Michael Dahan’s Cerebral yet Intense Meta Film Confronts the Israeli Palestinian Dilemma with an Existential Casting Session
By Scott Bayer
To do a dull thing with Style is preferable to doing a dangerous thing without style – To do a Dangerous thing with Style is what I call ART – Marco Ferreri
Michael Moshe Dahan’s Yes Repeat No, in the opinion of this writer is one of those rare cinematic works of ART that pop up every now and then in the Indie Film Fest circuit and it emphatically satisfies the Italian ‘Punk’ Film Director Ferreri’s (1928-1997) criteria standard.
One of 18 features selected for this year’s 28th Stony Brook Film Festival, July 20th to 29 – (which also included 14 shorts), Yes Repeat No was inspired by the noted actor activist Juliano Mer- Khamis, who came to a tragic end at the age of 53. He was the son of a Christian Palestinian father, and a Jewish Israeli mother and was a former IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) paratrooper. Juliano began what ultimately became a successful acting career at the age of 24 in 1982. In 2006, after the second Intifada, with more than 30 movie & TV acting credits amassed, he returned to Jenin, on the West Bank in Palestine, where he had served in the IDF as a teen, and started the Freedom Theater for Children whose aim was to foster a cultural Intifada and demand rights for Palestinians through art. In 2011 Juliano Mer-Khamis was assassinated as he was leaving the theater he founded.
So we’re going to see a documentary about Juliano Mer- Khamis?
Open: three bearded male actors with Middle Eastern type faces on an interior set, shot in black and white, apparently rehearsing on a revolving floor/stage. In the background, we see a movie camera/man shooting them. Slate and action: A metronome is operating continuously – annoyingly loud. Credits pop in placed unobtrusively around the action in the foreground. A woman director is stationed in a booth overlooking the set, equipped with audio visual recording and playback equipment.
She addresses the men through a loudspeaker: “You’re not auditioning for one character, but a type… “
— Cut to a closeup of the cover of John Le Carre’s book, The Little Drummer Girl —
“… an Israeli type. The role you will be playing will include pieces of each. So all three really.”
The film is shot in color in the wings, the wardrobe and the production equipment and crew area.
A second slate: the actual movie begins filming. The first actor enters dressed in a soldier’s uniform and is told he is auditioning for the part of Israeli Juliano. From the booth, the woman director tells him: “It’s a conceptual film. You can be a type in a conceptual film, can’t you? A facet of a character based on the film roles played by Juliano, the actor activist”
The actor says quizzically, “So I’m playing an actor and an activist who is himself acting.”
What we have here is a reenactment type of documentary then. – Yes?
The second actor enters dressed in Arab garb. The director informs him, “You’re reading for the character type of Arab Juliano today.”
The actor asks, “Type, what do you mean, a type?”
Well, this is definitely not looking like any documentary I’ve seen. It’s clearly something else.
The third actor is told he is reading for the part of the public persona of Juliano.
As we’ll see, it’s a competitive audition of three actors vying to play three parts of one character, but that’s only one aspect layer of Yes Repeat No.
The actors are given some lines from various characters that Juliano played in movies and TV. You can see these guys can really act. But by the fourth short scene/monologue, the director and the actor seem to have a communication problem and tension begins to percolate on the set. Then the real director of the film we’re watching offers advice from the set area shot in color. Now we know that our female director is actually an actress herself. There is no fourth wall – there never was! This is a conceptual film.
Is there a script? Not for these actors, perhaps pieces of a script. It’s a film about the making of a film or possibly on the making of a script for a film about the making of a film. Within this construct, Dahan, who becomes a character (playing himself) as well, and his collaborators create what he designates as a meta film.
Much of this meta film is structured with dialogue and characters from commercial Middle Eastern and Hollywood movies and television, particularly honing in on director George Roy Hill’s movie interpretation of John Le Carre’s The Little Drummer Girl, a 1984 movie which deals with Palestinian terrorism, starring Diane Keaton. But there’s a disconnect for sure with selecting the “type” and who and how it can manifest. As Israeli Juliano points out: “These characters, they cancel each other out!”
The director responds implacably inscrutable as previously at the start – the characters, all three of them, “they’re a type.”
The film itself seems to have an identity crisis and it revels in it. Looking at Juliano’s biography, it’s clear he had major identity challenges. His Wikipedia entry actually includes a somewhat obscure but telling anecdote in reference to a period of time he took soul searching, between the end of his IDF service and gaining traction in his acting career – “in 1987 he spent a year in the Philippines, consuming hallucinogenic mushrooms and talking to monkeys. It was there that he felt, according to a later declaration, that he had shaken off all identities.”
Conceptually, Dahan draws from this to somehow present an essence of his virtual protagonist’s very unique persona. Juliano as Juliano, who could never be a type except when acting, which became all the more frequent as he emerged as a figure of prominence, often proclaimed that he was a hundred percent Palestinian and a hundred percent Israeli and that he was a Jew in Jenin and an Arab, in Tel Aviv. Inevitably these very accomplished actors, both individual and as an ensemble, develop their own identity crisis just as either one or both “directors” intended. Yet they gamely soldier on, delivering excellent and often brilliant improvisational dialogue that is either totally new, paraphrasing of historical figures’ statements on Middle Eastern politics or taken from the bare bones scripts they’ve been provided, often out of sequence or context – usually just snippets of lines pulled from much longer passages. Some examples: the Arab Juliano, “they call us terrorists. Terrorists. Why? Because we deliver our bombs with our hands. We don’t have any American planes or American tanks to deliver them.” Describing Keaton’s role in The Little Drummer Girl, “it’s an actor playing an actor, playing an actor.” Describing a double agent in The Little Drummer Girl Israeli Juliano says, “They’re all liars. We can’t trust any of them. They’re Mossad. They’re trained to be paranoid.” When the actor/director briefly leaves the set and they’re alone, they sense that they’re being used. Public Juliano declares, “We’re writing the script for them. That’s what they want. Hey, if they’re using any line from this, I’m calling the union.” One of the other actors says, “just trust the process.”
We are 28 minutes into the film at this point, and now we’ve heard from our actress director that they’re looking for a bridge, a link, a kissing point – perhaps it is needed to prop up or enhance an evolving script. The director’s search for this elusive link becomes a part of this process. There are 70 minutes left to the film and we will provide no more spoiler details!! If you have any vestige of intellectual curiosity, you will now be pulled into watching the rest of the film as a who done it or might do it, meta mystery of 21st century existentialism. We will now examine the process of making this film in the following exclusive interview with Michael Moshe Dahan.
HSB: Keeping in mind your disclaimer – This film is based on true stories. Some of them are fictional – in the opening title credits; In terms of category, what would you call Yes Repeat No? Is it a documentary?
Or Is it a narrative?
MMD: I don’t know if you would call it a documentary. I mean, I think it’s an experimental film because it marries you know, both genres, right? It’s both in terms of form. It’s both narrative and documentary because actually so much of the stuff that happened there is just something that happened to happen in front of the camera while we were rehearsing the script that was written. So in that regard, it’s kind of both. And I don’t know what to say. If the festival offers an experimental category we submit to the experimental, if they don’t, then we submit to the narrative. I think after 20 years of working in the film business, working in academia and theater which was the place that I learned to direct and how I learned to love directing; this project really rolled all of those interests into one thing. Which is an artwork that’s also inspired by cinema, but really gives a nod to live performance. So in a way, it’s all the places that I’ve been as a creative person in one piece.
There’s a lot of nuance I think that people don’t get. And I was really fortunate because I worked with a group of performers who all had a kind of personal investment in the meta biography we were doing. These weren’t just actors that were cast as the best, you know, performer for the part. It was even more than that. It was not only were they the best performers, but they also had a kind of personal history with this. And they brought their own experiences into the rehearsal process, and they wrote their own experiences into it. Yeah. I mean there’s some stuff in there that is said by the actors that was really brought in by them. They were based on personal experiences that I never had, but we just tried to create an environment where there was that kind of latitude to do that. You know, there WAS a script. We had a shooting script, but the shooting script was really a kind of setup for the scenario to get us in the room and to get us to talk about the things that we understood and to argue, really, and the mandate that was given the camera crew – we had five cameras going six hours a day, almost non-stop – was, listen if we stop and have arguments, you don’t stop shooting.
You know, there’s no cutting. They’re like, well are we rehearsing today? Or are we shooting? Well, we’re rehearsing but I want you to shoot it. Right? And if we stop to talk about the script, then you keep going. And if we start to have arguments and there were few moments where we didn’t, the producers and I didn’t know whether or not we should be cutting, like was this an actual fight that was happening? I mean, there were moments which became that heated because we couldn’t tell the boundary between the performance and the rehearsal and the play. It was because they were so woven into these characters, Right? They had brought their narratives to the table.
Of course it’s a tough road for a film like this. I’ve been surprised that we’ve gotten some really good circulation at festivals, and it’s continuing to build slowly. I worked in mainstream, Hollywood cinema for a while. I understand what we were making. We didn’t deceive ourselves about what this was, but the provocation was really what happens if we make exactly the kind of film that we want to make even though it’s kind of radically non-conventional. Right? And I come from a background as a fine artist, so I’m used to making gallery exhibition videos that are completely non-narrative. So to me, this is really, really narrative as an artist.
HSB: But I think it doesn’t fit the mold of what we expect even from an independent film. I don’t think It fits any mold.
MMD: Yeah, that’s fine. That’s what art should be. That’s what I’m proud of.
HSB: The dialogue is just really good. How did you kind of get into the rhythm of writing this?
MMD: Well, here’s the thing right there. You have to understand, there’s two stages to this process. One is the writing of the script, which came about because I was actually curating an exhibition, and I was trying to put Israeli and Palestinian artists into the same exhibition space as a curator, right? Film and video work that had to do with intergenerational trauma. On the Jewish side, of course, there’s the Nazi Holocaust and on the Palestinian side I was looking at specifically artwork that was coming out of the occupation and the Nakba one or two generations later. What happens when you don’t really deal with the trauma in the immediate present like in the Holocaust. Many Jews coming from Eastern Europe to Palestine were not encouraged to speak about their experiences. So a lot of that was silence. So it takes a few generations for that stuff to work itself out. And I found some amazing artists from both Israel and Palestine, but I couldn’t get them to agree to be in the same room. So then I had a gallery space and a gallery director, Dr. Juli Carson who said, “listen man, I don’t know what you’re going to do, but you’ve got a gallery to fill in October, so you better start making some work, and you need to start making a film.”
And I was like, okay, well, this wasn’t really the mandate. But, I was given some advice by a professor at UC Berkeley named Dr. Stefania Pandolfo who said, “listen this is kind of a dangerous thing to try to hold these two different worlds in the same space. And, you know, people have tried to do it, and it’s been very dangerous. This activist actor, Juliano Mer- Khamis tried to do that, and he got himself killed.” So I just went into this sort of research hole and I found the materials on him.
HSB: That’s what led you to the story?
MMD: That led me to the story. I found a video of Juliano speaking about or foreshadowing his own assassination. Which is footage that we actually use where he kind of offhandedly makes a comment, “I’ll tell you how I’m going to die – some fucked up Palestinian is gonna shoot me right here in front of the theatre on the steps.”
And then I saw that it happened a few years later. You don’t have to be a genius to see that there’s a story there, right? That there had to be something there. And so that’s what started it. I put in a lot of time at the archives, but I also knew people who spent time with him and knew him. So I had really good guidance, but when I sat down to write the script I wrote it in one sitting, it was like 30 hours straight. I stopped to sleep and shower and eat. And then I got up, and then I finished it. And that first shooting script was the result of just one sitting, and it was the culmination of almost a decade of work that I’d been doing on my dissertation. So there was a lot of political and theoretical work that had gone into it. But Juliano became this kind of prism through which all of this existing research that I’d been doing crystallized immediately and very quickly.
Once we had a script we decided to go into pre-production. And we were blessed to be working with seriously talented people; our producer Braxton Pope has made some really compelling independent films with Paul Schrader and he brought a wealth of experience to our film. Then there’s a totally different stage, which is the stage at which we brought in the actors and the producers and the script really came to life. Our producer Sarah Szalavitz had this incredible idea to find all of these really seminal citations and quotes that had been spoken by people like Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas, people on all different sides of the issue – whether they were politically with Israel or against Israel; pro-Palestinian, or against Palestinians. And then we printed them out on these huge boards that we had behind the cameras, and we told the actors to just start putting them into your script. So you often have people who are arguing in the film against each other, who are speaking two different things that Shimon Perez might have said at one or another time, or two different things that Yassar Arafat had said, but these kind of polarities switch historically so many times, right?
Because this issue is so complex that you could literally have any of the Julianos speaking any of these lines and have it be taken in a different way. So that’s one kind of really important step that happened in the room. And then it came down to giving the actors the license to kind of rewrite things. And the way that I like to work as a director is: I told them, look, this is what’s essential in this scene that I think that you have to say, beyond that, let’s just see where it goes. And we would shoot these 20 minute takes, we would shoot the script in four sections. Like you would rehearse a play, and we would just try to get into a flow. Sometimes they would repeat little parts of the scene, and sometimes they would get stuck and sometimes they would invent these really beautiful things. And I’m telling you that when you say the writing is fantastic, I’m proud of that. I can take some of the credit for it, but really, I believe that everyone involved on this project deserves credit for it. Because that creativity came from the producers or the actors themselves just generating this in the room based on what happened. Everything you see in the film that ended up in the film only happened one time, right? It’s not like we got something great and then I said, let’s do that again, exactly the same way.
HSB: That’s the way it is with live Jazz!
MMD: It was never done the same way. So whatever you see on film is really kind of a living moment that just happened, you know, by accident or by luck. And I think that the hardest thing in the beginning in the writing for me was figuring out how to identify each of these characters differently. But once we got the actors involved, it was really clear who was who.
HSB: They were strong actors.
MMD: Yeah. Really amazing performances. There’s no version of this film that would’ve worked without those exact actors. I mean, we even had to replace a couple of them. One of them had to be replaced the night before the first shoot, the first day of shooting. Then one of them had to be replaced on the third day. So really we were flying by the seat of our pants. You know the actor who played the director, Yael, there was another female actor cast in that part who was actually Israeli. And the night before, the day before we were going to production, she said, “listen, I can’t do this. You have to change this. I have a career in Israel, and if you don’t change this, I’m really afraid of what’s going to happen.
I’m afraid for my career, and I’m afraid for my safety.”
Wow. And I said, listen, this is not the project we’re making. I’m not changing anything. You have to go. I’m sorry. You should have let us know a long time ago. And we contacted Salome Azizi who was already on our short-list and was incredible in her initial audition and she just jumped right into, I mean, she went in and got there the first day, with one night to have looked at the script. And then on the third day, we had to lose another actor who who was replaced by Adam Meir. Right? So he also came in with very little prep, and I think that’s why there’s a kind of roughness to it, which is really kind of generative, you know. It’s very dynamic and alive because we hadn’t rehearsed it for two weeks and then, we weren’t just hitting our marks and saying the lines.
Also, it was impossible to make this without creating a very safe environment for all of the actors. You know, we had a Palestinian actor, we had an Israeli actor, we had a Lebanese actor, and we had an Iranian actor. And, you know, we’re all working and living in LA as people in the film business. But I think everybody still has a kind of sensitivity around this. So we had to create these very safe boundaries where we knew that if things got heated, we were still in a safe space. And we didn’t want to walk on eggshells around each other about these things. One of the things that really helped is that Mousa Hussein Kraish, who plays the Palestinian Juliano and Karim Saleh, who plays the Israeli Juliano, had known each other from the first film that they did together, which was Steven Spielberg’s Munich when they played two of the September 7. And they knew each other since then and had been in a couple of things together and had both sworn off of playing roles as quote unquote terrorists. I mean, they didn’t want to get typecast in this kind of garbage anymore where they just play those characters. And a lot of the film is about that – like what were the roles that were available to Middle Eastern actors in the 1980s and nineties? Because Juliano himself was an actor in the eighties and nineties, and the kind of stuff that he did was either playing a jihadi of some kind, right? Number one, number two, terrorist number three, whatever, or he would play an an Israeli IDF soldier.
HSB: I Love the definition where Palestinian Juliano says, “I’m a terrorist because I deliver my bombs by hand.”. How did you come up with that line?
MMD: Well again, that’s probably a line that was brought up by an actor, because I know I didn’t write that line. I know the lines that I wrote when I read it, <laughs> When I see the film, I can tell you the things that I wrote, but there’s a lot of stuff that I didn’t write. And again, it’s not because I don’t want to take responsibility and accountability. It’s because I think that this film doesn’t exist without all of those contributions. It’s really a living, breathing piece there. And there’s a lot of stuff in there that I couldn’t have written because I don’t have that experience. I don’t have the kind of vitriol against the politics of the Arab world as an Arab individual, as a Palestinian, as someone who’s Lebanese, because I haven’t had that experience. So there are things that were said that I don’t think I would’ve had the right to even say. I could never have even written them because I don’t have that experience. It’s not even necessary to pick out which ones or whose, it’s just that this film doesn’t happen without the contribution in the room. The film is both the making of, and the film itself because you’re watching us make it.
HSB: Well, you know, you went into one of the most universal and controversial themes in all of the world and you let the players evolve with it. Right? And it’s an intriguing process.
MMD: Yeah. Because they knew sometimes more than I did. And I feel like I’d studied it for a decade and I was born in Jerusalem, but they still had a lot to bring to this that I couldn’t have done without. I couldn’t have done it all by myself. And I’m happy about that. I think there was a kind of security to know that there were people there who could say, you know, well that’s not how it happened. We even had an interview a few weeks ago or a month and a half ago with a journalist who asked us, “well what does this line mean? I want to hear what each of you thinks.” And I’m telling you, we each had absolutely contradictory interpretations of what the line meant. In fact, we got into an argument, and the interview ended on an argument because we couldn’t come to an agreement about what it meant. Right? It was like I had my own reading. The actor who said it had their own reading. He’s like, no, no, no; that’s not at all what I thought when I was saying that. So, you know, conflict is baked into this.
YES REPEAT NO‘s 2023 Film Festival Run
In the U.S., the movie ran at the Omaha Film Festival, the Beverly Hills Film Festival, the Palm Beach International Film Festival and the New York City Independent Film Festival. It also ran at the Pasadena International Film Festival where it was nominated both for Best Feature and Best Director.
In Europe it screened at the European Independent Film Festival (ECU) and won the award for Best Non-European Dramatic Feature. In addition it played at the Social World Film Festival in Naples Italy where it was nominated for Best Feature, Best Director and Best Screenplay and won for Best Actress (Salome Azizi) and Best Editing (Benjamin Shearn and Alex Tyson).
Our interview with Michael Moshe Dahan on was on July 6th ahead of the film’s scheduled screening at the Stony Brook Film Festival at Stony Brook University, on Long Island in New York, July 27:
HSB: So you teach at Emerson College?
MMD: Emerson has a campus in Los Angeles. Their main university is in Boston, but they do have an LA campus where I get to just teach. It’s almost like a lab for teaching and we have a lot of autonomy. You know, we just get to come up with really interesting classes that we can try out with the students.
HSB: So you’ll feel right at home at Stony Brook when you screen there?
MMD: I’m very happy that we’re we’re showing it there. From what I’ve heard, it’s a very incredible community. And honestly, it’s a great part of the country. I’m excited to go back.
HSB: And I guess it’ll be good for their festival. I believe the head of the film program at Stony Brook is Christine Vachon and it’s like a film studies program under their arts department. It would be very interesting to see what she has to say about your film. I think that’s a good place to land just because she’s there – as she’s one of my heroes. She was just given a special tribute at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival.
MMD: I’m excited that we’re showing the film there. You know, it seems like such an interesting community. I think university audiences tend to be very informed about culture. And I really like the way that they engage with this kind of material. But another nice thing about that, is it’s all in one room. They have one theater that they show most of the stuff in. And it’s a good room. I mean, as a filmmaker, you want to see your film play in a good room with good sound. And, you know, a lot of festivals these days are happening in like, multiplexes that they just rent, for a week or two. So it’s really nice when there’s a dedicated theater, that is dedicated for that specific event for that week. I know they do things other parts of the year, but they’ve really stepped up in terms of wanting the quality control to be really high.
HSB: Updating this story (July 30):
YES REPEAT NO won the Jury Award for Best Feature at Stony Brook! Up to now the work, which has screened at eight festivals, has won a Best Feature award at two and was nominated at two others. Perhaps a film festival in Israel or another country in the Middle East will now be brave enough to show this film.