Discussing our current issue whose theme is “location,” we felt it was time to meet Avner Faingulernt, the head of and spirit behind the Audio and Visual Arts Department at Sapir College. Avner, an artist, documentary film director, educator and visionary of colossal projects, established a school of cinema and television at Sapir College, in which we too have been taking part in recent years. We set a meeting at Anat's Tel Aviv apartment. Avner, who always proclaims his dislike of the city, had to look for parking for thirty minutes, like any Tel Avivian. We agreed to talk about location, community and cinema.
When did you start feeling the need to establish, or reach the conclusion that a school of cinematic arts should be established at Sapir?
You give me too much credit. I think I am not a man motivated by thinking. I seem to act on impulse.
It's time to start narrating your life backwards.
Looking back, I can say a lot of things, but I wasn't acting on those things. I really act out of intuition and infatuation. I am only there as long as I connect with an adventure. Once it's over, I'm gone. It's interesting, it's a kind of weird character trait I learned to abide by. But to answer your question: Ran and I studied at Tel Aviv University together. We worked together and even collaborated on several films. During my studies, I lived in Tel Aviv, and at a certain point, when my first daughter was born, I went back to Bror Hayil, the kibbutz where I grew up. Upon arrival, I told them that what I wanted to do was reorganize the education system. I don't know why. But maybe in retrospect I can explain that it felt like I wanted to mold my children's childhood into a sort of womb or paradise. That was the basic motivation. And indeed, within two years, I built up an education system. I worked with babies, children, setting up the institution. The kibbutz was in crisis, total collapse. And this is what I did. I went to the most miserable, poorest kibbutz in the world, in the deepest of crises, and said: I shall both live and raise children here. Two years later I had my fill. I couldn't carry on with education anymore. I continued chaperoning what I had built. It gained footing, stabilized, and Bror Hayil started changing too. From there I went to work in television, making reportages for London et Kirschenbaum.
Back to cinema for a moment, besides the community-education vision you have held for years, the trigger for it all was passion for cinema. When did you fall in love with this medium?
You wouldn't believe it, but it started out when I was a truck driver. After my military service, I drove a lighting gear truck. I worked in small and big movies for a year, and I think it was there that my great love for cinema started, especially with lighting and photography. I started working with the lighting technicians, who were high most of the time and were happy to have any kind of laborer do things for them. Thus, I started off as a lighting technician and best boy. And I actually did the work, in huge feature films. I operated arches, really touching the light. Later on, after a long trip to the Far East, I went to work as a fisherman in New York. It is a very hard place. You go out to sea every three weeks, not knowing if you'll ever make it back. The workers fell somewhere along the spectrum between KKK members and just plain red necks, really tough people. The only way to survive the fishing trips was to have the additional overlook, a sort of camera that records and plays back the relationships in that floating prison. The combination of extreme people and extreme nature always fascinated me. I realized I was interested in documentary cinema. I came back to Israel, worked in the kibbutz fields, wandered around. I reached the Tel Aviv University cinema department when I was almost thirty. I did not consider myself capable or worthy of choosing art as a vocation, which is probably why I took psychology too, so as to diffuse the risk. As mentioned, after graduating, I established the kibbutz education system and raised my eldest daughter, and two years later I left again and started working for Channel 2, making television reportages for London et Kirschenbaum. I would usually suggest topics related to peripheral areas, never inside Tel-Aviv, never in the epicenter of hegemony. After a year I was offered a permanent position as reporter for Channel 2. I remember Shalom Kital offering me a lot of money to do a piece every weekend. I said I wasn't interested and left. But a movie came out if it; the film I made with the anthropologist Maya Barr about the Birim refugees, The First Will Be Last (1997), which was beautiful. On one hand, I felt I was touching an area that interested me, and on the other hand, I felt I wasn't in the right place. The film was finished. It was screened in the Jerusalem Film Festival and on Channel 2, and I didn't leave the house for three months. I felt strange. How can it be that I'm doing what I wanted most, independent production and funding, directing the film as I see fit, as I dreamed it should be, with Valentin Belonogov, the Russian cinematographer I was working with at the time? Everything was good, and nothing was. Absolutely nothing. I mean a feeling of devastation.
I felt there was a huge difference between what I wanted and what I was doing. What I wanted was something unmediated, almost like going without the camera, like when I take trips and meet people and they tell me wonderful stories. And the process of making the film ruins it. It becomes structured, processed, something that is not right for me. Additionally, commuting to Tel-Aviv every day to edit, paying a fortune for editing, paying a fortune to the editor, paying a fortune to the crew, handling the crew— it all seemed like too much. I have to be free and dynamic, not bound to any framework. With this feeling, I gave it all up, went back to the kibbutz, and waited for my energy reserves to refill and for some sort of revelation. After a while, I started working on a few documentary, fictional and experimental films, of which one of the most avant-garde was a film about Yona Wallach and the poet Rachel, a truly hallucinatory film that was never made. At that time I met Macabit, and we made Eva (2002) and Gevarim Al Ha'Katze: Yoman Dayagim (2005). It was then, also, that my father passed away and I started filming a series of chronicles. I was living in the south of Israel without any source of income, dreaming about making films, picturing myself as a sort of camera-wielding vagabond, wondering around, finding people he loves, falling in love with them, filming, and making films out of it. That was my fantasy. That was what I dreamed about, what I was feeling, nothing else.
You wanted to turn your voyages into films.
Voyage films that come about while drifting without any preliminary groundwork. This is how I always traveled. You stay at a place because you feel something, and you find the people. This is what I am doing now in the southern Hebron Mountain, in the desert, with the settlers, the Palestinians and the smugglers. The older I get, the further I am willing to go with this method and the less I cling to orthodox production paradigms.
We understand you got to the South and started developing projects, but we're still not clear on what made you suddenly erect this monumental project – a cinema department at Sapir College.
I was simply out of work. I needed two or three thousand NIS a month to get by. I already had two daughters. I didn't feel like looking for work in Tel Aviv again. I doubted anyone would ever let me teach at Tel Aviv University. I felt like a complete outsider. This is where Haim Bereshit comes in. He was the head of the school of communications at Sapir and luckily he liked the film about Birim. It was something he really took to, the anthropological and the political attitude of the film. He let me teach for two hours a week, some stupid course about script writing. After a year I approached him and said, “Why are we wasting time on these things? Let's set up a cinema school. There's equipment, there are teachers, everything you need. Why communications and practical engineering? Let's make a school of cinema. Haim Bereshit threw it right back at me, asking me to come up with a curriculum. I said, “Haim, I have only a BA in cinema and psychology. I want to make films. I don't want to write programs to submit to The Council for Higher Education (CHE). Give me some work and that's it.” Haim said, “Then it will never happen.” That got me going, that sentence, “Then it will never happen”. It got to me. I thought, “Summer has already started and I have no work, no income, nothing. I might as well fool around with yet another idea. I'll learn about it and make up a study program.” And I noticed that I was really drawn in. The idea of inventing something was appealing to me. It seemed like another adventure. I remembered what I learned in Tel Aviv, all the things I liked, and all the things that seemed pointless. I took the programs of New York University and Columbia University and the London Film School and developed a model based on three tenets: developing world and local cinema as base reference, focusing on production and direction of primarily observational documentary cinema, and actual marriage of theory and practice, putting a stop to this artificial and handicapping separation between them. These were the three rationales of which I could say, This is what I want; this is the cinema that interests me. I used to be interested in European cinema from the 1970's and 1980's. Today I am interested in films from South East Asia, South America and some from Africa. So I devised a program: what was to be taught in every semester, what would be the central theme each semester. Haim really liked what came out of it. We processed it together and submitted it to the CHE. It was not a result of some long and orderly planning process. To my surprise, it was promptly approved, because it had all the right elements. The program suited the area in which it was to run, the area where everyone saw misery and dereliction and I saw beauty, a treasure. You have Brazilians, Argentinians, Ethiopian, Moroccan, Tunisians, Kazakh, Bedouins. Each of these groups preserved its own world, which I found much more interesting than the Israeli world that I was raised in, that I tried to emulate, that I tried to resemble. The deconstruction of identity began there. Haim Bereshit was the first department head, but he was very busy running a large communications department and setting up a new culture department as well as a cinematheque in Sderot. So in practice, I was running the show. I started teaching observational documentary cinema, all the things I love. And little by little it has grown, since 2001.
Where do you draw your ability to just do? I mean, not many people can just establish a school of cinema.
I never thought I was establishing a school of cinema. You might also say I founded the Cinema South Film Festival. I never thought I was founding a film festival. I blurted it out, the caprice broke loose, and I suddenly found myself in the middle of it, and I am a responsible person. On one hand, I am a thrill-seeking adventurer; on the other hand, I am very responsible. If I commit to something, I stick by it. I don't fake it. I am true to my words. I listen to them, and once uttered, I follow them. Today over 450 students attend the school. It has six programs: cinema, television, animation, score composition and soundtrack design, script writing, practical engineering and an MA program. I mean, it became humongous.
We understand the school wasn't meant to reach this size, but today, can you put into words the reason for its success?
Although the establishment of the school was not planned, the concept behind it was well defined. The political, regional view, the kind of cinema to take as reference, Israeli, Palestinian, developing world; it does not seek resemblance to North America or Western Europe. It is a different sphere, not Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem. But it is not only defined by what it is not. The definition is of the South as a free space, a place where you can say anything, a wild, liberated, vibrant space. It is a sweaty, nervous, harsh, tough place. It is raw and simple. That was the basic substance that appealed to me so much. Sophistication wasn't for me. It's not that I can't handle complexities, but I went to this very primordial almost dark, savage place. This is were I wanted to go, and it was very important to me that the school would be attended by students from the south, that Bedouin students would come, that students would come from Dimona, Arad, the moshavim, bringing with them all the ghosts hidden under the Israeli guise. Where are we? We are between Gaza and Rahat, between Sderot and Netivot. Come on, let's address this. This is the reference point, not London, New York or Paris, not the New Wave. I don't know what's in Gaza. I don't know what's in Rahat, what's in Netivot. Let's start finding out. It intrigued me even as a boy in Bror Hayil. I was taught to fear these places, Rahat, Gaza, Yeruham. And when I grew older, these were the places I was drawn to. We are one inseparable space. Whatever you do, you can never divide this space. It is one space in which we have to live. The Oslo Agreements and all the negotiations always seemed irrelevant to me. As a schoolboy, I would walk to Gaza. At 17, I would drive from Nahal Oz to Palestine Square and onto the hill where the synagogue with the mosaic is. I would eat falafel and walk along the shore among the fishermen and potters.
That's why when you say it is one space, and the roots of the people inhabiting this space are outside what's considered Israeli, it leads to a very regional, local cinema that comes from various peripheral areas in the world. It is not from central Israel. And so, whereas Renen Schorr refers to American cinema with the phrase, “make them laugh, make them cry,” and whereas the Tel Aviv University School of Cinema and Television adopts the perspective of European and New Wave cinema, our DNA explores the cinema of the developing world, the third world occupying the three continents that are not North America and Western Europe.
Aren't you worried that your source of reference is in fact imagined? Israeli society tries to be like the US or Europe, not India or the Philippines.
The school we built is meant to represent more frontiers or more worlds. We start in the first semester with American and independent European cinema, but already in the second one, we start including the developing world too. Emigrants' cinema, films from Turkey, the Middle East, Africa, South America, East Asia, South East Asia. Note that a) most people in the south of Israel come from this kind of foreign world— they are not from western Europe or North America; and b) it is a very rich culture that I find very exotic, and I am sure it is relevant to our lives. Indeed, western culture is predominant here, and for me it's not a question of winning, but of introducing concepts from elsewhere. This is why in the Cinema South Film Festival programs, the films are always from developing countries.
We want to put you on the spot: You talk about laboratory, research, deconstruction of concepts and identities. These are processes usually explored in small intimate groups. But still you chose the size of the department as part of the school agenda. Many students, six programs and an MA track. How do the two come together?
Don't forget that if you operate outside central Israel, without size you don't exist. If it's big, there's more leeway, it remains open. One of the problems of remoteness is that it is closed up and blocked. It is not open to varied influences and movements. It was very important for me to have a lot of movement. It seems to conflict with the idea of a laboratory. Personally, in my own films I am inclined towards an intimate kind of exploration. But the department had to grow. Today I think that when I move away from managing and focus on my creative work, I am looking for that laboratory from which are sprouting the mono-drama Brazilian Diaries (Yoman shel Brazilai) that I am making, an exhibition, cinematic journals, and perhaps a website. On one hand, I distinguish my own little work, which is really like laboratory work, from the effort to put a big strong school on its feet. And on the other hand, I am able to induce a laboratory like feeling within the various programs of the school.
When you look at the films this school produces, can you identify a language, an aesthetic, a political conception that characterizes it? This was part of your vision wasn't it?
First off, yes. I definitely dreamed of creating a radical place that gets in everybody’s faces and does its own cinema. Like Grotowski and Mnouchkine in theater, or in Iranian cinema for example. But again, in weighing the aspiration to have many students— each creating his or her pieces, generating a sort of abundance— against the aspiration to create a cultural, political cinematic movement that defies conventions, I try to enjoy both worlds. Coming back from New York, I was very much surprised at the films this year. They had something emotional, raw, unsophisticated, unprocessed, but warm and committed in a way that really appealed to me. Not avant-garde at all, but with a sentiment that I find to be connected to this place. It's not about altering concepts. We are not Fassbinder and his friends who reinvented German cinema. I wonder if in today's vast cultural diversity there could even be a movement that breaks all the rules. Still it's a perpetual fantasy.
What is the next dream you intend to pursue regarding the Sapir community?
I have been talking about something I call the South Cinema Project. It started off as a school of cinema, but we never saw it as just an academic institute. I always thought of it as part of the community. And one of its functions is giving to the community, a community that hosts a school of cinema, a festival, a cinematheque, a cinema support fund, and an online TV channel. Now we are trying to set up the fund. All these things need a hub, and I think the most interesting place is the deserted sulfur factory in Beeri. It is located in a beautiful surrounding, very close to border with the Gaza Strip. The idea struck me when I was walking along the High Line in New York, an amazing park on an obsolete stretch of above-ground city rail track. It is one of the cleverest places you can find. It integrates art, nature, recreation, indulgence – ingenious. And it occurred to me: I want to take the old sulfur plant in Beeri and turn it to a Guggenheim between Gaza and Sderot, doubling as both a museum and a center for concurrent art. It is a remarkable building nestled among bunkers and wheat fields, a 1917 factory, a British-Palestinian joint project. It has been inactive since 1945 or so. My fantasy is to have a bridge to Gaza from there. It might get stuck at the border, but maybe one day it would reach it's destination.
Back to your films, after The First Will Be Last and Eva, you went on to make Gevarim Al Ha'Katze: Yoman Dayagim and Matador Ha'Milchama (2011). You went back to where you set off to found the cinema school, back to the south. Their style too coincides more with the cinema you had in mind – film making while roaming.
I think that today I do gravitate towards a place, a minuscule space, in which I would find the whole of what I am looking for. Lately it also happens when I film in the desert, near Um Daraj. I go there occasionally to film Palestinians, settlers and Bedouins. I intend to be there for three or four years until the situation is clarified and the stories are divulged and made known. I don't know if you know it, but this is the only place where there is no border, no fence between Israel and Palestine. Therefore it is an area readily crossed. But it's not just about space, but also about borders. It is always about borders. For me borders are very important. This space between Israel and Palestine, between Gaza and Sderot, between Gaza and Ashkelon, is right on that borderline. Matador Ha'Milchama is exactly on the borderline. Now I film there, in the desert, right on that line. I visit the southern Hebron Mountain now, because I think what happens there will affect what happens here, to all of us. This is the only place where Israelis meet Palestinians, and the Israeli settlers speak Arabic very well and the Palestinians speak Hebrew. They plow their fields side by side and confront each other.
You filmed your last few films yourself.
The audacity to do the filming came to me in Yoman Dayagi. It is part of the freedom you allow yourself in your work. A substantial freedom which bears risk too because you don't account for broadcasting networks or funds. You don't know whether you'll get support from funds or from networks. You don't know what is going to happen. But you pursue the adventure and the obsession time and time again.
In practice you divide your time today between running the school and creating your works?
Yes, fifty-fifty. I am really split. I feel that something has been used up and that I need new excitement. I have eased up with the festival. Erez Peri and Efrat Korem ran it this year. I have eased up with the school too. The program heads have much more power now; they set their own study program. I feel that the time I spent in New York last year made me think and try to figure out my soul's direction, and my search is a lot more focused on personal meandering. It is manifest in my recent films, which are about voyages. One of them followed my father's death – Braziilian Diaries— and the other one is what I am filming in the desert. I would also like to write a book about voyage cinema in Israel and Palestine following my PhD thesis about voyage films in European cinema. Besides all that, the dream about a cinema and cultural center in the south is in my bones, and I have my heart set on it.