By David Llewellyn
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9th September 2019

Interview: Sarah Smith

'Black Hat' tells the story of a single, eventful night in the life of Shmuel, a Hasidic Jewish man living in Los Angeles. The Iris Blogger talked to its director (and Iris Prize alumni), Sarah Smith about the film.

There are picture descriptions for the visually impaired at the end of this post.

Iris Blogger:        Black Hat is set within LA’s Hasidic community. Was it a community that either you or the writer, Phillip Guttmann, had first-hand experience of?

Sarah Smith:      Phillip interned as a social worker at an organization in Brooklyn called Footsteps that assists Hasidic or Orthodox people who are questioning or wanting to transition into the secular world. Through his therapeutic work he met a lot of people like our main character Shmuel. Phillip is also Jewish and queer, so this story has a lot of resonance for him and one that he felt important to tell. I was honoured that he trusted me to help him tell it.

Adam Silver as Shmuel

Iris Blogger:        The film has characters speaking Yiddish, the opening and closing scenes seem to have been filmed in a real-life schul (synagogue), and it’s book-ended by scenes featuring a cantor. Did you work closely with the community to create that authenticity?

Sarah Smith:      We didn’t work directly with the Orthodox community, but both Phillip and our producer, Yaniv Rokah, are Jewish and very familiar with it. Phillip also brought in a Hasidic cultural consultant, Chaim Levin, who was a great sounding board for the nuances of the Orthodox community. Yaniv brought in the cantor, Nicholas Hylander, who grew up Orthodox and was very influential on the film in many ways, but in particular on how we staged the prayers. And he was very specific with the accent he used in playing an American Hasidic cantor.

We shot at a conservative schul in Venice and they were very open to helping us tell our story. Hebrew and Yiddish are completely foreign to me, so I relied heavily on Phillip, Yaniv, and Nicholas to help create as authentic a world as possible. We were doing some ADR on set with Adam Silver (Shmuel) for some of the prayers in the film, and it was like a comedy stage play – getting everyone to agree on how the prayers should be said!

Iris Blogger:        Black Hat also feels like a very “L.A.” film. There’s a shot, early on, of a Hasidic man riding a scooter across a road lined with palm trees which has that kind of heightened, almost magic-realist quality you get in some films set in LA. How important was setting to the film?

Sarah Smith:      Oh thanks, that’s cool to hear, you’re never quite sure how these things will land. I worked in Midwood, Brooklyn for a time, and now live near the Fairfax district in Los Angeles. My experience with the community is pretty limited, it’s from seeing Orthodox people at a distance, mainly on the street, which I think is true of most people outside the Orthodox community. So I wanted to start the film with that perspective, and then bring the audience into that world in an intimate way. As far as setting the film in Los Angeles is concerned, it was important that the setting be authentic, but it was, ultimately, a choice of using what was around us. Sometimes you catch a little bit of magic, and we just got lucky with some of those shots.

Iris Blogger:        There’s very little dialogue in the film – many of its emotional beats are visual. Was there ever a temptation to give Shmuel more dialogue, or was that focus on visual storytelling already there in the script?

Jay (Sebastian Velmont) and Shmuel (Adam Silver)

Sarah Smith:      Phillip and I talked a lot about keeping the story between the lines, and letting the tension build from the actors in the scene. I think from the start, as a writer, Phillip was interested in telling a story in a minimalist way, and as a director I really wanted to explore the tools of the medium, such as shooting in 4:3 to underscore the character’s feeling of entrapment, in a way that I hadn’t yet as a director. And then ultimately, it’s Adam’s performance that the film rests on, there’s not a whole lot of fireworks in the film. But minimalism was definitely something Phillip and I were interested in exploring with this film.

Iris Blogger:        This is your third collaboration with Phillip and your second time on the Iris Prize shortlist, following D. Asian (which I loved, by the way) in 2015.

Sarah Smith:      Thank you so much! We are both super excited to be back at Iris Prize this year, it was certainly a highlight of our festival run with D.Asian. The programming is so stellar and to be in this company feels pretty awesome.

Iris Blogger: Will you and he be collaborating on further short films? Or would you like to make a feature?

Sarah Smith: We are working on some short film ideas currently, and a couple of feature film ideas as well, so hopefully we’ll be back!

 

Programme 5 | Faith and Freedom | Cineworld Screen 15 | Thur 10 Oct 12pm

Buy tickets for Programme 5 / Buy festival passes

Picture Descriptions

1 – Screenshot of the opening title: Black Hat, in large white letters. This are superimposed over a birds-eye-view shot of the steps outside a synagogue. Two Hasidic Jewish men are walking down the steps, wearing black suits and black wide-brimmed hats. It is early evening and their shadows are drawn out against the steps.

2 – Photograph of the film’s director, Sarah Smith, in black and white. She is outdoors, wearing a thick black jacket, and would appear to be at work, giving directions on a film location. She has shoulder-length dark hair.

3 – Shmuel, played by Adam Silver, is at prayer inside the synagogue. He is wearing a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, over his head, and the tefillin, two black leather boxes, on his forehead. Note: The tefillin contain scrolls featuring quotations from the Jewish holy text, the Torah.

4 – An Hasidic Jewish man rides a kick scooter across a Los Angeles avenue lined with palm trees. It is dusk, the shadows of the trees and parked cars stretching across the sunlit road.

5 –  Shmuel sits in a bar, talking to another man, who is smiling at him. Shmuel is wearing a woollen hat to hide his sidecurls, or ‘peyot’.

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