Cinematic representations of European, Israeli and Jewish-American experiences tackle the wide-ranging circumstances of Jews across these cultural segments, from orthodox to secular and everything in between.
Yet, the Latin American Jewish diaspora has rarely had much on-screen exposure within the context of Spanish-speaking countries. This, of course, doesn’t mean that those stories don’t exist.
Revisiting memories that marked his childhood growing up in El Once (an Argentine-Jewish neighborhood of Buenos Aires), and the dynamic interactions between its inhabitants, director Daniel Burman (The Mystery of Happiness, Lost Embrace) serves up a humorous and thoughtful vision in The Tenth Man (El Rey del Once).
Returning to Buenos Aires from New York, Ariel (Alan Sabbagh) is immediately thrown into the politics and daily battles of a local Jewish foundation run by his father, Usher (Usher Barilka). While attempting to adapt to his newly discovered responsibilities within this charity, Ariel befriends Eva (Julieta Zylberberg), a devout woman who has chosen not to speak in order to keep tradition—and a secret. By becoming part of this world, Ariel witnesses the distinct modes in which people live their faith.
MovieMaker spoke with the lauded filmmaker, who is also now developing television projects through his own company, about going back to basics, and why it’s “simple” for him to live as a Jew.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Given that the film is a blend between real events and fictional material, what was it about this particular neighborhood, El Once, which prompted you to want to explore it in a character-driven narrative?
Daniel Burman (DB): There is a foundation in Argentina that’s dedicated to helping people in emergency situations, mostly linked to the Jewish community, but they don’t ask about religion before helping people. They basically donate what they have to those who have less, without looking at who has the least or who still needs more. I was always very impressed by the mystery of goodness; how there could be people who truly dedicate themselves to another person without expecting anything in return.
We live in a society in which all of the things that mankind does, even emotionally, are done with the expectation of receiving something back. We are good husbands because we want women to be good to us, or we are good at work because we want a raise. But it seems that there are people who escape this rule and give for giving’s sake. This always seemed very mysterious to me. I was very skeptical until I met Usher, who is a real person, and who commands an army of volunteers in this foundation.
Departing from my knowledge about this character, I played with the idea of exploring the son of a man who seems to be able to help everyone but who can’t help his own son. It’s often easier to help those who are far away from us than those who are close. Even charity, beneficence, or taking care of others could also be a way for one to disassociate from oneself.
MM: How did you approach the process of creating your lead character, Ariel, who is a fish out water trying to reconnect with a estranged past? Was actor Alan Sabbagh familiar with the ideas that compelled you to make the film?
DB: Creating a character is like having music inside of you that you have transmit to others. It’s something very musical, about rhythm, about time, about tone. The empathy you can create with the story is fundamental to be able to convey what you have been creating alone in your head. He was very familiar with the environment, with the space, and with some of the characters, which made things easier. We did a lot of field research by going to the foundation and the neighborhood to meet the people upon whom the characters in the screenplay were based. We did very profound investigative work, so that he could construct this character, who returns to an unknown world but which as the same time is his origin. It’s a particular paradox.
MM: Was the The Tenth Man a return to a more minimalist type of filmmaking in comparison to what you had been doing in previous works?
DB: Yes, this is a return to my origins. It’s a return to a way of making films that I missed—a way that’s much more artisanal. It was like starting out again.
MM: Why did you feel like you needed to come back to these origins?
DB: I was bored of myself, bored of what I was doing. I was bored of the process of making films that seemed reiterative to me. I wanted to get rid of a certain productive inertia that I had. This gave me the feeling of beginning again.
MM: In that sense, would you say that a minimalist story fulfills you more as a filmmaker?
DB: It was really good for me to make this film. I don’t know if it fulfilled me more, but it helped me recover that childish enthusiasm I had when I first started making films.
MM: How would you describe your personal relationships with Judaism or your Jewish identity?
DB: I wake up in the morning and I’m a Jew. For me it’s very simple to be Jewish [laughs]. There is no complexity. I have a very healthy relationship with my Jewish identity, but I understand that a lot of people don’t. I interact with all the different ways of being Jewish in a very natural way.
MM: Was it important for you to reflect both orthodox Judaism and more casual interactions with the religion?
DB: Absolutely. These are all different ways to connect with your identity and maybe you don’t agree with any, but these are different paths that take you to the same place. The differences are in the journey or the transit, but they all seek almost the same thing.
MM: Tell me about Eva, the character played by Julieta Zylberberg. She doesn’t speak for most of the film, yet is one of the emotional anchors of the story and this community.
DB: Something that interested me a lot was the circulation of the family name in Judaism. How the name is something crucial for the father and how a pregnant woman that doesn’t have her child’s father’s name, in a certain way, has nothing to say because she doesn’t have the answer to the first question. In pregnancy the first thing people ask is not how she got pregnant but who is the father. Not having an answer to that question has made the character mute. I wanted to play with the idea of a character who, given the fact that she can’t answer that primordial question, prefers silence.
MM: On set, do you allow for improvisation or do you work rigidly from the screenplay?
DB: I like going in with a highly elaborate screenplay, while also having the freedom during shooting to realize that I have to go in a different direction.
MM: Visually, what did you and your DP Daniel Ortega wanted to achieve with the naturalistic style on display?
DB: The film relies on reality and required a documentary-like camera, but at the same we didn’t want this documentary camera to be a dogma that prevented us from having the point of view of the character. It was about keeping that point of view and at the same time not influencing that reality that we were creating—because a lot of the times what’s happening on screen really happened. We had to have a candid and humble camera that occasionally took on a more protagonist-like role.
MM: Did you have a specific vision of El Once based on your experiences?
DB: El Once is the territory of my childhood. It’s a place I’ve relived my whole life, so in a certain way, I went back to my origins of my life and also to the place where I started making films. This is the continent where my childhood took place.
MM: Would you say there are similarities between you and Ariel, the film’s protagonist?
DB: I don’t think so, but I’m also not sure [laughs].
MM: In terms of world-building or artistic liberties, what do you think the TV format offers that perhaps longer content, such as film, lacks?
DB: With TV you can create universes with much more liberty and focus on many characters. Characters that are secondary in some episodes can then become protagonists. You can extend the plot and can be more sophisticated. It’s a language that I’m very interested in, that entertains me, and that provides a great field for experimentation.
MM: Can television be as personal as feature-length filmmaking? What’s the difference?
DB: Absolutely. The challenge is that television doesn’t allow for the concept of authorship.
MM: Now that you are working on television via your production company, Oficina Burman, do you feel that Latin American audiences are underserved; that there is a need for more sophisticated content aimed at Spanish-speakers?
DB: Latin American audiences are as sophisticated as English-speaking audiences, and there is a lot of space to develop stories, which, even if they are developed locally in a particular place, have a global vision and create a dialogue with audiences across the continent. There is a great opportunity to develop high-quality stories in terms of narrative projects. There is a lot to do. I also truly believe in working in collaboration with artists from different places, exchanging ideas regarding dramaturgy, and creating projects as a team.
MM: I know the film has already opened theatrically in Argentina. What was the reaction there from the local Jewish community, since films depicting this segment of the country’s population are not common?
DB: The Argentine Jewish community saw itself portrayed and represented in the film. Situations that are not often seen, those that are unknown to us, or that we want to ignore, are also reflected. For example, the fact that a large segment of the Jewish community lives in an impoverished state is something that’s not often seen. The reaction has been great, and I’m very proud to have made this film. MM
The Tenth Man opens in theaters August 5, 2016, courtesy of Kino Lorber.