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Disobedience Is Essential: Interview with Filmmaker Sebastián Lelio

Alessandro Nivola as Dovid Kuperman , Rachel McAdams as Esti Kuperman in Disobedience (2017) (© Candlelight Productions, LLC / source: IMDB)

Sebastián Lelio reflects on his first English language feature, Disobedience, and how art, the individual, and society benefits from one's rebellion against one's own worldview.

Sebastián Lelio

Bleecker Street / Curzon Artificial Eye

27 Apr 2018 (US) / 30 Nov 2018 (UK)


Disobedience (2017) tells the story of Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a photographer living and working in Manhattan who returns to her Orthodox Jewish community following the death of her father, the spiritual leader of the community. Ronit, who has been living in exile, is surprised to learn her two childhood friends, Esti (Rachel McAdams) and Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) are now married. Complicating matters are her former close friendship with Dovid, her father's closest disciple, and the old forbidden feelings that resurface between the two women.

Sebastián Lelio's first English language feature is co-written by British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, and is an adaptation of Naomi Alderman's novel. In the same year as completing Disobedience, Lelio also completed A Fantastic Woman (2017), two stories of conflict that compliment one another through their contrasts. Lelio notes: "...antagonism in the film comes mainly from the characters themselves and their own belief systems, not the community." Compare this to A Fantastic Woman, in which Marina's (Daniela Vega) future plans with boyfriend Orlando are interrupted by his sudden death. A trans woman, she's treated with suspicion by the doctors and police, and ostracised by the family who struggle to both accept her sexual identity and respect the feelings she and Orlando shared. Both films touch up on the theme of identity, yet the internal antagonism of Obedience is juxtaposed with the external antagonism of the filmmakers previous work.

In conversation with PopMatters, Leilo discusses the need for disobedience in art and in life, and his intent to create a film that allows the audience to feel the act of disobedience, as well as think about it.

"...even more beautifully than disobeying what society or your religion imposes on you, is to disobey what you thought the world was, and I think that's maybe even more interesting to explore as a film." -- Sebastián Lelio

Rachel Weisz as Ronit Krushka, Rachel McAdams as Esti Kuperman, and Alessandro Nivola as as Dovid Kuperman (source: IMDB)

What motivated your decision to tell this story on film?

When I became attached, it was at a time when I was receiving offers to direct in English, and so I was reading a lot of scripts. It was hard for me to find anything that really clicked, or I could relate to until I heard the basic lines of the story behind Disobedience. I just loved the dynamics between the characters and the particular love triangle, especially the fact that these are human beings that are trying to do their best, and who are operating against a backdrop of more or less fixed ideas. I thought it was an interesting opportunity to explore the tension between those two elements, and of course, the fact that Rachel Weisz was going to produce was also a big reason to accept because I have always admired her, and so it was very tempting.

Then I read the book and I liked it, and even though I'm not British or Jewish, because of the processes that the characters were going through, this alien universe seemed at the same time strangely familiar. These are characters that, in the wrong way, are willing to pay the price to move on to the next level, and are willing to disobey not only what society commands, but to disobey what they thought the world was, or reality was. So they are willing to even go against their own belief system and I think that's something I could relate to.

The idea of disobedience, especially today, becomes particularly urgent; disobedience is understood almost like a human right because if no one disobeys, then the status of everything stays the same and nothing progresses.

(source: IMDB)

While disobedience can create antagonism, it's a form of expression, a door to understanding ourselves and our place in the world more fully. Of course, the childhood association of disobedience as a negative action or type of behaviour is never fully exorcised.

There's always the tension between the forces that want to keep things as they are, and the energy that wants to change things. We exist and we live our lives with that tension, and we would still be in the Middle Ages if it were not for the energy that's behind the idea of disobedience. So any change factor is hiding behind the idea of the power of disobedience -- and obedience is the word that sounds negative to me -- that sounds dangerous, and is the concept that we should be more observant of because that means you are following a pattern most probably assigned by someone else. There's a liberating force in the idea of disobedience and behind it as well there's the idea of individual freedom. If it were not for the different heroes in history that have had the braveness to disobey, then we would still be trapped in very old problems.

When we think about film history and film movements, for example the French New Wave, in essence they are a disobedient group of filmmakers challenging convention. In cinema, and more broadly, in storytelling, there's always the discussion as to whether we are losing originality. Is it necessary in cinema to have filmmakers who are disobedient. Do you also fear there may be a point in filmmaking where originality will cease?

Well, those are two questions because the problem of originality can be understood as a different one, it can be analysed separately. But I would say that all the films that end up being referential and somehow open a new expressive path have been disobedient for their times. If you think of 2001: A Space OdysseyA Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968), an iconic film for science fiction, or if you think of (Fellini, 1963), which is an iconic film in terms of what modern cinema is, those films have done things that were incorrect at their time. They were doing things that could be perceived as disobedient, and yeah, it's the same energy. It's the energy of change and that ,of course, is vital to any artistic expression.

Usually the beauty of disobeying in art is that society has given the artist freedom to explore and to try everything, to descend into the abyss, to make any moral frontier blurry, and to explore the dark side. So in that sense, in film, music and in theatre, disobedience is almost a must.

Spartus Camera: Free-Photos CC0 Creative Commons / Pixabay

One of the observations of Disobedience is to look to our role as authors of religion, our ability to make it tolerant or oppressive, and to evolve its message and understanding of how it relates to human nature.

I'm personally not that interested in what religions are saying or claiming; that's really not my focus, and in the film it's the same way. Religion is understood as a belief system, and that's what really interests me because we need belief systems to operate in the world. We can be atheists or agnostics, mystical or esoteric, or we can belong to a religion, but what we are doing by operating within one of those belief systems is really no more than that. A belief is a thought in which someone insists and by repetition that thought becomes a belief, and a religion is a belief in which many people insist, repeat and agree.

So everything comes from thought, and what really interested me is that antagonism in the film comes mainly from the characters themselves and their own belief systems, not the community. They have to go through this crisis which means their belief system that they were operating within is somehow insufficient, or is somehow deeply connected to the challenge they are facing. So even more beautifully than disobeying what society or your religion imposes on you, is to disobey what you thought the world was, and I think that's maybe even more interesting to explore as a filmmaker.

The meaning of life is learning about ourselves and coming to accept our own natures, with which comes growth and change. This is the journey each of us are on, regardless of community or belief systems.

I agree.

The three main characters in Disobedience present a series of parallel journeys, each at a different points or on different paths, and yet in order for each to move on, their experiences with one another are vital. In storytelling, you can describe characters as not only the tool of the storyteller, but also the engine of a story.

[Disobedience is] a character study and it's very committed to the characters because formally there's always one of them in frame. The point of view never abandons them and the camera never pans to a different character. It's always about Dovid, Ronit or Esti, the three of them or the two of them. So it's a strategy of believing in them and following them wherever they take us.

Through this strategy of inviting -- or forcing if you want the spectator to see each situation through the perspective of these characters and no others -- the spectator ends up feeling the world the characters are inhabiting, which is more important than thinking. So it becomes a very intimate cinematic experience because you hopefully end up connected to their journeys and to their psychology, to how they are finding ways to overcome the particular crossroads they are each at.

I recall reading that for art to endure, it must be discussed. While a film exists in the moment it is seen by an audience, their discussion in which ideas and impressions are exchanged is also a moment in which a film exists. Could we say a film is alive in one moment more than the other, or are both equal points in which the film lives and breathes?

A film is a device that is made to be seen, and even if you are making very art house and militant cinema, and you don't really care if it's only seen by ten people, it's the same thing where you want ten people to see it, otherwise it would not exist. So the relationship between what is projected on the screen and what the spectator projects upon that projection, is what cinema is.

A film doesn't exist until it is seen by someone, and then given it's own strength, it can survive that experience or moment of being seen for the first time. It can have a new life and keep on living through the discussions and the memories because it remains alive within the spectators. And if it's a really powerful film, say a classic, then it's to say: To be forever young. It will always be fresh, new and alive; to be discussed by someone, somewhere. So that's the power of film, but it comes alive, or to say that it meets its destiny when it is, of course, finally seen.

Disobedience was released in cinemas and On Demand in the UK 30 November 2018 by Curzon Artificial Eye.

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