It was a Friday night in Tel Aviv and the city was celebrating Purim, a week-long Jewish holiday described by some as part Mardi Gras and part Halloween. Thirty-two-year-old aspiring filmmaker Tomer Shushan had reason to be excited. He was working on a brand-new Netflix series that was shooting in Israel. He had been hired as the Israeli assistant to the U.S.-based production designer and art director, both of whom were already in the country. That March night, the three of them were walking the streets, taking in the celebrations. But Shushan had an even bigger reason to be excited. The short film he wrote and directed, White Eye, would be premiering at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas the following week. Shushan’s plane ticket was booked and he had secured a place to stay. Who knew what life-changing career opportunities lay ahead?
Then, amidst a crowd of revelers, one of his new bosses received a text from his wife back home. He showed it to Shushan: SXSW had been canceled due to COVID-19.
“I couldn’t speak, I just walked straight for 20 minutes like a zombie,” said Shushan to Casting Networks. “I thought maybe it was fake news or just a false rumor that was being spread on the internet. I thought maybe I did something wrong. My mind was like, ‘Why is this happening?’”
As we now know, just about every gathering around the world would be canceled due to the coronavirus crisis, leading to an unprecedented industry shutdown. Shushan is one of the millions of artists whose work is now on hold indefinitely as the world grapples with a matter of life or death.
As he watched events unfold in real-time over the news, Shushan could not help but see similarities between some panicked people’s behaviors during the pandemic, and those of his lead character in White Eye.
White Eye is the story of a young man who is trying to recover his stolen bicycle. When he calls the police on the current bike’s owner, it opens up a can of worms in a way that he never bargained for.
The film is based on Shushan’s personal experience two years earlier when his own bike was stolen. He tells Casting Networks he is not proud of how he handled the situation.
“I only saw the item that belonged to me. I could not see the human being standing in front of me, trying to tell me his story. I wish I would have handled it differently. I wish I had taken a moment to breathe, to listen. I didn’t need to bring the police over. It just messed everything up.”
This singular vision of wanting something so badly was not unlike the media footage he saw of humans in supermarkets, hoarding products and fighting over toilet paper. Yet Shushan is the first to admit that he understands that escalating behavior.
“Those people panic-buying in the stores, they cannot see others around them. The object of desire is their only focus. There is no ability to take a step back and see the situation from a wider angle. I know exactly what that’s like, because I did that with my stolen bike. It’s scary that when you’re in a panic, your natural animal instinct can be very mean and very egoistic.”
To recreate that same feeling for a moviegoing audience, Shushan shot the 20-minute film in one continuous take. This way, viewers have no time to pause for critical thinking, which mimics his own headspace at the time of the incident. “You’re not even able to pay attention to anything else around you because it’s all happening so fast,” he said.
Working with a budget in the $15 to $20 thousand range, Shushan spent seven months rehearsing with his actors on blocking and line reading. Then, he had one night to shoot the entire short.
“I told the actors, if your lines are not exactly as the script, it’s okay. If you mumble or need to take a moment to think, it’s okay. That’s real life.”
Over the course of that evening, Shushan shot six full takes. In the end, choosing the take that would comprise the actual film came down to one criteria: “I chose the take with the best energy,” he said.
While Shushan wishes that he’d had the ability to see the bigger picture when trying to recover his bicycle, he applied the lesson learned to the SXSW festival’s cancellation and his own disappointment of not being able to showcase White Eye on an international stage.
“The news of the cancellation was a horrible moment for me,” he said. “But it pushes you to go: So now what? It’s not going to stop me from doing what I love to do. This situation is drive for me to make more movies. I will get into that festival again, with another film, on another year.”
However, after the date of this interview, Shushan did get that positive career news after all; his film won SXSW Film Festival’s Short Film Grand Jury Award in the Narrative Short Category.