interesting things so it’s an advantage that I’m not living in a boring place. I think there are certain qualities when you make a film about things that you know personally. You get more layers and more depth in what you’re doing than if you were to make a film about another country you know nothing about.
There are also nice things about that [making films about unfamiliar countries], and I’ve done that too. I shot my first film in Cuba. I’m a curious person. I’m curious about a lot of things. So when you give me a subject, even if it’s broad at the beginning, I find an angle that is interesting to me and then I thinking about whether it’s possible to decode it in a cinematic way; to make it into a good story that will look good on screen as well. And if all of these things happen then there’s a good chance that I’ll enjoy the filmmaking and eventually it’s going to be a good film.
You mentioned that you were drawn to cinéma vérité when you discovered the form in film school. What about vérité appeals to you?
Yoav: I think it’s great. Actually, if you think about it, fiction film is cinéma vérité because it’s just things happening, whether it’s conversation or action. The nice thing about it is that it’s happening in the present tense. So you’re not talking about what I’ve done yesterday or the year before or reenacting things. You’re just capturing them as they happen and there’s a certain quality to it that no other form of filmmaking has.
How do you determine your visual approach?
Yoav: It depends a lot on a the scene. With defamation I knew that there was very little to it cinematically to begin with. It’s not taking place in a beautiful area, it’s mostly happening in offices and places that are not visually stunning. The places that could leave an impact like the concentration camps I wanted to be careful not to overdo it. So I kept it very simple. The whole thinking was a personal dairy which I film that why I used the graphics like what you do in a scratch book — writing notes where I go. So this was driving me through the filming and the editing.
“Defamation” was a personal narrative. How did the research process for this film differ from your research for less personal projects? (Listen to an audio clip below.)
Yoav: I don’t like to research too much before I set out to do a film. Especially with “Defamation.” I wanted it to be an ongoing research — documented research. There are things I could have known before that might have helped and might have ruined it because when I discover something that I didn’t know about [on screen] there’s a certain authenticity to it. I take my time when I make films I shoot for many days and I look through different angles and aspects of the subject. So the research comes along in that way. I think eventually I know very well what the film is about.
“Defamation” includes scenes in which you challenge the perceptions of the people you were documenting. Was this a filmmaking strategy or would you have challenged these people even if you weren’t making the film?
Yoav: When I’m already filming I’m very focused on what I want to get out of a scene. I think it’s impossible to shoot something without knowing what you want. After a couple of days of shooting you get the atmosphere so there are some things that you can anticipate beforehand. So it’s sort of like making a checklist of themes that you want to cover. I went there with a camera, not for fun. But I think I would have told them [challenged people] even if the camera was not there.
Who was your target audience for “Defamation”?
Yoav: I never really think about my target audience. I think it’s most relevant for Israeli Jews and Israelis. But the film reached a very large audience, which I didn’t think would be interested in the film. It got a lot of attention. Also, for people interested in the Middle East situation, it makes it an interesting film.
In the process of making “Defamation,” did you ever have to choose between what you found most interesting and what your audience might be interested in?
Yoav: Mostly not in the shooting itself but in the editing. When you’re appealing to an international audience then some things need to be explained better than for a local audience. So I tried to make this film as accessible as possible. Plus it was a coproduction with a few countries. My editor was a Danish guy, not Jewish, no Jewish background, never had been to Israel, so in a way if he could understand what was going on then everybody could understand it. It was good having somebody in the editing room who was totally clueless about the whole thing because it forced me to make it very approachable and accessible as a story. When I make films I like to find it interesting myself. That’s kind of a rule that I have. I would not like to make a film that I would not like to watch. I don’t think that I’m a high-browed intellectual or that the ideas that I’m exploring are so super philosophical or intellectual that only few people can get them. I think I’m an average guy so whenever I explore things I think that they’ll appeal to many people.
How did you present “Defamation” to interview subjects on either side of the anti-semitism debate. For example the Anti-defamation League (ADL) versus Walt and Mearsheimer (authors of The Israel Lobby)?
Yoav: (Laughs) This film specifically was tough in that sense because I knew that I don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with the people I’m making the film about. So when I told them [the ADL] I’m making a film about fighting anti-semitism, I wasn’t misleading them. They have a big organization with a big budget for a certain agenda, and I on a much smaller scale have my own agenda. Both of us are driven by self interests so I feel like it’s fair game. So I told them, “Yeah it’s a film about anti-semitism.” But even with Walt and Mearsheimer, I like to keep my distance from both sides so I didn’t approach them with “Oh yeah wow your book was so great.” I just had some questions for them. So I think the film is fair to both sides of the spectrum.
How did you know when you were done filming?
Yoav: Most of the time, especially when it comes to the editing room, there is a certain deadline. That happens to me every time I make a film because there’s a deadline for film festivals. It’s very important that you premiere the film. There’s a point where you really need to be ready. By the time that you submit (normally it’s not a final cut but something close to a final cut), if they accept it you have two, three, four weeks to finish it. I don’t remember who said it, but there’s a saying: “A poem is never finished. It is abandoned. ” It’s true about films as well. Every film that I’ve done, I look back and I’m like maybe I should have done something different. But sometimes it’s all in my head. I watch a lot of rough cuts as a consultant. People tell me to come to their screenings because the film is so different from the rough cut. Most of the time it’s not. The rough cut is about 80 – 90% of the final film. There aren’t endless possibilities when you edit a certain film and you’ve decided on the tone of the film and you get the essence of the film. So eventually you can play around for a long time, but it’s not going to make a lot of difference.
Is your distribution strategy centered on your festival run?
Yoav: I wouldn’t say that this is one of my strong points, dealing with distribution and promoting the film. I know that there are many filmmakers that will spend 3, 4, 5 years after they finished the film taking care of it. For me a lot of times after I finish the editing and I see that it’s starting to go somewhere I lose interested and I move on to the next film. So in the last 10 years I’ve made 6 or 7 films which is quite a lot. I don’t know if it’s the right choice. For me, for my personality it’s the right choice because I get bored quite easily.
In making your latest film did you consider what type of impact you wanted to make?
Yoav: When you make a film you want to have an impact. I want people to watch the film, I want to have an nice festival run, nice distribution, all of these things. It’s a mater of ego and also makes the next film easier to make. But when you’re making the film it doesn’t really matter. You work with a certain budget and you work with you have.
What about in terms of socio-political impact?
Yoav: With this kind of film it was tricky. I wanted to keep the target audience as broad as possible. I was thinking that it would reach a wide range of people. Jewish people were the big targets. But it wasn’t controversial enough for the very left, which is quite a lot of people worldwide, and the conservative right they didn’t care enough. They weren’t interested in it. Thinking back about the film maybe I should have been less concerned with being accessible to the wide audience and make certain aspects of the film more extreme to have a better target of the obvious target group.
How do you fund your projects?
Yoav: Funding has become more and more difficult. There was a point where it was quite easy and now it’s becoming more difficult again. But in Israel we’re quite lucky that there’s a system where there are public funds. It’s not very difficult to have a television station and a public fund involved. It’s not a lot of money but it gives maybe between $100,000 and $200,000. It’s an okay amount to start with. I rely a lot also on my international broadcasters. There are certain broadcasters that you start having a relationship with and then you go to them and it makes it easier to fill the budget.
Any advice on the business of filmmaking? What’s the best way to make money?
Yoav: Thomas Balmès, who made “Babies” was in Israeli a couple weeks ago. He made a lot of money out of “Babies,” but he said don’t keep it [documentary filmmaking] as your main source of income. Documentary filmmaking — I don’t think there are many people in the world who are making a living out of it It’s quite difficult. I don’t want to sound discouraging to filmmakers. Making documentaries is a privilege. It’s nice to have skills to do something else, even if it’s in the film world. So if you’re a cameraman try to rely on certain commercials or teach. If you’re a director try to do some industrial films or commercials or whatever will give you a steady income. I’m not doing that 90% of my income comes from making documentaries. But it’s very tough. It means that you have to always be in production. It’s very tiring. I cannot afford to stop making films for three years. I always have to be moving on to the next project and it can get very tiring eventually.
What’s one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned about making documentaries? (Listen to an audio clip below.)
Yoav:The main issue is the relationship with your characters. Always keep in mind that they’re not your friends. This is something that filmmakers often forget. You pay a very big price for intimacy. Intimacy is not necessarily the best tool you have. It can be a double-edged sword. A lot of times you get too close to them and think: “What will they think of the film?” and “I care so much about them.” This is a recipe for disaster. During the time I got to know many of the big masters of documentary filmmaking and most of us are not very nice people. You really cannot be because if you want to make a film and you want to say something meaningful and get a point across being nice is not necessarily the right way to do it. People that you film often do not perceive themselves in the way that you’re going to present them eventually. So this is an important thing to know — you cannot always be ‘Mr. Nice Guy’. It doesn’t mean that you cannot be fair. It’s not my responsibility to take into consideration the interests of the guy who is being filmed. They are grown ups and if I didn’t deceive them with what I want to do it’s their responsibility that they wanted to be on camera. There are a lot of ethical questions which are important to figure out for yourself because if not you can feel pretty bad about yourself and it’s not very pleasant.
What’s the most important aspect of social-issue filmmaking? Is it important to make sure to tell all sides of the story?
Yoav: The main thing is to tell a good story. Every story in the world can be accessible. My new film has a lot of science involved, and I’m interviewing professors of genetics and physics and things that I know nothing about. But even the most complicated sort of theories can be accessible to everybody and there’s nothing that everybody can’t understand. If someone knows what he’s doing he’ll be able to explain it to you in a way that’s accessible. And that is, I think, my role as a filmmaker. Whatever subject I’m trying to tell I should tell it to you in such a way that if we’re sitting in a bar you’ll be able to understand it. So that’s my main obligation — to be coherent and to get my point across.
Most filmmakers do not give enough credit to their audiences. People know a lot more than you think they do. They get more subtleties that you think they do. Your audience is more intelligent than you think they are so not everything needs to be explained. Most of the time if people are going to see your film it’s because they’re already interested in the subject. Tell your story in way that is simple to understand you don’t have to be Wikipedia or something giving every angle of it.