March 28, 2020

Israeli Filmmaker Finds Her Voice

Growing up in Ness Ziona, a small city in central Israel, 33-year-old Dana Lerer dreamed of being a movie star, but struggled to find consistent work as an actress. In addition, the roles she was auditioning for didn’t resemble the fulfilling female parts she desperately wanted to play.  

“So I decided to make my own opportunities,” Lerer, who lives in Tel Aviv with her husband and their young son, said in a recent phone interview. “I enrolled in film school and set about making my own films, casting myself, writing and directing, too.” 

A graduate of the Steve Tisch School of Film and Television at Tel Aviv University, she went on to write, direct and star in two female-driven short films, 2012’s “Screen Test” and 2014’s “Ella’s Wedding Day.”

“But that was pretty much a nightmare,” she said. “I couldn’t be 100 percent invested in either my role as an actress or as a writer-director.”

With 2015’s “The Fine Line,” her 27-minute short film, she struck the right balance, finding her voice as a filmmaker by writing and directing but ceding the lead role to another performer. The film, which centers on a young actress shooting her first on-screen sex scene, earned Lerer a coveted Ophir (the Israeli version of the Oscar) nomination and garnered the Best Film Award at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

The film explores the blurred line between acting and reality. The heroine, Maya, faces mounting pressure from her director, Esti, to bare more skin and “make it real.” The film’s final frame is a powerful confluence of symbolism and meta imagery, showing a taxed, stoic Maya sitting on the edge of a bed.

“To make something on screen like a love scene completely believable, the actress is often forced to pay a personal, mental price for that truth,” Lerer said. “The film raises the question of where do you draw the line between pursuing the truth and doing what’s necessary in order to make the scene believable?”

The critical reception of “The Fine Line” boosted Lerer’s career, landing her a directing gig at Keshet Digial Studios in Tel Aviv, where she’s currently developing two feature film projects. However, in light of the #MeToo movement, her 3-year-old short film has been drawing renewed interest. 

The film explores the blurred line between acting and reality. The heroine, Maya, faces mounting pressure from her director, Esti, to bare more skin and “make it real.”

In early May, USC, during its weekly showcase highlighting world cinema, screened “The Fine Line,” citing its relevance in light of #MeToo. 

“I guess I was a bit ahead of my time,” Lerer said. “But this issue has been bothering me ever since, well, forever.” 

The film’s premise emerged from personal experiences Lerer went through as an actress, including “casting couch” episodes where directors and casting agents “crossed lines” in situations that “felt off” with requests like asking her to kiss an actor she had just met. Although she never acted in any love scenes herself, they were always her biggest fear. 

Lerer’s trepidation was flamed by stories like one she read in 2013 in which a French actress described feeling like a “prostitute” during the filming of a love scene, alleging abusive and exploitive directing practices on set. The film was “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” which had been awarded the Palme d’Or — the top prize — at the Cannes Film Festival by a jury headed by Steven Spielberg prior to the allegations. 

“I think it’s really wrong to manipulate actors like that,” she said. “I wanted to prove in my film that you don’t need to do that, and it was a big part of my agenda to show that you can shoot a sex scene and make it totally believable without showing any nudity, without making actors uncomfortable and certainly without having sex for real.” 

On the set of her film, Lerer said her treatment of actress Naomi Levov, who plays Maya, was of the utmost importance. 

“I’m putting her in a delicate situation, so of course it’s hard, but this is the profession,” Lerer said. “We did a lot of rehearsal before. I kept asking her what would be most comfortable for her in this uncomfortable position. At points, she’d come to me and say, ‘This is too much for me. I need a break.’ I just tried to maintain a lot of sensitivity and awareness for the situation.”

Lerer said she will continue to explore “feminist-focused” narratives in her upcoming projects.

“The minute I started studying film, I knew I wanted to say something about the world and not just be a puppet, not just a performer of someone else’s words,” she said. “In a sense, I want to be in control.”

With #MeToo shaking up the industry and removing some of the old guard, Lerer finds encouragement in progress being made by women. Her hope is that more women continue to rise through the ranks of the industry and enact positive change in a working environment that sorely needs it. 

“I feel that the world is getting to understand that if more and more women get to higher positions in the industry, directing and running studios, the situation will be different,” she said. “It’s going in that direction. The revolution is on her way.”