Alexander Shapiro: Good cinema is always an upheaval, just like Jewish life
Alexander Shapiro is a Ukrainian director, a recognized leader of art house and auteur cinema of Ukraine. Shapiro’s films have been presented at the Berlin and Cannes film festivals. The director’s most important works as “Happy People”, “The Guide”, “Hemlock”, “Without Por No”, “The Apartments”. He lives in Tel-Aviv, after moving there from Kiev.
You studied at a yeshiva in Petersburg. What is the most important world outlook from those times that you take with you to this day?
Above all, self-discipline, elevated to the main principle of working on yourself. I think that any repression of this kind (if we’re talking about early phases in the establishment of the personality) over the years turns into an inner need to be aware of laziness. A person has two choices: either to fight laziness or give into to it. And for some reason I prefer to fight it.
A yeshiva provides an Orthodox upbringing for a child, which is as Jewish as you can get. How important is it for you to give children a Jewish upbringing, and what do you understand by this concept?
A yeshiva is a sporadic experience, you shouldn’t count on it. A development of this topic took place in my life quite recently. It’s like violin lessons in childhood: I also finished two classes of musical school many years ago, but this probably did not make a musician out of me – or rather it certainly did not. In this way, these two experiences are linked. They were abandoned as a very distant reflexive trace of something murky and mystical – but they also set a vector which determined my future life and surrounding reality.
Even in my existence as an incorrigibly secular person, I have always seen this world as a discussion with the Almighty. You may not observe religious rules for this – questions of general coordination are more important, which are connected with the genetic code, with individual histories, with “imprints” of childhood, which are subsequently gathered into so-called experience. Only now this entire experience is starting to take on a more intelligible character.
The idea of Jewish upbringing is that a child should understand from an early age that a system of restrictions leads to freedom. You shouldn’t connect the restrictions that involve observing rules with a loss of freedom in some radical sense.
If you are able to use tricks, manipulations, subtexts, hints and cunning to make your child understand that it should do something out of necessity, but not in order to limit itself, but to open up new space for itself, then you have my respect. With God’s help, I will raise Yasha, who was born recently, in the Jewish tradition, I will try to bring him up in this dialogue. From an early age these restrictions should be associated with incredibly joyful and not fully understand adventures, which open the doors to new limitless worlds for a child, where you can’t press “stop” and exhaust the topic.
That’s how I’d like to communicate with my children.
You returned to Judaism comparatively recently. What is easy for you on the religious path, and what do you find difficult?
These are my first steps in this direction, and I can’t say that I have achieved success or serious advancement. But the path has become visible, and it’s already clear that from here I can only move up – i.e. to limit and set tasks myself until the restriction itself does not function in the category of expanding on my abilities.
The claim that a person who observes rules restricts himself in some way is a delusion. It is necessary to accept and realize a certain transformation of secular awareness, which is converted into a religious awareness. To accept the fact that a system of restrictions leads rather to freedom than lack of freedom.
I always thought that everything takes place in quite the opposite way: by putting prohibitions on yourself, you imprison yourself. It turns out that this is not so. In my opinion, this is the most interesting discovery in what is known as thinking.
Now thinking has moved to a fundamentally new level. I have the realization that I need to make some consistent steps. And their intensity depends on the qualities that no one of us is capable of influencing. This is our nature, it is different for everyone, and accordingly there is a different rate of development of the personality. But here it is no the realization that is important, but the control of what is contained in your “project”. If there is the project “Alexander Shapiro”, then at a certain moment it should move from a secular state to a religious one. I have an indirect relation to this, rather as an observer – I simply look at it from outside and cultivate joy in myself. For we are only capable of fully influencing something in the way that we perceive it.
You planned to film an entire project devoted to Hasidism. Did the Hasidic aesthetic attract you in your youth, or did this come over time?
At the time this idea was completely short-term in nature, it had no form. Over the years all kinds of things happened, and this topic once more came to the fore and let itself be known. But this is a separate story.
Conditionally speaking, there is something that connects all the facts of our lives, scattered across the historical ruler, but I don’t keep track of the dynamics. I would divide these periods into two different stages of life.
What is that attracts you about the aesthetics of Ukrainian Hasidism?
The topic of tzadiks and Hasidism is so extensive, vast and inexhaustible that I (even though I’ve already attained a certain level of maturity) can honestly admit: for me this topic awaits development in the future.
Everything else has been exhausted in the life, the main principles and rules are clear. The topic of opening up a mystical horizon has always been interesting for me, primarily because the closer you are to an understanding, the more obvious it becomes that you are not even standing on the first steps, but somewhere even lower.
For me this cycle is more relevant than ever, because I myself changed the mechanics of existence, and now I lead a life that is completely unusual compared to the way I used to be. But this does not exhaust me, on the contrary it inspires me – it gives me new strength to examine this phenomenon, primarily from the creative point of view.
What is Jewish cinema and what makes cinema Jewish?
Cinema is located beyond the boundary of tradition in general. But if we proceed from the main “nerve” of our interview – aspects of secularity and religiosity – cinema should reflect the same issues.
There is a film called “The Chosen”, made in 1981, based on the semi-autobiographical novel by the American Jewish writer Chaim Potok. It takes place in Brooklyn, and involves two boys, one with a father who is a renowned Zionist professor, and the other who is a no less renowned Hasidic rabbi. The boys have been friends since childhood, and the older they get, the more striking certain difficulties of their friendship become. This is probably just the sort of Jewish cinema which should help us to fathom (if only at the initial stage) the multi-layered nature of this issue.
Or take the project that I am trying to initiate, a series about tzadiks. This is a special approach, for the idea of the series is to take everything that is most exotic in this culture and transfer it to the format of a feature film.
I would like viewers who even watch just a few minutes of the series to understand how different the Ukrainian Jew of the 18th century was from the Jew today, and what Jews are associated with. I want to tell viewers about the exotic and mystical mixture that is contained in small details – that is one of the ideas. And the second idea is for the series to help the greatest experts of Jewishness to discover the essence of the philosophy of a certain tzadik, for Hasidism states that each tzadik has his own personal categorical apparatus.
Despite the understanding that everyone is identical before this system, and everyone fits into a single paradigm of unbending observance of the canon, tzadiks have always been distinguished by their attitude to subtleties. I find this the most interesting thing in representing a certain teaching – every tzadik gives the same lessons in their own unique way.
There are many Jewish characters in your films. What qualities should these characters have? Do they have any common features that are only inherent to them?
I live in Israel now and I have noticed that there is a hyberbolization of events here. Jewish fate is such that it draws events to it like a magnet. A Jewish character is distinguished by an excess of events across the line of time. Figuratively speaking, if with an ordinary person, one event happens each day, with a Jewish person 10 events happen. And this, I think, is the main distinguishing feature of a Jewish character.
For some reason I am reminded here of Isaac Bashevis-Singer. In his works I’ve always been attracted by the constant meta-stability, the endless swings – there is not a single point in them where you can feel calm, relax and catch your breath. It is an endless escalation of complex tension of event rhythm. For me this character is familiar and interesting.
Now that you’ve mentioned Jewish books, which other ones would you be interested in filming?
From childhood I dreamed of bringing Malamud’s “The Tenants” to the screen, but later I unexpectedly discovered that a film of the book had already been made America. This brilliant novel has probably had more influence on me than all other literature. Perhaps because I understood myself through the archetype of a writer, a creative person, and what’s more a strange creative person. This work is about a writer, Harry Lisser, who has been writing a book for 10 years, shutting himself up for all this time in a lonely apartment in a building in Manhattan. This building is not demolished only because Lisser protests and writes complaints to the municipal office, and the owner can’t evict him. The main theme of the work is the loneliness of human existence, locked in a little box in an enormous building.
In your opinion, what stage is the once great Ukrainian cinema at, and what awaits it in the future?
Unfortunately, I haven’t seen anything filmed recently. For a number of reasons the people working in cinema today don’t particularly convince me or inspire me. I have nothing in common with them that would link our directions in cinema.
If we’re talking about the film “Povodyr”, I don’t really like the author of the film [the director Oleg Sanin – editor’s note], we have different styles of thinking. Perhaps he was able to reflect something in his film, and did a decent job – but for me it’s certainly not cinema. These people don’t do things that I consider to be cinema.
Then what is cinema?
Cinema is primarily an allegorical art. What you show and what it means are two different things. The greater the degree of different and the more precisely the clarity is formed, for all the differences of discourses of expression and understanding, the more refined and great the film seems to be. This is when, for example, you watch a film about two drug addicts, and in fact you understand that it is about the universal metaphysical topic of the conflict of Jerusalem and Athens, two philosophies or two examples of faith and thinking.
To put it more simply, for me cinema is an exquisitely formulated metaphor. What the tool of expression contains, and how and where this expression is directed – these are two different things. For me, cinema is a very periphrastic thing. Take “Barton Fink”. To start with we think that the film is about an author who moves from New York to Los Angeles to make a film, but over time we realize that it is about the forces of light and darkness, about cosmogony, although not a word about it is said in the film. It is full of content, and seething with meaning, if you like. A good film is always an upheaval, like Jewish life – you can never be certain about anything in it until the end.
What’s the most important film for you?
That’s a difficult question. I still find that my thinking depends on the language of complex auteur cinema – when everything is connected with a complex construction of worlds, a difficult rhythm, virtually a philosophy of cinema. But by no means according to the standard of ordinary pragmatism, as we usually seen in films by people who make one film after another, like a conveyer belt.
Fassbinder, who belongs to the German school of the 1970s, impressed me because every one of his films immediately grabs you, regardless of where you start watching it. Your attention is immediately focused on the film, multiple meanings are contained in every millimeter of film, and you don’t need to follow the narrative of the film, you don’t need to understand that there was the Holodomor in Ukraine or anything else. What is interesting is the signs, how they come together and separate, a whole extravaganza of meanings, regardless of the banal referendum which comes down to the resolution, final, culmination, harsh chords and so on. I can’t switch off from everyday life and watch all 14 episodes of “Berlin-Alexanderplatz” from beginning to end, in one go. They say that people who have done this find that their awareness changes fundamentally – both their cinematographic and ordinary awareness.
Fassbinder is the director who I feel closes to. Everything is alive, strange and drifting. Every sign does not hit your brain, but puts you in a state of bewitchment before the mysticism of life, how the unattainable world grabs us from all sides. When you watch Fassbinder, you start to feel this.
Let’s return to Ukraine. They say that a honeymoon of Jewry has begun in Ukraine now. But others say that Jews shouldn’t have gone into politics. What do you think about this?
I know for myself that it’s better not to go into politics. The course of things can probably not be put into doubt, they can only be understood and explained. There are certainly literal superficial meanings in what is happening in the country, but there are also profound metaphysical meanings – and to some extent I understand both the former and the latter.
What are you doing at the moment, and what do you plan for the near future?
I’m still working on the most important project for me – the TV series about tzadiks. This is a very high standard- everything not only comes down to the physics of the process, but I also need to be prepared to discuss this topic, and for me this is something unattainable.
As soon as I can express myself about this topic, this will happen. Currently I am working in Moscow on the project “Mayakovsky” an editor together with Alexander Shein. It’s a very complex work, and I am also responsible for the authorship.
I want to finish the film “8”, about 8 people who committed suicide. At the moment it is in draft form, with a length of 3.5 hours, I want to modernize it, and perhaps introduce another subject line. At the moment I’ve taken a break, to let the material rest, and so that I myself can understand which lever to come up with.
I want to go back to the context of film festivals, where I was once appreciated, when everyone said that Shapiro was great. At one time I consciously moved away from this, into my own personal underground. Now I want to regain the intensity of conceptual precision, which was once connected with my name. This is my program for the near future. Additionally, while I’m here in Israel, I’ve set the task to keep and direct personal video blogs. I really like the Internet format, so I will simply choose people I find interesting and direct their lives so this is interesting from the viewpoint of publicizing these people, and PR. We’ll talk about what they do and who they are.
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