Speaking in Tongues: an interview with Yael Perlov on Yoman by David Perlov

by James Waters

David Perlov’s voice reminds me of a serpent’s hiss, a rare example in life of a voice inseparable from its body. Save for a doctor’s examination of the eyes – a check-up for an oncoming vitrectomy – in Perlov’s voice lies this body, spoken in the diary without fear of separation between the two. We’re only periodically updated on the body’s status, namely when it lies horizontally, both a kind of death and the most difficult position from which to film. As such, his sole near-death experience within – and only proximity towards this bodily separation – is told to us in the past-tense, looking out from a London hospital bed. But one can only speak of this death in the past-tense, as the diary’s default is to restart, re-unifying Perlov’s body and voice. The Perlovs –David, Mira, daughters Yael and Naomi – make tangible this dissociative recall throughout Yoman. Theirs is a dissociation both mobile and distinct – a generational trait not passed on as much as it snakes through their lineage; their serpent that speaks of separation. David’s daughter, Yael, spoke to me from Tel Aviv.

James Waters: What’s your first memory of cinema?

Yael Perlov: I’m a twin, so when me and my sister were very young, each birthday my father screened La Ballon Rouge (Albert Lamorisse, 1956). Every birthday we invited some kids and we screened it at home, on 16mm. Later in my life, in the editing room with Claude Lanzmann, we were next door to the son of Lamorisse (Pascal Lamorisse), so we became friends. You know that he is in that film, also?

JW: Yes, I do. I also remember the sections when you were with Claude Lanzmann in Paris editing Shoah (1985). So when your father had this 16mm projector in your childhood – had your family been in Israel long? Were you both born there?

YP: I’ll tell you the timeline. We [Yael and Naomi] were born in Israel – I am the daughter of two immigrants, from Brazil (David Perlov) and Poland (Mira Perlov). We are the second generation. And then we left for Paris at around 20 y/o, not together, but at the same age… How old are you, James?

JW: I’m 21.

YP: Yeah, so that’s the age to ask questions (laughing). So at that age we left the country, and until 26 we lived in Paris.

JW: I myself went to Paris for similar reasons, so I had a lot of affinity for this passage of the film, where going to Paris felt almost like a pilgrimage. Considering your father lived in Paris at a similar age, what was the importance of this trip at that point in time?

YP: Firstly, we are children of immigrants, which means we can move. Where you stay doesn’t dictate where you stay for life. I believe in this feeling, of being here and there at the same time, of feeling strange here and feeling strange there. I think that this is one of the reasons why we decided to leave the country, because we felt that this is the time to be uncertain about Israel. So [this feeling] came, of course, from home. And secondly, I recommend it now to my children, to leave as part of their education. It was very natural to us, also, because of cinema. I grew up in this ambiance of cinema – of the Nouvelle Vague, or whatever, you name it – during the 60’s. My father was a part of it, so of course this culture of the French was very familiar to us, still to this day. I speak French, my sister speaks French, we lived in France.

JW: And did your father know Claude Lanzmann?

YP: Yeah. I mean they were not very close, but they knew each other.

JW: And you’d been editing the diary for how long at that point?

YP: It was on and off. We were quite free – I mean, the discipline was there but otherwise I had my life, I wanted to leave… it was a circulating group of students who would edit. If it wasn’t me then it was my friend, but… in the end it was me, because I took the editing as my overall responsibility.

JW: So the editing stopped and started based on where you were in life?

YP: The editing was a constant. David always worked. There would be a student who came, he would take a pencil and mark for the students where/what to cut then left to his office to write the commentary – this I only understood later. Then he would rest and another student would arrive… all in all the editing lasted four years. Then there was of course the shooting, because editing and shooting were done at the same time. We were editing, then came demonstrations, specifically – by the way there is a demonstration right now… but there were demonstrations all over, here in the centre of Tel Aviv, so we’d leave editing to go down and shoot – back and forth.

JW: Were you an instructor for the students or were they left to their own devices?

YP: No, we worked under his control. We were his assistants: shooting, going to the lab, coming back from the lab, taking a taxi to the lab and bringing the rushes, because it was not the same back then as it is now…. Then reviewing the footage, then suddenly a demonstration, and then in the evening there were screenings of parts of diaries, so it was all part of our daily life.

JW: I even remember you in the diary at the window with a tape recorder…

YP: Right, running with the rushes and carrying his suitcase with the camera…

JW: So I presume all the sound was recorded after the fact?

YP: Of course. It was off-screen – not off-screen – off-sync. Because the camera was de-synchronised, only for 3-4 sequences was the sound synchronized; for the interviews he did with me and my sister. These were recorded with synchronised sound and we made a lot of rehearsal for these scenes, also.

JW: Oh really?!

YP: “Really?!” (Laughs) I knew that you’d be shocked! We made rehearsals for these scenes – not for long – but we made rehearsals because it was a big production to bring an Arriflex and then to block the scenes, also knowing where to put the lights. It was the same with my sister.

JW: Because I was really astonished at your first big scene in the diary. Not only did I get the impression that I was watching the essence of you as a young person, but that you were re-creating/performing this moment, this moment of pain and misunderstanding. So this was all rehearsed?

YP: When I told my father about this story, he talked to me and he said; “We should use this in the film… are you okay with this?” Because it was always an agreement, always consenting and never imposed upon me. So then I responded; “Yes, why not?”. Then I told him that I wanted to put on a record, so he said okay. He asked, “Do you know which record?” and I responded, “Yes, but…”. So he knew that I would put on a record in the middle of the scene but he didn’t know that I would then cry.

JW: And you didn’t know yourself, either, that you would cry?

YP: No I didn’t, of course I didn’t know. But I knew that he was going to ask me these questions, I knew that it would hurt me to talk about it again, but I didn’t know that I would cry. But it created this intimacy between us. We were close, you know. My sister also was very close with him, but in a different way.

JW: Because your familial rapport seemed intimate throughout the diary despite – and perhaps because of – the filming that was now taking place between the four of you. I wonder – at the beginning, especially – if it was difficult to adjust to your father’s new practice of filming (i.e. turning your bedroom into an editing room, filming and interacting with you from a distance)?

YP: No it was not difficult because – at your age – I was very curious to take risks in my life. Not just to go the same way as everyone else, not to be conformist; I just wanted to choose my own way forward. So it was very natural to learn filmmaking, I was very sure while editing the diary that I was doing something that nobody else was doing, I knew it deep in my heart, you know? That we were trying to do something and we didn’t know what would come of it, this I can tell you. We didn’t know that it would be six hours, didn’t know that Channel 4 would take it… It became six hours because Channel 4 asked us to make it this long. The commentary was written in Portuguese, then translated by my mother into English – even though we lived in Israel for 30 years by that point. Like I told you, they are immigrants, so it was translated into English – because of Channel 4 –And only ten years later did Israeli TV decide to make a Hebrew version. It’s crazy.

JW: Did you speak Portuguese at home growing up?

YP: My parents? Yes. My mother spoke seven languages. She speaks Portuguese very well, my mother, with a very Polish accent. I didn’t speak Portuguese. I understand Portuguese but I speak French only. And English and Hebrew, of course.

JW: So you said there needed to be a kind of structure for the diary eventually, because you said that there were two hours’ worth at first?

YP: Yes but it was very modular. Because it was during three – three or four years, I don’t remember even – but it was modular. We worked at the same time with different chapters.

JW: In the film’s narration there’s talk about moving away from traditional filmmaking and “refusing to film the drama”. Did this create, for you as an editor, a contradiction in both maintaining the footage’s beauty without manufacturing drama, as such?

YP: As an editor, you mean? During the editing the commentary arrived very late. Prior to this, I edited the film mute, I didn’t know what I was doing!

JW: So it was all intuition?

YP: Intuition. Intuition and sensibility, you know, because I understood the shots when I looked, when I contemplated them. It’s not just looking. There were hours of just watching and watching the films, without understanding what they were (w/o narration). It was explained somewhat, but when the commentary arrived, I was very surprised. I had no idea that when I’d edit it, there’d be footage of trams in Lisbon aligned with him talking about Miguel, who was his childhood friend from Brazil etc. You know, it’s completely different. But as an editor I understood it, and this came very late.

JW: You didn’t have to re-edit the diary once the narration was finished? Did it stay in the same order?

YP: No, because everything was already in his mind. Also, you know, the shooting/editing, it was almost 1:1.

JW: I just assumed that there were hundreds of hours of footage.

YP: No, that’s not the case. It was tough work, very disciplined. Like fiction. And it was 1:1 with the ratio between rushes and the finished film. There are two sequences that are not in the finished film: one is the sequence of his father – “The Magician” – which he put away in a box and the other one was an interview that was not important anymore for him so we just (makes a discarding hand motion). But each magazine was three minutes and ten seconds. So the diary was based on these increments of three minutes and ten seconds, all six hours of it.

JW: Right, so this is very –

YP: Very few [scenes] cut out, very few. Almost all the things that he shot – you know, you have to trim the shots… but the concept was very much 1:1. It was very dangerous because we were very limited in budget, so when we shot it, it was already in his mind. The only thing that is a little bit fragile is the commentary. I can show you a paper of the commentary, it’s full of – (waves a pinched index and thumb in back-and-forth motions) comment tu dis…..

JW: Scribbles or…

YP: Yes scribbles. Full of them. This was very fragile, the text. I will show you. (Reaches for text). You see this is his handwriting, you see?

YP: Modulo, modulo, this is what we called it. And he read it like this (Yael holds the sheet close to her face and stares at it attentively). Understand? You see this is the commentary for part six, for example. “Belo Horizonte…. I found it not a long time ago…”. Belo Horizonte. And there were hundreds of papers like this for a long, long time. But the image was very… in his mind. It’s like writing, the shots were like – cinema d’auteur – it was like writing. Something like this. You will explain it to me! (Laughs)

JW: Well, I guess that’s where I found the contradiction with the narration and the image, where throughout the images are so precise but I was being told that they weren’t precise – that they were spontaneous. And I believed what he said, I believed everything…

YP: Yeah. And you know that the prologue is about his mother, it’s written;
In the lands of poverty…So it’s because of his mother.

JW: So you never met your grandmother?

YP: No, never. But we are the generation that didn’t have grandmothers. All because of the holocaust or because of tragic stories like my father’s, you know. I didn’t know who my grandmother was. While making the film about my father I discovered it but I didn’t know her. I didn’t know this woman who was supposed to be the mother of my father. “The Magician” I saw once, in Brazil. I saw him once and they told me that; “this is my grandfather”.

JW: So you think of him as “The Magician” as opposed to your grandfather?

YP: Yeah I call him “The Magician” because I met him once when I was thirteen years old, he made some magic tricks and then he died. He died very young. You know that he was seventeen when my father was conceived?

JW: How old were they when you and [Naomi] were born?

YP: They were 27 or 28? Something like this.

JW: And then… I’m just getting the timeline right because… they met in Brazil and then your father went to Paris?

YP: Yes, for six years.

JW: And then they reunited in Israel?

YP: Yes, exactly. My mother I think arrived one year before him and then he came to Israel. Because they were revolutionaries, Zionism was a revolutionary movement… in a way.

JW: So by the time the diary began, were they both disillusioned by this idea of revolution or…

YP: They were – how should I explain it to you – my father began to make films “en command” – comment tu dis…

JW: Like commissions or…

YP: … very nice films. But they were films “en command” – commissioned films. Very interesting to watch it. And then he made In Jerusalem (1963), that you have to watch, that is very important too, because with In Jerusalem he left the very formal, you know – this very formalist filmmaking that he didn’t want. And then, in ’73, he began something like [Diary] – you have everything in the [documentary]. I remember him talking to me about the moment he decided to leave this professionalist mode – it was because of In Jerusalem, and if you want to understand this, you have to see the film. It’s on vimeo. Four dollars, I think. It doesn’t belong to me, but I put it in.

Photo by Danny Shik

Scans and photos provided by and used with the permission of Yael Perlov