God as a Character: David Berman's Journey Through Israel

Silver Jew follows David Berman with a camera during his first-ever trip to Israel in a documentary that covers not only the man and his music, but also his intensely personal spiritual journey.

When the Silver Jews made the transition from being exclusively a recording concern to an act that tours the world, the move sent seismic waves through the band's devoted supporters. While not exactly a Jandek-type recluse, songwriter and motivating force David Berman had been far from a public presence. A published poet (1999's Actual Air) who endured a serious struggle with drug addiction, he had largely remained an underground figure. With the release of 2005's Tanglewood Numbers, a newly sober Berman began taking steps in an opposite direction. With a more consistent line-up of musicians, including wife Cassie, Berman began touring on what has become a regular basis.

For three days in July of 2006, producer Matthew Robinson and director Michael Tully accompanied the band on their first-ever visit to Israel. Shot with a single camera, the film tracks Berman on what becomes an extremely emotional, personal tour of the country. Writes Robinson, "For me, God (if I can say that rather than spirituality or religion) was the point. And our second character really. So you have the seen and unseen, and a picture that opens with David making his deal with God. Will God show up? Maybe." It's a concise image of the band and not once do the filmmakers lead you along a specified route; the discoveries instead find their way to you in casual asides or in unmistakable moments of power, both on-stage and off.

Robinson and Tully don't aim to tell the entire story of Berman or the band and instead they bring the viewer into the story at full-speed; on the ground in Israel with the group. And in its way, what at first seems like a limitation is what removes the work from any boundaries. Writes Robinson, "We did not and do not wish to be the definitive biographers of Silver Jews or David Berman. And God help the one who tries." Not necessarily the story of a touring band or of its fans or of the creative process (though it touches on all three), the film becomes a search for meaning, by everyone involved, extracted from specific trappings. Berman happens to make music and to have fans who care about and are touched by his work but in this context, the captured performances and backstage interactions are not just captured for posterity but serve as stops, and sometimes as catapults, along the way for both the people in the film and the viewer. "I promised David only that he would have high quality home movies," writes Robinson, "but we ended with something better."


PopMatters: I really enjoyed the movie and I think, for a few reasons, it's a really unique approach to documenting a rock band, or at least a particular part of their life. There's a scene where David is talking to a fan back stage in reference to a fairly spiritual saying that he had included as a part of liner notes, and he had written it backwards to sort of conceal it because he wasn't sure how people might take it. I was wondering if you had any similar thoughts going into making the film. Were there any concerns about what fans of the band would make of what are really some very nakedly emotional feelings being expressed, especially as they relate to religion?

Michael Tully: With this type of non-fiction film-making, in which there isn't a premeditated agenda, it's hard to speak about expectations. I think we both agreed that since we only had one camera, we didn't want to make a straight-up concert film. But that was fine by us, because one thing we did agree upon before taking the plunge was that it would be more interesting—for fans and non-fans alike—if we chose to concentrate on David and the band as human beings instead of self-important rock stars. If I had any hopes it was to capture moments similar to the broom shopping, or David taking a picture of a cat and wandering aimlessly to "Pretty Eyes"—not these scenes specifically, but moments like them. As for the particular post-show conversation you mentioned, that's when I started to realize that we had something bigger than just an ordinary tour documentary. And then, the next day in Jerusalem, I felt strongly that we had something even bigger than that. Of course, the fact that we didn't provide a thorough background with regards to David's tumble to rock bottom might not build as much drama as we could have, but I personally wanted to stay out of the way and let the footage be what it was. Not to mention my own personal preference for the "less is more" approach to storytelling.

As for fans swallowing the nakedly emotional feelings, I simply hoped that all viewers would respond to the honesty of the footage and find it refreshing. Religion appears to be taboo these days, but to me David's plight isn't about religion or Judaism. It's about connecting with the world for what feels like the very first time.

Matthew Robinson: I remember all of the "planning" taking place over maybe three weeks, so I'm amazed now that we were able to execute the "Getting There" part. That speaks to the quality of life in the 21st century; when two broke guys can meet at Heathrow from two different American cities bringing with them a five-pound camera, tape and a couple of adapters and manage to walk into a story in Tel Aviv.

As for religion, one has to consider that the only thing I knew about our character was that his belief and hope was at that moment hung-up entirely in Finding God. Touring for David was a part of that gamble/leap of faith. They played their first public show a mere five months before we caught up with them. I'm glad Michael and I had some rules going in. Mainly that being the Silver Jews' definitive biographers was not our job. Then it was a matter of letting Mike stay true to the footage/story.

PM: It seems like it was a real leap of faith, on your part, that everything would come together and that you'd end up with footage you could use. One thing that really struck me was how you shot the live footage. It's very much like being a part of the crowd; the camera doesn't move, it's shot from within the audience, the sound is a slightly better version of what you'd hear in a club. I assume this was a function of having one camera but it really is very effective. How much of how the film is presented was planned and how much had to be improvised as you were shooting?

MR: I had worked on a couple of television shows that shoot inside prisons. Two weeks of ten hour days inside federal institutions. I learned just about everything I hadn't already about shooting on the go, developing a story, etc. I still had a couple thousand dollars left from one of them when David [Berman] told me about the Israeli leg of the tour. I really wanted to be there, and I thought a document of that part of the trip would be a great idea. David agreed. So I basically spent all my money on a plane ticket. I think I only had about five weeks to plan, and I couldn't get anyone to go. So when Mike was suggested to me--someone who had actually directed and worked a bit in and around productions-- it seemed like a good fit. I can't remember how Mike got the money (that was part of my problem in getting someone to go: I couldn't pay for them), but soon he was on board.

There are always weird obstacles, but in the case of this film, we were very well cared for and it seemed everyone was willing to simply let things be and open up the world to us. By the time Mike had captured a real turning point for the story, we weren't in a place to be surprised by anything.

For the live footage, we wanted coverage but had no interest in a 'concert movie' or even a focus on performance. As for the style, Mike shot all of that steady and medium-to-wide. He let the moments come to him, which is a great idea. I'm always trying to club moments to death. Incidentally, the live audio is a mini-disc recorder blended with the camera audio. I had a stereo mic clipped to the bill of my hat. What a show. I had to keep my head straight.

MT: If it wasn't for Matthew Robinson, my name wouldn't be anywhere near this film. After making my first feature (the narrative Cocaine Angel), I left New York City and moved back into my childhood home with my parents in Maryland. This was a sort of self-imposed punishment: until I told myself that I had to live with them until I'd paid off my credit card. When Matthew pitched the trip/film idea to me, I realized this would put me further in debt and my first instinct was to 'be responsible' and pass, but after discussing it with friends I realized that debt didn't compare to the promise of what the experience might hold. Out came the credit card once again, and away we flew.

As a defense mechanism in life, and in film-making, I try to remove any and all pressure whenever possible. I hadn't actually spoken to David or Cassie—just brief emails—so I was a tad skeptical about the whole thing. But I trusted the world, as well as Matthew, and realized everything was okay when after an initial afternoon of sitting around with the camera off, we removed the lens cap and started shooting away. This lack of pressure applied to our shooting approach as well. I wanted to stay as out of the way as possible. It's tricky to have expectations about the footage you want to get. You start to get nervous and pushy and the subject shuts down. So by staying somewhat removed, I think that helped David to not be as insecure and guarded as he might have been in a less comfortable situation. Specific shots were completely intuitive. Not a ton of intellectualizing in the moment. Just trying to find the best frame possible and not do anything too formulaic (i.e., zooming in on David's face at the film's climactic moment).

The concert footage was a direct result of us having one camera, though we did try to adopt the approach of a true attendee's perspective as opposed to something more traditional. The fact that Matthew recorded the shows with a mini-disc recorder helped out immensely when we started editing. We tried different things—a montage with short moments of many songs, three full songs, etc.—but settled on the final result as a combination of both. In the moment, I felt strongly that "Smith & Jones" was a keeper from beginning to end, but I also think it helped to show a few more moments without exposing just how simplistic our set-up was. It was a tricky line, but ultimately we felt like we settled on a happy medium.

PM: I'd really be interested to know which films either inspired you, or maybe served as a touchstone for you. Documentary films, in particular, really seem to have gained in popularity in the last decade; are there any particular ones you particularly like.

MT: This year—2008—has delivered some of the most exceptional, artistic, and humane docs I've ever seen: Up the Yangtze, The Order of Myths, Waltz With Bashir, Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, Intimidad, and the list goes on.

When it comes to all-time greats, I would take any single second of Frederick Wiseman's films over just about anything else in  the cinematic canon. Lastly, a recent personal favorite is Stanley Nelson's Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple.

PM: You've hinted at it in some of your responses, how and why you came to the decision to not include much background information on the band.  It puts a lot of trust in the audience, the way that you really jump right into things, but ultimately it creates a pretty unique perspective for the film ... almost like you've just fallen into a fascinating conversation with a total stranger.

Was it a nerve-wracking decision when making the film and how do you feel about it with a little distance from the film? When I first watched the movie, I found it a little disorienting to be just dropped right into the middle of things with no background other than what was happening in the film.  As I've gotten a little perspective, though, what some people think could be alienating to non-fans in a way has come to make the movie feel almost more universal.  And the movie's best moments take on an even more powerful and almost gut-level magic ... they really get under your skin in the best possible way.

MR: Frankly, I kept trying to make it a tale with the background included. I even sent Mike old VHS tapes of David and Steve [Malkmus] and Bob [Nastonovich] making up "Cherry Area", and even stranger DV cassettes of David flailing with a canoe, singing in the rain, etc. Mike was insistent that we show the Israel story and leave it at that. So for me it was nerve-wracking up to the point where I gained confidence in the look/feel of the story as captured by Mike.

MT: Yes, some of that footage is pretty amazing, but I felt very strongly that we keep our footage relegated to Israel . Full confession: this was almost certainly a defense mechanism because I don't think I'm smart enough to craft some thorough "history of the band" type of thing. But a fuller confession: that type of thing genuinely doesn't interest me as a filmmaker. As a viewer, I will watch pretty much anything. But any time I think of the effort it takes to tell fans what they already know and provide non-fans with a history that won't really do justice to David's influence on his believers, I get those bad sort of goosebumps like I've spent too much time in a shopping mall. Fortunately, Matthew came around and decided that those VHS tapes might be better utilized in another project.

Had we gone the more typical route, the film would almost certainly have connected with more festival programmers and viewers in general. Having said that, I stand behind our decision not to provide any historical context, with regards to David's art or the man himself.

MT: I knew from the beginning that your initial reaction was going to be shared by many. But I also knew that this is the type of filmmaking I want to pursue, whether it be narrative or non-fiction. When Yonatan and David discuss him abandoning the drinking and drugging, to me that gives the viewer enough to know that this guy use to live hard. We don't need to hear him tell us, or, more lamely, have others provide more context. It's all there in David's face.

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