After celebrating the birth of their first child, James and Lola are faced with family expectations and financial strain as they fly in a Mohel to perform their son’s Brit Milah – The circumcision ceremony. Having its World Premiere at SxSW Online in the Narrative Shorts Competition, we speak with director Charles Wahl on THE MOHEL.
You are back! Tell me about your previous experience here at the festival and what you showed.
I attended SXSW in 2019 with my short film LITTLE GREY BUBBLES and it was an incredible experience. I was able to travel to Austin with several people who worked on the film, and the whole trip was filled with watching amazing films, meeting incredible people, and hanging out at the coolest places. Being a part of SXSW was great for the film, and very inspirational as an artist. I’ll never forget the ride to the airport when it was time to go…I was so sad to head home from the festival! Everyone was so welcoming, and the city was filled with so many incredible artists all bundled together that I didn’t want to leave.
How did you first hear about SxSW and wishing to send your project into the festival?
SXSW is one of those ubiquitous festivals that I feel like I’ve always known about. It has a reputation for curating really great films. The moment I finished THE MOHEL I knew I wanted to try and be a part of the festival again.
Tell me about the idea behind your project and getting it made!
The idea to make THE MOHEL actually came while I was at a festival screening for my previous short LITTLE GREY BUBBLES. I was sitting next to a fellow filmmaker, Dekel Berenson, and we were chatting about religion and Judaism specifically. I was sharing stories I had heard, and some of the experiences I had with the process of conversion, and also what it’s like to live as Jew in a community where religion isn’t very prominent. Within a few minutes he looked at me and said “You have to make a film about this.” I slept on it, and the next morning, after thinking about it some more, I thought of a way to frame a story that dealt with a lot of the themes we had discussed and that I think are worth talking about; the transactional nature of religion, and the challenge of maintaining religion and old world traditions in a modern world. I wrote the script pretty quickly after that, and then applied for a grant from a local arts council. A few months later I got word that I had received the grant, and then immediately started putting the film together.
Who are some of your creative inspirations? Any particular filmmaking talent or movie that inspired you for this project?
Based on the subject matter it’s hard not to look at The Coen Brothers’ A SERIOUS MAN. I found that film to be very brave, and honest. Although I approached THE MOHEL with a different visual style, I definitely strove to find a similar balance between the seriousness of the large ideas presented, and the humour that comes from some of these crazy situations.
How did you put this together from a technical viewpoint? What sort of cameras/lenses did you use and/or did you have any creative challenges in making it?
I knew very early on that I wanted the film to have a very raw, and natural style, yet feel cinematic at the same time. To do that the cinematographer, Guy Godfree, opted to shoot on the Alexa Mini with vintage anamorphic lenses, while keeping the lighting pretty minimal with mostly natural light and leaning into the practicals. The lighting style kept the look very natural, and the camera format and lenses helped give that extra production value and cinematic feeling. He also shot everything except for one shot hand-held to add to the immediacy of the images. The biggest challenge with the film was to make sure everything was authentic. Sam Rosenthal, the actor who plays The Mohel in the film and I are both Jewish, but neither of us are Rabbi’s and we wanted to make sure all the religious aspects of the film were accurate. During prep we went to a local Synagogue to speak with an actual Rabbi about the film. After talking through the script with him he felt that the story we were telling was an important one, and he very graciously helped us with any questions we had as production rolled along.
Being all virtual this year, what do you hope to get out of the virtual SxSW experience? And where is your project going next?
I’m very excited to experience the festival this way. Nothing can beat the feeling of sitting down in the Alamo Drafthouse and watching the films with an audience, but I think this way people will be able to watch more films. One of the cool things about the festival being all virtual is that you don’t have to worry about getting from one theatre to another, or getting into line in time to get into the screening. This way viewers will get to experience a lot more aspects of the film festival than they normally would have. On a personal level with the film my biggest hope is for it to get seen by people and to connect with others. The next stop with the film is still in the air, but I’m hoping to be able to firm that up soon.
What would you suggest to film festivals as a way to show more short films or make them more accessible to audiences across the country?
I think the calibre of short films gets better every year, and one of the great things about them is that I find they are a great way to get a sense of what is current. The turnaround on shorts is usually quicker than features, and offers the filmmakers more of an opportunity to freely express themselves. Because of that we get to see some really amazing work if you’re looking for it. A great way for festivals to make them more accessible is to make deals with online streaming platforms to get them on there, and featured. That way audiences have a better chance at finding them. I have noticed that some festivals are starting to do things like that.
If you had one piece of advice to offer someone to get their start as a creator or filmmaker in the industry, what would you suggest?
It really depends where you are in your life when that decision happens; if you’re in school, or already in another field and wanting to make a career change. One thing that would apply regardless of where you’re at in your life is to get out there and immerse yourself into the film community. Even if you don’t live in a big film hub, most cities have some form of film community and I would try and get into it anyway you can. Get out there, meet people, get a sense of what it’s like and how it works. Then once you do start making things, and don’t stop!
And finally, what is your favourite short film of all time?
I’ve seen so many incredible shorts that it’s hard for me to pick a favourite. One that always comes to mind immediately when I think of short films that I like is QUELQU’UN D’EXTRAORDINAIRE (An Extraordinary Person) directed by Monia Chokri. I found the relationship dynamics between the friends in that film, and how they devolve, both hilarious and incredibly sad at the same time, which is also very real.
This film and many others like it will be showing at the virtual South By Southwest taking place March 16-20th. For more information and to register for the festival, point your browser to www.sxsw.com!