David Fisher’s family reunions are unusual. Perhaps they’re even stranger than unusual — after all, how many people bond with their four siblings by taking them on a journey through Europe, searching for a sister rumored to have been separated at birth? Who, with their siblings in tow, retraces their father’s memoirs back to the camp where he labored during the Holocaust? And who, above all else, thinks it would be a good idea to bring along a camera?
But for David Fisher, everywhere is a good place for a camera. An Israeli documentary filmmaker, Fisher was brought on by Professors Charles Musser and John MacKay to teach the Yale Film Studies department’s documentary workshop this spring while Musser is on sabbatical. For students, this means class time with a respected, opinionated and experienced documentary filmmaker.
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A just-completed trio of films about his own family has won Fisher his most recent accolades. The final installment, “6 Million and One, ” was the occasion for the Fisher family’s most recent European adventure. And while Fisher attests that making the film brought all involved closer together, the first moments of the trailer seem to call that into question.
“No one else would bring his siblings to this place,” complains Fisher’s sister Esti as they wander the tunnels their father dug in a camp at Gusen, Austria. “I can’t connect to this any more than I already have.” Their brother Ronel lights a cigarette in the background. “I’m one big wound,” Esti continues, the whole group going silent as she fumes. But when Ronel jokes that Esti’s outburst will give the film’s viewers nightmares, Esti begins to laugh, and the tension evaporates.
Such revealing moments are no accident in Fisher’s filmmaking.
“As a psychologist, he’s very astute,” Andrey Tolstoy, a TA in Fisher’s documentary workshop, says. Fisher sees things in footage and in people that others don’t: “He’ll start to point out [a subject’s] habits, they way they move their hands, the way they button their shirt: this is how a character is shaping the architecture of their world.”
Fisher, Tolstoy says, is always in control, a principle central to his filmmaking even when he’s with his family. To take on topics so delicate, and then to coax his subjects into addressing them for the camera, requires a rare grasp of what’s happening in front of his lens. One has to wonder if Fisher was somehow ready for Esti’s outburst, maybe even before he even started filming.
“He’s both very sensitive and very persistent,” Musser says of Fisher’s ability to guide a documentary. “I find that in his teaching as well.”
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Fisher’s cameras have been rolling for a while now; his knack for finding powerful moments has been a lifetime in the making. “For as long as they can remember,” he says of his family, “I’ve been there with the camera.”
He often went to the movies with his grandmother as a young child, and recalls running up and down the aisles as a five-year-old, impatient for the film to start. In high school, Fisher’s love for the screen grew stronger, thanks in large part to his mother and grandmother letting him cut class on Fridays so he could make the hour-long trek to the nearest theater.
The son of two Holocaust survivors, Fisher grew to appreciate the power stories have to explain the struggles of one generation to the next, and he settled on film as his medium of choice. The urge to make documentaries, he says, came from his parents’ dedication to their communities, in particular his father’s loyalty to his fellow construction workers.
“The role of a documentary filmmaker is to bear civil responsibilities, starting with the neighborhood, or his family, or his city or town or his country — all of these were really important for me,” Fisher now says. “I felt like I had a role,” one that combined his appreciation for the screen and for the power of stories with a sense of duty.
Fisher’s first film, “Mr. X,” was about Israeli secret agent Avrum Agam. Since then, the prolific director’s 13 films have arced from documentaries about the Israeli-Arab divide and Israeli history towards more personal material, including the three films about his family. Yet Fisher says the same drive underlies all his work: the desire “to research and investigate issues which others will not put their hands on, and really to shed light on hidden corners of our society.”
Perhaps the hinge of Fisher’s career was his film “Buried Alive.” Coming on the heels of a series of historical and political films, “Buried Alive” inaugurated Fisher’s style of using a single subject to implicitly take on a larger issue. In the film, an Israeli woman whose husband disappeared 20 years prior is prevented, under religious law, from seeking a divorce.
Fisher sets out after the truth of the man’s disappearance, and uncovers two contradictory stories: a court tells Fisher that the man has fled Israel after accusations of working for the anti-Israel Arab Front, but the missing husband’s friends and lawyers all claim that he was in fact working abroad for the Mossad, the Israeli special forces. Fisher couldn’t find an answer, and the film closes without resolution.
After the final product was released, Fisher recalls, he got a call from an ex-Mossad agent who gave him a lead — where to go in Amsterdam to find information. That turned out to be all he needed to confirm that the woman’s missing husband had indeed been working for the Mossad. Fisher returned to Israel, where his discovery helped the woman secure a divorce.
A story like that, Fisher believes, exemplifies the power of a documentary to reveal a problem and catalyze a solution — “to help even one single soul have a peaceful night.”
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But truth-telling alone isn’t enough: Fisher demands a certain artistry from documentaries. The director of a documentary, he says, bears as much responsibility as the director of a fiction.
“You have to have your fingerprints in whatever piece of art you’re making.” Fisher says. “[A documentary] has to do with filmmaking. It has to do with image, sound, and the richness of different ways to tell a story. It is another milestone in the history of art, not just a reflection of reality. But when it does them both, importance and artistic form, it is at its best.”
It’s Fisher’s ability to leave fingerprints on his work, to create scenes rather than simply observe them, that sets him apart. Much of the warm response to “6 Million and One” centers on Fisher’s ability to tell a story as he thinks it should be told, to inflect the on-screen happenings with levity even in dark situations.
Tolstoy, his TA, points to Fisher’s meticulous attention to detail. “A lot of things are more intentional than you think they are,” he says. In other words, the image we get from Fisher has more fingerprints on it than we might think.
Those in his class say Fisher’s philosophy comes across in his teaching. He’s known to devote twenty or thirty minute chunks of his three-hour seminar to a single student at a time, while the others look on.
Fisher “pushes you farther into your subject and makes you think about it on a deeper level,” says Camille Chambers ’14, a senior in the class. “He makes you think harder than you would have on your own.”
Fisher asks questions that students wouldn’t know to ask, sometimes so relentlessly that his questioning verges on “interrogation,” according to Tolstoy, but in doing so he prods students to take new ownership of their films. The hope, Fisher says, is that his interrogations will help students understand the nature of a documentary director’s work.
“Bottom line, making a documentary is creating a world. It’s not there naturally for you to take, to pick,” he explains. “It’s for you to choose, to select, to work for and to promote out of your best understanding of the world. If you understand that it has to be directed, then you understand your role as a filmmaker.”
As Fisher encourages students to critique their own work, he offers his own advice picked up over years making documentaries. The more practical bent to the class stands out to those who come in contact with it: Fisher works with students on how to conduct interviews and how set up the opening minutes of a film.
Charles Musser, who usually teaches the class but is on sabbatical this semester, says the ability to give that kind of advice is why “it’s important that active filmmakers be teaching filmmaking,” especially in a class where “the overwhelming number” of students are working on documentaries as seniors projects and plan on going into film or a related field.
“The teacher of this class acts as an executive producer” for students’ films, Musser elaborates, helping focus and foster creativity.
That role is one in which Fisher has experience. In 2008, Fisher concluded a nine-year tenure as head of the New Israeli Foundation for Cinema and Television, an organization promotes documentary and other filmmaking in Israel. As director of the foundation, Fisher was involved in the production of critically acclaimed films like “Waltz With Bashir,” an animated documentary about the 1982 Lebanon war. He also helped establish the Greenhouse project, a then-controversial but now successful effort to bring together young Arab and Israeli filmmakers.
Fisher says it’s important for established figures like himself to help others break in to the imposing insider’s circle of the film industry.
It feels “like a closed club, something that you will not be able to penetrate,” Fisher explains. “I wanted to make sure when I was the head of the Foundation that every young filmmaker has an equal opportunity to take part.”
That drive to open up the “closed club” is another unique aspect of his class at Yale. He’s made students practice their pitches and has spent time on how specifically to deal with the National Endowment for the Humanities, from whom he won a grant in 2012. Fisher has also leveraged his industry connections to his students’ benefit, bringing in notable filmmakers like Alan Berliner — “an artist in soul,” Fisher says — and Lois Vossen, the producer of PBS’s “Independent Lens,” a series featuring independent documentaries. Vossen will guest teach a seminar on how to break into the industry on February 7th.
But no matter how many luminaries Fisher brings to class, and no matter how much guidance Fisher provides, he maintains that the fate of students’ films lies in their own hands.
“Most of your submissions will be rejected,” he says, “but you have to fight for your place. You have to have your own way to tell stories. One who doesn’t have long, white nights where he finds himself at four, five, or six AM finishing an edit shift, will not make films. It’s not for people who think, ‘it will be made anyhow.’ You must fight for your film.”