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Only Human interview

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2005-05-19

Only Human

Only Human

Having wowed audiences at film festivals all around the world including last year’s London Jewish Film Festival, the Spanish comedy Only Human finally arrives in UK cinemas on May 19.

Directed by husband and wife duo Dominic Harari and Teresa Pelegri, it follows the events that unfold when Jewish girl Leni brings her fiancé home to meet her family for the first time. However, the evening takes a turn for the worse when they discover he is actually Palestinian, and borders on the brink of disaster when he becomes convinced he has killed his future father-in-law by accidentally dropping a block of frozen soup on his head.

Harari, who is from London, and Spanish-born Pelegri have worked together on films before but Only Human is their directorial debut. Here, SJ's Caroline Westbrook talks to the pair about the film, the way in which it tackles Jewish/Palestinian relations, and how they handle working together as husband and wife.

When did you first come up with the story?
Dominic: It seems like ages but Teresa got pregnant at the beginning of 2001 and we decided we had nine months to write a script! We first came up with the family idea, we had the idea of doing a family like a form of masochism. It basically took us a year to write overall but I think that the idea of the soup falling out the window, it was always in the back of our minds, we thought it was a funny premise for a movie.
Teresa: Then we combined it with a family setting because we had so much material from our families, and then the Jewish Palestinian thing came on top because like everyone we were watching the news and getting very very depressed and hopeless, but we thought we mustn’t get hopeless. And comedy is always the way of seeing a way out of a situation so we decided to do that.

What’s been the response to the way in which you tackle the relationship between Jews and Palestinians?
Teresa: I think it’s been very positive and very welcome.
Dominic: It actually helped us, when we first gave the script to a producer that’s what they particularly liked, and that’s why all the actors wanted to be in it, so it generated interest. Now it is true that when it came out in Spain word was very positive, a couple of critics in Spain were narked by it but even they said it was brave even if it wasn’t the right thing to do. But other critics really liked the approach.

Did you base the characters on anyone in particular?
Dominic: Without naming names, the characters in the film are very much inspired by people we know, and others are a blend of people we know.
Teresa: And of course with comedy you always take them to the extreme so when these people see themselves on screen you never recognise themselves anyway.

How do you find filming in Spanish – are you fluent?
Dominic: I am fluent – I could do it without Teresa but the results would be horrendous, I think it’s very good to have a native speaker of the language for any film you’re doing, but it’s not a problem. By the time we’re shooting, I’m so familiar with the script, I know the film and its subject by heart, so if she goes to the toilet I can cope alone. We very much do everything together so it’s actually not an issue, it’s like when we’re here in England it’s always together.

Why did you decide to set it in Spain rather than London?
Dominic: It was originally going to be set here but the producer said ‘listen. We’re Spanish, we can’t afford to set it in London we’ll produce you in Spain’. And thinking about it we realised there was one nice thing about it which was that kind of thing had ever been done before. No Jewish family has ever been portrayed in Spain before, and it ‘s such a universal story it could have been set anywhere. So the combination of that and the fact these producers wouldn’t have produced it in London pushed us to make it in Spain.

What is the Jewish community like in Spain?
Dominic: It’s different because it’s very small, and that’s good because it means you all congregate in the same places which means you virtually know the whole community. There’s also much more communication and communal activities between the branches. The Jewish school, for example, has the whole gamut of Judaism in the school because there’s only one.
Teresa: But it is still a little guarded as you have older families who have been there for a long time. There’s the aristocracy, let’s say, and then you have the newcomers from Argentina. The Argentinian crisis brought a lot of people over, so the Jewish schools had waiting lists and rejected children for the first time.
Dominic: The other thing is it keeps a lower profile than Jewish communities in other places. Sometimes it’s a bit shy to admit it exists, especially with the recent attack.
Teresa: A lot of Spanish people aren’t even aware there are Jews in Spain.
Dominic: A lot of people think they all left in 1492. But some families have been around for centuries.

As a husband and wife team, how do you share the workload?
Teresa: I think it makes for a more pleasant situation than working alone, and we say that sometimes we have better ideas between the two of us, we have better ideas by pushing each other.
Dominic: If you’re on your own you say something is good enough but with two people you’re always pushing each other. But not everyone can collaborate, some people hate it, you talk to them and they just want to be alone. It also depends what kind of director you are I guess. Oh, we have a no ego rule, but we develop a mutual ego.
Teresa: We consult everything right down to the tiniest detail.
Dominic: And we do everything together. We split up being a spokesman, we decide what we want to say then we rush off to tell different people and that’s
an advantage because it makes things quicker.
Teresa: And it makes for an advantage because the actors don’t have two people telling them what to do. They have one person basically.

How do you fit everything in?
Dominic: By not doing a Woody Allen and doing a film every nine months. It does mean we take more time.
Teresa: There are many occasions when we choose life over being workaholics, otherwise it would be impossible.
Dominic: We also work sometimes as screenwriters just for other directors which you can do. You couldn’t be a back to back director with a kid, that would be crazy. But every two years or so is something we can do. On Only Human we insisted on a nine-hour day.

How did you get into this?
Teresa: I started young, and worked through college, then shot my first short film and applied to go to Columbia University as a grad student and that’s where I met Dominic. Basically I was burnt out at 19.
Dominic: Film was always something you don’t do for a living, but my father worked for Kodak and always used to make home movies. My degree is actually in chemical engineering but I carried on at university making movies for fun. I think it helped that chemical engineering is a very boring profession! When it came to finding a job I suddenly thought well maybe it would be nice to do this for a living, and I applied for a Fulbright scholarship to go to film school, didn’t get it, worked in TV for two years making documentaries, then I re-applied and got in. But for a long time I didn’t realise people made a living from making films. I think that’s true of our generation.

What are your backgrounds?
Dominic: My family are Egyptian Jews, the family joke is that when Moses left they were asleep and didn’t leave, but I have a grandfather from Iraq who went to Calcutta. Basically we’re from that area but for the past couple of generations – my grandparents were in Cairo and then in the 1950s we dispersed. My parents were going to leave anyway for university but my grandparents left because of Suez, and now we’re dispersed all over the globe. I was born in Kenton and at one year old we moved to Chiswick, so by birth I’m a North Londoner but I’m a West Londoner at heart. We went to Kent House shul, but I think there is one nearer. My upbringing was reform.
Teresa: I’m actually Spanish Catholic and I converted to Judaism. My family weren’t practising, although I went to convent school. Met Dominic in New York and I got into the Jewish thing, looked in to it, got a job in a synagogue, and converted there.
Dominic: Within Spain, Teresa represents the whole of Spain as she’s half Catalan, a quarter Castilian and a quarter Basque.
Teresa: My family is a bit like that though as my brother is a Buddhist and my sister is an agnostic.

What are you guys doing next?
Dominic: We’re writing for a guy we work with in Spain and meanwhile we’re going to write our next project as directors, which we’re not going to say anything about! It isn’t a Jewish theme but it will have a Jewish character. Actually we won’t even say the theme but it’s very close to the hearts of Jews, or should I say stomachs.