Fantastic Fest Interviews Movies

Fantastic Fest 2018: Talking with Emilio Schenker About “Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club”

Fantastic Fest is host to many great films and filmmakers and we’ve had a blast getting to speak with some of the filmmakers that are showing their films at the fest. Guilhad Emilio Schenker, pictured above, is the director and co-writer (with Yossi Meiri) of the Israeli fantasy/dark comedy “Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club.” The film already won two Ophir Awards – the Israeli Oscars – but it sounds like Fantastic Fest was another worthy highlight for Emilio, as he likes to be called, and his film.

Including the opening scene of the movie, there’s a lot of stuff that evokes witches. Since you like fantasy, I was wondering if you’d ever considered taking the story that far?

Emilio: To witches? The answer is yes. First of all, the Israeli cinema and literature is very, very realistic-oriented. But if you look at the Jewish stories that were told hundreds and thousands of years ago, there’s a lot of mystics in it. There is a story about the witches from Ashkenaz that inspired me when I started to write this film, and it’s a story about witches that eventually were hanged – we’re talking about a 2,000-year-old myth. I searched about it, I did the research about the Jewish witches, so yeah it was absolutely one of my inspirations. But they are modern witches!

Madam Yankelova | Photo Courtesy Transfax Film Productions

In terms of other research, did you do a lot of research into aging and beauty?

Emilio: I didn’t have to do a lot of research about aging and beauty. I have to tell you, I was born into a family in which I have two sisters, one mother, and one grandmother, who is now 97 years old by the way. I grew up in a very feminine atmosphere and I always preferred girlfriends to male friends. So because I grew up in a very feminine atmosphere, those subjects are always present. I didn’t have to do a lot of research about it.

By the way, my grandmother plays in the film – she is the head of the Sanitation Department, Babushka.

Was it a conscious decision not to show a lot of violence in the film?

Emilio: Yes, absolutely. I’m not a big fan of gory horror films. I don’t like so much violence. I also think that sometimes leaving the violence in the head of the viewers is much better than to show it. We decided to make a dark fairy tale for grown ups.

To be honest, I really wanted my mother to like the film. My short film was much more violent and my mother hated it – my mother, and my grandmother, and my two sisters hated the [short] film. Although the film was really successful – it won like 20 prizes, my short film I mean – they hated it. I really wanted to make a film that my mother would like, so I knew that if I wanted my mother to like my film, I need to put all the horror elements in the head of the viewer.

There is sort of a twist in the third act of the movie. Were all those connections something you had when beginning the movie?

Emilio: No. We really wanted to tell the story of the club. I’ll tell you the story was inspired by my muse, which is a good friend of mine, her name is Sigal. She once in a while invites me to have dinner at her house, and one day I came to her house and she usually makes me schnitzel and mashed potatoes and a salad. So we started eating and drinking and, in the middle of the schnitzel, I asked her, ‘so tell me what’s going on with this guy that you’re dating?’ And she looked at my plate and my fork, on which I was holding a piece of schnitzel close to my mouth, and while I was chewing my schnitzel, she said, ‘look at your plate – that’s where he is.’ And she gave me this look, that I thought she was telling the truth. By the way, I’m not sure that she was lying. And I choked on the schnitzel and in that moment I just knew I wanted to tell that story and that would be my next film, about her. By the way, since then, I’m not eating at her house anymore; we go to eat schnitzel in a restaurant.

Main characters Hannah (left) and Sophie | Photo Courtesy Transfax Film Productions

Was it hard to make the main characters, specifically Sophie, sympathetic?

Emilio: One of the biggest challenges in the script writing was ‘how do you make a serial killer your protagonist, someone that the audience will like and identify with?’ I think that was the most complex mission in the writing process, because in the beginning of the film you have to hate her as an audience. She is a serial killer! That’s what all the women do. I think that towards the end of the beginning of the film you start to like her and sympathize with her. Maybe in the beginning we think that all she wants is to kill men, but then you understand that what she really wants is love. I think that’s something that everybody can connect with.

Do you think that the success of your film is going to create a space in Israel for more fantasy films?

Emilio: I hope. I really hope. The Israeli cinema is really realistically-oriented and most of the films deal with three subjects, more or less: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, family dramas, and some minorities issues. For me, it’s really boring and, for me, I can’t stand those subjects anymore. I think that there is a small movement for filmmakers more or less my age that really want to break through the barrier of Israeli films and do more. I believe that the Israeli audience also deserves to float with their imagination to some fantasy.

I have to mention a film that won Fantastic Fest years ago, “Big Bad Wolves.” Two friends of mine had the first genre film made in Israel – it’s a horror film. Aharon Keshales, that was my teacher in school, and Navot Papushado is a friend of mine. They did the first horror film in Israeli cinema and they’re a big inspiration to me and good friends of mine. I really hope that it will open the minds of young filmmakers for them not to do the regular themes of Israeli cinema but to break through with other subjects.

Measure of a man | Photo Courtesy Fantastic Fest

What advice would you give to other filmmakers who want to do that?

Emilio: Be brave. Don’t accept no as an answer. Just follow your dreams because everything is possible. It was such a hard and long journey for us to make this film. We really had to fight for it with everybody, from the Israeli [Film] Fund and from the television. Eventually, I think that the film was really well accepted in Israel. It won two Ophir Awards, which is the Israeli Oscar – we were nominated for six. In the beginning, nobody thought that such a film could touch the Israeli Oscar audience, but it was a big success in the box office in Israel and, as I said, we got a very warm hug and welcome from the Israeli Academy Awards. It was a big surprise and a very positive surprise. It’s possible to do fantastic things: fantasy films, horror films, genre films.

What’s the most exciting thing for you about being here at Fantastic Fest?

Emilio: First of all, it’s a dream come true. I really wanted to be in this festival with a film. I heard so many great things about this festival and all of them are true, now that I’m here. I’ve been in a lot of film festivals with my short films, and nothing is like Fantastic Fest. It’s really the greatest film festival I’ve ever been to in my life. It’s such a fun experience and the team is really welcoming us very warmly and they treat us very good. We are very, very happy to be here. It’s a big honor for us to present our film here.

“Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club” played at Fantastic Fest on Saturday, September 22, at 11:00 AM and on Monday, September 24, at 2:20 PM.

Stay tuned for more Fantastic Fest 2018 coverage on Shuffle Online!

Featured image credit: Rick Kern

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