Stranger Than Fiction

FilmInk speaks to Israeli documentarian, Arnon Goldfinger, the man behind one of the most intriguing highlights at this year’s Antenna International Documentary Festival.

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“It really became an event in Israel,” Israeli director Arnon Goldfinger tells FilmInk about his new documentary, The Flat. “I don’t think it’s happened with any Israeli documentary before. Usually it doesn’t go both ways. You get good prizes but it doesn’t get the audience. So it really became an event, and people went to the cinema to see a documentary, which doesn’t happen often in Israel. Usually only one documentary gets released a year! It’s done very well. It’s the most successful Israeli documentary in the last ten years that I can recall.”

Indeed, the director has reason to be proud. As well as garnering praise and awards along the way, the modestly made but deeply fascinating The Flat has registered as a huge hit at the Israeli box office, remaining in the cinema for close to a year, a remarkable achievement by the standard of any country or filmmaker. It has also been a huge success in Germany (for obvious reasons) and is about to open in the US. Its success is testament to the rich and remarkable story that it unspools. Delving into his own personal family history ten years after his first documentary film, The Komediant, Goldfinger’s new feature explores the journey of his family as they clean out the apartment that once belonged to his grandparents – both immigrants from Germany. There in the rooms, Arnon finds photographs that reveal a shocking past that has been kept under wraps...

Did you have to recreate much? Because the way it’s presented seems to imply that you’re just uncovering this flat? But is it true that you discovered the letters in real time, or is that a filmmaker’s secret?

I won’t reveal all the secrets, but all the things you see on camera are real. Nothing was staged. And some people don’t believe some things, but everything you see is what happened.

What was the initial spark for making this film? Was it just to find out more about your grandmother upon her death? It doesn’t seem like that big a subject initially, but obviously it evolved into something bigger...

My previous film, The Komediant, was also a documentary feature. It was released in Israel and the United States and the film was very successful, but what was personally successful for me was I found myself and something that really touched me. That was the first time that I made a documentary feature. Previously I was a student and had only made fiction dramas. With my first documentary, I developed that combination of storytelling, which was real life and research, but it took four years to make and then two more years as I travelled with it in festivals and it sought distribution. And when I started thinking about what to do next, I was almost afraid that I would need to invest another four or five years, and that can be dangerous. Then, when my grandmother died, my aim was not at all to make a long feature film. It was just an urge to enter the flat, because I knew the place. I visited this place from my childhood. I knew it was a German world in Tel Aviv that would vanish. I knew how my family worked [which is to dismantle the place as quickly as possible], so the first idea was to make a short film only in the flat, and only about how this world is going to vanish.

One of the themes that I got out of the film was this idea that refugees coming to a new country often don’t want to delve into the country of their birth and family history. Was that something you identified and which informed the film – either in the scripting or the editing stages?

I would answer that in two different aspects. First of all, no doubt, the film is a multi-layered work. It’s a film with a lot of thought and perspective. So the first layer is this detective story, which is very unique to my findings and family, and this very crazy story about my grandparents. But what really interests me are those other aspects of the film like the generation gap common to many families in places of immigrants. The film explores – sixty or seventy years after – post-war trauma common to the immigrant’s experience. This phenomenon that people didn’t ask and people didn’t talk, and how that affected questions of identity and trying to build a new life in a new continent, are the issues at the heart of the film. Of course, the narrative is very strong and raises a lot of questions, but for me it’s only the first layer.

What happened in Israel really surprised me. There were two very common reactions by the audience. The first reaction was, people told me, ‘The first thing we did after the film was run to our flats, and started looking through our drawers because we don’t want people to find something after we’re dead that we don’t want them to find.’ But the real reaction was people saying, ‘We also didn’t ask. We also don’t know about our parents. Our children don’t ask us.’ And it started to happen in Germany, but definitely in Israel, people came a second time to see the film with their families. The first time was because their friend said they should see it, and then they came back, bringing their parents or their children, depending on their age. My guess is that somehow, unconsciously, they also wanted to raise this issue in their family.

How was the film funded?

A major amount of the support came from Germany. In Israel, what a film like this can receive, is the support of the New Israeli Fund for Cinema and TV,  and the investment on Channel 8, which is the cable TV for documentary. I don’t think a film can really get more than that, but other films may get it. But the real source of money was from Germany because over there we’ve got three very major foundations including the National Foundation for Cinema.

You touched upon why it takes you so long to make a film, but how do you survive?

Yeah, good question! Well, basically I’m a teacher at the Tel Aviv University. I teach film in the film department. Let’s say this is my base. The only other way is to make some commercial stuff, which I decided not to do. So I teach.

Are you teaching documentary?

No. I never gave a class in documentary. People are really surprised by that. But I teach only fiction. And I have a reason behind that. And the reason is the way I see documentary filmmaking. I think that, especially with students nowadays, it’s very easy to get a cheap camera and produce something on very little money. There are many interesting stories and subjects in any place – and especially Israel – but students believe that you can just take the camera and make a good documentary, which is wrong. But if you’re first being educated with the fiction tools – understanding narrative, understanding how to tell a story, understanding characters, understanding the meaning of perspective and distance and getting a feeling for all these things – it will take you to a better place when you decide to make documentary.

The Flat is playing at the Antenna Documentary Film Festival, which is on in Sydney between October 10-14. More information and buy tickets here.  

Photo credit: Arnon Goldfinger, courtesy of Getty Images/Larry Busacca.

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