Among the live action shorts in contention for this year’s Academy Awards is “White Eye,” Israeli filmmaker Tomer Shushan’s poignant narrative about the thought-to-reaction movements of a Tel Avivian who finds his stolen bicycle in the street. At 20 minutes and in one continuous take, it progresses like a waltz through the choreographed action of its 10 primary actors, a diverse ensemble of Hebrew speakers from different ethnic backgrounds, each of whom comes with their own internal biases and sense of privilege and place in the greater class structure of modern Israeli society.
The short has already received numerous accolades on the film festival circuit, and Shushan himself has been tapped for additional projects like the Israeli TV series “Torso” and his first feature film, which he’s currently developing. Variety spoke to Shushan shortly after “White Eye” made the Oscars shortlist.
What was the inspiration for “White Eye?”
The story of the film actually happened to me. About two years ago, I was on my way to meet my mentor to finalize a script for a short film I was working on. It was the last day to send it to one of the Israeli film foundations. On the way, in the middle of the street, I saw my stolen bicycle, and some aggressive instinct came out of me. I couldn’t go away without the bike, then the whole story like it presented in the film happened but with a better end. I was overwhelmed by the experience, and my mentor told me to write it down as a script. So I did.
Different characters emerge from around street corners and inside the rooms of a meat processing plant. How many rehearsals did it take to get the dialogue and movements down to one continuous shot?
This story is about a person who experiences a stressful and intense moment. Instead of acting from a rational place, he gives in to an egoistic rage. Everything happens to him in a short time without a moment to stop, reconsider, breathe. I wanted the same effect for the audience — to really feel the main character’s situation — but between every take in a film, the viewer has a tiny little break to catch their breath. I wanted the camera to connect the viewer and the main character in a never-ending, motion-like tension that doesn’t give you a break.
We knew that everyone on the set — not just the actors, but every crew member — would have some choreography in how they move when the camera starts to record. It took us about four months to understand the rhythm and the movement of every person on the set because we filmed it on 360. And we shot the film in one night and had eight full takes.
What neighborhood in Tel Aviv was it filmed in?
It was shot in southern Tel Aviv. It’s an industrial area, that during the night, transforms into an area for prostitution. This dark place presents the general atmosphere of the film and the social issues the film wishes to illuminate.
Much of the action takes place in a slaughterhouse that employs several African immigrants. What was the significance of the location?
I chose the slaughterhouse not because of the deathly environment of it, but also because the building was perfect for one specific scene I wanted to create: a critical moment where several immigrants are hiding in the meat refrigerator that serves as a metaphor for how these people get treated in our society. This moment was an image in my mind, and I built and adjusted everything around it.
What do you hope viewers will come away with after seeing “White Eye?”
We constantly meet immigrants from different social status in our everyday life but people do not always act in a way that’s consistent their values. Often this behavior stays unnoticed and life just goes on. “White Eye” shows the audience these social differences and reminds everyone of their privilege.
So much great film and TV storytelling comes from Israel; why do you think Israelis have been as creative in visual media?
Israel is a very unique and interesting place, historically, politically, and it’s rich with multiple cultures. We have here more than 15 films, which is a huge amount in proportion to the size of Israel. The recognition that Israeli films have gotten in recent years encourages more people to make films and tell their stories. Israel is also a young country, made up of people that came from all over the world and brought with them the cultures of the places they left. After years of adjustments for the new society, the third generation of Israelis is more connected and more crystallized. Therefore the creations feel more organic and bring a different point of view to our new Israeli culture.
Watch the trailer for “White Eye” below.