Life in Stills
Israeli filmmaker Tamar Tal documents the beautiful and complicated relationship between a 96-year-old widow and her grandson.
On the surface, this documentary (which won “Best Film” at the DocAviv International Film Festival) by Israeli filmmaker Tamar Tal is about 96-year-old Miriam Weissenstein, who is faced with losing her late husband’s photography shop—The Photo House—which is filled with historic Israeli photos taken by Rudi Weissenstein and is considered a Tel Aviv institution. But the real story here centers on Miriam’s relationship with her 20-something grandson, Ben, who is helping Miriam trying to save the shop. Their relationship is a complicated one, made especially challenging by the fact that Ben’s mother (Miriam’s daughter) was murdered by Ben’s father, who then killed himself. In spite of these huge personal and professional obstacles, Miriam and Ben embark on an intimate journey of love and compassion.
Watch the trailer: lifeinstillsfilm.com/trailer.html
You made a short film about The Photo House before Life in Stills. What made you want to stick with this topic and turn it into a feature film?
The short film was telling the story of Miriam’s daily life in the shop and the fact that there was no one to continue the family business. After completing the short film, I got to know Ben as he was just starting to get involved in the shop. I realized it was the beginning of a very complex relationship between them, so I felt obligated to keep on telling their story.
In the film, it takes a while to learn that Ben’s father murdered his wife (Ben’s mom) and then killed himself. Was it a challenge to figure out when to introduce this highly charged topic into the film, and how did you ultimately decide?
I think that it was the biggest challenge of this film, understanding how this tragedy would be told. In the beginning I didn’t even think it would be part of the film, as I really wanted to protect Miriam and Ben from bringing up such a painful matter. But through the making of the film I understood that the basis of this wonderful relationship is the fact that they share the same pain and grief over the closest person in life for both of them. Finally the decision was to tell it through them, by using the 8 mm home videos, and by Miriam telling it in her way to a stranger, and Ben talking about it with his boyfriend while packing his stuff in his parents’ home.
Although he was apparently approached many times by media to discuss the murder, Ben opened up publicly for the first time in your film. Why do you think he chose to trust you with this story? Were you friends beforehand?
We met in the shop through Miriam. Ben says that after seeing my short film, he felt very privileged that I wanted to continue filming and, through the years (all together seven years), he learned to fully trust me, and actually neither he nor Miriam saw any of the footage all those years. They both know that I love and care for them so much and that their well-being will always be first priority.
Ben clearly wants to be able to talk about his mother with Miriam, but gets frustrated when Miriam verbally attacks Ben’s father. Was it hard for you to watch this dynamic played out over and over, knowing it was causing so much pain?
It is such a delicate situation; each one of them experiences this tragedy from a whole different perspective. I wished that Miriam would manage to see it more from Ben’s point of view and be able to share with him the pain through memories and nostalgia, but unfortunately it didn’t work. We are putting out an official DVD soon, and there will be some extra features, one of them is an interview I made with Ben after Miriam passed away, and he is talking there about this issue.
In many ways, I feel this film is far more a complicated love story between Ben and Miriam than it is about a mission to save the shop and preserve the historic photos of Israel. Did you feel that way? What was your intention before filming?
When I started I knew right away it was going to be about the unique and strong relationship of Miriam and Ben. But the back story was always the shop and the fight to save it. Through the making of the film, and especially the editing, we realized that the scenes connected with the shop’s future are less interesting. And the most powerful scenes are with Miriam and Ben’s relationship.
What did you learn, if anything, about relationships by spending so much time observing the dynamics between Ben and Miriam?
I learned that honesty and love are keys for having a deep and strong relationship—and that passion for life, love, and creation make you live longer.
What was the most challenging part of making this documentary for you emotionally?
The most challenging part emotionally was dealing with the family tragedy. Miriam and Ben were so dear to me, and I felt part of this family. To touch the most painful spot was a very complicated mission.
For more information about the film and where you can see it, visit lifeinstillsfilm.com.
About the Author
Tamar Tal, born in 1980, is a photographer and a documentary filmmaker. Life in Stills is her first feature film. Her short film, “The Iron Lady and The Photo House,” was in the student competition of the DocAviv Film Festival in 2007. Tal graduated from Camera Obscura – School of Art in Tel Aviv. To learn more about her films and photography, visit www.tamartal.com.