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The Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Alaev - Filmmaker Interview

The Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Alaev is the story of a close but fraught musical family headed by a unrelenting patriarch and the unequal treatment he bestows on his grown children, daughter Ada and son Ariel. Subsequently, we see how that dynamic shapes the relationship each has with their own children, Zwika and Amir respectively, for better or worse. Co-directed and produced by Tal Barda and Noam Pinchas, The Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Alaev gives a fascinating insight into inter-generational familial relationships. This former Hot Docs Forum project has its world premiere at Hot Docs 2016.

Hot Docs: Can you tell me what The Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Alaev is about to you?

Tal Barda: To me, the film is about finding one’s own place: in a family and in one’s own world. What we tried to do was take this microcosmic family and try and bring out the different ways in which people relate to each other, and at the same time show people trying to be who they want to be. How does one find their place within a big family, especially within a family business, so full of expectation?

Noam Pinchas: The story is unique because of the music, the business and the extreme characters...but it’s really about finding your own voice in a family…without leaving, without just separating yourself. These guys stay together, which is special.

Hot Docs: Was there a reason why you were drawn to a very familial story? Do you tend to gravitate towards this type of subject matter?

Tal: I think both of us are really interested in bigger than life characters, but ones we feel we can connect to as filmmakers. There was something about this family, we loved that they were colourful and musical and had a lot of humour to them, but were also hiding lots of complexities and layers that are a result of working together in this life-long family business.  

Hot Docs: I’m interested to know if what ends up being the most interesting points about your characters was apparent to you immediately? The dynamic between Papa, Ada and Zwika (patriarch, daughter, grandson) is so interesting but very subtle. Did it take time to find your story?

Noam: The first thing that drew us was naturally the music: three generations on stage. Tal took me to one of their concerts, and Ada was there. She wasn’t playing, just escorting Zwika (her son). We had a two minute conversation with her and immediately recognized there was much more to this family. We have this very successful, stimulating family on stage, and they had secrets! From day one, we understood we had this blessing.

Hot Docs: Everyone is so shaped by their love/hate relationship with Papa, no one would have the life they had if it was not for him, but he is also a constant reminder of the kind of person to not be, to his children and grandchildren. As filmmakers, what did you learn about observing these negotiations?

Tal: We learned that the more time we spent with them the more they felt secure to be who they are near us. So observation was a very big part of the making of this film. We became very close to them, invited to every single event: birthdays, memorials, school parties for the kids...learning everything about them. They weren’t speaking Hebrew, they speak Russian and Tajik, but we knew them so well we could read their body language.  A big part of our work was observing, and through observing, understanding what our film is about.

Hot Docs: How much time did you spend with them?

Noam: Two to three years. Not on a daily basis, but we were there a lot. Moments started accumulating, authentic ones. At times a shooting day would start with a lot of who-ha in front of the camera, and then they would just forget about us. 

Tal: One of the most funniest things we realized was everything started or ended with them playing music. At the beginning, we would arrive, they would preform for us. Or there would be tension between some of the characters, and in the next second everyone would take their instruments and start playing. We knew that when there were difficult or exciting or embarrassing moments, they would just start to play. Eventually they understood that we were not only interested in the music that we wanted to go beyond that.

Noam: I think the fact that we don’t speak Russian or Tajik helped them feel comfortable in speaking around us. Because even though they knew we were going to translate everything, in the moment you don’t really think of it, so when they spoke Tajik it created a sense of intimacy or tension.

Tal: We didn’t need to understand the words, we felt the energy and knew we should continue filming.

Hot Docs: So you’re leaving at the end of the day not really knowing in detail what you've captured.

Noam: Most of the time it was just everyday talk, but sometimes you find a small moment and you put it aside, and you collect these moments. Sometimes we would arrive for a small occasion, not even with a professional camera. We had shown up for dinner one night, just to show them some footage, but then Papa went to sleep without telling us, and we got the final scenes of the film. We were there for a different reason, not well-equipped professionally, but...the magic of documentaries…we were just there.

Tal: The other challenge is knowing when to stop recording. That when you feel you have something, go with it. Use your intentions.

Hot Docs: When you submitted your project to the Hot Docs Forum in 2013 you had just started filming. Can you talk about what its like to pitch something that is in development?

Noam: It’s a weird, funny game in which you have to guess the realities of your characters and the story. Despite each individual detail, they are still going to be the same characters, the same people. We knew that Ada (daughter) and Amir (son) and issues with their father, we understood those relationships. It’s not to invent, but predict something that we already know.

Tal: I think pitching at that scale enables to you envision your dream film, and gives you a compass that guides you to what you are looking for. We always say “thoughts create reality” and we do believe it. You always have the ability to manipulate, for the good and bad, scenes and characters, in documentary. But hopefully, what we are coming with, with our good intentions, is what we are drawing out. Sometimes those moments are difficult ones, but through those we also try to show sincerity and intimacy. If there is one thing we really appreciate, its that when we showed our characters the film they said: “Its not so easy to see ourselves on screen, but we really feel that this is who we are”. That was the biggest compliment we could get as filmmakers. And when pitching, that was what we wanted to have standout about our project in particular.

HD: Can you talk about what happened after the Forum and how you were able to complete the film?

Noam: We had interest from ARTE at the Forum. We then pitched at Sheffield and IKON came on board, and then Arte came back and said they wanted to come on board with development if we had a French co-producer.

Tal: But the real conversation with ARTE happened at Hot Docs, at lunch, between sessions. It took a few months, and then we hooked up with a French co-producer, all while simultaneously shooting.

Noam: We raised some more money from film funds in Israel in 2013-2014. We started editing in summer of 2014 and it took us a year to finish the edit. We had hundreds of hours, and then we discovered the archive of performances from many years back. It was a very long process, between two continents, two cultures.

Tal: The project ended up being an Israeli-French-Dutch co-production, and we also had an American producer. So many people were involved. Interesting and challenging and a very good study case for us.

Watch The Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Alaev at Hot Docs.

Photo Credits : Tal Barda and Noam Pinchas. 

Interview conducted by Madelaine Russo


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