EYE CANDY FILM MAGAZINE
THE LONG WAY HOME Interview with filmmaker Duki Dror by R.J. Mazahreh Spring 2013 Vol 23
The distance between Tel-Aviv and Baghdad is approximately 565.98 miles. For
Israeli documentarist and professor Duki Dror, the distance is nothing. Teaching at UCSC for winter quarter, Dror is one of the most prolific filmmakers in Israel today, known for his powerful documentaries
dealing with migration, identity and cultural/ethnic dilemmas in Israeli society. I stumbled upon his work when researching documentaries on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Dror is as much Iraqi as he is Jewish — his family changed their Arabic last names when they escaped Baghdad and made their way to TelAviv. He is a visionary filmmaker who walks a path in search of identities in crisis, which helps bridge the gap between his own cultural backgrounds. READ MORE
GALO ART MAGAZINE
Talking With the Past: Architect Erich Mendelsohn on Screen by Ross Ufberg, February 7th, 2012
After a Q&A session at the Lincoln Center on Wednesday, January 25, I sat down with director Duki Dror to discuss his new film, his next film, and a rooftop childhood.
GALO: You mentioned that you first got interested in Mendelsohn in 2002, when Tel Aviv was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you learned more about the architecture of the city. But how did that lead to a film?
Duki Dror: It didn’t. It started with a kind of intellectual curiosity about the properties of my hometown, about who is responsible for how Tel Aviv looks. In 2003 there was a special conference on Mendelsohn in Jerusalem at the Van Leer Institute, so I said, “Oh, let’s go hear what the experts have to say. Maybe I can learn about the man.” The first lecture was by an architect who talked about Mendelsohn’s lost eye and how it is sort of reflected in his buildings [Mendelsohn lost an eye in 1921 due to a malignant tumor]. There was another lecture about his life story, and there were some pieces read from his letters. Slowly I discovered that Mendelsohn is the type of character I’m drawn to. Usually I’m drawn to dreamers who have to reinvent themselves in every place they go. The idea of fleeing Germany and taking a train to Amsterdam, and saying that he’s got a pencil and now he’s opening a new office – that’s the spirit of a dreamer, of a man who really cares about his art, his ideas. I thought, ‘Yeah, I should make a film about Mendelsohn.’
GALO: There’s a lot of historical research behind Incessant Visions. How did you decide on the structure of the film? What was the process like?
DD: I said to myself, “First let’s do the interviews with the experts and see what the structure of his life story is.” I wanted to know what the biography was and then try to understand how it would fall into the dramatic line of the story. Very early on, I discovered the memoir of Louise; when I read it, I said, “Ok, she’s going to be the storyteller.” Still, that was a very early stage. I had a sketchy idea about how I wanted to integrate the past and present, how I wanted to integrate voiceover from the past onto the present.
GALO: You say that you knew as soon as you read the memoir that Luise’s voice would be the one we hear most often, but why tell a story about Erich Mendelsohn using his wife’s words?
DD: Well, it’s not a fact that the film is about Erich Mendelsohn. It could be about Luise Mendelsohn at the same time. Some people who watch the film say this is a film about Luise just as much, or even more. I developed it with my wife [Galia Engelmayer-Dror] and we had this reflective story in between, trying to understand the roles of each character. She was the scriptwriter with me, but she did most of the work with Luise’s manuscript, and she — well, she stood up for Luise. There were two forces during this production, and Luise’s was strong. We would fight and my wife would say, “Oh, you’re so controlling, nobody can work with you.”
GALO: Did you feel in some ways that you were reliving the arguments between Luise and Erich? That you were fighting for Erich’s vision, and your wife was fighting for Luise’s?
DD: You know, you put yourself in the psychological context of these two people who are both in a way very creative and one has to give up her life or her career for another one and be his muse, be his mother, his comforter, whatever. One hundred years later there are many similarities and many dissimilarities.
GALO: Documentary making is a more self-conscious process than ever before and Incessant Visions certainly reflects that. On the one hand, you have this dramatic narrative where you take historic figures and give them a voice—literally—and it plays like a dramatic film. Then there are breaks where it’s quite obviously a documentary and it’s not just that you’re filming people, but you also get filmed. Why did you choose to put these two different ideas together – not necessarily opposing, perhaps even complementary, but very different?
DD: Maybe because they’re opposing. It creates a contrast. As a filmmaker, you have to get your audience’s attention. It’s sort of a magic show, and the magic show starts when you put your audience into a certain kind of different consciousness, or a state of hypnosis. Then you can take them on a ride. You have to keep them present all the time, keep them interested, surprised. What I wanted to do was to bring the surprise inside. I tried to use certain language so that the tricks would become exposed, and the audience would be able to enjoy and feel that they’re inside the story, not intimidated by it. But sometimes, probably, it does get awkward. I like the feeling of,“OK, we’re on a different plane now.” But I hope that when you’re doing these jumps between planes—I always like these jumps between planes, jumps between time, when sometimes you don’t know where you are, especially in dramatic films. So, it was an experiment to see, if it could work.
GALO: Mendelsohn, in some of his writings, talks about the need for Palestine to become a part of the Arabian landscape, the Semitic landscape. It struck me as interesting, in terms of what you’ve chosen to make films about, and how you’ve worked before on films about Palestinians living both in the West Bank and in Israel. You seem to have a similar philosophy of not ignoring the other side, but trying to keep some sort of harmony at this crossroads.
DD: I read that, and it has a small mention in the film, but I had to make a decision on what would be the center of the story. And if this would have had more amplitude, then probably it would have been a different film. Really, the center for me was when I discovered the story of the German Village. That became such a major focal point, a parable: a builder who destroys. So, in some ways, the whole film is pointing to that village, which is only mentioned in a very small sentence in Louise’s writing.
GALO: The German Village brings to mind Einstein, of course. He came to the States and helped design nuclear weapons for the war effort, and for the rest of his life he was sad to see the misuse of these things. He and Mendelsohn have similar biographies: two Jewish Germans who flee their country and then work to tear down what they built in their native land—whether literally buildings, in Mendelsohn’s case, or intellectual structures. Did Mendelsohn ever talk or write about his regrets in the way that Einstein did?
DD: No, he didn’t really write about it, at least not about the German Village. At some point, after the war, they wanted to have an exhibition of his works in Germany, and Mendelsohn was very opposed to it. He wrote something that denounced his Germanity, his Germanness. He said that after this barbarism took over the country, he would not associate with Germany anymore. He disassociated himself completely.About the German Village, I don’t think he had regrets, but I don’t know. He never wrote about it. But for me, it’s the most interesting dramatic point because you see an artist who had to collaborate in some way with a war machine and sell his soul, so to speak, and he would be condemned if he did, condemned if he didn’t. I don’t know what I would do if I were him and I hope that everybody who watches the film will feel the same, will put himself or herself in this position.
GALO: How did this film leave its mark on you?
DD: There was something personal that I discovered when I was finishing the film. I kept thinking about what went on in his mind when he heard about the bombing of Berlin and Dresden and the other German cities. It fascinated me. I tried to judge the moral issue of it. But again, it was from a very intellectual perspective, out of curiosity. And then, I was working on a different film (which is in production now) about Iraqi Jews in the 1930s and ’40s, and there was an interview I did in June, right before I finished the film, with one of my main subjects. He was telling about the incident in ’41, when there was a massacre of Jews in Iraq. He said there was a story behind the story, which I didn’t know. I don’t think anybody published anything about it.The story is that the British rulers of Iraq wanted to – well, they felt there was political turmoil and they tried to divert attention. There was a Jewish Iraqi pilot, the only Jewish Iraqi pilot, whom they sent on a mission—not only him, but others too—to attack some Shiite areas. Afterwards, they said, “You know, it was the Jew who did this.” And in’41 there was a massacre because of this. I said, “Oh my god, of course! My mom’s uncle was the only Jewish pilot in the Iraqi army.” The guy I was interviewing said, “What’s his name?” I said, “Nadji Ibrahim.” My mom had lived with him for a while in London. He was a war hero, he got a medal from the Queen. When I wanted to go to study film he told me to come over, and I went to him, I met him in London. He gave me an envelope with two thousand dollars and said, “Go study.” So the interview subject tells me,“This Nadji Ibrahim, you know, he almost got killed a few times. He had to escape Iraq and he served in the Royal Air Force, and when they attacked Berlin, he was one of the pilots who was doing the bombing there.” And suddenly I had this kind connection to these stories, to Mendelsohn.
GALO: After making Incessant Visions, do you feel a similar connection to Tel Aviv and Israel now, too? Do you feel closer to the architecture, to understanding the texture of your country?
DD: Yeah, I think so. There’s a lot of work being done now in Tel Aviv to restore the White City. I used to dislike Tel Aviv. I thought it was an ugly city. I grew up there, in the center, in a building along Rabin Square. There’s this long line of buildings on the square, and the roofs were a fabulous place to play in childhood. I think about it now and I get scared. Those roofs were a fabulous place to play in childhood, jumping from one to another. How did the parents let their kids go wild there?
GALO: Besides the film about Nadji Ibrahim, what else are you working on?
DD: Something that’s in the beginning of the process is a film about Ernst Toller, the poet who had an affair with Luise Mendelsohn. It’s a fascinating story. He was a communist, for eight days he was the president of the Bavarian Soviet Republic. After eight days he was thrown in jail. The other film I am developing, of course, is the story of the Iraqi pilot.