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Sundance Women Directors: Meet Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia

Interviews
by Melissa Silverstein
January 19, 2014 10:30 AM
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Still from "Web Junkie"
Still from "Web Junkie"

Web Junkie co-directors Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia came to work together on a documentary about Internet addiction out of a shared curiosity and anxiety about the effects that our technological age have on interpersonal relationships. Shlam's previous films include Last Journey into Silence (2003), Be Fruitful and Multiply (2005), and Good Garbage (2008). Her filmmaking partner Hilla Medalia is a Peabody Award-winning filmmaker who has received three Emmy nominations. Medalia's most recent film, Dancing in Jaffa, is slated for a 2014 theatrical release in the US, France, Germany and Israel. Previously, Medalia made After the Storm (2009), To Die in Jerusalem (2007), and Happy You're Alive (2010). 

Web Junkie will debut at Sundance on January 19th.

Please give us your description of the film.

China is the first country to label Internet addiction a clinical disorder. We were given the amazing opportunity to film inside a Beijing rehabilitation center where Chinese teenagers go to be "deprogrammed." We focused on three boys, their parents, and the health professionals who were working to help them kick their addiction.

What made you pursue this story?

SS: The complexity of the Internet can be difficult to illustrate as it's a result of culture but simultaneously shapes it. Similarly, Internet addiction is both a personal and social phenomenon. It's a universal issue that is becoming progressively all-encompassing as the boundaries between the real and the virtual become increasingly blurred. Through this process, we couldn't help but feel that something is lost in the physical, "real," everyday lives and something new is replacing the human existence of those living in the world.

The Internet has created a deep change in human relationships. The network tempts us because it yields seemingly high rewards that are empty of substance. Individuals are flattened into personae. My own study of virtual, "networked" life has left me thinking about intimacy -- being with people in person, hearing their voices and seeing their faces -- all of this has been changed. Is the Internet going to ruin human relationships as we knew them?

This phenomenon, these feelings, are what inspired me to take on this film.

HM: This story showcases a pressing global issue, and there is an urgent need to address this issue and give it an appropriate platform. I went on this journey as a person who depends greatly on the Internet and technology as a big part of my life. I'm always connected and even wondered if I was an addict myself for being so dependent. Technology defiantly changed the way we communicate and even our actual present being, but where is the line and are we crossing it? Is it a disease? How does it affect our kids? And also, I was very interested in learning about China and why China chooses to approach these issues with such severity and in such a way. All these questions inspired me to pursue this story.

What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

Throughout the filming process we faced many challenges. We didn't have government permission to shoot. There was no chance that we would get permission, since the center is inside a military base, and there was no opportunity to acquire such a permit. Shooting within a different culture is always a challenge, especially since the cultural gap in this case was so wide.

Bridging this gap and trying to understand the cultural codes that are so foreign to us was the biggest challenge. The language barrier made it even more difficult. Gaining the trust of Professor Tao [Ran], the head of the Daxing Center where we shot, and most importantly the kids and their parents who opened their hearts and shared their difficult stories, allowed us to make this film.

What advice do you have for other female directors?

Stick to your beliefs and keep bringing issues to the screen that are important, despite all the challenges that come along the way. Keep your authentic voice.

What's the biggest misconception about you and your work?

Many people think that the biggest challenge in making Web Junkie was obtaining access to the center. We didn't have official permission from the Chinese government. However, the dialogue and trust we had (and still have) with Professor Tao, the kids and their parents who opened the door for us, allowed us to spend the time with them to make the film.

Do you have any thoughts on what are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?

The challenge is that, with the change of distribution, there is access for every person to put their work out there. This of course creates opportunities for films that wouldn't have it otherwise. However, it creates other challenges within the massive clutter of films. How do you reach the audience and make sure they choose your work? This forces filmmakers to not only make their films but also figure out how to market them creatively and understand the new and ever-changing market place.

Name your favorite women directed film and why.

SS: Kim Longinotto's Divorce Iranian Style. This is a unique window into the intimate circumstances of Iranian women's lives. Kim's film exposes the cry of Iranian women; it highlights the plight of female oppression and discrimination. She gives women on camera a real voice. As Kim said about her empathy with her subjects, "The outsiders, the people struggling... if women have no rights, if they are completely powerless, then they're the ones you're going to make films about." My aim in documentary-filmmaking is to raise a voice that is silent and to enlighten a dark place, and that is what Kim Longinotto does. 

HM: Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, USA. It's a very sensitive portrait of the unusual dreadfulness of conditions within coal mines and the courage of coal-miners. Kopple managed to get inside the life of the miners and their families, capturing their long struggle against the operators of the Brookside mine. This film provides an outlet for the voices of miners and is a beautiful portrait of the community. Kopple is an amazing storyteller and a role model.

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