By Paul Risker.
While fear and trust can be perceived as two opposing forces within the human experience, for actor Dana Ivgy these two forces converged in her portrayal of an autistic sibling in the touching Israeli drama Next To Her (2014). “It was obviously a very big challenge and lesson for me as an actress, and it was also scary,” recalls Ivgy. Yet however significant the feelings of trepidation that stirred within her, “the challenge and the interest was much bigger than the fear.” And it was the collaboration with her close friends, director Asaf Korman and screenwriter and actress Liron Ben-Shlush, that helped to dissuade her fear and tip the balance in favour of the interest and the challenge. “I knew if I was going to do something like this then I would have do it with people I could trust, and feel that I could fall back on, and who would catch me.”
But fear and trust is not the only convergence that pertains to Next To Her, as its roots lie in the personal story of its writer and lead actor Ben-Shlush. Her exploration of an alternative path with her relationship with her autistic sister through an hypothesis connects Next To Her with Jung’s interpretation of dreams as a means to solve the problems we cannot solve in our waking state. However, the alternative hypothesis explored here in the film creates a mix of fictional drama with real everyday experience and dream theory. Next To Her is a nuanced film that combined with its intimate exploration of interpersonal relationships is enriched by intertwining layers, whose contours can be viewed from different perspectives – much like the landscape that offers a painter multiple lines of sight from which to capture its shape.
In conversation with Film International, Ivgy reflected on her evolving perspective of performance and the role instinct plays within the mode of performance. She also discussed the personal nature of Next To Her and a common misconception of its autobiographical nature, the transformative nature of art and the interconnected nature of her multi-creative pursuits, while observing the value of personal and specific cinema in connecting with the audience.
Why a career as an actress? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I was kind of born an actress because both my parents are actors, and I don’t remember not performing at any time that I could. I would also make music, write songs, paint or do other artistic things. But when people would ask me: “What do you want to be?” I would still say: “An architect”, because I didn’t want to be banal; to be the same as my parents.
The first film I did was when I was eight and so it started early, and evolved by itself. But when I was in high school I actually studied cinema because I thought I would be a director. I thought: Okay, I will not be an actress because I want to be the captain of the ship. I just don’t want to be one of the workers; I want to have my vision realised. I actually almost came to study film here [London]. I tried to get into one school, but I didn’t get in because I was kind of a child, and I had only made one film when I finished high school. So I tried to get into this very prestigious place without showing them any work, and then I just had this last minute feeling that I had to immediately study acting. It was like my body told me to do it; not my head. And it was like something dragged me to Israel to learn acting because I felt that if I wanted to study acting, then it first of all had to be in my language, because it’s all about dealing with the world of images and culture, and trying to basically learn about yourself. So eventually I ended up going to the acting school where my parents met – it was the most predictable thing that I could have done. But it wasn’t really up to me; it was something my heart or my body told me to do. I still think that I will direct a movie one day, but first of all I felt that I really had to do this, and although I was already acting in films, I got to the point where I said: I don’t have anything to give anymore; I am not even interesting to myself. So there are two options: either this profession is limited or the more unlikely to be true is that I just don’t know anything. I then went through three years of acting school and discovered that I really didn’t know anything. There was so much more to study that I didn’t even start, and then after three years I thought: Okay, now I can begin to learn. And so that’s kind of the story.
Across your projects, film as well as theatre, how has your perspective of the craft of performance evolved?
Well, my acting teacher – the one who was the mentor of the acting school – said: “You can only call yourself an actor if seven years after graduating you are still acting.” And I feel that is very true because in the beginning it is a quest to be released; to work on breaking boundaries and releasing fears, stigmas or what you think about yourself. This is so that you are able to change more and more; to become more elastic and more fearless, and to be able to try new things. Another thing my acting teacher told me was that if you don’t study then you’ll be afraid to try things, and that was the place to make lots of mistakes. It’s not that you should not go out and ever make mistakes again, but you should learn that it is great to make mistakes in acting school, and to try different things. And this is what I feel, and the more I do, the more I release myself of things that are holding me back, and so I am freer, more elastic and I enjoy it more.
Having spoken with filmmakers on the subject of honing one’s instincts within the filmmaking process, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the place of instinct within the mode of performance?
The sense of the moment in the cinema and the theatre is very different, and I am a very big believer in the specific moment that things are happening. I like to work a lot, and it would be amazing if I could work on each project for a year. I love to have as much information as I can about the character, even it is for my own head. And because I feel that the moment in cinema is very, very strong, when I go on set I can forget all of that, because the camera can see if you are thinking; if you are trying to be the character. The character isn’t trying to be the character; it is just there. So that’s what I like doing – I just like being there. I say: Okay, whatever I have done I hope that the good stuff will stay and what doesn’t I guess was not necessary. And this releases me to really feel the moment and to see my partner. There is always improvisation even if everything is planned. Your partner can say something differently and so you react differently, and there is never a cut for me – I just carry on because I love what the moment brings. In cinema I feel the moment is so sharp that you can never do a take again. I worked with a director once that would rehearse, and then once she saw that you had the emotion right or you would get something, she’d say: “Okay, stop! I don’t want to see anymore because if you are going to waste the moment here, then it is not going to be there on set.” While you could have another version of the moment, you can never have the same moment again. So I hope this answers your question about instincts, and this is why I love working a lot before, so I can be free for that moment on the set.
To bring the conversation around to Next To Her, what was the appeal of both the character and the story?
A lot of things, but first of all it was obviously a very big challenge and lesson for me as an actress, and it was also scary. Then there were also a lot of places where it could have been terrible because it is a thing that people know about. People experience and live it, and so they could say: “No, I know it for real and it’s wrong.” And there are not a lot of characters where people can say: I know it better than you, and it’s not like that. So that’s why I sought to get all of the information possible, and for me the challenge and the interest was much bigger than the fear. A very important thing that drove me to the project was that both Asaf and Liron are my best friends. Asaf and I went to high school together where we both studied cinema. I would always act in his films or I would be the cinematographer, and he would edit my films or he would do the art. We would make music together and still to this day we are apart of each other’s projects. When he met Liron we all kind of became family and when she had the idea for the film and she told me about it, I was blown away by just the three lines of synopsis. I knew it was going to be great and she said: “You should play my sister” because I look a lot like her real sister that the character is based on. So we were fooling around with the idea and besides the fact that we were so close, I just know how talented Liron and Asaf are, and that was the most appealing thing for me. I knew that it would be a film that I would love and it would be a piece I could be proud of. But regardless, I have been waiting for Asaf to make a film for ages because he’s a great filmmaker, and Liron is just as amazing as an actress as she is as a writer. So I knew if I was going to do something like this then I would have do it with people I could trust, and feel that I could fall back on, and who would catch me. In this kind of role besides doing a lot of research and reading, as well as spending a lot of time with Liron’s real sister in the home that she was in, I just needed to let go of everything. I could not think because it would have disturbed the character, and I believe the camera sees it when you think. So I don’t know if I could have done it with people who I do not trust as much as Asaf and Liron.
Next To Her is a personal film and from my conversations with filmmakers and actors, the popular opinion is that undertaking any creative experience is transformative. So regardless of whether or not it is a personal story it will inevitably find a way to engage on a personal level. In light of the fact that this film is deeply personal, could you discuss balancing something that is so personal with something that you are going to send out into the world to be watched by an audience who may not be aware of the personal nature as Asaf, Liron and yourself were?
It is a good question and for me as an actress it is easier because whatever I do it is personal – it is me. And there is even some kind of urge to do it, and it is also nice because I can expose parts of myself that no one can really ever tell which parts belong to me, and which belong to the character. But I think for Liron it has been extremely personal and when the film came out she asked me: “What did I do? Why did I do this to myself?” People have talked about it as an autobiographical film, which it’s really not because she didn’t raise her sister, and she has amazing parents who took care of them both. She had a great life – she was in the army and then she went to study acting. But in her head she she had the thought: I was born like this and my sister was born different, and so she had this feeling that she was supposed to sacrifice her life to make her sisters life better. She felt that it was almost not fair to go to acting school and to do the things that she couldn’t do. The film began from the thought: What if I would sacrifice my life to take care of my sister? What if I was that woman that I always thought as a child I was supposed to be? And that was her idea, and it’s very personal, but it’s not autobiographical. A lot of people think that this is her real life story and she always has to explains that it’s not, otherwise it would be terrible for her parents. But it is very personal and the character that I am playing is very much like Liron’s real sister. And even visually when we were filming in Haifa, one of the caretakers in the home that Liron’s sister was in came up to us and said: “Oh my God I thought I saw her and I came to say hi, but I realised that it was you.” She knew me because I was there a lot with them and so it is a mix of real stuff and ‘what ifs?’ And I think anyone making art is kind of crazy in that sense and I feel that way even about writing songs or acting. Sometimes you say: “It is so lucky that no one can read our minds and there are some thoughts that we can keep inside.” But then you go and make a film or write a song about them, and then you just look for as many people to see it. It’s very strange… It’s a very freaky urge.
To pick up on the film emerging from a thought or a ‘what if?’ C.G. Jung contextualised dreams as a means to solve the problems that we cannot solve in our waking state. The way in which you describe this film contextualises it as being built upon a dream logic?
I agree, and it is very interesting to look at the film and also art in this way. I personally like to look at life this way because I like to blend into other realities, to just disappear into them, and then find myself again and change because of them. And for me I guess that’s the source.
On the subject of your other creative pursuits, do these influence or support your approach to acting and the creation of a character?
Of course, and I have just released my first album. Making music is something that I cannot help but do as well. But I use it for everything – for inspiration. I just said to someone earlier that watching videos of Nina Simone can really teach you about acting, and I love using other art forms to help one another. I could use acting to make music and I always love to have the characters favourite playlist when I make a film. But in this film I didn’t because she doesn’t get to choose, and so it was more the music in my head that was relevant. But for me it is all one circle, one art form – a lot of different outputs to express the same thing.
One of the powerful themes of Next To Her is the idea of the individual being needed versus their need of another person. The film touches upon and captures rather beautifully the complexity of human relationships, in which we simultaneously experience both of these feelings.
Yeah, it is very true what you are saying, and it is a very thin line being in a relationship where one is dependent on the other – where are the boundaries of that? And that is interesting. But Asaf and Liron always said to me that the movie is not only about the subject of disabilities that is very out there, and all of the other specific issues the film is dealing with, but it’s about parenthood as well. And I didn’t really understand what they were saying, and so I was: Yeah, I guess.
I was actually pregnant while making the film, and so when I saw it I had already had my first child. So then I was: Oh, now I get what you were saying because filming it I was actually the child; I was into my own thing and even my own world. Then when I saw the movie I finally saw the bigger picture, and I could really feel it. A lot of people; a lot of parents come up to us and say: “I feel it is about my motherhood or my fatherhood.” And that’s why people can identify with the film because of what you are saying – all the different angles, and how it’s not only people that are dealing with family members with disabilities or autism. This is what gives it a wider reach because anyone can think of a relationship like that in their lives. It can even sometimes be a romantic relationship that’s going to these places or a parent and child, and even sometimes friendship. When are we helping and when are we doing too much? When are we doing too little? When are we doing it for someone else and when is it for ourselves? When can we let go? When do we think we are doing good for someone and when are we actually not giving them enough credit? Or when did we just not look carefully enough? It is a very thin line and it is a question that I always ask myself as a mother.
I’m intrigued by the idea of a film being completed only when it plays for an audience, at which point there may be a transfer of ownership. Picking up on what you’ve said, Next To Her connects with the nature of film as belonging to a small group of people in the beginning, and then once sent out into the world it connects with a wider group of people. It is this moment that defines the power of art to bring people together, and a film as personal as Next To Her is a testament to the wide reaching connections of human themes, regardless of how geographically distant we perceive ourselves to be.
I think it’s very true, and it’s what’s so moving about the film. And I think even with art in general that the more specific and personal it is, the wider the reach. The magic about art is that you do something and then other people come into it. Then it belongs to them, in which amazing new thoughts, ideas and vibes come into it. I also think that what is great about Asaf is how as a director he could take that subject and make the film so accessible; to have it touch so many people, and yet not give up any of what he wanted to say as an artist.
Next To Her was released theatrically in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures and will be available to own on DVD April 25th 2016.
Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an Editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.