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Locarno: Director Avishai Sivan on ‘Tikkun’

Buzzed-Up Movie Swept July’s Jerusalem Festival

Taking top honors at the 32nd Jerusalem Fest last month, “Tikkun” (pictured) is a film written and directed by Avishai Sivan that tells the story of Haim-Aaron, an Jewish Orthodox religious scholar. When Haim-Aaron faces a near-death experience, he experiences an awakening that causes him to question his purpose.

Variety spoke to Sivan before “Tikkun” bowed at Switzerland’s Locarno Fest.

What sparked this idea?

A couple of real-life incidents triggered the idea: One was reading a newspaper article about a man who came back to life after 40 minutes of clinical death. The other was hearing a car accident take place on my street at night. That night I heard the accident victims shouting for help in my dreams. I started mulling over these ideas as bookends to the narrative and built it up from there. Eventually, these incidents become major acts in the final film.

How did you find your actors?

The casting process lasted a year and a half, due to the enormous challenge of finding the lead actor. I met with many talented actors but something was always lacking. The more I researched, the more I wondered how I would manage to bring a non-religious, professional actor anywhere close to the specific mannerisms and dialect of a devout Hasidic Jew. Eventually, we scouted ex-yeshiva scholars who had left religion. We tried teaching them basic acting techniques in the hope of discovering natural talent. Aharon Traitel, a former Hasidic Jew, responded to our casting advert and after the first few auditions I remained unsure about him. Then, unlike the other candidates, Aharon started suggesting script amendments and guided me in my research on Ultra Orthodox Jews. He also translated the relevant scenes to Yiddish. He had a hidden charm that I needed to surface and trust in order for him to take on the main role. It was a risk worth taking as, over time, Aharon became deeply entrenched in the project and came to understand all the minutia of the story.

I’m often asked why I cast a Palestinian Muslim as Haim-Aaron’s father (an Ultra Orthodox Jew of Eastern European descent). The answer is very simple: Khalifa is an astonishing actor, who gave an exceptional audition and was consistently professional during filming and taught me alot. For half a year, Khalifa studied Yiddish and visited Ultra-Orthodox communities in order to carry out his meticulous research. His physical transformation was so dramatic that nowadays, after screenings, often no one recognizes him as the actor who plays Haim-Aaron’s father. So his misses out on his moment of glory.

Do you have a personal connection to religion?

I don’t have a personal connection to religion. I like the fact that I’m not linked to these communities and that I’ve no emotional ties to them. My approach is more theoretical as an observer-storyteller. This way, I can be more daring than an “insider”.  My treatment is more philosophical and cinematic than sociological.

The only personal parallel I can draw is in my other life as a plastic artist: My process painting or making video-art is similar to the Yeshiva student’s in his quest for the sublime. You’ll find this element in each of the main characters in my “religion” trilogy.

What are your upcoming projects?

My next major project is a spy thriller – an adaptation of an Israeli novel “The Smell of Blue Light” by Nir Hezroni (comes out in English in the US in Spring 2016 (MacMillan). This is a whole new genre for me and I’m very excited to do something so different in pace and scale. But since the funding stage is always so long, I may well end up shooting another project before that!

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