Giving and Loving: Daniel Burman’s ‘The Tenth Man’ mines humor from a real-life charity

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In the mesmerizingly soulful romantic comedy The Tenth Man, director Daniel Burman, like his protagonist Ariel, returns to his roots in the Once District of Buenos Aires. Ariel had come from New York to introduce his girlfriend to his father, Usher, but nothing has gone as planned. Instead, Usher puts Ariel to work in his charity, the Usher Foundation, which feeds and clothes impoverished Jews. Somewhere along the way, Ariel finds exactly what he never knew he was looking for. As wondrous as it is, The Tenth Manis made even more beautiful by the fact that Usher and his foundation are real, and the actors playing the impoverished Jews are the men and women Usher feeds and clothes every day. Burman recently met with Director Talk.

Director Talk: Tell me about the relationship between the film and the real-life Usher and his foundation.

Daniel BurmanThe relationship is very close. Usher actually exists, the foundation actually exists, the women who work there exist. The people who benefit from the foundation exist, and they’re in the film—they’re the ones asking for the food and the drugs.

DT: What difficulties did you have fictionalizing a real-life charity?

DB: Fictionalizing a real-life situation is not a very complicated thing to do, but the complicated thing is the moral dilemma of fictionalizing a reality based on need—the fact that the people I portray are real people who were there the day before trying to get food because they don’t have it. Then I’m using that to construct a fiction, which is always going to be more banal than the reality it’s based upon.

We tried to do it in the best way. The people got paid for their work in the film, and the foundation actually grew as a result of the film, but it nonetheless continues to be a dilemma. But every fiction has a banal aspect to it, especially in relation to reality. No matter what the quality or the character of the fiction, reality will destroy the fiction. In fact, we use fiction to escape reality, so there’s always an element of banality in relation to it.

DT: At the same time, there’s a very documentary feel to the film.

DB: This particular project required this kind of approach—using documentary, but also creating a fiction that would alter reality in the most minimum way. It was less an aesthetic matter than an actual moral problem. The imprint of the whole apparatus of the film had to be as small and as light as possible precisely because we were mining this material that was so sensitive because it was people in need. So the shift to documentary had more to do with a moral reason than a formal reason.

DT: It seems as if Usher made a huge impression on you.

DB: When people approach me and say, “You have to make a movie about this particular person,” I always reject it. I hate the idea that people have a type of personality that justifies making a film. But when I met Usher—who in fact detested the idea and rejected the idea of a film being made about him—I thought, “This time I have to make a film about this person.” In this case, I thought it was totally justified so the world will know about Usher, even though he himself didn’t want anything to do with a film being made about him. In fact, it’s even more interesting than that. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the idea of a film about him; it was completely irrelevant to his reality. He couldn’t care less, and I thought that was very attractive. We keep thinking that film is such an important thing, when in fact it’s really nothing in comparison.

DT: So how did you convince him?

DB: I don’t know. He convinced himself, but it wasn’t even that. He never gave it enough importance. It just happened. In a gray area in which he exists and which is not a no or a yes, things just happen. And the film in this way just happened. He never said yes and he never said no.

DT: How did you meet him?

DB: I met him through 18-j, a documentary I was making about a group of Jewish men that traveled to Poland, Russia and the Ukraine to look for the tombs of tzadikkim [righteous men].

DT: In an interview with the Times of Israel,you said you were tired of making films and needed to return to your childhood to find the tools to carry on. What tools did you find?

DB: They’re not tools that have a name but are elements from childhood that one has forgotten and needs to reconnect with, like a certain childhood enthusiasm that one loses throughout life as one grows, a certain curiosity for living and a lack of awareness of the losses that you incur throughout life. You become so aware of that when you’re older, but when you’re still a child you’re unaware of the fact that you lose people and things. It was this actual condition and this state of being that you only have in your childhood that I wanted to have access to, because as we grow older we actually lose all this. This lack of an awareness of how life is finite and full of loss is something you only have in your childhood. When men turn fifty, they tend to look for that lack of awareness and that state in younger women, but you have to go much further back and earlier in life than that to actually find that forgetfulness, that state of not being aware of loss and time passing. I’d rather go back to my childhood than to a younger woman to find that state.

DT: Is that what happened in the film? Did Ariel find that state of grace at the end?

DB: Yes, exactly. There is something of this. But he also found a younger woman…well, not that much younger.

DT: Aside from all the craziness and zaniness in the film, there’s also a beautiful feeling of the protection that religion can give: spiritual protection, and being protected within the community. And one of the funniest bits I’ve ever seen: Eva revealing to Ariel that she had sex in the mikvah [ritual bath] but thought she wouldn’t get pregnant because the mikvahwas going to protect her. Humor aside, did you find that protectiveness within the real Usher Foundation?

DB: You’re right—religion is one way to feel protected against life, and I deeply respect that way. It’s like a paradox, because without life nothing exists, but life hurts us also. It’s so hard to live. Religion is like this—a shield to feel the pain of life less.

The Tenth Man opens on August 5 in New York, Los Angeles and Encino, with a national rollout to follow by Kino Lorber. Click here for local listings and trailer. Thanks to Emma Griffiths, Emma Griffiths PR, and the Tribeca Film Festival for arranging this interview. This article is published here courtesy of Director Talk: http://earthwize.org/wordpress/directortalk. Copyright © Director Talk 2016.