Interview: Israeli director Gilad Baram talks about “Koudelka Shooting Holy Land,” his debut doc on Magnum photographer Josef Koudelka, screening at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival this week
Czech-born French Magnum photographer Josef Koudelka’s images from Gypsies (1975) and Exiles (1988) documented the Roma and displaced populations across Europe in a way that grabbed people and pulled them right into the images. Koudelka shed light on previously unknown worlds of mysticism, delight, sadness and ways of being which pierced our souls and upon which we too could pin our own dreams. Koudelka’s commitment to his subjects was hard earned; he lived and traveled with his subjects for decades, and the trust they gave in return is evident in these intimate images. His arresting images from the streets of his native Prague during the Soviet-led invasion of 1968 are what catapulted him initially into the elite Magnum circle.
Recently, Koudleka, now 79, has focused on panoramic landscapes and turned his lens on the Holy Land to explore how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has left its mark on the landscape itself. Accompanying Koudelka on this assignment was young Israeli photographer Gilad Baram, a student at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, who gradually turned his own lens on Koudelka to produce a fascinating documentary portrait of a man whose images are world famous but about whom very little is known. Baram worked as Koudelka’s assistant for four years, accompanying him on seven separate visits throughout Palestine and Israel. His duties were to provide Koudelka’s travel arrangements, logistical support and translation. Every day, they would worked from about 7 am until the light faded, an experience that changed Baram’s life. His film, Koudleka Shooting Holy Land (German/Czech Republic 2015) screens twice at 36th annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF 36), which kicked off Thursday at the Castro Theater and runs through August 7 in venues throughout the Bay Area, including San Rafael.
I spoke with Baram on Wednesday and he opened up about all aspects of his remarkable experience with Koudelka. One of the challenges that any filmmaker faces in making a film about an artist of this caliber is to find a way to channel that individual’s gift without pandering to the iconization of the artist or his work. Baram pulls this off through a series of artistic choices, producing a riveting portrait that reveals Koudelka’s way of working, his soft-spoken personality and his accumulated wisdom as well as the stunning images that result. For those of us who are photography buffs, the chance to see the divided landscape up close, with Koudelka maneuvering, crawling, waiting and offering the rare comment as well as the goods─those precious contact sheets and the resulting prints─is a revelation.
Koudelka Shooting Holy Land screens Monday July 25th at 4 pm at the Castro Theatre, San Francisco, and at the Roda Theatre, Berkeley, on Sunday, July 31, at 1:55 pm. Filmmaker Gilad Baram in attendance at both screenings for post-screening Q&A.
What brought Koudelka to the Holy Land and how did you come to be his assistant?
Gilad Baram: It began in 2008, when Frédéric Brenner, a French Jewish photographer, who was famous for documenting Jewish communities world-wide, was gathering this group of 12 big names in the world of photography to come to Israel to explore different aspects of the country. They would be given this extended and very generous period of time and resources to create their own body of work that was, afterwards, intended to become a group exhibition, a kind of huge fragmented portrait, and a book, that would travel around the world. It came to be “This Place,” which premiered in Prague, continued to Tel Aviv and was recently exhibited in Brooklyn.
In the beginning, Koudelka declined Brenner’s offer to participate in this group project but was ultimately persuaded to come on this exploratory visit to Israel. He accidentally bumped into the Wall in East Jerusalem and something quite profound happened in him. Once he realized that this arouses this deep personal experience in him, he came to the conclusion that there was something he could do there.
I do know that this was his first time in Israel and Palestine and that, like he is usually, he was very suspicious of any project that was fully funded and this large in scope. Frédéric had made a deal with my photography department to choose students who would assist these photographers. I was the first student picked out and Josef was the first to arrive and we were put together completely by chance. It was in February 2009. We shook hands and had a short conversation and agreed to meet at 7 a.m. the next morning. I had no idea what I was getting into.
Do you recall your first encounter with Koudelka’s work and your impressions?
Gilad Baram: Yes, clearly. It was 2005, in the library of my art school. It was my first year there and, by accident, I opened the book Gypsies (1975) and was blown away. I immediately connected with his photographs and his way of photographing, which I later learned is inseparable from his way of living. Back then, I was fascinated with this and thought I too will become this nomad photographer who goes around and discovers the world, and who tends more towards the underdog. Four years later, suddenly I’m in the lobby of a hotel in Jerusalem shaking hands with the guy who made these great photos and we set off on this incredible adventure, which neither of us anticipated. I never imagined this would become a film.
How did your first day of work go?
Gilad Baram: I discovered that Josef Koudleka does not need an assistant but what he does need is someone to drive him around who can communicate in the local language and a little company now and then. He was very reserved at the beginning. He is and has always been a lone wolf and a very wise one. In the past 30 years or so, as his way of photographing has evolved, he uses these locals in the various places he visits to enable him with maneuvering the terrain. In each place he goes now days, Magnum has arranged someone for this purpose who meets him. It became quite apparent to me that we would not become friends. He was on a mission and that was his priority. He was, most definitely, not interested in talking too much.
How did the idea for the film come about?
Gilad Baram: As I said, I had no intention to make a film. At the very beginning of our journey, on the second day, when we were traveling up the West Bank, we stopped the car and he went out. I too got out and took my camera with me. He started photographing and then turned to me and said ‘you’re not going to hang around with this camera while I’m photographing, so please leave it in the car’. I obeyed but I was upset. I didn’t understand how a photographer could say that to another photographer, let alone a student. When we arrived at the second place, I took my camera out of the car and just did it again. This time, he turned me to and didn’t say anything but just walked away. That’s when it started. It was this combo of me realizing that Josef Koudelka doesn’t need an assistant and if I wished to survive this adventure, I’d have to do something for myself and by myself. As he was walking away, I interpreted it as ‘you have a certain permission’.
Later, in the car, he made a kind of agreement with me–I would be allowed to photograph but I would not be allowed to show them to anyone, not even my colleagues at school and, if I wanted to do anything with these photos, I needed to have his permission. He also mentioned that he should have full access to my material in case he was interested in it. I had no option but to say OK. It happened that my camera was the Canon 5D Mark II, which had full video mode, and, very soon, I began using that. I’m not sure he even noticed because I wasn’t directing the camera to him at first. But it soon became very clear that he was the most interesting thing around. I think he thought that I would not be quiet in the car, so he’d ‘let the children play’ so he could get on with his work and I would have something to do. That was the dynamic in the beginning. Clearly, it changed throughout time.
How did this video you were taking on the sly evolve into a film?
Gilad Baram: The dynamics changed. Between each of his visits, there was more or less half a year that passed. Between his first and second trip, I started to look at the material and after the third and fourth trips, I realized that this massive accumulation might be of interest to other people too. That’s when I began thinking to myself that perhaps there’s a statue that is hidden in this huge chunk of marble and I need to start carving it out. It was a very frustrating process. In the beginning, when filming, I was restless and was running around like crazy with my camera. I couldn’t really position myself because he was moving constantly. Watching that footage, I knew immediately it was bullshit and that, if I’d like to attempt depicting him and his work, I would need to change my approach. It hit me that I should try adopting the way that he looks at the world. I started slowing down and developing a visual language that was more connected to still photography and less to the moving image, establishing my camera on a tripod and allowing Koudelka to move in the compositions, which was key. I was bridging the moving image with the still image in a way. Once I started down that path, it was a long process of trials and errors, watching him and learning. This film is a result of this process.
He’s a visual storyteller who has always stood on his own and I’m curious about how he reacted to you embellishing this with a film which he probably perceived of as unnecessary.
Gilad Baram: The first thing I showed Josef was this timeline I had made with a mass of material. He was not impressed. Yet, he said I should go on. I don’t think he realized how serious I was; that only came at a later stage. Our initial verbal contract was still binding but things evolved from him letting me distract myself by filming to keep out from under his legs, to him becoming a part of it. We reached an extreme when, during his last visit, he actually asked me when he should be entering the frame. That went too far and I knew something was starting to go wrong. I realized that when he was not taking me that seriously, he was actually genuine. Also, there was something quite crucial about me filming with the 5D Mark II that was in fact a still camera but also had a full frame video mode. Josef didn’t feel there was an estranged object around him, which enabled him to feel more at ease as the apparatus was familiar to him. Koudelka does not give interviews, he does not attend openings frequently and doesn’t want any distraction from his work; he is all about the photography. He probably perceived of this film as a major disturbance while I was following him in Israel and Palestine. His way of dealing was to put it off and to say ‘just show me the result in the end.’ It became very evident that I was going through with this film during his last visit and that was when he changed his behavior in the way I described and, subsequently, those segments do not appear in the film.
I poured over some 140 hours, with Elisa Purfürst, the dedicated editor and co-writer of the film, and there was a point when I came to Paris with a short edited version to show to him and to those close to him and that was a crucial moment. He realized that I was going through with this. The reaction of those around him was crucial as well. They expressed their appreciation of what they had watched and said they never imagined that he and his work could come across so honestly. That was a very moving and important moment. Josef just asked me one question─ what I had learned throughout our time together and in making this film. The first thing that came to mind was that I learned how to look, I mean on many different levels. In the photography sense, there was looking at composition, light, locations, and so forth but also how to look at something I was taught not to turn my gaze on. This time with Josef opened a window for me and allowed me to really take time to look and for what I saw to resonate. That was my answer to him. After that, it was carte blanche. He later on was very generous and gave me access to his contact sheets and I basically went through all of them, from his early days until now. That was incredible.
You made a number of shrewd choices regarding how to weave this all together. It was very satisfying to wait with him for all the elements to fall into place, to suffer through the various distractions, to experience him maneuvering in for the shot. Also, hearing his voice and how and what he communicated gave me the feeling that I knew him a bit. You also honored the time it takes to really look at a photo. After taking us along on a shoot, you gave us a further sense of his artistry by showing his contact sheets and the images he ultimately selected. He has this keen internal radar for the line of sight which becomes so evident when we can see the various stills that resulted from his shifting his lens just a few fractions of an inch.
Gilad Baram: The challenge of sculpting this mass of material was to have someone wise and observant dig into it with me, Elisa Purfürst. Our mission was to depict his work and way of working without falling into the traps that come with the territory and to really give the photos the space and life that they need. Also to manage with the few words that he did say to convey his way of thinking, something that you cannot decipher from just watching him. We also wanted to reveal parts of his biography where it was extremely important to understand why he does what he does and why he reacts to things in the way he does. We went through many versions of the film and it was never right until it was right.
In the film, we see him returning to places he’s already photographed and he brings his old photos with him. What is he striving for?
Gilad Baram: This was a complete surprise and a certain revelation, something that when looking at his photos, before I knew him, I never thought that was part of his process. He studies deeply his own photographs and when doing so, he also studies changes in the landscape. He takes what he feels are his best images with him back to a location and tries to perfect them. When he reaches the point, where he feels he can’t do it any better, or things have physically changed to prevent that, he calls it quits and goes on to the next. The kind of sensitivity you need for that, for knowing when to draw the line requires complete commitment and intuition.
Over the course of his life and career, his photos have also evolved. The photos that he made when he was younger are, of course, different than those he makes today. Those projects up to and including the 80’s have to do mainly with people or depicting people, while his work since has to do with landscape. However people are still present as these landscapes he photographs are affected by man. In a way, this is even more of a profound statement as it is a very subtle way to learn about human beings. I think this shift has two aspects. One is the need in an artist’s life for change, not to repeat oneself. This, I believe, played quite a major role in his picking up this panoramic format after years of photographing in 35mm and in turning his gaze towards landscape rather than the human figure. The other is what happens to all of us, which is aging. Josef described the work created in the first part of his career as endlessly chasing a moment, spending all his time running after something which is all the time disappearing and will not exist anymore. What happened in the second part, and is still happening, is waiting; he is now waiting for the moment. These are is two sides of the same coin you know. That’s a lovely thing to realize about him and about photography in general.
Having studied his images from this series so intently, is there one single image that speaks to you, or even haunts you?
Gilad Baram: Josef came as foreigner, as so many photographers before him and many have fallen into the traps that are present in this extremely complex and crazy place. Somehow he managed not to. I admired his wisdom to manage to look so widely at this place and I try to adopt this way of looking. There is no one single image but the entire body of his work made in Israel and Palestine that I find incredible. I believe it will have importance in the history of photography of the Holy Land because it shows this extremely well-known theme in a completely different light and from a completely different angle. When people see his work, they respond to it because it is different.
Koudelka’s brief quips in the film about the Wall as a cage and prison are profound. Do you too share these deep feelings?
Gilad Baram: I could identify with what he was saying and found that he expressed himself simply but wisely. Yet, there’s a big difference between us, I mean beyond the age gap. There’s this historical personal background that Josef carries with him from growing up behind the Iron Curtain. When someone carries something like that with him for 70 years, they carry a scar and there’s also a lot of anger and frustration and that definitely manifested itself.
It was an extremely intensive time. Each of his visits was about a month long. Every day we worked all day and we’d finish knackered physically and emotionally. It was rather depressing walking these areas for an entire month. Through traveling with him, I learned that I too did grow up with a wall about me. While it’s not intended for me, it’s there and, even if people choose not to see it, it is still present in their minds. Being Israeli, I also felt a certain sense of responsibility and I got extremely upset. I often had this incredible urge to defend as well as to give explanations and counter arguments but, as we met more and more people and saw more, these counter arguments of mine became weaker and weaker.
I understand you saw more of the Wall than most Israeli’s see. Had you visited before? What did it mean for you?
Gilad Baram: Previously, I had been to some protest demonstrations in the village of Bil’in, a few kilometers east of the Green Line, which was the first time I had really entered the West Bank. I was participating as well as photographing but very soon realized that I don’t connect too much with this form of protest. These demonstrations didn’t seem the best way of expressing oneself. That was my basic knowledge of the West Bank. It was during the long journey with Josef that I really discovered what the West Bank is, not mediated by TV or any other media. This was something that not too many Israelis get the opportunity, or chose, to do. It changed my life and changed my perception of what Israel is and what it is doing and what the other side looks like and is doing and how this huge monstrous wall, which is invisible to many, affects peoples’ lives on a daily basis. We had this incredible opportunity to explore this wall-fence-de-facto border which now stretches over 800 kilometers and we really did explore all of it.
He was shooting with a film camera; did he ever ask you about your camera, or if he could try it.
Gilad Baram: No, not at all. Josef finds it very hard to relate to anything but his own creation. It’s not ego; it’s that his world is so full of his photography and his concentration on his own work that there is just no space for much else. This applies to me, my camera and also to the work of others and it seems to have always been this way. There is this story that Josef tells about Henri Cartier-Bresson and the very early stages of their friendship, soon after Josef arrived to Paris. Bresson helped him a lot, took him under his wings. Bresson asked him for his help going through contact sheets and helping him select some photos. Josef said he did it once but then went to Bresson and declined to do it again. He said that he realized that it did not interest him so much and that, mainly, he did not want to be influenced in any way, so he just had to say no. Back then, of course, you would not imagine anyone saying no to Henri Cartier-Bresson. This is something I believe made Bresson appreciate Koudelka all the more.
What I experienced is that Koudelka knows very well what fits him and what doesn’t and when to draw the line. He is not super interested in what others do either. With regard to equipment, he is curious but he has the sense of what he should pick up. He shoots in black and white and will not change that. This is the way in which he sees the world through the view-finder. He is trying out the formats that interest him but he doesn’t yet feel that he has completely gotten down to the very bone of the panoramic format and he is probably the foremost photographer in the world who has studied this format so deeply. He feels he has some things yet to explore. The minute he doesn’t feel this, he will stop and move on. I think his biggest concern is to feel that he repeats himself.
I have to ask about his energy level…for a man approaching 80, he seems so engaged, alert and vital.
Gilad Baram: When a person has a mission in life, a passion, and a kind of clear destiny, it seems to come with a motor. Josef’s motor is to get up in the morning and to go photograph. We started when he was 72. Now he’s 79 and still he’s the most restless and alive person I know. He does not stay in one place for more than a month. This is in him and how he is. We talk on the phone every few weeks and he’s this waterfall of activity. On the other hand, he stands in sun or rain for hours, waiting for a photograph. This is one of the beautiful contradictions that make this man who he is. He’s restless yet so committed and dedicated. It’s all about the next image and what it takes to get it.
What is next for you?
Gilad Baram: Film just grabbed me and I’m working on two films right now while continuing with my photographic practice, which is very different from Koudelka’s. My photography started out as purely documentary. It evolved into an exploration of digital environments with and through photography in an attempt to comprehend the impact of the Internet and big data on the photographic image.
As for the films, both relate somehow to my life at present. The first continues to explore the theme of the creative process. This time, together with the artist Adam Kaplan, I’m looking at the failure of this process through the fascinating and dramatic story of a feature-length fiction film made by the Israeli army in the late 90’s and censored just a few weeks before its release. The second project deals with my current place of residence, Germany, and with German teenagers and youth. It is an attempt to look into the profound change of perception among the upcoming German generation in relation to the sense of guilt and remorse which dominated and shaped German society for decades after WWII. Two very different projects yet both are very relevant for me at this point in my life.
Koudelka Shooting Holy Land screens Monday July 25th at 4 pm at the Castro Theatre, San Francisco, and at the Roda Theatre, Berkeley, on Sunday, July 31, at 1:55 pm. Filmmaker Gilad Baram in attendance at both screenings for post-screening Q&A. General Admission tickets $13; click here to purchase. Advance purchase is recommended.
Several other films about the arts are part of the 36th annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF 36), which kicked off Thursday evening at the Castro Theater and runs through August 7 in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Berkeley, Oakland and San Rafael. This year’s festival offers 67 films from 15 countries and 52 premieres. Six films come to the festival fresh from Sundance and six films have won awards at other film festivals.
For those North of the Golden Gate, the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center will offer 14 screenings beginning on Friday, August 5 through Sunday, August 7. Click here for information and to purchase tickets for the San Rafael segment. Advance ticket purchase is highly recommended.