From south Tel Aviv to the silver screen to the Oscar shortlist
Tomer Shushan's short film, 'White Eye,' spotlights the challenges faced by African migrants living in Tel Aviv
A spur-of-the-moment decision can irreversibly change the lives of people around you in ways you never imagined. Israeli director Tomer Shushan learned that the hard way — and turned his experience into a heartstopping short film.
Shushan wrote and directed “White Eye,” a 21-minute movie about Omer (Daniel Gad), a Mizrahi man living in Tel Aviv who spots his stolen bike chained up outside a factory. When he calls the cops on Yunes (Dawit Tekelaeb), the African migrant worker he believes stole it, the situation escalates beyond what Omer ever imagined.
“White Eye” has now been shortlisted for the Academy Award for live action short film, one of 10 finalists out of 174 qualifying films. The Oscar nominations will be announced on Monday, and five films will advance to the final round ahead of the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony on April 26.
“The story actually happened to me, I found myself fighting to get my bike back, and I almost made a man go to jail, to be deported from Israel,” Shushan told Jewish Insider in a recent interview from his home in Tel Aviv. “I just sat down like one hour after the situation, and I wrote the script in 40 minutes.”
With support from the Makor Foundation, Shushan was able to bring his script to life. The film went on to win the best narrative short film award at both the 2020 SXSW Film Festival and the 2020 Urbanworld Film Festival, which are both Oscar-qualifying film festivals.
“It touched lots of people,” Shushan said. “In their day-to-day life, [people] see immigrants but they never think about their story or about what could happen to them, and how it feels to be illegal… The story happens in Israel but it’s something that is very international.”
The entire movie was filmed in one continuous shot, adding to the heightened tension and real-time pacing of the film.
“The thought behind it was to make the audience connect to the main character,” said Shushan. “The main character doesn’t have the time to cut his actions or to cut his instincts because he can’t breathe. And I wanted to give the same feeling to the audience — that they don’t have any moment to stop and breathe and to understand the actions.”
Shushan felt that the story arc was best suited for a short film, but he is currently working on a full-length feature, titled “Between the Sand Grains,” that centers around the same topic.
In “White Eye,” Omer is played by Gad, a well-known Israeli actor who starred in the popular sitcom “Shababnikim.” But when it came to the character of Yunes and the other African migrants, Shushan didn’t want to cast actors.
“I really wanted to use non-actors, people who are real refugees or immigrants,” he said. “I really wanted to bring the feeling that they have, which is that they live in a place and they’re illegal; it’s something that it’s really hard to make someone act like.”
Shushan met and befriended Tekelaeb, who played Yunes, and even taught him Hebrew for the film.
“I found him on the street and I just started to talk to him, and I explained to him the story and he really, really liked the message that it brings,” Shushan said. “I think he brought an amazing performance and also I met an amazing person, so it was a win-win.”
In the film, the consequences for Yunes are more drastic than what happened to the man Shushan encountered in reality. But the filmmaker wanted to heighten the intensity of the experience for viewers.
“It was very close to being a tragedy,” he said. “I wanted to show a tragedy… I wanted people to understand that if they don’t control their actions, they can cause harm. So the message will be sharper.”
Hearing that his film made the Oscars shortlist, said Shushan, was a surreal experience.
“I was in shock, I still am,” he said. “It was such a hard competition, so many good films, and I was shocked that I was included in the shortlist because some of the greatest [films] didn’t make it.”
When the nominations are announced on March 15, Shushan is planning on keeping things low-key.
“I don’t want to get disappointed too much, I’m afraid of disappointment, so I’m not going to make such a big thing,” he said. “It’ll be probably 2 a.m. in Israel, and I’ll just wait for the list, and if we’re in, I’ll celebrate, and if we won’t be, I’ll just go to sleep.”