The Oscar-nominated short film White Eye, by Israeli writer and director Tomer Shushan, opens over black. We hear the police pick up a phone call, and a man tells them that he’s just found his bike, which was stolen a month ago, locked up on a street corner.
What begins as a fairly straightforward predicament escalates breathlessly over the course of the movie’s 20-minute runtime. Shot in a single take, the film traps the movie’s protagonist, and the viewer, in a relentless Rube Goldberg machine where one action instantly triggers a chain of unforeseen consequences. The central character starts out grounded in the feeling that he’s been wronged – but as the film unfolds and he finds himself interacting with Israel’s refugee community, he realizes that he may be incorrectly framing the injustice. In its brief duration, White Eye does what much of the best art does: address the pressing moral questions of our time without preachiness, through the specific, present-tense story of one person.
I went into the film knowing virtually nothing about it, and that’s what I recommend you do, too. At the time of this writing, it’s available free online for one more day, through March 17. So if you can, you should watch now (did I mention it’s only 20 minutes?) before reading on.
I talked to writer-director Tomer Shushan, who told me about how the idea for the film came about, the communities and people it portrays, and some of the on-set adventures involved in shooting in a seedier Tel Aviv neighborhood at night.
This interview contains spoilers. It has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.
How did you arrive at the idea for White Eye? Where did it come from?
About two years ago, I was on the way to meet my film school teacher. It was the last day to send scripts to the film foundations in Israel. And while I was on the way to meet her, this story happened to me. I found my stolen bike. And I was so stressed because of the deadline, and so I saw my bike, and I just got to this emotional storm and blamed this guy who had stolen from me, and I made a huge scene on the street. It ended a bit better [than in the film]. But I just couldn’t believe that I couldn’t control myself and let my instincts maybe ruin someone else’s life and run over all my values.
In the end, the police let [the bike’s new owner] go, and we just exchanged money for the bike. But once I had the bike, I didn’t want it anymore. I just couldn’t ride it anymore. I just wanted to burn it. And when I got to my teacher, I told her the story and she told me, okay, let’s forget about everything, sit down and write it, we have a few hours. So I wrote it, maybe half an hour after it happened. And it took me about 40 minutes to complete. The script was so fast, it was so emotional and all the details were so clear, because it was so close to the event. We sent it in, got the money [from the Makor Film Foundation]. And then from there, I made the movie.
Wow. It does feel true, somehow – it feels very lived-in. Did the script change a lot from that first 40-minute draft?
No, not at all.
A few words after I met the actors, maybe. And the location changed. I wrote it to happen outside of a restaurant. But while I was looking for a location, I visited my friend, who’s the owner of the butcher shop [in the film]. He gave me a tour, and I saw the fridge. And I called him over and asked a few workers to come, and I put them inside the fridge. And when I opened the door a little and took a shot, I saw all the workers packed in with the meat. And I told myself, okay, this is it. So the script changed only because of this image that I wanted to create.
Did you always conceive of the film as one take?
Yes. I didn’t want the audience to hate the main character; it was important for me that they understand that he’s not a bad person. He does what he does because he doesn’t have a moment to breathe and to understand if what he’s doing is right or wrong. So I thought to myself, how can I, as a director, make the audience not breathe as well? Not have a moment to breathe? If I don’t cut, I don’t let them have a moment to understand what’s good and what’s bad. I will make them connect to the main character that way.
What about the neighborhood where you shot? Does it have a specific character? That corner is such a part of the movie.
Actually, I lived in this building a few years ago, but it’s like, an industrial area. Lots of artists, but no one lives there, and lots of factories. In the daytime, it’s full of cars, lots of traffic, lots of people. At night, it’s like empty, with prostitutes and shady bars and underground parties. Tel Aviv is not dangerous. I think it’s the safest city I’ve ever been to. So this is the scariest part of Tel Aviv, but it’s not that scary. Still, I wanted to bring this darkness a bit to this film. And I wanted to play with the colors: black and white, the night and the white bike.
Do you have any stories from set?
Wow, yeah. Okay. We asked the police to secure the shoot, and they told us, we can’t, we’re not going into this area, we’re not messing with all the pimps (there are also pimps). And we had a transgender actress who’s also a filmmaker in Israel, who used to be a prostitute. She plays the prostitute in the film. So we’re shooting. And she knows that some car is supposed to come and pick her up sometimes during the shot, and bring her back to the same spot. And everyone’s focusing on the actors and what’s happening [in the main action]. And I’m watching on my monitor. And I see that a black car comes to pick her up. And she starts to get in, thinking that it’s the movie’s car. But it’s a guy who wanted a prostitute. So I was realizing, we don’t have a black car on set, who brought the black car? And the scene is going but I don’t want to do a cut, because then we’ll lose everything we’ve shot so far, it’s just one take. But then I thought to myself, okay. If it’s that, if someone is trying to pick her up, it’s horrible.
I cut the scene in the middle without telling anyone — no, I didn’t even say cut. I just put the monitor down and ran to the car. Everyone didn’t understand what happened. And then I just opened the car door and told her to come out, and told the guy, “I’m sorry, sir.”
Oh my God. That is maybe the craziest set story I’ve ever heard. Can you tell me more about your casting process? I know Daniel Gad, your lead, is a great TV actor.
Daniel is a great actor, I knew it already. I met him and we have really good chemistry as people. He really liked the script so we started to work together, but we never worked on the character, we just hung out together. We went on a trip to Egypt, we became friends. This character is based on me. So I wanted him to be close to me, as much as he could be. We only started working on the script a week or two before shooting, and he brought something really like my personality.
The Eritrean character, Yunes, played by Dawit Tekelaeb… I was walking home in the middle of the night after a night out with friends. And I saw him cleaning dishes in some fast food hamburger restaurant. It was 3 in the morning, but in a place in Tel Aviv where everyone is there in the middle of the night — it’s super packed, everyone is eating on the floor. He was just there, cleaning, and I saw his face, and I saw that he had one white eye, because he’s blind in one eye. I approached him and I asked him if he’d want to hear about the script that I was writing. He was scared at the beginning, because [refugees] have to be scared about everyone that approaches them. But in the end, he agreed to meet me for a coffee. And then when I showed him the script, he really wanted to do it. Because it’s putting his community in a good place. It’s not making them victims, it’s making them people who want the justice they’re supposed to get. So he really liked that idea. And in fact, it’s a good opportunity for him to do something for his community.
We worked together for seven months. He didn’t know Hebrew, I taught him Hebrew. And we worked out all the choreography, where he needed to go, how he needed to feel. And he started to tell me lots of things about his experiences. He came from Eritrea to Israel by foot, which is so, so far. [He told me about] the experiences that he had on the way, and that he lost his eye on the way. I was getting to know him, and I learned so much from this experience with him. As a filmmaker, but mostly as a person, I’m so happy that we met; he taught me so many things. It was very important for me to bring a real refugee [into the cast], because they have something that no one else can bring. No one else can understand, or can act, how it feels to be a person who is “illegal.” He wakes up in the morning and just his being is illegal. It’s crazy.
What’s the meaning of the film’s title, White Eye?
The story is happening through a white person’s eyes. Also, white eyes symbolize, for me, blindness, which is how society sees [refugees] — they don’t see them. It’s about the color.
Can you talk about the Eritrean community in Israel?
Our last culture minister said that the Sudanese and Eritreans are the cancer in Israeli society. That’s what she said, she said that sentence. And I feel that lots of people feel like that. It’s horrible. Because these people came to Israel to escape the war. It’s the closest country that they can walk to that will accept them. And I think that lately, Israel is deporting lots of people. And because Eritrea just made a peace agreement with Ethiopia, they can go back there, but they promise everyone that they won’t do any harm to these people. And we just had a peace agreement with Sudan. Now you see less of them in Israel. And I know that it’s really a death sentence, to go back. And yeah, most people don’t see them. It’s crazy that for most citizens, and for society, they’re see-through people, invisible, but with the authorities, it’s all eyes on them. That’s their reality.
Israel, as a Jewish nation, was founded to provide safe haven for a persecuted people. You’ve made a film about people who come to Israel to seek safety. How do you feel, as an Israeli, seeing people coming to a nation based in these values being treated this way?
Wow. What a question. On the one hand, I know how it feels to live abroad. Most Jewish people who come to Israel, even for the first time, feel like it’s home. It’s something that you can’t explain; I guess it is inside of us. But on the other hand, this whole idea, this country, exists because we experienced lots of persecution in the world. And it’s so crazy to me that now there is great racism against others here. The whole idea is supposed to be a place for Jewish people, but we welcome everyone because we want to be welcome everywhere. It’s not to separate us from others.
I do understand that there are only 14 million Jewish people and it’s a fight to keep this community, this culture, this religion, alive. So much history, and I understand why people want it. But one of the most important sentences in Judaism is the golden rule: treat others as you want to be treated. I think that’s where we miss in Israel.