Let’s not beat around the proverbial toilet-shaped bush here… the first ABCs of Death is a pretty dire affair. Out of 26 short films there are maybe a Billy Barty-sized handful of good to great ones with the remainder being a mix of lazy, dumb and poorly executed ideas. The announcement of a sequel was met with tepid anticipation because while that first film is unfortunate the idea behind the anthology – 26 directors, each with a letter of the alphabet, a miniscule budget and free reign to create a short relating their chosen word to the idea of death – is still a fantastic one overflowing with potential.
Happily, ABCs of Death 2 is a far more entertaining and creatively explicit collection of creepy, fun and wild short films. (Read my full review here.)
Aharon Keshales & Navot Papushado (Rabies, Big Bad Wolves) came on board with a request for the letter F, and after signing multiple affidavits swearing that they wouldn’t be doing a short about farts or fucking they set to work on one of the anthology’s more dramatic and weighty entries. We spoke with the directing duo at last month’s Fantastic Fest about their first collaborative short film, political overtones, necessary cleavage and the fate of their much-teased back-burner project, the Israeli spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in Palestine.
Keshales and Papushado are relative newcomers to the film-making game, but the pair stands out from the genre crowd for a few reasons. Most obvious is the fact that they’re genre filmmakers from Israel, a country where genre films remain of remarkably little interest to audiences. Their first feature, Rabies, is a blackly comic deconstruction of sorts of slasher/horror expectations while also offering an unobtrusive commentary on society, and by all accounts it’s Israel’s first foray into slasher territory. Three years later they delivered an even darker and funnier take on the suspense/revenge genre with Big Bad Wolves.
Papushado had a short of his get accepted into Cannes when he was a student, but “F is for Falling” is their first collaborative short film. Some filmmakers find difficulty paring their creativity and talents down to a much shorter running time, but Keshales and Papushado felt their feature work actually prepared them well for the task. “It was easy for us as we’re always thinking with scenes you have to have the same structure as a feature film,” Keshales says. “Like when we wrote Big Bad Wolves, every scene’s like a short film. We really believe every scene should go by the same logic of screenwriting. You have an image, and you have to build an entire story with beginning, middle and ending.”
Regarding the specifics of making a short for this film, they say it started with a list of guidelines “No joke,” says Keshales, “a seven page manifesto. It was written like a legal document, it was frightening. It’s like ‘No farting jokes.’” It sounds silly, but for anyone who’s seen the first film this slight guiding hand feels like a necessary addition to the process. “I think they did a correct thing,” he adds, “because the first one just gave money and ran away.” The guidelines were more interested in quality control than editorial management, and it’s a decision that paid off for the film. “To their defense,” says Papushado, “from the beginning when we sent them the script, because it’s political and it could raise a lot of hell, but from the beginning when we told them that this is what we wanted to do, it’s going to be very different from what you expect, it’s going to be political but it’s going to be humane.”
“We wanted to go through a rainbow of emotions,” he says. “We wanted to show something that was gritty.” Even as they worked out the specifics of their story they had a few guidelines for themselves. “What’s gonna be our voice? Okay, obviously it’s going to be Hebrew, we don’t want to make an English speaking one. Let’s bring the conflict, something political but still genre.” They were briefly concerned that their vision might not fit into the mix. Keshales says the first film is “filled with blood and it’s nihilistic, but nobody takes a moment to say wait a minute, death is a horrible thing. We can’t top ‘L is for Libido,’ we can’t do anything gorier or ickier than that. We tried to go the other way around to do something that nobody would think we were going to do.”
For those who haven’t seen “F is for Falling” yet it’s best summed up as a boy meets girl tale in a world where that setup isn’t always guaranteed a happy ending. That world is the real world, the real divide between Israel and Palestine. A female Israeli soldier is discovered stuck in her parachute in a tree by an armed Palestinian youth. In another life the pair might hit it off as friends or lovers, but in this one they’re forced by circumstance to be enemies at first sight.
Keshales and Papushado have toyed with cliches and convention before, but Papushado says “this time around we thought let’s put the cliches out front because in a short you have to be very clear from the beginning. And then we start breaking it. This is more about a boy and a girl, both the same age from different places. In the beginning it’s all about the cultural differences, the stereotypes, but as soon as they start talking they share a moment. You see a glimpse of normality in this crazy situation. We always talked about the true tragedy is that the one who ends up suffering are the kids, the next generation who’ve been brought up in this conflict as pawns without even knowing.”
This is fairly heavy stuff for a film that also features a speedo-wearing old man hiding in a mattress and a story about zombies putting the living on trial for murder, but the producers saw their vision and readily accepted it into the fold. “They said keep it under three minutes,” says Papushado, “so we sent them six minutes. They got why we needed the six minutes.”
Keshales says their inclusion in the film is “a dream project for me because you have a lot of people from all around the world, and to see what death means to them in their countries would be interesting even as a social experiment to see death in Mexico, Austin, Belgium.” Asked which of the other entries are their favorites leads Papushado to admit “No, we like only our own.” He’s probably joking. (They actually really enjoyed “Z is for Zygote,” “W is for Wish” and “G is for Grandad.”)
Not visible in the still above, but very much on display in the short itself is the soldier’s ample cleavage, but when I half-heartedly take them to task for highlighting boobs in an otherwise serious short they had their defense ready. “That’s the fault of Fantastic Fest,” says Keshales, “because every time we were here everyone talks about the attractive Israeli women, probably soldiers walking around with their Uzis all day long, like Chuck Norris without a beard.” He adds that it was also part of the perceived prejudices they wanted to explore. “You have this moment with the peeing – everybody laughs at that – it’s like what we did with Big Bad Wolves but opposite. There you have prejudice against Arabs, and in this one you see prejudice against women. We also wanted to make that tree because we all think it’s like an Adam & Eve story, starts with a tree, a woman and a man, two people trying to share the forbidden fruit which is the land.”
And just like that they made it heavy again.
The duo enjoyed their brief stint making a short and hope to make more in the future, but their primary interest remains features. “In between projects we’ll have fun doing the shorts,” says Keshales, “but we really want to make our next feature now.” “The problem,” adds Papushado, “is one of us will come and say I have a really great idea for a short, and the other one will say this sounds like a feature to me!”
As to what that next feature will be, it seems Once Upon a Time in Palestine is off the table for now. The financing was in place, but recent (and seemingly never-ending) events involving Israel forced them to push it back. “It’s not gone forever, it’s on hold until things calm down in the territories because no one will go to see it if we do a film about that.” Keshales says their producer had another recent film, Dancing Arabs, that played festivals but has yet to find distribution in its homeland due to content and circumstances “because no one wants to see that kind of thing. We know it’s not the right climate. As opposed to our first two, it’s like a ticking bomb. It’s crazy and the stuff it says about our country is very bleak. I don’t know if you’d want to live there after we get through with what we have to say, so we thought we should wait for more peaceful times so people would come out to see this movie with a smile on their face so we could put it down on them.”
The pair have been fielding the expected offers from Hollywood, and when I expressed concern that they’d sign on for Pulse 4 or some equally pointless sequel Keshales says they’re in no rush and can hold out for the right project. “We came to LA after Rabies, we came to LA after Big Bad Wolves, and we said no to everything.” Papushado says they got a lot of horror sequel offers after Rabies, “and after Big Bad Wolves we got some more psychological thrillers.” Their interests don’t quite match those offers though. “Where we come from, loving the ’70s, we want to make a guys on a mission film, something that would resonate with the movies we grew up on. If we get a chance to do that we’ll put our own voice into something. They want our voice, and we feel very secure that we can deliver something within the system because that’s the real challenge.” Their goal is to “play with subtext like Aharon and I are always attracted to which is humanity in the most horrific situations and compassion in the most tragic places.”
And just like that they made it heavy again.
ABCs of Death 2 is currently available on VOD and will play select theaters stating 10/31.
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