Set during one fateful night in Tel Aviv, Tomer Shushan’s White Eye is one of the most striking films nominated for Best Live Action Short Film at the Oscars. Based on Shushan’s personal experience, the story surrounds an Israeli man who attempts to recover his stolen bike. As he alerts the authorities and tries to identify the thief, White Eye illustrates the potential impact of prejudice and racial politics in our everyday lives. Awards Radar recently chatted with Shushan from Israel to discuss the universal relevance of this true story and its transformation into an award-winning film. Below is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Shane Slater: First of all, I wanted to congratulate you on your Oscar nomination. What was it like being on the shortlist with such established names as Pedro Almodóvar and Oscar Isaac?
Tomer Shushan: Thank you very much. It has been an amazing experience so far. This year, I took part in lots of film festivals, so I got to see most of the films that in the Oscar shortlist. And to be with these names, it’s incredible. The other films are so good. So I’m really happy and honored to be in this company.
SS: What motivated you to tell this particular story?
TS: It’s based on a true story. It’s based on a real experience that happened to me about three years ago. In real life, it ended up a bit better. But the feeling that I had after this situation affected me so much as a person, that I decided to make a film about it. I wrote the script on the same day that it happened. And I had support from the Israeli Film Foundation and they really liked the script. So they gave me the opportunity to make it and that’s how it started about three years ago.
SS: Can you tell us more about the social context of the film?
TS: I was always curious and interested in this subject in Israel. And when I had that situation with Eritrean refugees, it made me research and seek out actors for the film. I met lots of refugees, and I heard lots of stories. And it just gave me lots of information about what’s happening. Once I was interviewing an Eritrean refugee, and he told me something that still sticks with me. He told me, “No one else but us knows how it is to wake up every morning as an illegal person.” And I thought about it. No one has an idea of how it is to live your life when you know that you’re illegal. No one cares about your rights. And the only people that see you are the authorities or the immigration police.
So it must be such a hard feeling and such a hard reality that no one really cared about. And for me, I had the opportunity to bring it to the screen. And I’m very happy that that I did it because the film got to so many eyes and touched lots of hearts from all over the world. I thought it’s something that talks about Israeli reality, but I got to know that it’s everywhere. It’s an international thing and and I learned so much about it. This story started as a small personal moment that I had in my life. Three years after, it’s a film that so many people watched and so many people told me how it changed their thinking a bit and I’m very happy about it.
SS: How did you approach the casting?
TS: I really wanted to use real refugees. Because of the sentiment I told you, I felt that I could not use an actor. So I just took lots of walks and talked to a few people in the community. One night, I just walked to my place and I saw the Eritrean man who plays a main character. He was washing dishes in some restaurant and I saw him from a small window. And I saw something in his look and his eyes. The restaurant was really packed and lots of people were there. Everyone was happy and laughing and he was just there. And this dissonance caught me.
So I approached him and talked to him. And I told him about the film and he was very surprised. But the day after, we met and he really liked the idea of the script, so we started to work together. And for me, it was amazing to work with a non-actor. The role that he’s playing is based on someone from his community. So it was very interesting and challenging for him do it.
SS: The filmmaking really adds to the tension of the moment. What was the thinking behind filming it as one long take?
TS: That was the challenging part about it. It was an idea that I had and I really wanted to do it. I remember that in real life, the problem was that I didn’t take one moment for myself to stop and think if my actions were right or wrong. I just worked out of my instincts, which were wrong. And I almost made someone lose their life. And I really wanted to bring this feeling that I had to the audience. So I thought that with the long take, the audience wouldn’t have a moment to think about what’s right and what’s wrong. And like me, just at the end is when they get it.
To do it was very challenging. We needed to create this choreography for every person on the set. And it took us lots of time to find the right rhythm. At the end, when you understand it, it’s justified. You know, it’s not just because I’m trying to do something big. So to find the right rhythm to the story, and to the camera and to the actors was very hard and took us lots of tries and rehearsals until we found the right formula to make it. We’re all very grateful for the outcome.
SS: Is the setting of the film where the incident actually happened?
TS: This area is located in the south of Tel Aviv. It’s like an industrial area and during the day, lots of people come to work there. But at night, it’s abandoned. No one is there. Just an underground bar and there is a bit of prostitution.
Actually, the story in real life happened in a restaurant next to a restaurant, and the guy was working in that restaurant. But I have a friend and he owns the butcher shop in the film. And once I just went to visit him, with no intention to make the film there. Then he just gave me a tour of his place. And I saw the fridge with all the meat inside. And I was asking him to go inside and I took pictures. Then I realized that this is the image that I want in my film. I wanted to show how they are scared of the authorities. And it’s all there in that moment. So we just moved everything and adapted to this place.
SS: What’s next for you?
TS: I’m actually looking between a few projects right now. But I really want to develop White Eye as a feature film. I still don’t know where and when exactly that is going to happen. But I’m developing it right now. And I have another feature film that I’m writing and yeah, let’s see where it goes. I mean, I’m very happy about all the recognition that I got because of the nomination. And I’m really happy that it’s starting to open doors for me. I hope to make my dream come true, which is to make a feature film.