Oscars 2021: Tomer Shushan on his Israeli short film White Eye, and how it comments on lack of refugee protection

Kusumita Das
·7-min read

Three years ago, when Tomer Shushan wrote the story of White Eye in less than an hour, he had no idea that he had taken one step towards an Oscar nod. That was not even a dream at that point. All the young film school graduate wanted then was to make the deadline for submission at a film foundation competition to secure funding to make the film.

But more than that, what Tomer really wanted was an outlet for everything he was feeling after an incident that happened to him earlier that evening. His film White Eye, which throws focus on the unseen African immigrant community living in Israel, takes off from that incident. It is one of the five nominees in the Best Short film (live action) category for the 93rd Academy Awards, putting Israel back on the Oscars map.

The 20-minute film explores white privilege in an edgy, breathless one-shot. White Eye follows its protagonist Omer as he goes around a street corner in an industrial district of south Tel Aviv to retrieve his stolen bike. Omer is a local Israeli resident, who stumbles upon the bike locked outside a warehouse. We soon realise that he shares an emotional connection with the bike, which allows him to identify it correctly €" his girlfriend had put a purple heart sticker on it, and there is also a dent on the bike from a previous accident €" not to mention, he had bought it for a princely sum of 2000 shekels. At first, Omer does what any citizen would do €" loses no time in contacting the police. But running high on adrenaline and low on patience for the workings of a bureaucratic system, he also attempts to "steal" it himself, by breaking the lock, which is when he encounters the current owner of the bike, Yunes, an Eritrean refugee. Yunes, a meat factory worker, has his own version €" he claims he paid 250 shekels for it and bought it for his daughter who wanted a white bike.

Tomer's film is not about who is the bicycle thief; rather the question it asks is €" who is the victim? Is it Omer, the ostensible victim whose bike gets stolen? Or is it Yunes, the possible thief, who is at Omer's mercy when he calls the police. Because that would mean a likely deportation and losing the life he has so carefully and precariously built in this country €" perhaps for no fault of his own. Can a stolen bike justify destroying a life?

The film is a comment on the state of Israeli laws that offers almost no protection to refugees and asylum seekers, making them among the most vulnerable sections of the country's population.

Speaking to us from Los Angeles, where Tomer is currently promoting the film in the last leg of the Oscars lead-up, he says, "In my experience, not many locals sound sympathetic when they talk about refugees. But more than them, I blame the people in power who don't hesitate to use terms like 'cancer of the society', and this seeps into the minds of citizens." Tomer is referring to an incident where Miri Regev, former Israeli Minister of Culture and Sports, had called Sudanese asylum seekers a "cancer in our body," in her speech at a rally in Tel Aviv in 2012. Regev had later apologised for her comment.

What hit Tomer even more was how he had reacted when faced with a similar predicament in real life. "I had worked in places where I made some of my best friends in the immigrant community. I even went to protests and demonstrations with them. And yet in one testing moment, my values flew out of the window. I had given in to societal prejudice." While in the real-life incident, Tomer managed to convince the police to spare the guy, the film has a more grim ending. "The fear and stress that I caused him in those moments... that feeling was so intense that I felt that the only way I could reconcile with the whole incident was to make a film on it €" to make people realise the privilege we have as citizens. And I needed the film to be more stark to bring out the raw emotions in that situation," says the 33-year-old.

The film is a technical marvel €" the one-take treatment makes it a taut and piercing narrative. Watching the film makes the viewer feel like a passerby who is witnessing an incident on a street corner €" there are no cuts in what the human eye sees. Tomer conducted numerous rehearsals and screen tests before finally shooting it in the middle of the night when the otherwise busy industrial locality becomes deserted.

"Making a film in one take is like editing the film even before you've shot it."

Interestingly, none of the Africans in the film, including Yunes, are actors. "His name is Dawit Tekelaeb, and I found him at a hamburger shop washing dishes. When I broached the idea to him, he was happy to do it, even though he was still slightly clueless. He needed to perfect his Hebrew, and I taught him about camera movements and dialogue delivery," Tomer says. "It was a scary prospect to make one-shot film with non-actors, and many people tried to dissuade me. But I knew that this is the only treatment I wanted for my film. And in every take we shot, he was flawless." Indeed in the film, Dawit is a natural.

Lead actor, a very impressive Daniel Gad as Omer, brings a nervous energy to his character of an angry, victimised man. He manages to make you see where Omer is coming from €" be it the power play or pangs of conscience. One of the most memorable and haunting scenes in the film show a group of immigrant workers huddled in a freezer when the police come hunting. It is a powerful metaphor for how this community has been left out in the cold, literally and figuratively.

Explaining the title of the film, Tomer says, "The 'white' signifies white privilege.

And for me, 'white eye' also stands for blindness. The main character is blind to the situation of the immigrant. He is not a bad person; he is only making a bad choice."

Over the last two years, White Eye, that has been produced by the Makor Foundation, has done the rounds of some of the most prestigious film festivals around the world. It was the official selection at Hollyshorts Film Festival and won South By Southwest; it toured Krakow, Leeds, New York and Cleremont Film Festival in France, before landing on the doorstep of the Academy Awards. The journey ran parallel to the global #BlackLivesMatter movement which further boosted its acclaim. The film also just got picked up by WarnerMedia's revamped content innovation hub, WarnerMedia OneFifty, that seeks to highlight content from underrepresented creators. It will release on HBO Max later this month.

"It is all very overwhelming," Tomer says. "I had never imagined such a journey for the film. Right now in LA, it's a full-time job pushing the film in the last leg of the competition. It's stressful in a good way." Dawit, however, could not join him. "He was very excited after I told him about the Oscars, although I'm not entirely sure what it means to him. Unfortunately, he cannot be here with me, because if he leaves Israel, chances are he won't be able to go back. There is both magic and irony in this."

Oscars 2021 will air in India on 26 April.

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