Review: I Am Not
- A rare case of a film that is both intimate and structurally complex, Tomer Heymann's Docaviv prizewinner is a heartfelt documentary about an extraordinary young man
Israeli director Tomer Heymann has a real talent to shape real-life stories into documentaries that are warm and touching, yet psychologically piercing and insightful – even when dealing with wild subject matter and characters like the ones in his previous film, Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life [+see also:
film profile]. In his latest outing, I Am Not [+see also:
interview: Tomer Heymann
film profile], which world-premiered at Docaviv and received the Best Director and Best Cinematography Awards (see the news), he creates his most complex and intimate film to date.
The main protagonist is 19-year-old Oren Levy, a boy born in Guatemala and adopted when he was just four months old by Israeli parents, Dvora and Ehud. His younger sister, Michal, was also adopted from the Latin American country. When, early on, Oren's parents realised he had developmental problems, they took him to a slew of doctors who, one after the other, misdiagnosed him – with cerebral epilepsy, dyslexia, psychosis, bulimia... Until they eventually settled on Asperger syndrome, which can serve as a pointer but by no means tells the whole story. Knowing that this disorder manifests itself through social and communication difficulties, a viewer can certainly recognise this in the young man's behaviour when he’s around his parents. He is impatient, impulsive and prone to outbursts, which often ramps up the tension at home.
Oren hates his boarding school for children with intellectual disabilities, but has discovered an outlet that he says magically takes him away from the challenges of the institution: a camera. So in addition to footage filmed by Heymann's camera operators, led by DoP Itai Raziel, we get to see the way Oren perceives the world. His filming is instinctive: he shoots details that catch his eye, like a dog or a cat running in the street, or a shy girl at a green-market stand, but he also has a penchant for strong images, such as a dead bird on the asphalt or a ripped-up teddy bear sitting alone on a parapet.
The most poignant level of the film is built through old home videos shot by Ehud, which are used as a background for the parents' recollections and testimonies about the hero's childhood and the difficulties of raising him. But their patience and love are unconditional and endless, meaning that Oren and Michal have a stronger support system than most kids. Extended segments with the siblings as young children really hammer home this impression.
In his need to understand himself, Oren gets the urge to meet his biological parents. So, halfway through the film, the whole family goes to Guatemala. There is little suspense about tracking down Oren's and Michal's respective parents, as they have files from their adoption with names and addresses, and they hire a local journalist who helps them connect. But how this part of the story develops would be a pity to spoil: suffice it to say that it poses relevant and intriguing questions about the nature of documentary filmmaking, and that Oren's aversion to being touched physically will definitely be challenged among the emotional, temperamental Guatemalans.
Reteaming with Matan Daskal after Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life, Heymann further accents the intimacy of the story through the musical score, where the main, acoustic guitar-driven theme is based on the truly lovely lyrics that Oren came up with when he was eight. The doc's structural complexity reflects society's inability to recognise people with neurodivergent personalities in their own right, instead constantly insisting on pigeonholing them. But more than anything, this is a heartfelt portrait of an extraordinary individual, created through what is clearly a real, human connection between the director and the protagonists.
I Am Not was produced by Israel's Heymann Brothers Films.
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