EDN MEMBER OF THE MONTH – Sylvain Biegeleisen
In this monthly interview series EDN focuses on one of its many members to show both members in the spotlight and the diversity of the EDN membership group. Our EDN member of the month for January 2016 is Sylvain Biegeleisen, Belgium, Director, Zen Productions, Israel.
EDN has among other things talked to Sylvain Biegeleisen about his latest documentary Twilight of a Life, the upcoming screening at Magnificent7 and the documentary environment in Israel and Belgium.
Sylvain Biegeleisen was born in Antwerp, Belgium and he covers a diverse range of creative professions - film director and producer, writer, painter and video artist, photographer and musician, group moderator and singer. In 1996 Sylvain founded the NGO Lahav Association for the Promotion of Values in Society, which manages cinematic, social projects for populations with special needs (youth and young women at-risk, single mothers, new immigrants, and minority groups).
Sylvain is a member of the Association of Creative and Expressive Therapies (ICET) and has given courses on teaching creativity with video integration as an educational process. He holds a degree in Theatre Direction from the Kibbutzim College of Education. Sylvain has also studied creative drama at the London Children’s Drama School and film courses at the Brussels Institute des Arts & Diffusion.
Besides Twilight of a Life (2014) Sylvain has previously directed Naked Emotions (2003), and The Last Card (2008). In addition, Sylvain has produced a great number of films, among them the documentary Hide & Seek from Iris Rubin & The Chaos Within from filmmaker Yanai Lein.
EDN: Can you start by telling more about your background and your road into documentary film directing and producing?
SB: Aged 16, I took the 8 mm film camera of my brother and started to film, mainly the port of Antwerp, nature, people. Thinking about it, it was a tremendous period of creativity. You could film 3-4 minutes, in black white or colour, then you sent it to Kodak or Agfa laboratories. After a few days, you received the result, watched it on the wall of the room, and edited with scissors and glue. What a romantic period.
Time was, in a philosophical way, an important element. Today everything goes so quick. Anyone can do anything in a second, and the next second it is already in NY and an hour later 350,000,000 people can watch it ... The next day, everything is forgotten. On the opposite, a Prelude of Johan Sebastian Bach is still giving people, 300 years later, a sort of "spiritual orgasm". Today there is a big fight between Fast Mediocrity vs. Artistic Quality. So I was born with a camera in one hand (and a guitar in the other). The video camera was a revolution for me. I could see directly what I was filming.
The way I started to create short films were kind of "Instant Movies". When I filmed, I already had in my mind the editing process. No waste. Everything was done chronologically! When the shooting was finished, I had just to add music, credits and everything could be screened in front of the family, friends, children and later, Cinema Workshop participants. The video material was heavy, nothing to compare to a 50 gr. full HD Smartphone. My method of filming was used later to go from place to place, meeting teenagers and dealing with social issues such as violence, sex abuse, poverty, segregation, co-existence...
EDN: When did you launch Zen Productions and what was your motivation behind launching your own company?
SB: In my life I always wanted to be independent and free to decide what to do. I was lucky to have in the beginning of my artistic journey the help of my brothers. I could channel all my creative energies to implement my ideas, my visions until becoming more financially independent. Documentary filmmaking is known as being a sort of non-profit experience. With my first company, Moondog Productions, I made the mistakes a lot of beginners are doing. From mistakes you learn much more than from success! In the year 2000, I created my second company and chose the name Zen as an invitation for a good "karma". I wanted to be more balanced in the storm of film production processes. But being honest, I find it more exiting to be an artist than a producer.
EDN: You were born in Belgium, but your company is based in Israel. Are you currently working from both countries?
SB: Well, today I feel myself "Planetarian". I do belong to a generation that becomes more and more aware that we are all "partners" in our common "journey" and not competitors. I belong to the Earth and the Earth doesn't belong to me. I love to work in Belgium, in Switzerland, in Israel. I will always find in the people I meet, an occasion for a mutual enrichment.
When I filmed Twilight of a Life for 2-3 years, I was more in Belgium. Working in Switzerland for a Video Exhibition Event, I could stay there a few months and I felt myself a "Valaisan", a region I love, not only for it's good wine, but because of real friends! In Israel, I did in the past, some important Israeli-Palestinian video projects. I also belong to those who believe that co-existence in mutual respect is vital for all of us, not only in this region. In everything I do, the human experience is primordial.
EDN: Can you give a short overview of the current documentary environment in the two countries?
SB: My two documentaries on my mother were all filmed in Belgium, in French language and are co-produced by Belgium and Israel. Two countries with different environments. Until a few months ago, Belgium was very quiet, 70 years without war. So documentary filmmaking was not so blooming. Today there is a changing evolution in its population profile due to emigration and funds for documentaries in Belgium are maybe more easy to get. At the opposite, you have Israel, an explosive environment, perpetual conflicts with neighbours, permanent stress between citizens, ethnic and religious differences... All this is the best laboratory for a filmmaker. At every corner of a street you can find a story. Until last year, hundreds of documentaries could easily find financial support. Today, this is no more the case. One TV channel is in crisis, another one does not support documentaries anymore. The commercial channels invest their doc budget into cheap and empty nonsense reality shows.
For me documentary filmmakers are the defenders of democracy (even if this word has to be reconsidered since huge corporations are ruling the world). Documentaries offer a chance to increase "awareness", change negative habits and invite us to think positively about Life.
EDN: Do you experience differences between the two film cultures and ways of telling a story?
SB: In Israel there is a great tradition in documentary filmmaking. But I believe world TV commissioners expect from Israeli documentaries to deal mainly with specific local issues (the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Secret Services, religious and ethnic conflicts...). They will not expect the same from Belgian docs. When Twilight of a Life won the Docaviv Best film and Director awards it was a surprise. No war, no blood, no scandals, no religion, no drugs, no sexual issues, no politics...just a 95 years old simple lady and her son with a camera in one hand and a guitar in the other! And it works! Any way and everywhere a film is a story you tell and there are so many ways to tell stories. In both countries you have brilliant young doc filmmakers that will have to deal in the near future with very heavy issues. We live in a very tense period with a lot of violence, hate, poverty and inequality. Big corporations will go on to sell their dreams to the audiences; they are only interested in making money. . I believe that, in the building of a new paradigm, independent documentary filmmakers will have an important role to play.
EDN: You span over a large creative spectre in your different work spheres - is there a common theme or style in the projects you are involved in?
SB: What may be in common is "spontaneity". Most of what I am doing is not premeditated. It comes out of a need. A need to solve or to face something important, in my eyes that concerns personal issues. Only when I discover that what is personal is in fact also "universal", then I start the process of documentary "storytelling". An occasion to increase awareness, a kind of invitation to open eyes and hearts to important issues that people are afraid to cope with, like old age or death in Twilight of a Life.
EDN: Your latest documentary Twilight of a Life was completed in April 2015 and has since then been having a successful festival life. The film is about your 95-year old bedridden mother and is a very intimate and personal story. How did the project start and what were your thoughts and concerns regarding taking the viewer into such a close and personal relationship?
SB: Before the project started, I just came to say a last goodbye to my mother. Doctors said her days were counted! It is only when I saw that she stayed alive, started to feel better and to communicate, that I used my photo camera to take a lot of stills. Then I recorded hours of our conversations. Only after a few weeks, I allowed the camera to gently enter the bedroom as a unseen friend, being the witness of our profound encounters and also comic situations. With such a partner as my 95 years young mother, I had of course all the time to put the camera where I thought would be a good place, in order to keep intimacy in focus. My mother entirely accepted being filmed. She also taught me how I should approach the film in order to succeed or to make money and to have a big audience. It is incredible to have her saying at her advanced age: "I build something on the future, not on the past!" There are scenes that even a scriptwriter would not think about: that's why documentary filmmaking is so rich and important. I believe humour also plays an important role. People laugh, cry and smile from the beginning till the end of the film. It surely helps the viewer to cope with ageing issues without fear and enjoy the close and personal relationship between my mother and me.
EDN: The film takes place by your mother’s bedside and you are the only two characters. What made you decide on such a tight focus?
SB: I didn't decide anything! This was reality. These were the conditions. It was up to me to put my intuition in the service of the artistic process. Since I've always been improvising, creative, spontaneous, what I did was not the result of a thinking process but more an experience of "doing the best I can with what I have" even in a 12 square meter environment! Outside, I liked to film from my bicycle scenes of the park I was riding by on my way to my mother's apartment. These sequences are in the film to give the spectator oxygen in a "huis-clos". It includes also views from the window: trees, birds, the sky, clouds... a way to understand that time and seasons are passing in a poetic way.
EDN: This limited space and number of characters also provide a big challenge in the editing. How early on in the process did editor Joelle Alexis come on board and how was your collaboration?
SB: Working with Joelle Alexis, was like flying on board of a plane with the best pilot existing! Trust is the "key word". She was born in Antwerp, Belgium like me, and she edited my first film on my mother The Last Card. She is worldwide appreciated. In the beginning, after a few month of filming I came to her with an hour of rough scenes. The result: she was crying and laughing. From this moment I knew that we would work together again, a feeling that gives a lot of self-confidence. Joelle had a tremendous impact on the storytelling of the film. From the beginning she made me understand that it is going to be a film about life, exactly as my mother wanted. A film full of humour and oxygen. Our collaboration was also very important because I was so emotionally involved in the filming process. I also had to deal with a very sensitive subject "How to end a life when we know that the end is not so far"! Her objective, professional and talented skills helped me to create a film that is so powerful today.
Since Twilight of a Life is a very intimate film, in a small room, in an apartment, in a city: the soundtrack of the film is also very important. I had the chance to work with one of the best sound & re-recording mixers in Israel, Michael Goorevich. Every time I sit in a cinema hall, I enjoy his subtle soundtrack. Of course the same for the colour-grading editors Xavier Pique and Avi Levy: their professional collaboration helps the film to be so artistic. I called them all "My winning Team"!
A lot of other people, like Take Five productions in Belgium, CatnDocs in Paris and many friends, contributed to the success of the film and I will always acknowledge them deeply!
EDN: Twilight of a Life has been selected for the Magnificent7 festival in Belgrade taking place from January 29 - February 5. The unique thing about this festival is that it only screens 7 films - one per night, and with an audience between 1000 and 1500 per screening. The director and the film are in focus, and the festival offers a Q&A, and a master class the day after the screening for young Serbian filmmakers.
How has the different festival experiences been so far from your side? What are the typical reactions to the film and what are your expectations for the upcoming Magnificent7?
SB: I heard so many good things about the Magnificent7 Film Festival. Being invited to a Festival is always providing a kind of happiness, because you know that people will discover and enjoy your film. But when I heard from Tue Steen Müller that Twilight of a Life will go to Belgrade and a huge amount of people will see the film, I was very moved. In my Master class in Belgrade, I will also show some scenes that were not included in the film. It's a good way to help young local filmmakers understand the process of building a story. I call it "From Personal story to Universal filmmaking".
Magnificent7, I heard, is also the result of two wonderful people in the field of documentary: Svetlana and Zlotan Popovic assisted by Tue. It is going to be an incredible adventure. An honour for the film and myself. I have no expectation other than to meet the audience (also with my guitar) and hear them laugh and being moved by the film. Twilight of a Life is a kind of precious present from my aged mother to all of us, a present that remains within you for a long time! In the different countries where the film was screened, young and adults from all horizons, all religions or ethnic roots, were all reacting in the same way to the film, with a lot of emotions, laughs and tears.
EDN: Besides making documentaries yourself – you also use cinema as a tool for social improvement. Can you tell more about this side of your work and how you use the documentaries?
SB: Cinema, for me, can be an important tool to help populations at risk to re-integrate into society and become constructive members, instead of using violence to express their disappointments of life and their personal frustrations. Every group is creating their own film based on issues that are important for the participants. With the help of professionals, they learn to cooperate, become creative, disciplined and at the end, the result is a "broadcast quality film" they can be proud of. That's the power of these Social Cinema Projects and that's the reason why I created the Lahav NGO.
Today, with Twilight of a Life, I meet audiences after the screenings in the cinema theatres and engage in a dialogue with them around the theme of "ageing". People are so happy they can talk about this important issue. Old age is a big challenge for the future of our society.
I have a feeling that for a lot of people who see the film, something is happening to them. This proves how a documentary can enter the heart of audiences and have an influence on their behaviour or their way of thinking. I have hundred of letters from people who share with me what they feel.
I never thought a documentary could have such a positive impact on people! To the ones who think old age is not a "sexy" item, my answer is: "Look at this 95 years lady, isn't she "sexy"? In Israel, in less than one month, thousands of people saw the film. It climbed to the first place in the Box Office of the Film Critics, the only documentary among the 10 best films shown in Theatres in 2015, even before Star Wars!!! Again a proof that documentary films have the power to challenge big features with their millions of dollars.
So Twilight of a Life is like a good wine. With time passing, it conquers the heart of more and more audiences. We shall overcome!
EDN: What lies next for you? Any new projects in the pipeline?
SB: For the moment, I have no specific project. I devote my time to travelling and meeting audiences around the countries, with the film and with my guitar. I enjoy engaging in a dialogue with all these marvellous different people: young, adults and seniors... A beautiful human experience around a very important issue: ageing!
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