One of the most interesting and controversial documentaries being screened at Peace & Love Film Festival in Borlänge, Sweden, was Itamar Alcalay’s Four Days of Night. The documentary brings up several questions regarding, art, morals, and the attractive aspects of putting yourself in dangerous situations. The film maker follows Jewish photographer Esaias Baitel as he unearths pictures that he spent four years taking, while infiltrating a Parisian neo-nazist group. Baitel, and the film itself, discusses the impossibility of befriending them without actually starting to like some of them. Baitel is a reluctant “star” of the documentary, and gives Alcalay a hard time making the documentary – which, interestingly enough, makes it even more watchable.
After the screening at Peace & Love Film Festival, we hooked up with the director.
Baitel is almost like an agent or an undercover cop infiltrating the mob, becoming friends with them and, perhaps, becoming too close to them in the process.
– I did think about that. Maybe not necessarily the mafia, because they are usually quite sophisticated. And these nazis were not; they were punks! Maybe that’s something that I could have said after the screening: he could probably more easily have gone into a right-wing group that was much more intellectual and interested in politics. But he just doesn’t like suits, and so he went for the punks, which I found interesting. He actually told me that these were the people who would be sent to the frontline in a war. But the undercover situation is always fascinating, and in this case even more so, since he didn’t really have a job, or a mission, to save someone, or collect information for anyone. He mainly went in there to explore his own soul! Maybe like an undercover cop with a bomb inside… He could have exploded at any time. Remember the old quote “I don’t wanna be a member of a club that accepts me”? Baitel even wanted to be a member of a club that would have killed him, had they known how different their opinions were.
Why make a movie about someone that reluctant to cooperate?
– The main reason is that I am thinking of moving from documentary to drama. Then you don’t have to go to festivals, ha ha. Because I have this option to observe myself and what I’ve done, most of the time I find myself hitting myself, being hard on myself: “why did I do this, why did I do that?” One of the thoughts I had, after having made this documentary, is that this would make for a great feature film about this guy and his journey. A historic Seventies film about a documentary photographer in Paris – it could be beautiful, you know? I have always wondered if he had a love story, a relationship, there? I didn’t sense it, partly because he was being loyal and faithful, partly because I don’t think he found these women attractive enough. But if I made a feature film, I’d definitely include a relationship!
Some of his pictures of them could easily have been Pennie Smith’s famous photos of the punk celebrities like The Clash, The Sex Pistols, or The Ramones. The differences being that those musicians were losers who became legends, while these people remained losers…
– It’s even more than that. Some of the pictures I can easily imagine being ads for Calvin Klein, from the “heroin chic” Nineties. And that is one of the things that he’s been criticized for: the fact that he made it all look so cool, and tempting. Most of them are physically beautiful, so a lot of people looking at the photos are asking “what’s the story here? What are your trying to make us feel?” The thing with him, is that he’s a real anarchist inside. He doesn’t play by the rules. He comes from a family of holocaust victims, and maybe this is his way of rebelling against his father? I found him very free-spirited in that way. He doesn’t give a shit, he’s just doing his thing, you know? And that’s amazing.
One gets the feeling that he gets off on danger.
– He’s not someone who want to impress you, visually. In a way, he’s a punk himself – only older. I can imagine him approaching them in the subway. He’s done similar things since, going into groups that he doesn’t belong to.
What’s your own story? When did you know you were going to be a filmmaker?
– It happened when I was 19 years old. I grew up in a small desert town, near the Gaza strip. They used to bomb it for years. There used to be a cinema close to my house. I would go there a lot, partly because it was very cheap. The same films were shown regularly, so I would watch something like Pulp Fiction five times. One evening I saw a very bad Israeli film, and something just clicked inside me: “I could actually do that a lot better!”. Until then, I had been into different art forms: sculpting, painting, writing, taking pictures, and so on, but suddenly I felt that I understood what I was supposed to do in life. I went to my mother, and said “do we have money? I wanna study!” And she was very happy, because she had never thought I’d say that. And, since then, it’s been the only thing I’ve been able to think about. I sometimes feel like a crazy person!
So, you went to film school?
– I did. For four years. It was a new film school, which was managed by a philosopher, who had this whole new idea about how you were supposed to teach the students how to make films, and everything collapsed within a year. He had weird ideas, that would sound ridiculous. He looked at acting almost like computer programs. With you work with an actor you have a palette of emotions. So he really believed that you could write it down, like the emotion 123F, and in the end you would’t have to use actors at all. And that was his thing. And he actually got money for that. But to me it didn’t really matter. I got to watch great films for three years, and I made a lot of short films. I was very innocent, which made me fall in love with the whole thing. Being self-critical came later.
What was the main thing you learned from watching the classics?
– Wow… I think it takes time for a student to understand what film making really is. There is a language that’s called cinema, and it’s only used in cinema. And it’s not that easy to see, because most films don’t really use it at all. And the masters do. So it took me some time to get it, and really understand – if I ever did, I’m still not sure – what it means to make a real film, where you feel that it could not be any other medium. Antonioni is like that. It could not be anything else but cinema.
What’s in the future for you?
– I actually have finished writing three separate films. I’ve started working with this amazing writer, who has no desire to direct – which suits me perfectly. We work very fast. I know which of the scripts I would want to start shooting, but we’ll just have to see see which one gets made first. They are all set in Israel. Some people ask me if they have to be, but the truth is that it’s hard for me to make a film that’s not in Hebrew – at least for now. Maybe it won’t be a big deal in the future. But your capability to talk about a culture and depict its small details comes naturally if it is set in your own country. What do I have to say about Paris? Nothing. What do I have to say about New York? Nothing.
Do you dream of Hollywood?
– A little. Not so much dreams, as maybe hoping of becoming a Michael Haneke type director. An established European who can get the money. But I don’t know the exact reality of someone like him.
Text: Anders Lundquist
Photo: Fredrik Doc Casserstedt