Director Limor Shmila and lead actresses Noa Biron and Netta Shpigelman discuss Montana, which premiered in the Discovery Programme at TIFF.
Limor Shmila’s debut feature follows the young but confident Efi (Noa Biron) as she returns to her native Israel 15 years after her departure, for the funeral of her grandfather. She finds her relatives pretty much unchanged but soon realises she’s the one who has moved on. In a city ruled by men, she questions the old-fashioned values of family and loyalty, actively working to break the cycles of abuse and silence she is now strong enough to challenge. . She is an inspiring role-model for the other women in the town, and the film is a potent and brutal attack on regressive mores and the evils they enable.
At the Toronto International Film Festival, where Montana premiered in the Discovery Programme, I met with director Limor Shmila and lead actresses Noa Biron and Netta Shpigelman. We discussed the autobiographical genesis of the film, strong female characters, and the joy of working with women.
Seventh Row (7R): How did this project come about?
Limor Shmila (LS): My grandfather drowned four years ago, just like in the movie. All I could think about, at the time, was how I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.
7R: Efi goes through some really intense things, both positive and negative, but she’s strong and handles it all really well. She never loses control.
LS: When I wrote Efi, of course I wrote myself in a way, but it was also a sort of idealisation, a wish. I wrote her to be the way I perceive women and the way I think women should be in our world. Acre [where the film is set] is a very small city, where the men are very old-fashioned and strong. It was obvious to me that Efi would counter that and refuse to be a victim. She’s always active, never passive. This is how I try to be every day.'She’s always active, never passive. This is how I try to be every day.' - Limor ShmilaClick To Tweet
7R: Noa, how did you prepare to play Efi?
Noa Biron (NB): Shooting Montana actually caught me during a personal crisis, which forced me to be very authentic. I was lucky to read some of the very first drafts of the script and to be present in the auditions for two months. I got to meet a lot very talented actors and actresses, which allowed me to bring different colours to Efi, to find her during the auditions.
7R: You constructed the character by interacting with the actors at the casting?
NB: Yes, and I felt very connected to her. She reminds me of myself a lot. Limor and I also developed a sort of language between us. When we got on set, it was all very easy. We just needed to be in the moment. The most important thing for me, what I really had to focus on, was not to portray Efi as a victim. She needed to be strong.'What I really had to focus on, was not to portray Efi as a victim. She needed to be strong.'Click To Tweet
7R: Netta, how did you develop Karen?
Netta Shpigelman (NS): I’ve known Limor for about 10 years. We sort of grew up together in the industry. I know her world. I know where she comes from and her personal stories.
I remember we were sitting together, and I read the script, and I was struck by the character of Karen. The meaning of that name is “strike of light.” I told Limor: “I want Karen to be like a strike of love. I want her to be this character who wants love and projects love”.'I want Karen to be like a strike of love...to be this character who wants love and projects love.'Click To Tweet
I don’t usually work on a character like that, from an image. But I thought, because Limor is a friend, I could free myself from all these acting methods I usually follow. It was new, and it was fun.'Because Limor is a friend, I could free myself from all these acting methods I usually follow.'Click To Tweet
7R: Efi is someone who became an outsider and who’s coming back to her roots. How did that aspect of the character come about?
LS: Unlike Efi, I did visit Acre regularly after I left. But all the same, I never felt connected. When my grandfather died, I felt like I might have missed something. Although I was coming regularly, I felt like I had never truly been there. That’s why I could write Efi as if she literally hadn’t come back for 15 years.
I always felt very different from my family, from the people who still live there. But I think that, through working on the film, in those same locations, I started to feel a connection with them and with the city.
NS: Because Limor is a director, she has to be herself all the time, to be affirmative about what she wants to do and how she wants to do it. I think that when the people from Acre were seeing her direct the film, they were meeting different sides of her for the first time. Maybe that helped create a new connection.
7R: Efi and Karen quickly develop a lesbian relationship, but it isn’t a big focus of the film at all. It isn’t really a source of problems or drama.
LS: That’s because it isn’t an issue for me. I’m a lesbian. This is who I am. When I asked permission to shoot in my family’s houses, they asked me what the movie was about. I told them, “It’s a lesbian love story.” They said, “There are no lesbians in Acre.” I said, “You think so?”!
The main thing I wanted to say to my family through the film was that my being a lesbian is not an issue. I wanted to show them that it isn’t uncommon in Acre, that it does happen. In the film, Karen is secretive and insecure about the relationship — but not because it’s a lesbian relationship. It’s for other narrative reasons. The lesbian aspect of their relationship is not an issue in the film, because Montana is actually more of a revenge story, completely unrelated to this romance.'I wanted to say to my family through the film was that my being a lesbian is not an issue.'Click To Tweet
7R: Sexuality plays a big part in the film, in positive ways — people falling in love, people simply having sex for pleasure — but there’s also sexual abuse.
LS: Regarding the sexual abuse, I didn’t base that on my memory or my experience, but on the questions I asked as a child about boundaries — about the relationship between men and women in the neighbourhood I grew up in. I think Karen needed to know about the sexual abuse. Efi works very hard to let her know about that.
7R: What was it like working with such a big cast of women?
LS: This is my first feature film. But even when making my short films I worked almost exclusively with women, because I think theirs are the interesting voices. I really do. My favourite directors are women.
In Montana, Shosh (Keren Tzur), Efi’s aunt, is the weak one. She sleeps with a man who doesn’t respect her and she’s very emotional. Yet you always want to hear what she has to say.
Whether they appear weak or strong, it was very important to me that our eyes always go towards the women. I work with men, and I love the actors I worked with on Montana. But I knew that with this film, I had a chance to say, “We’re stronger than you.”