Slow Down

Avraham Heffner
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Directed by Avraham Heffner, based on a text by Simone de Beauvoir – 1967

Avraham Heffner’s Slow Down that won the Best Short Film award at the Venice Film Festival, is a melancholy cinematic piece about love and ageing. The script is made up of a montage of excerpts and sentence fragments taken from an essay by Simone de Beauvoir which Heffner had compiled and reedited. These snippets were then spliced together to form a heartfelt personal monologue which plays out in the background as voiceover narration for the film’s entire 13min duration – narrating the protagonist’s inner world, emotional state, and heart’s desires. Slow Down stars Fanny Lubitsch as an elderly woman who has just learnt that her husband (Avraham Ben-Yosef) has been lying to her.

Film language is predominantly visual, communicating with its viewers through a range of tangible means such as sights, imagery, actions, and deeds. As any first-year film student will tell you, the script will only feature that which you can “see and hear.” In Slow Down, Heffner is able to surmount the hurdles of film language in an innovative way. Voiceover narration emerges as a highly effective tool for expressing verbal, more abstract and philosophical content, just as literary musings behave in modern existentialist literature.

Not one word is spoken throughout the film, nor are there any verbal exchanges whatsoever that would otherwise be heard in objective reality, save for the woman’s pre-recorded speaking that accompanies the visuals in the form of a deeply intense monologue. Her interactions with her husband play out and are only heard through her thoughts. Her tumultuous internal monologue echoes in the background even when onscreen, she and he seem to be sharing a heavily pregnant pause. The contrast between the punchy, explicit, emotional content heard in the voiceover narration and the film’s introverted atmosphere (evident in the predominantly laconic acting style, the editing’s snail’s pace, and the slow shots that reveal a bleak domestic existence) creates a profoundly poetic tension.

The explicitness of the spoken narration stands in stark contrast to the film’s otherwise reserved visual appearance, not to mention the “increasingly slower” pace that is so synonymous with old age. The contradictory use of the various expressive elements at play here produces a form of organised, stylised, borderline harmonious chaos. And it is what ultimately gives Heffner’s short film its full poetic weight and expressive importance as a trailblazing harbinger of the New Sensitivity movement in Israeli film.

“We shot the film in our home with a total of four crew members, and wrapped in two and a half days,” Heffner recalled in an interview that took place between 2007-2008 as part of Marat Parkhomovsky and Avital Bekerman’s New Media documentary project, Israeli Cinema Testimonial Database. “Uri Zohar who, back then, was a mate of mine and who’s now mates with the Lord watched the film in the editing suite before we recorded the soundtrack and said to me, ‘don’t you do anything else to it, don’t you add any words, leave it just as it is!’ except I did want words, the text meant a great deal to me.”

As said, the film was shot at lightning speed by industry standards. Fanny Lubitsch who starred as the main protagonist felt rather displeased with the end result, seeing as how she was denied a proper opportunity to show off her full set of acting skills. “She warned me that when the time came for her to record the voiceover, she would finally have her chance to act, and acting she obviously knew how to do,” Heffner recalled in that same interview. “At first, she was doing it really slowly, but when I suggested that maybe we cut some line or another so that we don’t go overtime, she insisted that nothing was to be cut. She could just do it faster. […] in the end I suggested she record everything in the order it appears in the script, she delivered the whole text in one go, and that’s what ended up in the film.”

Slow Down is a humanist film, driven by a deep-seated sense of empathy which the film also endeavours to rouse in the viewer. The monologue evolves dynamically, from its inception in thoughts of existential heresy to its conclusion as a form of emotional catharsis. The woman’s wrath over her husband’s lie sets up an intimate confessional occasion, at the end of which she returns to the comfort of the love she has for her husband and their sense of partnership, thereby validating her right – old age notwithstanding – to a life of truth and emotion. It was the husband’s lie all of things that ended up stirring in her the urge to articulate a far greater, deeply buried truth about herself and her life. The fear of getting old, as reflected (in both of them) in the body’s demise, is the fear of acknowledging the fundamental, irrefutable fact that neither of them really has anywhere else to go.

Courtesy of the Avraham Heffner family.

Slow Down is available for online streaming on the Israel Film Archive website. Click to watch.

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