Danae Elon reunites long-lost siblings in her emotionally charged new film

We spoke to the documentary filmmaker about A Sister’s Song.

A Sister’s Song

Tatiana and Marina were born in Russia and emigrated to Israel in their early teens. A few years later, Tatiana joined a convent in Greece and changed her name to Sister Jerusalem. Since then, contact has been sporadic. Marina is now the single mother of a nine-year-old boy, and she speaks to her sister very rarely – if ever. On their last call, Marina senses that something is wrong, that her sister’s attitude seems to have changed, even within the confines of her very restrictive lifestyle. Marina decides to travel to Greece and meet with Tatiana in order to get a clearer picture of the situation.

Danae Elon’s A Sister’s Song is a highly personal and emotionally charged affair that focuses almost entirely on the relationship between the two sisters. Whereas a more conventional documentary may have tried to trace a fuller portrait of the monastery and of the shadowy figure of the head priest, Elon keeps her camera pointed to the sisters. Elon credits its personal nature and razor-sharp focus to an existing proximity to the people she depicts in the film.

“I was making a film in this monastery prior to that,” says Elon. “Regardless, I feel like the approach was a very intimate one. The years of relationship and trust that I had with the characters involved enabled me to really explore. The documentary tries to do something else with the camera where you’re not really running after the story, but the story is happening with your presence and the camera’s presence.”

I ask Elon if she thinks the events in the film would have happened without her “intervention.”

“No, but I think it could’ve happened if she had gone to visit her sister,” she says. “I was trying to tell a story that wasn’t this kind of catharsis that happens. I wasn’t trying to build a three-act structure within the narrative of the film but rather explore what non-verbal communication could be like and the emotional side of the interaction between the characters. We were kind of creating a documentary performance by intimately knowing the story.

“As a filmmaker and as a woman filmmaker, I often feel that the way we perceive reality is so complex and understated and in so many ways, not communicating in verbal language but visual language that can work on so many planes,” she continues. “The fact that I was the camera in the film and that I was almost a sort of third character that never appears really creates a tension between the two of them and also, I feel, an ability to tell a story in a different way. Maybe your body is telling a story by the way you’re looking at the people you’re filming or interacting with them in a very visceral kind of way. I knew the story – the story was very clear to me, and I didn’t think much was going to change, but what I did try to explore was really the soul or the veins or the blood running through these women’s personalities and experiences. I also had to admit that there are questions I was not able to answer, but that wasn’t the scope or the desire of the documentary.”

Danae Elon

With a set-up like that, audiences have been trained to expect some kind of revelation. In 2018, it seems more likely we’d get a 10-part podcast uncovering the secrets of this convent rather than the more emotional and less tangible story that Elon has delivered. It’s a film that deliberately avoids the very idea of resolution.

“I’m tired of films that try to resolve!” says Elon. “I understand that entertainment comes with resolution, but to me it’s never really a resolution. It’s just a resolution that pleases an audience. I didn’t want to be in the business of pleasing, or of trying to resolve, rather. I wanted to leave things in their complexity and their unspoken mystery, in a way. I find that we experience fiction films so often with mystery that when we experience a documentary, we don’t allow that mystery to evolve. That’s what intrigued me and fascinated me in trying to make this story. It was very clear to me that answering any of these questions that arise in the film, like why this was happening to her or why she became a nun, would just become a banal answer to satisfy just one facet of what was going on. To me, this is a more explorative way of understanding documentary – and somewhat more exciting as a filmmaker.”

You can sort of see the traces of the movie A Sister’s Song isn’t even within the movie that it is. The head priest (who is often mentioned but never seen) has an ominous presence throughout, for example.

“Yes, but where does that leave us?” says Elon. “Does that leave us with a deeper understanding? I’m not sure. It just leaves us with a neat feeling when exiting the theatre. But I think that life is a lot more complex and a lot more unexpected and it keeps on evolving. If I have to be true to my attempt to understand something truthful, I also have to be truthful to exploring and experiencing stories that don’t have a resolution that is a traditional one.” ■

A Sister’s Song opens in theatres on Friday, Nov. 30. Watch the trailer here: