While North American documentaries are becoming increasingly political and divisive, Souvenirs, Iraeli filmmaker Shahar Cohen’s directorial debut doc, is the very human story of a father and son trying to understand where they came from so they might to understand who they are.
Souvenirs follows Shahar, an unemployed filmmaker, and his 82-year-old father, Sleiman, as they drive through Europe. Sleiman, a former WWII truck driver in the Jewish Brigade, believes they are retracing his experiences fighting the Nazis in Italy. Shahar, though, has a different plot up his sleeve. While shooting some footage at a Brigade veteran’s meeting in Jerusalem, Shahar discovers that his father may have left a couple souvenirs (read: children) of his own in Holland after the war. Sleiman has no desire to discuss this part of his life, which is tensely countered by Shahar’s need to find any half-siblings he may have, even if it means lying to his dad about the entire premise of the film.
It’s a classic father/son tale, but with private detectives and a jalopy. It’s also incredibly funny, touching, and beautifully shot. While the film seems to thrive on spontaneous acts and chance occurrences, Shahar’s technique is very thoughtful and conscious.
The film won Best Documentary at the 2006 Aviv Festival, the Israeli Academy Awards, and will premier in Canada on Wednesday, April 4th, at the Bloor Cinema (506 Bloor St. W.) as part of Hot Docs’ monthly Doc Soup. Shahar Cohen will be in attendance and will conduct a Q & A after the screenings. Torontoist recently sat down with the promising filmmaker to find out about his influences, manipulating his father, exposing his personal life, and what he thinks about Toronto.
Who are some of your influences?
I guess all the good films that I saw, also all bad films that I saw. I’m pretty influenced by Woody Allen and I love Allen Berliner. His film Nobody’s Business has influenced me a lot in the making of this film. You know, that my father doesn’t want to cooperate, that’s what creates the tension, and that we know something he doesn’t know, like me hiring a private investigator.
The film is based on you accidentally finding out about your father’s possible ‘souvenirs’. How much of what you shot was planned?
Even though it’s a documentary film, I worked really hard on the script. Actually, I wrote it as if it was a fiction film. I wrote all the scenes and the dialogues, but nothing of what there is in the film was in the script. It’s not that I told or directed my father or asked him to say this or that, but I was manipulating him into certain situations that I wanted. What comes out of him is fresh, real documentary.
The film is so personal. What does it feel like to have that part of your life captured on film and shown to other people?
It was pretty embarrassing. I am very shy in terms of my own life and my family, but I had this great story that was screaming to be told so I had no choice. You don’t come up with a good story many times, it’s the hardest thing in the business, the basic idea, the basic story, so I sacrificed my intimacy, my father’s intimacy, and he sacrificed his intimacy. It was very hard for him. He would never open up emotionally the way he did in the film.
What was his reaction when he saw the film?
He was very shocked. He told me he couldn’t sleep for some days, he wanted me to show it to him again. He didn’t want it to be called Souvenirs because it’s supposed to be about the Jewish Brigade, even though I was telling him the whole time that it’s a personal story and he’s the star of it. He couldn’t really digest it.
When you watch the movie you can see that he wants to reveal certain things to you, to talk about things he hasn’t talked about before. Did that trip change the way you were able to relate to each other?
Now, he opens up to me more, especially if I bring the camera over [laughs].
This is your first time in Toronto. What do you think of it?
It’s so beautiful. I like the way you build new houses next to old houses – there’s a dialogue. Each house has a dialogue with the houses around it, which is really exciting.
Souvenirs is screening as part of Hot Docs monthly Doc Soup on Wednesday, April 4th at the Bloor Cinema (506 Bloor St. W.). Screenings are at 6:30 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. Tickets are $12 and can be purchased at the door or online through Hot Docs.
Photo by Hot Docs.