Q&A: Acclaimed Israeli director Eran Riklis on his stay at Emory and the art of making films

Director Eran Riklis with Clara Khoury in The Syrian Bride.
Director Eran Riklis with Clara Khoury in The Syrian Bride.
Director Eran Riklis with Clara Khoury in The Syrian Bride.
Director Eran Riklis with Clara Khoury on the set of The Syrian Bride.

Director Eran Riklis is one of Israel’s most acclaimed filmmakers, and he arrives at Emory University today for a two-week residency, a visit which will include a series of lectures and free screenings of his films that are open to the public. 

Riklis is known for the delicacy of his intimate, human stories that unfold against a backdrop of brutal political conflict. Among his best-known releases in the U.S. are his 2004 film The Syrian Bride and 2008’s Lemon Tree. His 2010 film The Human Resources Manager was Israel’s official submission for the Best Foreign Film category at the Academy Awards, and his most recent film, A Borrowed Identity (aka Dancing Arabs), was released in the U.S. this summer. 

ArtsATL caught up with the director at his home in Tel Aviv to discuss his work in advance of his Atlanta visit.

ArtsATL: What was the path that led you to become a filmmaker?

Riklis was influenced by One Few Over The Cuckoo's Nest.
Riklis was influenced by a love of telling stories.

Eran Riklis: It goes back a long way. When I was 13 or 14, we lived in Brazil for a few years because my father was a scientist, and he was there on behalf of the Israeli government. I went to an American high school in Rio de Janeiro. This was at the height of the Vietnam War and Brazil was a dictatorship, so it was a very political era. But I was totally detached from world politics and what was going on. I had an English teacher who assigned Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. That, for me, was a shocker. In Israel, it hadn’t even been translated yet. It changed my life, and it shaped my approach to cinema in that I always look for the individual within the political social environment. I became, in a way, a bit of an American. 

The spark started there, but it was more a spark of literature, a love of telling stories, reading.  Because I was an outsider and away from home, I was more and more finding myself in dark cinemas. This is the cinema of the late ’60s, early ’70s, things like Easy Rider and the films of Jack Nicholson. It was very much about the individual, existential stuff, very appropriate for me at the time. The visual mixed with the narrative was part of me early on. By the age of 16, I had a proper camera and started to make some small films with friends. I went into the Israeli army, so that cut off my aspirations as a filmmaker for a time, but a day after I finished the army in 1975, I was at the university in Tel Aviv studying cinema. 

ArtsATL: You mentioned Easy Rider and other American films. Could you talk a bit more about some of the films that shaped your outlook as a filmmaker?

Riklis: I have one philosophy that’s kind of different. I never walk out of a film in the middle because even if I’m sitting in the worst film that’s ever been made, there’s always a shot that could be interesting, always a moment that could be unique. I think I’m influenced, like a lot of filmmakers, by everything from Orson Welles to the French directors like Truffaut and Goddard and the classic American ones like John Ford and the Italians like Fellini, Antonioni and Bertolucci. I always feel like you’re learning something new whether you’re a newcomer or a veteran; you always have films from so many places. My tendency is always to say I’m not a student of one or two or five or 10 directors. There are so many names I could mention. It’s a variety of people and a variety of moments as well. Two seconds in a film can change everything you thought about film.

ArtsATL: What are the moments you most admire in a film? What do you look for?

Riklis: At the end of the day, every film, it doesn’t matter if it’s Godzilla or Citizen Kane, you have to believe the face that is on the screen. I always tell my students there is a huge difference budget-wise between a student film and Steven Spielberg, but at the end of the day there’s an actor, there’s a director, there’s a cameraman, there’s somebody holding a microphone. You still have to make sure your story and character are believable. Those are the moments I look for: the truth. Not the spectacular stuff (although I love it). I try to focus on a face that is telling a story. I want to believe the story, and I want to believe the face. At the end of the day, it’s the close-up.

Eran Riklis on the set of A Borrowed Identity.
Eran Riklis on the set of A Borrowed Identity.

ArtsATL: Filmmaking is one of those art forms where the artist seldom sees or interacts with his audience. Who do you think of as your audience? Do you have a particular type of filmgoer in mind?

Riklis: I think the first person I try to convince is myself. Do I think this is good? Do I think this will work? Do I believe this? And then I tend to respect the audience in the sense that people are both well-informed and uninformed. We have access to information we never had before. You can Google almost everything. You can be aware of everything going on in the world.

On the other hand, we tend to be more superficial than ever. The headlines flash by at a tremendous speed. It all just comes and goes. My audience is totally global. For me there’s no difference between someone with a PhD and someone who dropped out of school after fifth grade. I address them in the same way. Those who make it to the cinema, we’re talking about the same level of intelligence or curiosity. I tend to come to the audience with respect. My audience is as wide as it can be and is treated the same way. If I grab them emotionally, I can work up to their brains.

ArtsATL: Your films often take on political subjects but they do so in a very particular way. The political situations, whether it’s a border dispute or armed conflict or whatever, is in the background, and in the foreground we see how the situation is affecting individual characters and their lives. For your films like The Syrian Bride or Lemon Tree, how do you think of the ideas for the characters’ stories? Are these stories you’d read some version of in the news? Were they things you’d heard about or were they purely from your imagination?

Riklis: The Syrian Bride is based on an incident I witnessed when I was doing a documentary about the border of Israel. One of the scenes was a wedding day on the border between Israel and Syria, and in fact, I saw how the bride was not allowed to enter Syria because of some issue with a stamp in her travel document. It was eight minutes out of an hour documentary, but the story stuck with me. I suddenly found myself a year later getting in touch with the family, traveling to Golan Heights and doing some research. I realized I had a beautiful story for a feature film. 

When people ask me why I make political films, I say they’re not political. I say they’re about people trapped in political situations that affect their lives. I think that’s the way we all live. Lemon Tree was the same. I was Googling something and I came across a very small story about a woman who went to court against the Israeli Minister of Defense. I dug in, there wasn’t much, but I did find the High Court’s decision, like a 40-page document. I said, okay, I have my film. There was everything in it: the set-up, the brutality, the compassion, the characters, the way it evolved. It was almost like a Western. There’s this plot of land: on one side are the cowboys, on the other side are the Indians. They fight each other via the court. I try to find reality, put a genre on it and go ahead with it. That makes my story.

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