IDFA Interview: Antonio Tibaldi & Alex Lora (Thy Father’s Chair)

IDFA_Interview_Thy_Father's_Chair

The elderly Orthodox Jewish twin brothers Abraham and Shraga have to deal with a violation of their privacy when a team of cleaners arrives to clean up their house. 

The family home in Brooklyn has become filthy since their parents died: rubbish is stacking up and vermin are taking over. When the tenant in the upstairs apartment stops paying rent because of the problems and the twins are in danger of losing their home, Abraham is forced to open their door to the men in the white suits. In seven chapters, the apartment is gradually transformed under the strict supervision of Hanan, who is also Jewish. It goes from being a place you wouldn’t want to set foot in, where for shame the curtains are permanently closed, into a clean, tidy and light home.

The process doesn’t always go smoothly, however; a third brother refuses point-blank to cooperate, Shraga shirks his chores and Abraham tries to cling on to every single object the cleaners want to remove. Will he manage to keep his father’s chair? Is he actually worthy of sitting in it himself? A tired, intimidated Abraham – a slovenly but gentle man whose arms are covered in flea bites – fights bravely to retain the tangible incarnations of his memories in a film about helplessness, religion and loss of control in a life circumscribed by rules.

What area of Brooklyn did you shoot the film?
Alex Lora: It was in Midwood, between Borough Park and Flatbush

How were you introduced to the twins? Why did you feel this was a story you wanted to take on at the feature length level?
Antonio Tibaldi: It came about as a true coincidence as I am not actively interested in subjects like hoarding, and neither is Alex. 

One day I got a phone call from a friend of a friend asking to meet about an idea she had. The meeting was with a woman who had 2 cleaning companies and wanted to make a film about them. At that point I was not interested in doing an infomercial, but I told her I could put her in touch with some people who were. 6 months later, I got a text from her, with 3 photographs, saying they found the right house for the film, of which she was quite adament I check out. I took the subway out there and went to the house. Shraga was standing outside. He was very nervous as I was introduced as a filmmaker and he wasn’t quite sure what to expect out of all of this. So, we went inside, sat at the only places we could, and talked. He was very candidly honest. In a way only a child could be. I knew he was very smart from the get go, so I gave it chance.

I was wondering, there was a moment in the film where it was discussed that the twins have academic backgrounds, making it seem like they were scholars in a sense. Were they religious scholars?
AL: Yes, they spend their life reading and interpreting scriptures…

What happened after you spoke?
AT: Well, we spoke with the producer again, and I still was a little hesitant. I was still curious, though, but I was (still) not going to do an infomercial type project. We ended up making an agreement that I would film the process, and if something interesting came about, I would make a feature film.

We shot for 8 days; kept in contact with Alex, who kept telling me the story sounds interesting, and ended up putting together a 3-hour version. I showed it to Alex and we decided there was something there that we could work with.

What were your initial thoughts about constructing the narrative at that point?
AT: When I started, I had no idea. I knew I would make an observational film. I had just gotten a camera that allowed me to shoot in very low light, which was necessary since the apartment was virtually void of natural light when we started. Then, I felt there was an inherent dramatism happening since the twins did not choose to bring in the cleaning crew. It was the neighbor who forced them to do it. I thought this was a magical setup. 

Then, I knew I just had to be patient. What I wasn’t aware of was how incredibly repetitious the process was. By that, I mean the process of the cleanup and their reactions. Repetition is fine and all, but it has to progress, otherwise it is boring. 

So, we had a tremendous amount of footage, and the difficult thing was finding the story within it. We were part of a 6-month documentary incubator program, which was vital in giving us the time in developing the narrative from all the footage. We had great collaborators, tutors, and feedback. The one thing I discovered through this was that the film was shot unconsciously. A lot of the scenes in the final cut, I had put in the bin of footage we weren’t going to use. I feel like I wasn’t even looking at the footage the right way. We started constructing the film, forcing a story, but it turns out we didn’t have to do that; the story was organic.

Can you speak on the cinematography of the film, specifically in relation to the confined space and this low light camera? I thought that the look of the film was quite clean and, despite its roving, observational approach, there was rarely a moment where things went out of focus or white balance was compromised…not to mention the general volatility of the figures involved.
AT: The camera is a SONY A7S. I never went past 50K ISO, which is a lot. It is a full frame camera, so I use prime lenses which go up to 2 or 2.8. With 2.8, it is very hard to hold focus, so I would try as much as I could to shoot at a 4 or a 5.6 and get a little more depth. That means I need ISO though. I used to have a Canon 5D, but this film would not have been able to be made on that.

It was a great location, but difficult. Great because it had depth since it was a railroad apartment. It also had windows of light. So, I thought we should shoot on a wide angle lens. I got a 21mm Zeiss lens, which is quite wide. That was meant to open up angles.

When the apartment was finally clean, you could see the splashes of color that were hidden underneath all the clutter. There were some really distinct greens and reds. Coming from New York myself, I thought how this was such a nice apartment. It’s almost a crime to keep in in that condition since it is so difficult for middle-class people to even acquire such a place…
AL: Yes, it was quite beautiful actually.

How would you go about positioning yourself with the action?
AT: I felt that much of my positioning was in the only physical place where I could be without obstruction while still observing. It was a fine line between getting the shot but not getting in the way, and by “getting the shot”, I do not mean an objective shot, but to find the subjectivity in the situation. I always wanted the camera to peer through the eyes of the characters, so we could tell the story the way it should be told. With that, I would always shoot the twins very close, which made the frame softer. Then, when they weren’t in the scene I would pull away a bit.

There is a sequence in the film where the brothers are looking at a scroll, wondering what to do with it. This hit me, I realized much of the items in the house are not just “junk”, but rather items of spiritual value and/or antiquity. Did you uncover anything that was particularly interesting?
AT: At some point, we found their yearbooks from high school.  It was the only time I asked them to specifically shoot an object, but they denied. In an observational documentary, you tend to not ask for shots, rather just uncover things organically.

– Steve Rickinson

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