How I Learned the Importance and Value of Anger in Art

Oscar-nominated documentarian Guy Davidi reveals how his film about acting teacher Amir Orian shifted his views on how art and politics can intersect.

In my early twenties  after I had avoided military service and gone to film school (which I dropped out of after a year because it was so militaristic, masochistic and oppressive!) I moved to Paris. I found Israel to be an unbearable place for creativity. I am amazed how many people managed to come out and make beautiful and powerful art in this damaging atmosphere.

I returned to Israel after a couple years, but it was actually in Palestine that I made my first films. I wanted to discover what was happening in the Occupied Territories. Part of that was to understand who I am, because people don’t exist in a vacuum. We are an outcome of the circumstances and the surroundings of our lives, with the privileges that we have and the restrictions that are imposed on us.

In 2005, people of the Palestinian village of Bil’in started demonstrating against the separation barrier. I spent months in Bil’in and shot some documentary shorts there. In the process, I also met Emad Burnat, with whom I later made the Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning film 5 Broken Cameras. During my days in Bil’in, I saw the impact of Israeli occupation on every aspect of life. People trying to plan their lives, knowing that at any moment those plans could be violently destroyed. I witnessed kids being kidnapped from their houses to be taken to prison. One time, a group of soldiers was raiding the village and ended up with their guns aimed at all the villagers. I was there amongst the villagers with a camera. No one knew I was Israeli, so I shouted in Hebrew, “There are Israelis here,” to make sure no one opened fire.

When I would go on the 30-minute drive back from the West Bank to Tel Aviv, all I could feel was my stomach churning. I looked around and realized that everyone around me was in denial. My visits to Palestine made me even more of an outsider than I already was.

In 2005, I also met Amir Orian, an acting teacher who had created a theatre, the Room Theatre, in his Tel Aviv home. I wanted to make fiction films in the spirit of John Cassavetes and Peter Watkins, and Amir was the most mind-blowing acting teacher I could have hoped to find. A person who made some of the most outrageous theatre pieces within the confines of his small living room. (The room was full of cracks, and you thought the house might collapse whenever you stepped on one.) In a play that dealt with the Jewish tradition, Amir – a vegetarian – had a chicken slaughtered, and then served to the audience. “Either you entertain them or you infuriate them; there is no middle way.”

Amir wasn’t an activist. I’m not sure if he ever visited the Occupied Territories. And yet, outside of the small circle of activists I knew, he was one of the only people I met in Israel who could understand the extreme state of urgency the country was in. And not just that, in his Room Theatre he had built a piece of extreme artistic freedom, where he could address things no one else dared to.

Whenever I saw Amir’s acting students on stage at his home, it was an overwhelming experience. Many of the students come to Amir right after their military service; the army had educated them, and sometimes even broken them down to rebuild them as new people.

Though most didn’t want him to address their experiences in the army, Amir doesn’t let anyone off easy. He believes that to be a good artist, one must become more self-aware. For him, you should react. You should be upset, happy, ashamed, feel sorry for yourself – do anything but hide or be indifferent.

Two months after I started filming in Amir’s Room Theatre, back in 2008, the first Gaza War broke out. More than 1500 people were killed by bombs, most of them civilians. At a time when most people just ignored or supported the war, Amir couldn’t hold back his opinions. So his reaction to the war became the center of the film. Amir certainly did not hold back. He spoke to his students about witnessing, as a kid in 1948, the expulsion of Palestinians. When the war started, he called on his students not to enroll. Later on, he played Hitler, imagining he was in Israel 30 years after World War II, telling Israelis how much he admired them.

While filming Amir and his students, I wanted to capture their rawest emotions and find ways to link these emotions to the war. Most of the actors that came to study with Amir were going through a process of self-examination in order to become better at expressing themselves on stage. A young man, Ariel, who had just finished his combat military service, and was extremely aggressive on stage, became one of the main characters in my film about Amir and the Room Theatre.

For years, I continued to develop my film, Mixed Feelings, trying to understand Amir’s life choices, and also his special connection to his dog. I waited for a few years for all the narrative strands to tie together, not knowing if the footage I had would actually coalesce into a film. In 2014, when I finally had all the pieces I wanted, there was a second massive war in Gaza. So suddenly the film was a story framed by two wars; a horrible background against which to portray Israel’s vicious circle of violence.

When we reached the editing stage, I wanted to put the audience in the place of Amir’s students. Meaning, I wanted to make the audience upset. Amir says, “Whenever there’s anger, there’s a chance to grow,” and I wanted to make a film imbued with this spirit. In order to do that, I needed to find a balance between provoking the audience into anger and making them see Amir as the warm, giving person he is. The idea was to depict the growing fractiousness between the students and Amir let the audience decide who they chose to identify with.

Mixed Feelings addresses some of the most sensitive taboos in Israel, and when we were editing it we knew we were walking a fine line. For instance, the Ministry of Culture’s Loyalty in Culture bill stipulates that any mention of the Nakba is cause to prevent or withdraw financial support. Amir always declined financial support from Israeli institutions, but we were still hoping to get state money for the film at one point, even though we knew that no TV channel in Israel would show it, because it was too controversial. What was amazing is that at no point did Amir say we should soften the message. He only cared about one thing: that the film would have an optimistic tone, that his work would be portrayed as something that brings healing and hope.

An Academy Award nominee and Emmy winner, Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi released his first feature Interrupted Streams in 2010, which was followed in 2012 by the acclaimed 5 Broken Cameras, made with Palestinian co-director Emad Burnat. The film was nominated for the 2013 Best Documentary Oscar and won the 2013 International Emmy Award for Best Documentary. It won awards in more than 40 film festivals worldwide and commercially distributed worldwide. Davidi’s latest film, Mixed Feelings, is the story of Israeli director and acting teacher Amir Orian, a once-successful actor who left his blooming career to create an alternative theater in his own apartment. The first feature he has made about Israeli society and in his hometown, Tel Aviv, it plays at the Socially Relevant Film Festival in New York City on March 17.