In the selection of 11th edition of IDFF BELDOCS 2018, within the category of biographical documentaries, the audience had an opportunity to see the film Etgar Keret: based on a true story, a feature documentary by Dutch director Stephane Kaas about the life and work of one of the most famous Israeli writers of the younger generation, the author of short stories, graphic novels and screenplays for film and television, Etgar Keret. This documentary brings us an amazing, warm story of the wondrous, fantastic inner world of this storyteller, manifested in the semi- fictional narratives of his stories, sublimed with simplicity, brisk humor, unusual plots and sudden twists and turns. Through the interviews with the writer himself, his colleagues, friends and family, a whole world of vivid characters of his stories has been shown, revealing, as the director Stephane Kaas once said, Etgar Keret’s “compulsive urge for writing”, that the author himself describes as “the need to put a structure to the reality around you”, that is, some kind of meaning.
On this occasion, we had the pleasure to talk to the director and the writer of this film Stephane Kaas and the co- writer Rutger Lemm, whom we were happy to meet here in Belgrade on BELDOCS 2018. Festival.
1. You became familiar with Etgar Keret’s work back in high school. So, in a way, this film is the result of your long term infatuation by this author and his stories?
Rutger: Yes, very much so. We studied at the same school. One day in the school courtyard, Stephane told me about this absurdist writer that he discovered: Etgar Keret. And just by re-telling these short stories, he completely hooked me. Etgar’s stories seemed to be a perfect description of how we felt, we loved the absurdist humor. One of those stories was Fatso.
Later on, I got the chance to interview Etgar, when I was in Tel Aviv as a young journalist. To my surprise, he said yes to my request, even though I hadn’t even found a publication yet. The night before the interview I had meticulously prepared all these questions, but on the day itself Etgar ignored all of them and just told dozens of stories – many of which ended up in the film: the meeting of his parents, the German publisher…
And you know, I always ‘interview’ people I admire as an excuse: I just want to talk to them, secretly hoping that we’ll become friends. But in Etgar’s case, I was sure he’d forgotten me as soon as I walked away: he seemed to be in a world of his own (a wonderful world). But later on, when he came to Amsterdam, I heard that he wanted to meet me. I couldn’t believe it: wasn’t he confusing me for someone else? I gave his wife Shira and him a tour of the city, we smoked a joint together and became friends.
2. The original idea was to make a short film out of one of Keret’s stories, “Fatso”, a personal favorite of you both. But, instead you’ve decided to do a documentary on Keret’s life and creative process of storytelling. What made you change your mind?
Stephane: When Rutger interviewed Etgar we found out that Etgar’s life-stories are just as crazy and interesting as his own fiction stories. We thought: are those stories all true? And if they aren’t, he’s still one of the greatest storytellers we know, so how does he do that? How does his mind work?
3. You mentioned earlier that you have been working on the movie for four years. What made the process of filmmaking so long?
Rutger: Well, we did two research trips to Israel to really get to know Etgar and his environment. We applied for funding, which was really hard, because the commissioning editors didn’t believe we could mix documentary, animation and fiction that easily. ‘That’s way too difficult for you, young, starting filmmakers!” they said. In the end, they took the risk, but with very little budget.
The filming itself only took two weeks. Most of the work was writing the script and editing.
Stephane: It was really hard to edit this film. Etgar is only telling short stories. And we found out that it’s really hard to make a long film about someone that only tells short stories, because you have a lot of starts and stops. If you tell a story in the beginning with a great ending, you shouldn’t have the feeling that it’s also a good ending for the film. It took about a 1000 versions.
Rutger: I commented on each of them.
Stephane: Yes, that made it even harder. But in the end, after 980 versions, we found a nice work flow, and things started clicking.
4. How did Etgar Keret react when you told him that you wanted to do a film based on his life? Was he surprised with the idea of making a film about him? Did he have some ideas of his own about the structure, the outline of the story? Did he intervene in some way?
Stephane: We e-mailed Etgar about our plans and he said: ‘This could be great fun!’ To our great relief.
Rutger: Etgar said to us: “The one thing I’ve always said ‘no’ to, is documentary requests. But with you guys, it felt different. You reminded me of me when I was younger. And people told me ‘no’ all the time then. So now I didn’t want to be that guy.”
Stephane: Etgar has a lot of ideas and he doesn’t hesitate to say them all. So it was my job to listen to him and consider it. Pick out the good ones and throw away the bas ones. He always respected my decisions. So yes, he was involved in the creation, but more to add stuff or advise us on some changes. Because he’s also a filmmaker, you know. He gave us great advice about how to deal with the crew and the ‘business’ side as well. We still consult with him about most stuff. It’s fun.
5. What was the thing that fascinated you the most about this writer- was it an intriguing character of his stories, sublimed with simplicity and ease, with a lot of twists and turns, told through wry and quirky sense of humor characteristic for almost all his stories? Or was it playing with real and fictitious elements in them?
Rutger: All of those things! We basically wanted to know what the source of his compulsive storytelling was. I mean he just can’t stop, and he’s the best storyteller I know. What can we learn from that?
Stephane: Yeah, we realized that storytelling is essential for human beings, like food or oxygen. Etgar is the ultimate example for that. And also, I myself could be better at telling stories, I wanted to find out how to become a good storyteller. I think everyone that wants to learn how to better tell stories, should listen to what Etgar has to say about storytelling (and see our movie).
Rutger: Also, this combination of fantasy and raw reality was fascinating. Etgar’s stories are surrealistic, but they feel really true.
6. There are many moments in his life that bare a great amount of weight. Both his parents had survived the Holocaust, one of his best friends took his own life during the army service, and he himself has his own burden, bearing in mind that as an infant he barely survived, in spite of doctor’s prognosis that he won’t live for more than a week or two. As opposed to all the atrocities and hardships of life and repetitiveness of daily routine, it looks as if he’s trying to find some sense in, sort of, reinventing, recapturing reality, by adding surreal elements in his novels?
Rutger: There was a radio interviewer in Holland who told us: the first time I watched your film, I thought it was really funny. The second time, I realized that it’s actually really tragic. I agree, Etgar has two sides. We really wanted to show the darker side, which is the source of his storytelling.
Stephane: Yes, stories can’t save us from starvation. If you’re hungry you can better eat something than tell a story. But stories do give meaning to our lives. Especially for Etgar. He had a friend who suffered from depression and asked Etgar for ‘one good reason to live’. Etgar couldn’t think of a good answer and later he lost his friend. This question still haunts him and for Etgar stories are the way to keep us positive, to have empathy for one another, a way to understand things happening to you and to others. So in that way it can definitely save you, yes. Every good story is an argument for staying alive.
7. There is an interesting motive recurring in several places in the film, and that is the pipeline (exit), like the name of one of his most familiar stories. Pipeline emerges when Etgar discusses about life and death and contemplates on why he chooses life and, in a way, uses a pipeline as a metaphor that exemplifies that there is always a choice, an alternative. Was that intentional?
Rutger: In the story ‘Pipes’, his first story, it’s a metaphor for both suicide as a way out, and non-suicide as a way to choose life – in Etgar’s case: writing. I think it’s very relatable, because suicide is a very real option for a lot of people. I mean, I often contemplate it. Not seriously, but I sometimes think: man, I wish I could just disappear for a while. And end all my troubles and life’s inevitable pain. And then I get out of bed to pick up my baby son, feed him and start writing. But still, it’s the choice we all live with.
Stephane: We intentionally put some of the metaphors into the film, yes, as a non-verbal way to illustrate Etgar’s world. Filming pipes in Tel Aviv was one way to do it. I’m glad you picked up on that.
8. The main focus of the film is Etgar Keret’s storytelling and vivid world of his imagination, reflected through the imagery of the weird characters and unexpected plots. The richness of his inner world is also the way he communicates in everyday life. At one point in the movie he says that the need to tell stories is basically the need to put a structure to reality around you. There is a whole process of storytelling that is revealed in the film?
Rutger: It taught me a lot about the way I tell stories, or how I can tell better stories. The quote about ‘putting a structure to the reality around you’ is very relatable to me. If my life is at its most confusing, and I risk losing track of who I am, I have to tell a story. Talk to my friends, write about it. To find clarity again. I love that about writing and telling stories, that it forces you to convey your feelings and thoughts as clearly (and entertaining) as possible.
9. So far, the film has won the prize for the best documentary in literature and the best debut on the Master of Art film festival in Sofia. How important are these special awards for documentaries in literature for you?
Stephane: We’re very happy that we won two prizes! It’s the recognition that you hope for. Most of all we hope that it gets more people interested in the film, I really think that Etgar Keret’s message is a message that makes the world a better place.
10. Do you have any idea for some of the future projects/ films?
Stephane: I’m working on a documentary about ‘human zoos’, when Europeans put Africans on display. And a documentary series of artist’s portraits, again with a lot of fictional elements.
Rutger: I’m writing a novel about storytelling and depression, and working on two TV series. Comedies.
Stephane: We don’t have any plans for working on something together yet.
Rutger: No, we’re still recovering from this film, ha ha. But our friendship is now stronger than ever. So, who knows.