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Itamar Alcalay is an independent documentary and narrative filmmaker. Meital Zvieli is a director, screenwriter, editor, format developer, and producer. Both are active, eminent creatives in their own right and together, they have co-directed The Camera of Doctor Morris – a new film made up entirely of home movies. The directing duo were interviewed here ahead of the 2022 Docaviv International Documentary Film Festival where their film took part in the official Israeli Competition. Right after the interview, the film won the first prize at the competition!
Towards the end of the interview, Alcalay also discusses his 2007 award-winning film, Stefan Braun, that won the On Air Cinematography award at the Jerusalem Film Festival, and the Israeli Documentary Filmmakers’ Forum award for Best Debut Film. Like The Camera of Doctor Morris, Stefan Braun too is comprised entirely of home videos and is available for streaming here on the archive’s website (Link available at the end of the interview.)
Let’s begin with your film, The Camera of Doctor Morris. The film, itself, is made up entirely of 8mm home videos shot by family patriarch, Dr. Reginald Morris. How did you actually come into possession of the footage?
IA: We initially got to know the Morrises when I was directing [documentary series] Off Season for [documentary cable network] Channel 8. In the course of researching the series, we met the family in Eilat and were very taken by them but in the end, they wound up not getting involved in that particular project. It was only after a whole decade had passed that an inner voice and a dream, even, got us to revisit them – you could say that we felt compelled to go back and check in on them.
So there we were, having their daily afternoon tea with them when suddenly, one of the family members asks us whether we’d seen their 8mm film collection. We told them that we hadn’t and that we had no idea what this was about, because whilst we had been thinking about making a film – what we had in mind at the time was a children’s documentary about their family alligator. Then, they led us through this dark corridor in which we discovered hundreds of 8mm film rolls. One of the daughters then said, “I bet Aviva’s on them,” so we asked who Aviva was and they replied, “our dead sister.” I have such a visceral memory of that moment when Meital’s and my eyes met and we both had this realisation that ‘okay, we’ve just crossed the Rubicon here, haven’t we? There’s a film in all this.’
MZ: There must have been more than a hundred hours’ worth of [8mm] footage, and some more on video too, which Andrew [one of the sons – RP] had kept on shooting. I, for one, was very surprised because personally, I have never met a family so invested in documenting themselves so consistently and comprehensively. And you have to remember that with 8mm film, we’re talking ‘Capital M’ meticulous – that means sending the rolls off to labs in Europe, then later thoroughly cataloguing them, and so on. All this presented us with this exhaustive breadth of footage and certainly gave us the impression that here was a family who have been waiting to have a film made about them.
And did you get to meet Dr. Morris?
IA: We did, yes. At the end of the film, you do sort of get to see him there in the present day – by that point, we had actually met him when he was already on life support. Only at the time of the meeting, we had no idea yet about the existence of the footage.
So, at this point, you have no inkling that you’re basically meeting the director.
IA: None. We don’t know that we’re meeting the director, nor does he know that he’s meeting with the directors who’ll be carrying the torch… a true cosmic moment if ever there was one.
What about the footage, would you say, could appeal to a wider audience?
MZ: When we start creating something new, the question we ask ourselves, first and foremost, is what about this is interesting to us, in the hopes that if we find it genuinely appealing, then others will too. When we sat down to watch the footage, the first thing that dawned on us was the fact that not only was Dr. Morris a combat pilot and doctor – he was also a gifted cinematographer. And because Itamar and I are both avid archival footage buffs and have watched more than our share of it, we know that in no way is that a given. The thing is, whilst archival footage will always have this magical air to it, the hand holding the camera isn’t always as skilled and professional a hand as Dr. Morris’s.
So we were first and foremost blown away by his cinematography and skill, his sensitivity and in-depth grasp of the frame, and his use of the camera. We both instantly felt that whilst technically this was not his official profession, when you look at the way he’d meticulously crafted these carefully staged scenes with a very clear idea of who the protagonist was, what the point of view was, etc., then you just have to see him for the fully fledged director and cinematographer he so clearly was.
I remember that shot of the group of kids holding hands in front of a static camera, then the group start walking past with Uni, all the way at the back, trailing behind – whilst the still-static camera lets them through.
IA: I reckon it was having that steady hand from all those flight missions on the Japanese front in WWII that helped him keep his camcorder so nice and steady. But beyond that, he had this ability to maintain his composure and go for these long, intricate sequence shots back when people still looked at the camcorder as just another still camera and hadn’t yet realised that they could also create sequence shots. I agree with Meital that ours is a very aesthetically keen eye and that we both instantly realised we had a film on our hands. I think it happened as we were watching the shot of those two small alligators in the sink – we saw that moment as an indicator of all the potential there was in the footage, and of the documentation’s consistency. Further on, the alligator was a bit sidelined in the story – but it was through that shot that we realised we had a man here fully cognisant of the [act of] documentation, who knew what he was doing.
MZ: Moving away from the alligator concept to the film’s central theme was something that happened after we’d finished watching all the footage and listening to all the interviews that we’d conducted with the family members. Essentially, we realised that the thing we were interested in here was how this family managed to reinvent themselves in a new country, not to mention their extraordinary coping in the face of tragedy – characters who don’t analyse themselves to death but instead, narrate their own stories in all their complexity; directly and seamlessly. This was something that really resonated with us. When we got to know the character of Fay who made a permanent place for herself in our hearts with her painfully simple, “it is what it is” philosophy – we were just so taken by it. When we met her, she was already 88 and we really are beyond excited because that was four years ago and she’s going to be there at the festival premiere.
Now there’s a recipe for longevity right there.
IA: Oh, totally. The hardest thing is to keep it simple, and there’s something about the Morrises and their whole attitude to life that won us over – hook, line, and sinker. It reminds me of what [French-German channel] Arte’s rep told us when they decided to licence the film for broadcasting: ‘the world’s at a time when people need films that will lift their spirits and bring in an air of optimism.’ So at the end of that lengthy period after we’d been walking round for ages wondering whether “this was even going to interest anyone,” we realised that this actually had a strong, beating heart, and that what we had here was a story of a family coping and learning to look ahead.
I’d love it if you could take us through the process of making a film based entirely on archival footage.
IA: Well, I would start by saying that the whole saga that was getting the footage all the way down from Eilat to Tel Aviv was quite the drama, in itself. We never expected to uncover literally all the rolls on our first visit, and when we asked whether we could take them with us and have them converted, the family replied with a surprisingly instant ‘yes.’ The next order of business was buying some suitcases, stuffing them with 8mm reels, and lugging all that to the airport – only to then discover that you can’t go through security with the reels; so now, you’re scrambling to find a car rental company. We were finally in our rental, en route to Tel Aviv at 10 o’clock at night with all our suitcases in the boot, stuffed to the brim with film rolls.
MZ: After we’d got our hands on all the footage, it became evident that we had to put it through some form of preservation process. Despite Dr. Morris’s meticulousness and the desert climate that helped keep the rolls in relatively good condition, the footage still had to be digitised and restored, and the film also needed some very fine treating. During our research, we scoured the land and the world for the most skilled hand at this, tested our share of people, and in the end went with Yoav Shdema who then prepared the footage for viewing and initial cataloguing, and did the most spectacular job with the utmost dedication, fully conscious of how important it was.
IA: When we started trying to flesh out our storyline, we had some very clear milestones in mind – for instance, the shot of the kiss at the beach which, for us, is an emotional climax. And so, we laid out all these plot milestones across the timeline. Then, we got to work on the sound. We ended up putting the storyline together based on conversation topics we’d prepared in advance: the move to Eilat, Aviva’s birth, etc. It allowed us to organise the sequence of life events, which is how we managed to map out all the footage. Each of us was off editing a bunch of scenes. Then, we’d meet up, watch [the footage], and put together more of the storyline. And bit by bit, one thread wove itself into the next.
MZ: I think the most important decision about the film was made after we’d taken part in Doc Lab TLV – this absolutely brilliant scheme by Docaviv and Joëlle Alexis that invites filmmakers who are already at the rough-cut stage of their film for a series of intensive support and mentorship sessions by some of the world’s leading figures in the field of documentary filmmaking. Before Doc Lab, we were thinking that maybe we could also include some of the Morris’s [later] video footage, and maybe even a bit of live action too – but after we’d done the lab, we realised that it would only weigh down the film and what we were trying to create here; and so, we decided we would only focus on the footage shot in 8mm. All that guidance and mentorship really helped us to finetune the story we were trying to tell.
Take us through what it was like to work on the sound for a film based entirely on silent 8mm footage.
MZ: Well, yes; 8mm footage is silent, and the fact that it doesn’t even register in the film is the result of the decision to go to the person who, as far as we’re concerned, is the master of sound design in this country [Israel] – Aviv Aldema, who showed up with his team and did an absolutely stellar job.
IA: Working on the sound was a very interesting process that posed quite a few questions along the way – e.g. were we going to stick with a realistic sound or rather, explore more surrealist avenues?
Where in the film would you say the sound takes a turn for the surreal?
IA: One bit that really stands out is that scene where the family enter Sinai after it’d been occupied. There they are, sat on a tank, watching all the wreck and ruin of the war – that’s one place where Aviv Aldema created a whole war world which we hear echoing in the background. The party scene also has a touch of the surreal, as does Aviva’s death. I should also commend the excellent job that was done on the colour, led by Tomer Bahat who, on top of being a brilliant colourist is apparently also a top-notch restorer who added so much more to the film – even after Yoav Shedema had already done such a meticulous job of preserving and cleaning up the footage, which is why it looks so damn good on a big screen.
Can you take us through the process of working on the footage with a colourist?
IA: First and foremost, we chose a reference shot; meaning, one shot that we both felt captured the whole film.
Which one was that?
IA: The one after Andrew’s birth when Fay comes home with him in her arms – and there’s that scene where we see her put him in a carrycot. Something about the colourfulness of it all really grabbed us. Another reference shot is from the blue scene where we see Uni and Aviva swimming – there, we chose to go super blue because it is sort of a dream sequence as we get to see Aviva there, even though at this point she’d already died.
At what point did you start interviewing the family members?
IA: Right the start, the first time we went down to Eilat. In fact, we were already seizing the momentum at that point, and a lot of what you hear in the film was taken from those first few interviews that allowed for this very unique openness and honesty to evolve. The vast majority of the family took part in those interviews.
Is there anything you ended up leaving out of the film which you felt might have been too personal?
MZ: The film’s overall tone is derived from a philosophy that both Itamar and I share: we do not fight the characters. We’re there to make a film that stays true to who they are. During the interviews, we did dig deeper and asked questions about each family member’s coping with Aviva’s death and Dolly’s adoption but for us, the film’s ultimate mission statement has always been about getting this family archive out of storage and telling the story of the Morrises who, on the one hand, are an extraordinary family but at the same time, are also just like everyone else’s, in a way.
The personal is also the most universal.
MZ: Ain’t that the truth. Through the Morrises’ extraordinary private archives and family code, the film broaches some pretty heavyweight subjects such as loss and adoption but above all else, it puts the gap between what is shot and what is said into such sharper focus – not to mention the emotions and questions it stirs up.
In my viewing experience, it felt like I was collecting all these question marks along the way, and at the end of the film I found myself looking back and saying, “right, I’ve got a truckload of question marks.”
MZ: I would say that this ‘truckload of question marks’ is the answer to your [earlier] question – in terms of what we thought the viewers might find interesting. Because for us, if a viewer walks out with a truckload of question marks, then that means the film will stay with them and they’ll carry on looking for answers in their own life.
IA: Meital and I have this code which we refer to as ‘passport stamping.’ When you start working on a film, especially a documentary, you know you’re a starting a process that’s going to take a few years. Our experience has meant that over time, we’ve developed this mechanism that gets us to stop, take a beat, and think whether we’re going to go ahead and get this passport stamped. And with the Morrises, it was clear to us, pretty much from square one, that we were going to stamp the passport and go on this journey with them, questions notwithstanding.
As co-creators, how do you decide which footage makes it into the film? For instance, Andrew’s birth.
MZ: Fay, the mother, was one of the first women in those days to ever teach antenatal classes. That footage must have helped her in her classes and was quite instructive when she had to explain how to get through childbirth in a positive manner. In this film, it takes on a lot of new meaning after we’d already discovered how traumatic that first birth was – and just like Uni recalls it, everyone was in shock and there was this silence. In that sense, there’s something about Andrew’s birth as an experience that celebrates childbirth, with Dr. Morris there, capturing the whole thing.
When we showed the family the film, they never asked us to change anything, even though it’s usually not easy for your documentary subjects to watch themselves. But in this case, the Morrises blew us away with their acceptance of our point-of-view, however complex. They really are a family with an innate noble code. And since we already have mentioned Clarence the alligator, he really is the family symbol – and it’s probably no coincidence that this is one of nature’s most fearsome predators.
Can you discuss what it was like to take on editing home video footage?
MZ: Beyond the actual footage, itself, that is the 8mm films and all that they require, when taking on editing home movies, the first thing we had to do was to approach with sensitivity and empathy on our part, as these were people who had handed over to us their family treasure trove, no strings attached. Through the way in which they documented themselves over the years, we essentially step into their lives in the most intimate way imaginable, with the goal being turning this footage that was initially shot for family posterity into a film that breaks through the boundaries of self-documentation.
Imagine all the footage had been shot on VHS or some kind of digital format, do you still believe that the story would have worked?
IA: For me, as a filmmaker, the 8mm format was essential. Both for its colourfulness, which is genuinely picturesque – and for all its unexpected ‘flaws’ that are an inextricable part of this living, breathing creation.
MZ: We only decide whether we have a film on our hands after we’ve watched all the footage and, in this case, we had two packed suitcases’ worth of footage. We knew there was a film in this, but the final decision was only taken after we’d finished going through the footage. I reckon we would still have a film, even if the format had been different – because there is a story here which, ultimately, transcends the format.
The only thing is it would have worked differently and would have had different layers to it. And like Itamar said, we are delighted that our film is in 8mm. And I’m going to take this opportunity to urge the public to keep entrusting us with their 8mm footage because I can tell you, on both our behalves, that this has been a highly successful experience.
Similarly to The Camera of Doctor Morris, archival footage is also used extensively in Stefan Braun. Itamar, could I get you to share with us the origins of this passion you have for archival footage of all things.
IA: I’ve never actually given it any thought if I’m honest. I’m not one of those filmmakers who document themselves for the sake of collecting [the footage]. Nope. I don’t have that in me. I have this mild form of agoraphobia, but it isn’t anything to do with film but other stuff. Specifically, for me, it’s the 8mm [format] that I relate to. It’s something I find deeply moving – it’s in the very footage, the way it looks, and even the fact that it’s silent. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the closest thing to dreaming; this liminal world – somewhere in between past and present, existence and nonexistence. I get this kind of vibration from it.
Unlike The Camera of Doctor Morris, in Stefan Braun there was a bit of a struggle with imperfectly shot footage. We didn’t have the same things we had, going into Doctor Morris, so any bit of footage was most welcome. Stefan Braun was keen on capturing the good life, but he did more of that in still photos and less so on 8mm. When you’re hunting for old footage, my view is that whatever you end up with – you should always be grateful. And that goes for both The Camera of Doctor Morris and Stefan Braun.
We invite you to watch Stefan Braun, a film by Itamar Alcalay, made up entirely of home movies.
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