Director Dror Shaul is an interviewer's dream come true. Affable, intelligent and surprisingly candid, he'll talk about anything. Moreover, I quickly discover, to Shaul the term "yes/no answer" simply doesn't exist.
In from Israel for last fall's Toronto International Film Festival to discuss his award-winning Sweet Mud (which won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize among many others), Shaul is an open book, eager to discuss everything from his troubled childhood to his view that in the end we are all alone.
How can a man who describes himself as a comedian have such a bleak view of life? Shaul credits, or rather discredits, his upbringing in kibbutz children's houses, where kids studied, slept and ate so their mothers and fathers could more effectively handle their community duties.
"I am a children's house survivor," he says calmly. "That's what we call it. We are not like other people - we have a lack of something very basic for life, lack of warmth and love. Nobody, I'm sure, would do this to children if they knew the consequences.
"Think about it. A mother's lullabies to her children, in any language, have words and images and peacefulness. She sings to her child as if to say, 'I know your psychological emotional situation. Relax, that's why I sing to you, so you know there is music in this world.'
"When you don't have any of this and are just left alone in an empty house, it damages you."
Given that Sweet Mud bravely dares to question the benefits the kibbutz life, some might consider his film an indictment. Shaul is quick to clarify.
"My favourite review came from the Green Page, a kibbutz paper. It said that many films have been made about this subject, but this one was special because it portrayed the violence against the weak. And with much love.
"I really appreciated it, because I tried to show in the details and the music how complicated it was. I'm not accusing. The idea of the kibbutz was fantastic. The reality was not so perfect."
Sweet Mud, I opine, plays like cinematic therapy. Shaul smiles. Though he admits he was inspired by childhood memories, he's careful to add that much of the film comes from his own ideas.
"I wanted to explore the relationships in which the mother does not function as a mother. That mother/son relationship is reflected in another relationship I created, in which the system is the mother and the inhabitants are the son. There, too, the mother doesn't function, and that leads the hero to a place where he cannot continue suffering and seeing his mother suffering. It's a multiple suffering."
Shaul worked closely in the Sundance Lab with Paradise Now director Hany Abu-Assad and praises that film for its bravery and truthfulness, saying, "I think many in Israel did not understand the film, but 10 or 20 years ago if you said you were making a comedy about the Holocaust, people would kill you, so it's the same."
I wonder if he felt pressure when making this film. Don't Israeli filmmakers have a responsibility to only portray their country in a positive light?
Shaul laughs, but without malice.
"No, because then I would be a politician. I don't do propaganda unless I am paid for it. We are artists. And to me, art is about taking something apart. You take a bite, digest it, take another bite, digest, and so on.
"Don't eat it all in one bite."
email@example.com SWEET MUD (Dror Shaul) Rating: NNNN
The confines and comforts of kibbutz life in the 70s are fascinatingly observed through the eyes of about-to-be-bar-mitzvahed Dvir (Tomer Steinhof) as he copes with the realization that his adored mother, Miri (Ronit Yudkevitz), is mentally ill. The universal story of a child who must act as parent works perfectly within the specific context of a socialist kibbutz, where everybody works for the greater good. The setting helps anchor the occasionally melodramatic tale. The film's real strength is its cast: French actor Henri Garcin as Miri's older suitor, the remarkable young Steinhof and the haunting Yudkevitz. This film will get to you.