Michael Winterbottom Talks About His Period Drama ‘Shoshana’ Ahead of Its TIFF World Premiere: “Where We Know The Facts, We’ve Stuck To The Facts”

EXCLUSIVE: Four years after his last full-length feature — the black comedy Greed, starring Steve Coogan as a venal business tycoon — Michael Winterbottom is back, this time with a political drama set in Tel Aviv, based on real-life people and events that occurred during the 1930s, in the run-up to the foundation of Israel in 1948.

Making its world premiere next week at the Toronto International Film Festival, it stars newcomer Irina Starshenbaum as the title character, a newspaper journalist with strong leftist leanings and ties to underground Jewish groups. Against the odds, Shoshana is romantically involved with Tom Wilkin (Douglas Booth), whose job as an assistant superintendent with the British Palestine Police puts him in conflict with outlawed organizations such as Irgun and Lehi.

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The couple’s unlikely relationship is called into question by the arrival of Geoffrey Morton (Harry Melling), who comes to head up the anti-terrorist squad and, specifically, take down the charismatic underground leader Avraham Stern (Aury Alby). Morton believes in zero tolerance for illegal behavior of any kind, on either side of the Jewish-Arab divide. Which leads him to suspect that Shoshana might be more politically active than she seems, and that Wilkin is willfully turning a blind eye.

Through these three characters, Shoshana sets out to explore how Britain’s brutal intervention as an occupying presence set the scene for today’s fractious situation in the Middle East. “It’s a really simple story with a really small number of characters,” says Winterbottom, “but through it you can see the bigger situation.”

DEADLINE: What was the genesis of Shoshana, and how did you first come across this particular piece of history?

MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM: To be honest, we’ve been working on it for so long, it’s hard to remember exactly how we found the story. About 15 years ago, I went to the Jerusalem Film Festival; they were doing a short season of films that I’d directed, because they gave a prize toA Mighty Heart. And when I was there, I read a book by Tom Segev called One Palestine Complete, which is a great book. It’s about the time when the British were in control of Palestine between the two world wars. And it was a bit of British history that I didn’t really know very much about. And so, I think that was the start of the idea of doing some sort of film [set in Israel].

While I was reading it, the situation in Iraq was still ongoing, and so I guess the inspiration was a feeling that the British role in Palestine between the two wars was quite similar to America’s role in Iraq and Afghanistan later. Tom’s book is really good at showing how, in a way, the British didn’t have a policy, they were just there. They’d gone in there during the First World War, they had control of the country, but they didn’t know what to do with it. They had two different groups — the Palestinian Arabs and the Jewish people who were trying to build Israel — and they didn’t know how to handle them. A lot of British people were complaining. Like, “What are we doing here? Why are we here? What’s our policy?” But they didn’t have a policy. Their policy kept changing.

DEADLINE: How well known is the real Shoshana’s story? Is it something that you’ve embellished, or is it pretty much as the story was?

WINTERBOTTOM: The film itself is a fiction. There’s a fictional novel that was written about Shoshana, which we deliberately didn’t read. But otherwise, we did as much research as we could, going through research archives and film archives just to sort of get a sense of the place and time. We did book research — for example, Geoffrey Morton wrote an autobiography — and we also talked to as many people we could that were still around. So, we’ve not changed anything deliberately. Where we know the facts, we’ve stuck to the facts. But obviously, we’ve also imagined a lot as well, so it’s a fiction based on a true story.

DEADLINE: The film has quite an odd structure, in the sense that Shoshana herself isn’t necessarily the film’s clear subject all the way through, although she is very much the focus by the end. How did you come to that decision?

WINTERBOTTOM: One of the reasons why we wanted to make the film was because of the central relationship between Shoshana and Tom. It starts off being about two people who are in love and who want to be together. And then it becomes about how outer pressures — political pressures, social pressures, and then, gradually, political extremism, and then violence — how these things drive a wedge between them and put pressure on the relationship. Obviously, there’s a lot of other stuff, but for me that’s the central strand.

But at the same time, Shoshana is at the heart of the film because she ends up fighting on the side of people she’s always disagreed with, politically, and fighting against people she’s always wanted to live happily with, politically. So, I think, in her story, you can see, in a very personal way, how extremism, and violence, forces you, in the end, to pick a side. When you get to the point that you’re actually at war, you have to. Being in the middle isn’t an option. And that was what was interesting about Tom’s book.

DEADLINE: Can you expand on that?

WINTERBOTTOM: Like most people, I had a vague idea about Britain’s role in Palestine after the Second World War, when it was essentially as period of fighting between Jewish groups wanting to build Israel and the British as the occupying force. But for the whole period between the two wars, it was a much more complex and much more subtle situation. There was much more cooperation. For instance, the first British High Commissioner was Jewish and Zionist. So, there was much more of a sense of a middle ground where people were working collaboratively, working in a mutually beneficial way, trying to each get what they wanted from it politically. People could be friends, and they would socialize in the same bars and so on, and so Shoshana’s story, for me, embodied that bigger picture.

DEADLINE: Is it a well-known story in Israel, and was there any sort of touchiness about you approaching it?

WINTERBOTTOM: I don’t know. As I said, there’s a fictional novel written about Shoshana, but I don’t think Shoshana is famous, particularly in Israel. Obviously, [Avraham] Stern is a very famous character. Actually, since we’ve made the film, we’ve shown it to the daughter of Geoffrey Morton. We’ve shown it to the family of Shoshana Borochov, and we’ve also shown it to the son of Stern, and they were all very positive about the way their relatives were portrayed in the films. I hope the film is accurate enough but also honest and open enough that the film still seems fair to people on both sides, each with their own, very different views.

DEADLINE: It’s a very interesting period that’s not generally discussed. Was that an appeal, too?

WINTERBOTTOM: It’s a bit of British history that, obviously, is incredibly important still. Like I said, it has parallels with what’s going on now, and obviously there are consequences that are still unfolding in Israel and Palestine now. But it’s a bit of British history which, I think, has been ignored or forgotten. Our story is set in Tel Aviv, and it’s really a story about the people in Tel Aviv at the time. Tel Aviv back then was full of first-generation immigrants, full of northern Europeans coming down and intent on building this new city, but it was also full of idealism, full of very political people who had a strong idea of what they wanted to build. People were very left wing, socialist and feminist. So, I think one of the attractions for me was to try to create a sense of that world of Tel Aviv, this idea of a brave new world where people wanted to build something better and do it in a very optimistic way. I felt that would be very attractive to someone like Tom Wilkin: in a way, it’s not just that he’s in love with Shoshana as an individual person, perhaps he’s also attracted to the vibrant energy of Tel Aviv society.

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