We spoke to director Omer Ben-Shahar about his empowering and uplifting short Tree #3 which tells the story of a young immigrant boy Itai as he tries to settle into life in America and pursue his dreams of acting. The director discusses the inspiration for the short, exploring the impact of immigration and what he hopes audiences will take away. The short has already picked up multiple awards including a Student Academy Award, the Grand Jury Prize for Best Young Creator at UrbanWorld Film Festival and Best Student Film at Hollyshorts Film Festival.
You’ve spoken before about how this story is very close to home for you, would it be safe to suggest that it is almost a biography of your life when you immigrated to America?
Tree #3 is very much a personal story. It’s based on my experience growing up in Texas as a newly immigrated boy. To me, America always meant Broadway. When we arrived, I couldn’t wait to audition for my school’s plays! But while I dreamt of becoming a big star, instead, because of my strong accent, I was cast only in background roles, with no lines. So, I decided to put on my own plays, in my living room, and invite my own crowd. In those plays, at home, I cast myself as the lead.
I owe this film to the young 12-year old me. He was such a believer, such a hard-worker, so committed to his art, so passionate about trying to excite and entertain an audience. He never gave up, kept up putting new shows every day – trying to get closer and closer to his vision.
Do you feel like cinema is more open to hearing the stories of immigrants in the current climate?
I think that art and cinema, throughout history, have always reflected the concerns and issues of the time in which they’re made. The beautiful thing about cinema is how the most specific, personal stories can touch such a wide range of people. Even if audience members haven’t experienced what the hero is going through, they can feel it as if it was their own story, and connect with the film through their experiences. I’m so glad that more and more diverse voices and point of views are being expressed through cinema today. Showing different, original voices to people all over the world can be crucial to their lives, especially to kids like Itai, who are trying to find their place in a new country and are looking up to cinema for answers.
One aspect of the film I found touching was the communication of Itai with his grandmother, did you set out to explore the struggle of overseas relationships in migrant families?
Thank you, I love that part too. When we were living in Texas, it was so hard to be far away from family members, especially my grandmothers. My grandmother, who is the inspiration for Nurit in Tree #3, is my closest mentor. Her look on reality always left a big impression on me: whether it’s how she dresses her dog, the pink pasta she orders in restaurants or her observations on a walk with the dog. She taught me how important it is not to look at the obvious as obvious, to be open-minded and to be proud of my identity. She showed me how easy it is to be a child in an adult’s body. She’s a true artist, and she always looked at me as one. And so when we left Israel, I didn’t want to lose contact with her, and she tried very hard to learn how to use Skype. And every time we were able to connect, we’d talk about art, which is our language. So for me ,to put this relationship on screen, between this boy and his twin soul – his grandmother overseas, was a vital part of a story.
Itai seems to almost internalize his feelings of alienation and aversion to his culture, is that something that you think happens often with immigrant children or you experienced yourself?
For me, as a young Israeli boy growing up in Texas, I was very ashamed of everything that made me different – my accent, my background, my personality. I tried so hard to get rid of all the things that me stand out and blur my identity in order to fit in. But as I grew older, I learned, just like Itai learns in the movie, that so many times the things we’re ashamed of are the things that make us unique, special and beautiful. We just can’t see it. When we begin to accept the things that make us stand out, we begin to love ourselves. That’s really the message I wanted to convey in our movie. Your identity isn’t your obstacle, it’s your superpower.
What do you hope that people will take away from the film?
I hope that viewers watching the film will be inspired by Itai’s journey, and just like Itai – learn how to not let others cast a role for them. During our development, our mentor, Michael, told me something that really spoke to me, and I think is still very relevant to the film’s message: Be yourself, and the audience will find you.
Tree #3’s Social Media
Facebook: Tree #3- An AFI Thesis Film