Aspen Shortsfest 2023 Interview: Noam Argov on Making Sure Nothing’s Lost in Translation in “Sulam”

There are already too many mental calculations that Alma (Oriah Elgrabli) has to keep in her head as she prepares for a math final when disaster strikes in “Sulam,” less in a panic than her mother (Mor Cohen) about a leak in the ceiling of their apartment than the prospect of what it will take to fix it. The local hardware store may have some tools, but Alma resents the one she’ll have to deploy as the daughter of an Israeli immigrant who is still required to translate every word for her mother, an embarrassment at the age of 12 when even being seen with her is thought to be a detriment among her friends.

It’s a situation that writer/director Noam Argov that remembered vividly from her own childhood in Central Florida, disoriented by the strange circumstance of having some kind of knowledge that her mother didn’t and it becomes an unexpected source of tension in her latest short where what should be a routine excursion to pick up a new ladder down the street shows the distance that’s grown between them since resettling in America. Whereas Alma has acclimated quickly to her new surroundings, her mother’s attachment to a particular way of doing things appears to hold her back and as Alma has friends to text, her facility with English has made her less conscious of the isolation that her mother feels, only adding to the intimidation factor of the towering aisles at the Ace Hardware they walk into and a request for assistance can easily turn into more trouble than the two could ask for.

With Elgrabli and Cohen showing the love between the duo in spite of their testy rapport and Ella Gibney’s frenzied camerawork capturing the anxiety that underlines even the most mundane of exchanges in a new country, “Sulam” allows one to understand what Alma and her mother might not about each other while holding onto something that will feel intimately familiar to just about anyone who comes to see their parent or child in a different light and with the film recently making its premiere at the Aspen Shortsfest and Florida Film Festival this past weekend, Argov spoke about committing the loosely autobiographical story to the screen, making the transition to dramatic filmmaking after starting out in documentary and sharing something so personal with the world.

How’d this come about? 

This is a memory from my childhood that I have told a lot of people about, especially when it’s me and my other friends who are immigrants or first-gen talking about different stories of immigrating to the U.S. and this story always comes up because I can’t believe that I did that. It just feels so crazy. I had a lot of shame around it, and I was really interested in how feeling shame around your parent as a kid can shift to feeling shame about things you did to your parents as a kid as an adult. I’ve been telling the story a lot anecdotally, and I wanted to challenge the memory of it and try to retell it to myself, seeing both perspectives a little more clearly.

Was it difficult to find your two leads, especially when they have to speak Hebrew?

Yeah, it was so hard. The mom needed to be struggling with English and to have an accent, and then the daughter had to be good enough at English, so I don’t think I could have cast Israelis. I really needed like Israelis in the United States, both from a production perspective, but also [for] authenticity [with the] accent. And there really weren’t that many. I had a really great casting director Danny Gordon, who was working with Charlene Lee, and they’re really amazing. [We] watched all those self tapes, and [in the end] there were maybe five choices for each role.

They’re both such good actors. We did a lot of improvising and bonding before coming to set and the rehearsal process with them was pretty extensive, [both] separately and then together. I remember specifically I put them in a room together and I had them both in character – Mor was on Zoom and I was with Oriah in the room and I had Mor help Oriah with her math homework, [which] was really interesting and learning about Oriah, who was like, “Oh, I want to be a doctor when I grow up.” Then we did other things that you would do as a single mom and daughter that might be challenging like where they had to order a pizza together and staying in character. It created a history between them as their characters and having that all be from them  just created a lot of backstory that I think was really helpful.

When you have a personal connection to the story like this, are you giving a lot of that to the actors, or do you want to give them the space to sort of create their own take?

Yeah, I think they knew that I had a personal connection to it, but I barely talked about myself and I went straight to, “Okay, how do you guys connect to this material? What stories from your past connect you to the material?” and a lot of it became more and more fictionalized from working with them. More could really relate to the story with things she’s she’s experienced with her mom and then Oriah could relate as like a first-gen kid in the United States, and I wanted them to bring their own interpretation to it so that it could shift beyond my experience because I was much more interested in how the piece could shift with them.

I am a notoriously perfectionistic director, which is so funny because it looks like we dropped in on these people’s lives in the movie, but I’m such a planner. I really love when actors give me lines that aren’t in the script and obviously I’m not a 12 or 13-year-old girl, so Oriah and I had a really, really good collaboration. I would hear her say a line and I would say, “Is that how you would say that?” And she would be like, “No, not at all,” so I’d ask “how would you say this?” And [we’d] try that. But the chemistry and dialogue that came from them being really rooted in their characters was really exciting.

It’s easy to write in a hardware store as a location but I was impressed that you got to take one over.

It was so hard. I really wanted a Home Depot, but obviously we couldn’t do that and the nice thing about Ace is there are franchises, so the individual store owners can do whatever they want and let us shoot there, so I just pitched it around. I really wanted to shoot back in my hometown, back in these places that I had memories from, even if it wasn’t the exact location and we actually shot in two [Ace Hardwares] owned by the same guy, and he was really excited [when I told him], “This is the story. This is my hometown. I grew up going to like this Ace and I would love to shoot here.” And he was super open to that and I think he [responded to it] being a mother/daughter story. I also was interested in the experiment of revisiting locations from my childhood that I have memories associated with and retelling a story on location separate from those memories, [from] picking an apartment that felt like the apartment I grew up in and we used art from like our first house in the United States on the walls. That was an interesting creative exercise.

It was interesting to see a movement choreographer in the credits but also when you’ve got a space like a hardware store, what was it like to block and figure out the camerawork?

Our cinematographer Ella [Gibney] is just a handheld master and she operated herself and is so intuitive with her movements. A big part of the prep was shortlisting and we really blocked it and had storyboards because it’s funny with handheld, it feels authentic and random and real, but it actually takes even more [preparation] and with the hardware store, we actually didn’t have access to it until the day we shot, so we scouted it and then we showed up on the day and we blocked, but it was a bit of a trial by fire. Certain shots we really did plan ahead of time, so we knew what we were getting ourselves into, but [the camerawork is] really a testament to Ella and her intuition about performance.

You actually started out in docs and have moved to narratives. Was that where you thought you were always headed or whether there was something sparked your interest in changing forms?

Yeah, I started out Nat Geo doing a lot of branded content and I still love documentary. I carry a lot of that verite style with me, definitely to this piece, and anyone who’s worked on set with me knows, if it’s snowing and we’re in the middle of the street, I feel so good in those environments because that’s how I like got started. “Oh, we’re on the side of a mountain, wearing skis?” I feel really good in those unpredictable environments and I was super set on doing documentaries, but I always loved writing and narrative films. And I had a mentor, Michelle Tunure Salleo, when I was in San Francisco and I was telling her all these ideas [about documentaries] that I wanted to make and she was like, “Those are scripted films. Why don’t you just write one of ’em?” And I never thought of that. She [told me], “Yeah, just go write something. “You don’t have to show it to anyone.” So there was a weeklong period years ago where I just sat down – and because I didn’t know screenwriting formats, I just did it on a Word doc – and I wrote this whole script that was 20 pages, and then the next day I [found out], “Oh, there’s a software for that.” [laughs] So I transferred it all over. But I think maybe that’s the doc part of it too – I’ve always been very DIY. If I want to do something, I just do it first, and then I see if it is good or bad later.

I, for one, am happy that you learned Final Draft. What’s it like to get ready to put something like this out into the world?

This is a bit nerve-wracking because it’s not my first short scripted or doc, but I’ve never ever done something so personal. In documentary, unless you’re doing a self-reflexive piece about your parents or something, you’re always talking about other subjects and I did a sci-fi comedy, so that didn’t feel too close to home. But this this one does and my parents really like the piece and the people that I’ve shown it to who are immigrants feel really connected to it, so I’m holding on to that as my North Star. I always just wanted to make a movie that was by a lot of immigrants – so much of of our crew and cast were immigrant or first-gen – that was really for other immigrants to see and be like, “I can really relate to this.” As long as that lands, then I’m happy with it.

“Sulam” will screen again at the Florida Film Festival as part of Shorts Program #3: “Too Much Too Young” at the Regal Winter Park Village on April 20th at 6:30 pm.

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