TIFF ’19 Interview: Yehuda Nahari Halevi and Yaron Zilberman on Getting Inside the Mind of an Assassin in “Incitement”

At one point in “Incitement,” the father of Yigal Amir (Yehuda Nahari Halevi) attempts to prevail upon his 25-year-old son that there are things he does not know – and cannot know – about the cycle of violence that has persisted between Palestine and Israel since the latter country was founded, how anger can make people conveniently forget they have reignited the conflict by interpreting the scripture that drives it in the ways they see fit. It’s understood from the beginning of Yaron Zilberman’s riveting second feature that Amir will not be convinced, as you know you’re watching him become the man who will assassinate Yitzhak Rabin only days after signing an Israeli/Palestinian peace accord, the last serious attempt at peace in the region, but it undeniably resonates with the audience the writer/director intended the conversation for in revisiting a period in the Middle East during the 1990s that could apply to many places around the world that have recently seen a resurgence in blind nationalism.

With co-writer Ron Leshem, Zilberman creates a profile of Amir that’s chilling in how it doesn’t suggest a seemingly average person is being radicalized, but rather someone who quietly begins to apply political dimension to personal resentment, feeling stagnant after serving in the army and attending law school where he doesn’t feel the rules of society line up with the world he’s seen. His mother isn’t reluctant to remind him he’s still a bachelor at an age when most young men are married off, but there is hope that’ll change as he casually starts a courtship with Nava, a fellow student, and his nights are often filled anyway, attending meetings between the most conservative rabbis around as they decide whether to publicly condemn the Prime Minister for pursuing peace talks. As Amir floats extreme ideas such as taking over checkpoints that will be vacated should Rabin and Yasser Arafat strike a deal that are readily dismissed by his peers, you see how any dialogue turns into talking to himself, only taking what he wants to hear from others to justify his beliefs.

“Incitement” seamlessly blends archival footage of the days leading up to the assassination of Rabin into its study of Amir, but that’s hardly the only way it feels Zilberman has created something very real, utilizing a chilling turn from Halevi to show how Amir quietly goes about turning his worst thoughts into action, emboldened by what others say yet would be unwilling to do themselves. While the film made its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Zilberman and Halevi reflected on the powerful statement that they’ve made with “Incitement,” the ways in which the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict affected the shoot and visually enabling audiences to understand someone whose perspective has become so warped.

Why were you interested in tackling this subject?

Yaron Zilberman: Because it’s one of the most traumatic events in recent history, if not the most traumatic, I was already drawn to tell that story because it affected me so deeply. Initially, I thought about [writing it] maybe 15 years ago, but then I realized it’s too soon and then six years ago, David Silber an Israeli producer approached me and said, “Let’s make a movie in Israel.” And I said, “No, no, no, no. [I have] too many ideas.” But he said, “Okay, choose one and let’s make that. Whatever you want.” So I [told him this idea] about Rabin’s assassination because it was so important to me. Rabin took the country on the path to peace with a huge hope finally after so many years of war to bring peace into the land of Israel and the Middle East, and he was shot by an Orthodox Jew, so it was so important for me to tell the story.

When there is a distance and perhaps even more hate in the world now and people are more conscious of how it builds up in people, did the present inform how you wanted to approach this?

Yaron Zilberman: When I decided to tell the story with my colleague Ron Leshem, a fantastic writer who wrote “Euphoria,” we thought what would be the right angle, and realized it would be through the journey of the assassin from being a moderate political activist, relatively speaking, to suddenly becoming an assassin, so we’ll see what influenced a person that does something like that, and whether one can do something about it, maybe for the future. It’s a big deal to end up going to a 73-year-old man, and just shoot him in the back. It’s extreme in any way, and it’s the Prime Minister of Israel and you’re an Orthodox Jew. So we have set an alarm to see you need all these gatekeepers – parents, brothers, sisters, teachers, university professors, rabbis, priests, and of course, politicians.

Yehuda, this seems like the most intimidating role you could possibly take on. What attracted you to it?

Yehuda Nahari Halevi: Yaron invited me to do the audition, and at the beginning, I didn’t know what it was for. He chose to use another name for Amir because we wanted to have a quiet process and a quiet shoot, so after the auditions, Yaron called me on his way back to New York and he said, “You got the part.” And I was shocked and extremely happy. After that [and learning I would play Amir] I told Yaron, “You know, funny fact, I’m from the same neighborhood [as Amir]. My parents know his parents. And our fathers prayed in the same synagogue.” So I had the background, even though I didn’t go the religious way. But it was extremely powerful journey for me. Yaron told me that it would be better for me to do the method acting [approach] to just become [Amir], so I became religious and I went to the synagogue three times a day almost three months before the shooting. I avoided a woman’s touch.

Yaron Zilberman: Touch is not even shaking hands. You’re not allowed to as an Orthodox Jew.

Yehuda Nahari Halevi: And then [Yaron] fed me with so much information – videos, articles, testimonies, so many things in order for me to understand both the physical body [language] and also the logic of how a man like this thinks, so it was interesting to soak it in and observe everything to feel the moment that I believed I that I was Yigal Amir.

The research process for this must’ve been interesting when you actually blend archival footage into dramatic scenes in the film that recreate history. Did you have to have that all laid out even before working on the script?

Yaron Zilberman: Yeah, we watched hundreds of hours of footage relevant to story and then we created a whole library of topics related to scenes. Like “Scene three, that’s what we got [in terms of footage]. Scene four, that kind of footage.” And by analyzing what we had, I decided what I’m going to use in the editing room and how to get to the footage and out of the footage in a seamless way. So when we filmed it, we were working with the archival [material], reenacting moments to enter [a scene] and moments to go out. For example, you have footage of a cop dragging a protester and we actually reenacted that, but then you get the footage and he’s dragging him and what we film, we continued to drag and you don’t know what’s what. But it was watching hundreds of hours, selecting the most relevant [footage], and then bringing them into the filming process.

The camerawork is so tied to Yigal, what it was like working out the language and building the character in that way?

Yaron Zilberman: One of the most major challenges when you tackle such a project, telling a story through the eyes of an assassin, is you don’t want the audience to fall in love with him and actually think that it’s a positive action that he did, so you’re using many filmmaking techniques. One is the camera angles and we limited ourselves to two shots. One is the shot very tight over the shoulder, so we see what he sees and it’s almost like a first-person computer [game] where you’re walking with him and feel what he feels. Then the second was an extreme close up always with some kind of a weird angle – never front down, like a hero in a conventional way. This was getting into his mind, and that exploration, which is like 90% of the movie, brought the feeling of almost real life, really describing it from within his world. That was very exciting. It also called for a close relationship between Yehuda and the director of photography because I’m the director and we have a vision and we talk about what we’re going to do, but he’s the camera out with him physically and they have this physical interaction.

Yehuda Nahari Halevi: He’s a genius and it was all was very intense, so I needed to stay focused on this character and I was just Yigal Amir because he’s pushing me, “Go and come, go!” throwing me from one place to another, and I’m like, “Okay, wait a second…”

There are some very long takes too – how do you pull off a scene like when Yigal introduces Nava to his family?

Yaron Zilberman: Here’s the thing. The real shot is 15 minutes long. We went with her outside to her garden, then we went upstairs to his room – she took Nava on a journey in the house. Outside, inside, up, down. It was 15 minutes long. Eventually in the editing room, I decided to enter midway for reasons that had to do with pacing, but it was an amazing experience because you get to choreograph and direct the whole journey and once they start, there’s a take, and then you correct it, and then there’s another until you get this beautiful acting in front of the camera. I love doing stuff like that. For those who are not aware that it’s the one shot, I think that gives you an added feeling of authenticity by the fact that you don’t have cuts. It was all in the service of feeling that you are there in the moment and you cannot almost distinguish between the movie and reality.

That may have been it, but was there a particularly challenging day of shooting on this?

Yaron Zilberman: Every day is a challenge when you want to do something seriously, so there were many, many challenges. [For instance] we decided to shoot in Jericho, because Yigal Amir went on a journey there with these friends, including with Nava, and they have this moment in this old synagogue, so I wanted to shoot in that synagogue, but now it’s a Palestinian city. It’s no longer an Israeli city. So what do you do? We got permission from the Palestinians to shoot there, but we needed more time. It always happens, and the army [escort] says, “You got to leave, you got to leave.” I’m talking to a commander, totally armed with all these machine guns outside this place, [saying] “Come on, I need one shot. Look at that. I just need [the actor] to go from here to there and show her the synagogue.” And he’s like, “Okay, you got two more shots.” So he became my producer at that point.

I’ve heard of filmmakers saying they’re “under the gun” before but never like that.

Yaron Zilberman: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s under the gun. [laughs]

“Incitement” will screen at the Toronto Film Festival on September 15th at the Scotiabank Theater at 1:15 pm. It will next play at the London Film Festival on October 12th and 13th.

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