Daniel Burman on His Engaging Argentine Jewish Comedy “The Tenth Man”

Ariel (Alan Sabbagh) and Eva (Julieta Zylberberg) in "The Tenth Man."
Ariel (Alan Sabbagh) and Eva (Julieta Zylberberg) in "The Tenth Man."
Ariel (Alan Sabbagh) and Eva (Julieta Zylberberg) in “The Tenth Man.”

By Danny Peary

“The Tenth Man” fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. Meanwhile, this whimsical, disarming, slice-of life comedy by esteemed Argentine writer-director Daniel Burman opens this Friday in New York at Cinema Village and Lincoln Plaza. It is Burman’s eleventh feature, titled “El rey del Once” in his native country, and fourth with a lead character named Ariel, following “Waiting for the Messiah (2000),” “Lost Embrace (2004),” and “Family Law (2006).” In those three Buenos Aires-set films, the Jewish protagonist was played by Uruguayan actor Daniel Handler, but this time the older Ariel is portrayed by Argentine Alan Sabbagh, and his terrific performance earned him the Best Actor Award at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

The premise, from the press notes: “Ariel has left his past behind. After growing up in the close-knit Jewish community of Buenos Aires [El Once], he has built a new and to all appearances successful metropolitan life as an economist in New York. He [is summoned] back to his native city to [rendezvous with] his distant father Usher [voiced by an acquaintance of Burman’s named Usher], but for days they miss one another as Usher continues to issue instructions to Ariel for a plethora of [unusual] errands.. Usher’s life’s mission [which is the same as the real Usher’s], often to the detriment of his family, [has been] the running of a Jewish aid foundation in El Once….What ensues is a comedy of errors, of missed and found people and connections…and Ariel is drawn back into the community….After a few days…he meets Eva [the striking Julieta Zylberberg], a [seemingly] mute, intriguing woman who works at the foundation.” BTW: The title refers to the tenth man needed to complete a minyan for a Jewish funeral service.
I had the good fortune to meet the personable Daniel Burman in April during the TFF and, through an interpreter, do this brief interview.

Daniel Burman. Photo by Danny Peary.
Daniel Burman. Photo by Danny Peary.

Danny Peary: I recently saw Pablo Trapero’s The Clan, a political-crime film from Argentina.. First question: Is there a film community in Argentina and do all the filmmakers know each other?
Daniel Burman: Yes, there is, and I have known him for twenty years.
DP: Second question: Are your two completely different movies considered parts of genres, or are they both considered unique?
DB: They’re not true genre films but in Argentina Trapero and I, as well as other filmmakers, are recognized for having our own particular styles. You can tell The Tenth Man is a Burman movie and The Clan is a Trapero movie. The majority of filmmakers have their particular styles and their movies are seen mostly as auteur works. The concept of auteur still exists in Argentina, even a film is of a specific genre, like Trapero’s.
DP: Here in the United States when Woody Allen started making his movies, there were a lot of copycats and people trying to imitate him. Did the same thing happen to you?
DB: No, not at all. Woody Allen is worth imitating.
DP: Did you ever watch François Truffaut’s “Antoine Doinel” movies, with Jean-Pierre Léaud playing a recurring character? And were they an influence?
DB: Yes, of course. I love those films and I especially love how the characters fly above the story and aren’t buried in the story. In a sense they kind of lean their feet on the surface of the film, like birds. In general, I reject intensity in all aspects of life and in films as well. I like lightness. I think you can actually access a deeper place in a story through lightness.

TenthManposterDP: I read that you wanted to work with Alan Sabbagh for a long time. You cast him as Ariel, which is the first name Uruguayan actor Daniel Hendler had in three earlier films. Do you think Sabbagh is playing the same Ariel that Hendler played? DB: I don’t know myself. There may be something that has been transformed but it has also to do with a generational break. It’s maybe the same character but now he doesn’t agree with what he did in the first part of his life, in the same way that happens in real life as people get older.
DP: Could you have made this same film when you were ten years younger?
DB: No. It’s important to have died a little bit to understand certain things.
DP: So it’s a more mature film than you would have made earlier in life?
DB: Definitely.
DP: Watching this movie, as Ariel keeps schlepping his suitcase up and down the street, I thought maybe that’s exactly like you. Do you have that experience?
DB (laughing): I use that suitcase. It’s mine!
DP: In one of the Ariel films he wanted to go to Poland. But in this film, Ariel fled Argentina– specifically the old Jewish quarter of Buenos Aires–and went to live in New York City. Tell me why he went there.
DB: I wanted him to go to a place that was the exact opposite of Once and a place like New York, with all its straight lines and its symmetry, seemed exactly the opposite. It’s a city where everybody has a specific place–the Chinese neighborhood, the Korean neighborhood–everybody is contained within a space. Whereas in Once, in Buenos Aires, everything is mixed up and life is much more chaotic. I was just running late on my way here to talk to you and I was walking straight through a traffic light as if there weren’t any cars. People were just staring at me because I was walking in a straight line. When would you do that in Buenos Aires? My rational was, “Why would a traffic light be important there, if there are no cars?” That kind of thinking symbolizes the big difference between Buenos Aires and New York.
DP: When Ariel left Argentina was it spontaneous or did he plan it for a long time?
DB: He left escaping his father, Usher. I think he did it abruptly. He was escaping his childhood and like every escape from childhood, you leave some traces along the path. So, you always have to go back. You can no longer move forward at a certain point if you can’t go back and pick up those pieces. That’s what Ariel does when he returns to Once at the request of Usher. He basically goes back in order to move forward but he decides to stay.
DP: When he was in New York, did he go to synagogue?
DB (laughing): No, I don’t believe so.
DP: Did he resist going?
DB: He didn’t resist because that would mean it is still with him. He had actually left it behind. He abandoned it. He decided to deny his religion. Denial is the most extreme act when establishing a distance from childhood but it takes up so much energy that you can do it only for so long. That’s why mothers are so exhausted after a while because they spend their lives trying to deny the fact that time is going by and that their kids are growing up. Denial requires a lot of energy, so he got burned out and that’s why he went back. .
DP: Usher isn’t around but talks to Ariel on the phone. He seems to be orchestrating and manipulating his son in major ways. For instance, is his goal for his son to come back and meet and be with Eve?
DB: It is part of a plan but it’s not a Machiavellian plan. It’s kind of a natural plan. Usher’s making destiny move toward this particular place. He’s giving it a very soft push toward that place.
DP: As a chess master, is he overseeing the pieces from a distance?
DB: Exactly. He’s pushing his kid towards that destiny.
DP: What do you see for them in the future as father and son. Does the film resolve their issues?
DB: I think the son actually abandons the father again but neither of them really cares. It’s a happy abandonment but more than an abandonment because it’s also a happy farewell.
DP: Is it a happy farewell for Usher because he knows Ariel is going to be taken care of by Eva?
DB: That’s a way of looking at it– the part about Eva–but I think the kid is going to know how to take care of himself.
DP: He’s grown up. He’s become an adult.
DB: Your kid’s an adult, he’s a grown up – he can do whatever he wants. He can smoke pot…
DP: I can obviously see why Ariel is attracted to Eva, she’s beautiful. Why is she attracted to him?
DB: I was very interested in this idea of two characters that come from completely different places in life but at some point have their paths intersect. Something happens where they each can provide the other one with tools that one of them doesn’t need anymore but the other does. They exchange certain tools that are necessary for the other in life. Be it belief or faith in a certain religion or a certain naivety. Whatever the reason. So this exchange happens and you can call it love, but at a certain point it will exhaust and then each one will have to find a new path in life.
DP: And where’s the religious connection between them? You’re setting this film at Purim and I think he’s all of a sudden found religion again. Is this a theme you’re conveying through her?
DB: Religion isn’t too important for him in the film. It could have been Purim but it could have been something else. It’s not the religion itself that is important but how it serves the characters and helps them in a particular moment–or not. It’s a box of resonance, of sounds. I use the example of a box of sounds and resonance. This box or the religion–this theme–actually determines the tone, color and way they interact but it’s not important itself. . It’s actually a box of contents, not that the individual contents.
DP: How do you like being at the Tribeca Film Festival this year?
DB: I adore being in this festival. I was here before with another film and it has a size that’s actually similar to this idea of a box of resonance. It sounds nice and it feels good.