IFFR 2020: Director Raquel Chalfi On ‘The Hidden Fountain’ And Making A Film About Her Mother

Director Raquel Chalfi joins us on Close-up Culture to talk about her documentary, The Hidden Fountain – The World Of Miriam Chalfi, ahead of its screening at the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2020.

Q: What does it mean to be attending the International Film Festival Rotterdam with ‘The Hidden Fountain – The World Of Miriam Chalfi’?

A: Your question puts me in a difficult, yet fascinating spot: Right at that junction where, after digging for a long time through earth and rocks – a wonderful fountain that has been hidden for so long reveals itself, and you are awe-struck, you want to let it flow on secretly, clandestinely; to abstain from over-exposing it – but you also feel (as I have felt for so long) the urgent need to share with others what you discovered. So, coming to this festival confronts me, I feel, with a wonderful opportunity – but also makes me a bit shy and uneasy; like a little child who is about to tell a secret –at a very big arena.

Q: For those unfamiliar with her work, can you tell us more about Miriam and her sculpting?

A: Miriam, my mother, came to the world of sculpture also a bit like that child I mentioned. Since her early childhood she felt the urge to make art, to study it, to try to “make something with matter itself,” as she put it. But she couldn’t. For many years she had to put this dream off – because of very harsh and oppressive circumstances. She was orphaned from her mother while still a very young child. She had to work hard to support her family.

But then, after many years of waiting to realize her dream, she arrived with my father to Mexico City – they were both teachers then – and while still working very hard, she finally found some free time, and started to attend the Academia of Las Bellas Artes. She finally touched matter itself! I, myself a child then, remember her coming home with a spark in her eyes, all glowing. After a few months there, she was proclaimed “Una Alumna Extraordinaria,” An Extraordinary Student. She was invited to present her first year works at the Academy Exhibition along with the graduate students.

Back in Israel, though she and my father were still toiling in their everyday life – sculpture became an important part of her life. Soon she won First Prize at a big group exhibition. Her works from that period indeed tackle materiality, explore the physicality of the human (mainly female) body, geometrical relationships and volumes. Her works venture evermore into the abstract, struggling throughand experimenting with different materials.

Q: I understand you had been trying to persuade your mother to take part in this documentary for more than a quarter of a century. Why was she reluctant for so long?

A: I feel it had to do with her modesty. She had a deep sense of humility. It had nothing to do with self-effacement. Inwardly, she knew her power, her gifts. But she was truly humble. When I first approached her with the suggestion to make a film about her, she said: “I don’t deserve a film.” Years later, when I tried again and again, she “melted” a bit and said: “You can film me only if I am p a r t of a film about six or five artists. Not ‘just about me.'” She had no extra-baggage of ego. This also becomes crystal-clear in her poems. She grasped herself as a p a r t of a cosmic whole.

Q: Was there a moment or event that led Miriam to lower her guard on this project? How did you persuade her to open up for the film?

A: I think I didn’t have the time to deliberate, to create a strategy. It came “unnoticed.” There is an early scene in the film where my son, Daniel, 8 at the time, chases her through the house with a small video camera and she literally runs away and closes the door behind her.

After those moments, I tried to get her permission to bring a young, gifted cinematographer (later a gifted film director, Jorge Gurvich) only for a day, for just a few hours. Instinctively I felt that if Daniel, my son and her beloved grandchild, would be sitting at her side and talking to her – instead of me – it will be more “right.” And so it went on. I tried to stay off-camera as much as possible. To let the “fountain” flow freely between her and little Daniel. Also, we were all very lucky that Daniel was such a perceptive, curious and intelligent young boy. And he naturally assumed the role of themain interviewer.

‘The Hidden Fountain – The World Of Miriam Chalfi’

Q: Can you tell us about some of the voices that appear in the film? How do they help shape this portrait of Miriam?

A: Initially, as I was realizing more and more that this film is going to be one of “poverty of means” – as I was getting no support whatsoever – I became more and more convinced that it’s okay like this. In fact, it became clear to me that this is right. That it goes hand-in-hand with Miriam’s life of actual poverty. So, I felt it would be right to make it very minimal and intimate: Just Miriam, and her closest circle.

But as the film was nearing completion, it seemed to me that I can still maintain the film’s minimal, ascetic quality, while “letting in” two other people: Menashe Kadishman, a world-renowned Israeli artist and sculptor. Kadishman knew my mother and followed her work for many years. He talks in the film about particular works, while maintaining a wide perspective of the “immense value of her art of free spirit” and of Miriam Chalfi being “an artist’s artist.” Ariel Hirschfeld, writer and leading art and literary critic, also followed Miriam’s art for years. He intertwines the threads of her art and those of her poetry. He also widens the scope to encompass the deeper spiritual qualities of her art.

Q: How did your understanding of your mother shift during the process of making this documentary?

A: Slowly and gradually, my perspective about this wondrous woman deepened and widened. I can say, perhaps, that while working on the editing, frame by frame – I was given the opportunity to get more intimate with my mother than ever before. Moving from feeling and viewing her from “extreme close-up” (we were very close, just as I was with my father, the poet Shimshon Chalfi), to an ever-growing wide-angle, and then back again to a very extreme close-up, and so on… I also realized what a thin thread separated the emergence of the source – from its remaining ever hidden.

I also realized how thin was that thread that held her life together. Not every young girl could endure what she had endured.When she finally arrived at those shores of Israel as a haven – even here she was still unable to fulfil herself for many years. The life of this film was also held together by a flimsy thread. I almost succumbed to the lack of any support and the many hardships I had to tackle. I almost lost hope… But during my long, intermittent work on the film, I realized how very crucial it was for me to complete it.

Q: This must have been a very personal journey for you. What did you uncover about yourself during the process of making this documentary?

A: This was, indeed, a very personal journey. It gave me another prism through which I could re-discover my mother. And also, because the breaks and halts I had to make made it so long – it offered me another, perhaps softer, way of departing from her, after she had departed from us. I realized in every moment of seeing and feeling her, again and again, that it was a kind of a long farewell.

I also discovered through the many hardships and struggles I had to overcome in the making of the film, that for the first time in my “cinematic life,” so to speak, I found my own resilience and strength. The strength that perhaps echoed, though more feebly, that of my mother: After all, this fragile, small woman tackled materials like stone, iron and marble and she chose an art that had been considered “a male-art.”

Q: What do you hope audiences take away from ‘The Hidden Fountain – The World Of Miriam Chalfi’?

A: The inner beauty of this woman. The spiritual and physical beauty of her art. The secret of The Hidden Fountain.

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